Tuesday, October 25, 2016

The Accidental Empress by Allison Pataki

Rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: October 25, 2016

New York Times bestselling author Allison Pataki follows up on her critically acclaimed debut novel, The Traitor’s Wife, with the little-known and tumultuous love story of “Sisi” the Austro-Hungarian Empress and captivating wife of Emperor Franz Joseph. The year is 1853, and the Habsburgs are Europe’s most powerful ruling family. With his empire stretching from Austria to Russia, from Germany to Italy, Emperor Franz Joseph is young, rich, and ready to marry. Fifteen-year-old Elisabeth, “Sisi,” Duchess of Bavaria, travels to the Habsburg Court with her older sister, who is betrothed to the young emperor. But shortly after her arrival at court, Sisi finds herself in an unexpected dilemma: she has inadvertently fallen for and won the heart of her sister’s groom. Franz Joseph reneges on his earlier proposal and declares his intention to marry Sisi instead. Thrust onto the throne of Europe’s most treacherous imperial court, Sisi upsets political and familial loyalties in her quest to win, and keep, the love of her emperor, her people, and of the world. With Pataki’s rich period detail and cast of complex, bewitching characters, The Accidental Empress offers a captivating glimpse into one of history’s most intriguing royal families, shedding new light on the glittering Hapsburg Empire and its most mesmerizing, most beloved “Fairy Queen.”

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

An ARC of Alison Pataki’s The Accidental Empress sat on my kindle for nearly two years. Howard Books granted me a copy sometime before the novel was released in February 2015, but the first chapter of the book left such a bad taste in my mouth that despite multiple attempts, I was unable to reach chapter two. I’ll grant that Maximilian was a womanizer, but I felt Pataki’s depiction of the man as drunk and slovenly boob clashed with the historic record which evidences him as a cultured patron of the arts. I was flat out appalled by the author’s illustration of Karl calling his sisters whores, but it was Duchess Ludovika’s declaration that she’d “never allowed [herself] to hope” that one of daughters might marry the emperor that caused my jaw to clench.

It’s of little consequence to the average reader, but long story short, this line drew the author’s research into question and led me to abandon the novel several times over. Excuse me for pointing it out, but records show there were more than thirty marriages between the Hapsburgs and the Bavarian Wittlesbachs. It’s a pretty significant trend when looking at the family histories so the idea that Ludovika hasn’t considered the prospect is pretty preposterous. I found equally difficult to believe this fact could have been overlooked as the consequences of these marriages are pretty significant. In my mind, the research either wasn’t done or the facts were being ignored and I wasn’t entirely comfortable with either explanation. Similar instances throughout the book gave me reason to pause and I found it an uphill battle to ignore the inconsistencies I recognized during my reading.

I also struggled with the novel’s structure. The reader is aware that something isn’t right from the get go as Andrassy is introduce in the prologue, but Pataki dedicates the next eighty percent of the story to developing Elisabeth and Franz as a couple, building up their romance and slowing tearing it apart. I get the idea, but I honestly felt she was beating a dead horse. The affair was already established and spending so much time on the circumstances that gave rise to it seemed moot. I didn’t want to know how they got there, they were there, and I wanted to know what happened next, but it seems that is a story of another day and is not chronicled between these pages.

Character development was another issue for me as I found Pataki built Elisabeth up by dumbing everyone else down. The presentation also struck me as inconsistent and I often found myself wondering how Elisabeth got from Point A to Point B. For the sake of example, there is a moment where Elisabeth declares she will take back her household and be mother to her children, but paragraphs later she pulls a one-eighty, her fervor vanishes and she is seen abandoning the family out of jealousy and spite. Instances like this were common and made a significant impression on my opinions of both the primary and supporting cast.

I freely admit that much of my difficulty has roots in the passion I have for the material, but that aside, I was unconvinced by the style and tone of this telling and would have great difficulty recommending The Accidental Empress to other readers. It's an interesting idea, but the book hit all the wrong notes and lacked the charisma and dramatic appeal I expected when I requested it for review.

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"A deity does not quake simply because the crowd yells. An empress stands fixed, immutable: the calm that continues on, even as the world rages."
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Cover Cliché: Old Hollywood Glamour

Sometimes, while browsing the virtual shelves on Amazon and Goodreads, I see jacket art that gives me a disconcerting sense of deja vu. I know I've not read the book, but I am equally certain I've seen its image somewhere before.

This phenomenon is what inspired Cover Clichés. Image recycling is fairly common as cover artists are often forced to work from a limited pool of stock images and copyright free material. The details vary cover to cover, but each boasts a certain similarity and I find comparing the finished designs quite interesting. 

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Berlin, 1933. Warning bells ring across Europe as Hitler comes to power. Clara Vine, an attractive young Anglo-German actress, arrives in Berlin to find work at the famous Ufa studios. Through a chance meeting, she is unwillingly drawn into a circle of Nazi wives, among them Magda Goebbels, Anneliese von Ribbentrop and Goering's girlfriend Emmy Sonnemann.

As part of his plan to create a new pure German race, Hitler wants to make sweeping changes to the lives of women, starting with the formation of a Reich Fashion Bureau, instructing women on what to wear and how to behave. Clara is invited to model the dowdy, unflattering clothes. Then she meets Leo Quinn who is working for British intelligence and who sees in Clara the perfect recruit to spy on her new elite friends, using her acting skills to win their confidence.

But when Magda Goebbels reveals to Clara a dramatic secret and entrusts her with an extraordinary mission, Clara feels threatened, compromised, desperately caught between her duty towards — and growing affection for — Leo, and the impossibly dangerous task Magda has forced upon her.

Set in the glamorous 1920s, A Fine Imitation is an intoxicating debut that sweeps readers into a privileged Manhattan socialite’s restless life and the affair with a mysterious painter that upends her world, flashing back to her years at Vassar and the friendship that brought her to the brink of ruin.

Vera Bellington has beauty, pedigree, and a penthouse at The Angelus—the most coveted address on Park Avenue. But behind the sparkling social whirl, Vera is living a life of quiet desperation. Her days are an unbroken loop of empty, champagne-soaked socializing, while her nights are silent and cold, spent waiting alone in her cavernous apartment for a husband who seldom comes home.

Then Emil Hallan arrives at The Angelus to paint a mural above its glittering subterranean pool. The handsome French artist moves into the building, shrouds his work in secrecy, and piques Vera’s curiosity, especially when the painter keeps dodging questions about his past. Is he the man he claims to be? Even as she finds herself increasingly drawn to Hallan’s warmth and passion, Vera can’t supress her suspicions. After all, she has plenty of secrets, too—and some of them involve art forgers like her bold, artistically talented former friend, Bea, who years ago, at Vassar, brought Vera to the brink of catastrophe and social exile.

When the dangerous mysteries of Emil’s past are revealed, Vera faces an impossible choice—whether to cling to her familiar world of privilege and propriety or to risk her future with the enigmatic man who has taken her heart. A Fine Imitation explores what happens when we realize that the life we’ve always led is not the life we want to have.

Maureen Howard has long enchanted her readers with an urgent history of our extraordinary life and times. In The Silver Screen she conjures up the last days of silent movies in the story of Isabel Maher, who renounces the glamour of Hollywood and her talent. As Bel Murphy, wife and mother, she is confined to the drama of domestic life and plays it like a star.

Bel’s children struggle against the lives she has scripted for them: Joe, a Jesuit priest, is unsuccessful as a healer of souls; spinster Rita runs off with the love of her life, a gangster who turns state’s evidence; and there’s Gemma, an angry ambitious girl, who enters the Murphys’ magic circle. All three are pilgrims struggling to discard the myths of the past for the comforts and sorrows of the present. Joe’s journey takes him to the war of the gospel in El Salvador; Rita’s to the witness protection program; Gemma’s to problematic fame as a postmodern photographer. The flickering seductions and distortions of private lives play out against the novel’s rich historical awareness.

Darkly comic and truly moving, this is a brilliant exploration of the claims of the past and a passionate bid for freedom. Howard gives us the enduring pleasure of astounding writing and the superb craft of a consummate storyteller.

Mesdames et Messieurs, presenting La Petite Mort, or, A Little Death... A silent film, destroyed in a fire in 1913 at the Pathé studio, before it was seen even by its director. A lowly seamstress, who makes the costumes she should be wearing, but believes her talent - and the secret she keeps too - will soon get her a dressing room of her own. A beautiful house in Paris, with a curving staircase, a lake, and locked rooms. A famous - and dashing - creator of spectacular cinematic illusions, husband to a beautiful, volatile actress, the most adored icon of the Parisian studios. All fit together, like scenes in a movie. And as you will see, this plot has a twist we beg you not to disclose...

Coco Chanel and Composer Igor Stravinsky.
Their love affair inspired their art.
Their art defined an era.

In 1913, at the premiere of Igor Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, the young couturiere Coco Chanel witnesses the birth of a musical revolution- one that, like her designs, rips down the artifice of the old regime and ushers in something profoundly modern. Seven years later, she invites Stravinsky and his family, now exiled from their Russian homeland, for a summer at her villa, and the powerful charge between them ignites into a deep love affair. As Stravinsky enjoys a new burst of creativity and Chanel brings forth her own revolutionary creation-the perfume Chanel No. 5-their love threatens to overtake work, family and life.

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Which cover strikes your fancy and why? What colors draw your eye? Do you think the image appropriate next to the jacket description? Leave your comments below!

Have you seen this image elsewhere? Shoot me an email or leave a comment and let me know. 

Monday, October 24, 2016

Wishlist Reads: October 2016

Like many readers, my TBR grows faster than it shrinks. I find a subject that interests me and titles start piling up one right after the other. With so many bookmarked, I thought it'd be fun to sort through and feature five titles a month here at Flashlight Commentary. 

The most surprising thing about this month's theme is how long it took me to get around to using it. My coffee addiction is the stuff of legend and I'm not just saying that. Seriously, ask my friends, they wont lie and they love giving me a hard time over my drink of choice. 

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The Edgar Award–winning novel A Conspiracy of Paper was one of the most acclaimed debuts of 2000. In his richly suspenseful second novel, author David Liss once again travels back in time to a crucial moment in cultural and financial history. His destination: Amsterdam, 1659—a mysterious world of trade populated by schemers and rogues, where deception rules the day.

On the world’s first commodities exchange, fortunes are won and lost in an instant. Miguel Lienzo, a sharp-witted trader in the city’s close-knit community of Portuguese Jews, knows this only too well. Once among the city’s most envied merchants, Miguel has lost everything in a sudden shift in the sugar markets. Now, impoverished and humiliated, living on the charity of his petty younger brother, Miguel must find a way to restore his wealth and reputation.

Miguel enters into a partnership with a seduc-tive Dutchwoman who offers him one last chance at success—a daring plot to corner the market of an astonishing new commodity called “coffee.” To succeed, Miguel must risk everything he values and test the limits of his commercial guile, facing not only the chaos of the markets and the greed of his competitors, but also a powerful enemy who will stop at nothing to see him ruined. Miguel will learn that among Amsterdam’s ruthless businessmen, betrayal lurks everywhere, and even friends hide secret agendas.

With humor, imagination, and mystery, David Liss depicts a world of subterfuge, danger, and repressed longing, where religious and cultural traditions clash with the demands of a new and exciting way of doing business. Readers of historical suspense and lovers of coffee (even decaf) will be up all night with this beguiling novel.

It is 1895. Robert Wallis, would-be poet, bohemian and impoverished dandy, accepts a commission from coffee merchant Samuel Pinker to categorise the different tastes of coffee - and encounters Pinker's free-thinking daughters, Philomenia, Ada and Emily. As romance blossoms with Emily, Robert realises that the Muse and marriage may not be incompatible after all. Sent to Abyssinia to make his fortune in the coffee trade, he becomes obsessed with a negro slave girl, Fikre. He decides to use the money he has saved to buy her from her owner - a decision that will change not only his own life, but the lives of the three Pinker sisters...

Spanning the years between 1932 and 1977, this beautifully told epic is set in the heart of El Salvador, where coffee plantations are the center of life for rich and poor alike. Following three generations of the Prieto Clan and the wealthy family they work for, this is the story of mothers and daughters who live, love, and die for their passions.

Alicia, a young American expat, marries Colombian Jorge Carvallo and they settle on his family's remote coffee finca in the Andes. Educated as a biologist, she revels in the surrounding cloud-forest. However, following an idyllic year, calamities strike one after another and their marriage begins to unravel. Jorge leaves as a volcanic eruption nearly destroys the coffee crop and the threat of guerrillas and drug-lords looms; but headstrong Alicia refuses to budge and stays to salvage the coffee. A woman without a country in a man's world, the initially naive Alicia survives by her wit and determination. A passionate affair ensues with Peter, a rugged geologist. She also forms a tight friendship with Carmen, the barefoot woman who has worked for the Carvallo family most of her life. Despite being separated by class and nationality, these two single mothers forge a strong bond. The intricate web of events climaxes when Alicia finds herself in a life-threatening situation, ultimately forcing her to come to terms with herself and the unconventional life she has adopted.

Out of Africa is Isak Dinesen's memoir of her years in Africa, from 1914 to 1931, on a four-thousand-acre coffee plantation in the hills near Nairobi. She had come to Kenya from Denmark with her husband, and when they separated she stayed on to manage the farm by herself, visited frequently by her lover, the big-game hunter Denys Finch-Hatton, for whom she would make up stories "like Scheherazade." In Africa, "I learned how to tell tales," she recalled many years later. "The natives have an ear still. I told stories constantly to them, all kinds." Her account of her African adventures, written after she had lost her beloved farm and returned to Denmark, is that of a master storyteller, a woman whom John Updike called "one of the most picturesque and flamboyant literary personalities of the century." 

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Stephanie at Layered Pages (coming soon)
Colleen at A Literary Vacation (coming soon)
Holly at 2 Kids and Tired (coming soon)
Magdalena at A Bookaholic Swede (coming soon)
Heather at The Maiden's Court (coming soon)

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Cover Cliché: Portrait d'une négresse

Sometimes, while browsing the virtual shelves on Amazon and Goodreads, I see jacket art that gives me a disconcerting sense of deja vu. I know I've not read the book, but I am equally certain I've seen its image somewhere before.

This phenomenon is what inspired Cover Clichés. Image recycling is fairly common as cover artists are often forced to work from a limited pool of stock images and copyright free material. The details vary cover to cover, but each boasts a certain similarity and I find comparing the finished designs quite interesting. 

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Ponce, Puerto Rico, at the turn of the century: Ana Belén Opaku, an Afro-Cuban born into slavery, is a proud midwife with a tempestuous past. After testifying at an infanticide trial, Ana is forced to reveal a dark secret from her past, but continues to hide an even more sinister one. Pitted against the parish priest, Padre Vicénte, and young Doctór Héctor Rivera, Ana must battle to preserve her twenty-five year career as the only midwife in La Playa.

Serafina is a respectable young widow with two small children, who marries an older, wealthy merchant from a distinguished family. A crime against Serafina during her last pregnancy forever bonds her to Ana in an ill-conceived plan to avoid a scandal and preserve Serafina’s honor.

Set against the combustive backdrop of a chauvinistic society, where women are treated as possessions, A Decent Woman is the provocative story of these two women as they battle for their dignity and for love against the pain of betrayal and social change.

This story of love and revolution takes place during the Argentine struggle for independence (1810-1820) and focuses on the character of the national hero, Manuel Belgrano. However, Belgrano's story is told through the voices of the real heroes of the novel-María Kumbá a mulatto healer-priestess, fighter, and nurse to the common soldiers; and Gregorio Rivas, mestizo son of a well-to-do Spanish businessman.

Sky of Drums is filled with political and personal intrigue. At the core of the novel is the issue of racial discrimination. Belgrano is blinded to the love Maríahas for him and the good counsel she has to offer because of his contempt for blacks. His open contempt for Rivas as a mestizo leads to his death. Rivas becomes María's lover but is always haunted by María's evident adoration of Belgrano. The manner in which the love-hate triangle plays out is filled with surprises and cuts to the heart of Argentina's troubled identity.

Of black Martinican provenance, Patrick Chamoiseau gives us Texaco (winner of the Prix Goncourt, France's most prestigious literary prize), an international literary achievement, tracing one hundred and fifty years of post-slavery Caribbean history: a novel that is as much about self-affirmation engendered by memory as it is about a quest for the adequacy of its own form.

In a narrative composed of short sequences, each recounting episodes or developments of moment, and interspersed with extracts from fictive notebooks and from statements by an urban planner, Marie-Sophie Laborieux, the saucy, aging daughter of a slave affranchised by his master, tells the story of the tormented foundation of her people's identity. The shantytown established by Marie-Sophie is menaced from without by hostile landowners and from within by the volatility of its own provisional state. Hers is a brilliant polyphonic rendering of individual stories informed by rhythmic orality and subversive humor that shape a collective experience.

A joyous affirmation of literature that brings to mind Boccaccio, La Fontaine, Lewis Carroll, Montaigne, Rabelais, and Joyce, Texaco is a work of rare power and ambition, a masterpiece.

The Book of Night Women is a sweeping, startling novel, a true tour de force of both voice and storytelling. It is the story of Lilith, born into slavery on a Jamaican sugar plantation at the end of the eighteenth century. Even at her birth, the slave women around her recognize a dark power that they and she will come to both revere and fear.

The Night Women, as they call themselves, have long been plotting a slave revolt, and as Lilith comes of age and reveals the extent of her power, they see her as the key to their plans. But when she begins to understand her own feelings and desires and identity, Lilith starts to push at the edges of what is imaginable for the life of a slave woman in Jamaica, and risks becoming the conspiracy's weak link.

Lilith's story overflows with high drama and heartbreak, and life on the plantation is rife with dangerous secrets, unspoken jealousies, inhuman violence, and very human emotion between slave and master, between slave and overseer, and among the slaves themselves. Lilith finds herself at the heart of it all. And all of it told in one of the boldest literary voices to grace the page recently--and the secret of that voice is one of the book's most intriguing mysteries.

Abiola is a clever young warrior in West Africa and part of a highly developed, ritualized society that is rich not only in trade but in metaphorical and spiritual understanding. But neither his prowess nor the sophistication of his culture can save him from betrayal, capture, and being sold into slavery. Abiola's story ends when he is given a new name—Cornelius—and becomes the property of a Frenchman who sells harpsichords in the American South. Eventually Cornelius runs away and joins the British who are fighting the Americans. If the British win, he reasons, he may gain his freedom. But the British lose the American War of Independence, and Cornelius and his family are eventually repatriated back to West Africa and the newly founded country of Sierra Leone. But all is not as Cornelius had dreamed: Sierra Leone is run like a colony, and though trading in slaves has been officially banned, in practice it continues, having become ever more lucrative for being driven underground. Cornelius’s daughter, Epiphany, however, has discovered that she has the same gift of metaphorical and spiritual understanding as her ancestors, and she seeks to use it for the aid of her family.

"Stunning...Maryse Conde's imaginative subversion of historical records forms a critque of contemporary American society and its ingrained racism and sexism." THE BOSTON SUNDAY GLOBE

At the age of seven, Tituba watched as her mother was hanged for daring to wound a plantation owner who tried to rape her. She was raised from then on by Mama Yaya, a gifted woman who shared with her the secrets of healing and magic. But it was Tituba's love of the slave John Indian that led her from safety into slavery, and the bitter, vengeful religion practiced by the good citizens of Salem, Massachusetts. Though protected by the spirits, Tituba could not escape the lies and accusations of that hysterical time.

As history and fantasy merge, Maryse Conde, acclaimed author of TREE OF LIFE and SEGU, creates the richly imagined life of a fascinating woman.

English title: I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem

Elisabeth Samson, a free black Surinamese woman who lived in 18th-century Dutch Guyana, is the central character in this compelling novel. Challenging the prevailing racial stereotypes by demonstrating her intelligence and business acumen, she is determined to marry a white man in defiance of all established norms and conventions. Set amidst the rich backdrop of the Golden Age of Suriname, this biographical account depicts the complex social and racial stratifications which were features of slave colonies of the era as well as this remarkable woman who overcame institutionalized discrimination and prejudice to become one of the wealthiest individuals in the slave colony of Dutch Guyana.

Based on a true story, Ourika relates the experiences of a Senegalese girl who is rescued from slavery and raised by an aristocratic French family during the French Revolution. Brought up in a household of learning and privilege, she is unaware of her difference until she overhears a conversation that makes her suddenly conscious of her race - and of the prejudice it arouses. From this point on, Ourika lives her life not as a French woman but as a black woman "cut off from the entire human race." As the Reign of Terror threatens her and her adoptive family, Ourika struggles with her unusual position as an educated African woman in eighteenth-century Europe. A best-seller in the 1820s, Ourika captured the attention of Duras's peers, including Stendhal, and became the subject of four contemporary plays. The work represents a number of firsts: the first novel set in Europe to have a black heroine, the first French literary work narrated by a black female protagonist, and, as John Fowles points out in the foreword to his translation, "the first serious attempt by a white novelist to enter a black mind." An inspiration for Fowles's acclaimed novel The French Lieutenant's Woman, Ourika will astonish and haunt modern readers.

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Which cover strikes your fancy and why? What colors draw your eye? Do you think the image appropriate next to the jacket description? Leave your comments below!

Have you seen this image elsewhere? Shoot me an email or leave a comment and let me know. 

Saturday, October 15, 2016

A Song of War by Kate Quinn, Christian Cameron, Libbie Hawker, Vicky Alvear Shecter, Russell Whitfield, Stephanie Thornton, & S.J.A. Turney

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Obtained from: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours
Read: August 31, 2016

Troy: city of gold, gatekeeper of the east, haven of the god-born and the lucky, a city destined to last a thousand years. But the Fates have other plans—the Fates, and a woman named Helen. In the shadow of Troy's gates, all must be reborn in the greatest war of the ancient world: slaves and queens, heroes and cowards, seers and kings... and these are their stories. A young princess and an embittered prince join forces to prevent a fatal elopement. A tormented seeress challenges the gods themselves to save her city from the impending disaster. A tragedy-haunted king battles private demons and envious rivals as the siege grinds on. A captured slave girl seizes the reins of her future as two mighty heroes meet in an epic duel. A grizzled archer and a desperate Amazon risk their lives to avenge their dead. A trickster conceives the greatest trick of all. A goddess' son battles to save the spirit of Troy even as the walls are breached in fire and blood. Seven authors bring to life the epic tale of the Trojan War: its heroes, its villains, its survivors, its dead. Who will lie forgotten in the embers, and who will rise to shape the bloody dawn of a new age? 

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Trends in historic fiction are changing. I’ve read the genre for the better part of the last two decades and I’ve never seen a format grow in popularity the way anthologies and continuities have. I’ve no problem admitting that I've avoided both for as I typically find the stories unbalanced and the authors poorly matched, but books like A Day of Fire and A Year of Ravens have gone a long way in changing that opinion.

A Song of War is the third release from The H Team and I personally think it the strongest of thus far. Unlike the earlier books, the magnitude and scope of the Trojan war allowed each author to explore a pivotal event in the conflict and afforded each contributor a moment to shine in a way the earlier books hadn’t. The stories are intrinsically connected and follow the well-known course of events, but I liked how each author had their own platform and how of their individual voices were showcased within the larger chorus.

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The Apple by Kate Quinn
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Kate Quinn penned the first Song from the dual perspective of Hellenus and Andromache. I was vaguely familiar with the former, but had never given him much thought and was surprised by how quickly the quiet Trojan Prince grew on me. I found Quinn's characterization intensely relatable and I enjoyed how his personally played off her interpretations of his more recognizable siblings. Unlike her counterpart, Andromache was familiar to me and I greatly appreciated and enjoyed Quinn’s interpretation of the character. I found Andromache’s genuine emotion and personal challenges endearing and enjoyed seeing her come into her own and revel in a few moments of pure joy as the cloud of war gathered on her horizon.

Hector, Paris, Helen, and Odysseus made notable appearances in the first Song. Though they aren’t explored in significant detail, most of the narrators are introduced in Quinn’s submission and I appreciated how the effort facilitated transitions between submissions as I made my way through the book. I was also amused by how many secondary myths and stories were referenced in The Apple and appreciated how the piece set the stage for the conflict ahead.

* Best Moment in A Song of War – Kudos for a long overdue double bitch-slap. *

I wondered if Aphrodite was laughing at me, up on Olympus. How the goddess of love had played with my future: if I ever held the girl I loved, it would be over the corpse of the brother I revered.

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The Prophecy by Stephanie Thornton
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Quinn is one of my favorite writers and I pitied the author tasked with following in her wake. Or I did, until I discovered who it was. I’m a big fan of Stephanie Thornton and actually laughed out loud as I knew her story, regardless of subject, would hold its own. Quinn’s signature humor is unrivaled in my mind, but Thornton’s command of language has left me speechless on more than one occasion and while I knew the tone would take a dramatic turn in Song two, I was confident that Cassandra’s story would be as layered and memorable as Hellenus and Andromache's had been.

I found the second Song deliciously dark and strangely addictive. Thornton’s exploration of Cassandra’s family situation and the demons that haunted her tickled my imagination and I was fascinated by how author chose to illustrate Cassandra’s madness. Cassandra is obviously damaged, but there is genuine fire in her and a selflessness that no other character in the narrative rivals. Atmospherically I felt this one of the strongest submissions and I greatly admired the intensity and intelligence of the action and dialogue Thornton presented.

* Best Surprise in A Song of War –Apollo’s Temple… Grotesque, but surprising and satisfying. *

They called me mad because I uttered truths no one wished to hear.

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The Sacrifice by Russell Whitfield
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Russell Whitfield put himself on my radar when I read A Year of Ravens. I’ve actually reread that submission a couple of times since reading the book and could kick myself for not having acquired his solo publications, but long story short, I was excited to see he’d contributed to A Song of War.

That said, I was wholly unprepared for his take on Agamemnon. I’m not a fan of the character and my mind’s eye always flashes on Brian Cox when I read the name, but Whitfield turned that mental image upside down and challenged me to see his protagonist as a man burdened by guilt, alerted by grief, and embittered by years of war and responsibility. Agamemnon’s annoyance with Achilles is palpable, but it was the relationships he shares with Iphigenia and Chryseis that cut to my core. Whitfield’s Agamemnon is a man who gave everything to the campaign and lost his soul for his trouble. It’s a harsh story and brutal on a number of levels, but the presentation and the ideas it explores are a true testament to Whitfield’s creativity, vision, and talent.

* Best Character in A Song of War – Writing a hero is easy, reinventing a villain is an achievement. *

Lust - for women, for gold, for power. Men were base creatures. Ironic then, that he had to place their welfare and their objective first and foremost.

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The Duel by Christian Cameron
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Christian Cameron was the first of two contributors with which I was not previously familiar. I’d no idea what to expect from his writing, but I knew where we were in the story and I swore I’d rake him cross the coals if he didn’t do right by Hector. The outcome was a given, but the Trojan Prince is my favorite character and I didn’t need to see him slaughtered without putting up a decent fight. I’m a passionate reader and I make no apologies for it. I was going to love this submission or hate it, there was no middle ground.

I expected an intensely masculine story and was caught off guard when I realized Cameron had centered his story on Briseis, but I was floored by what happened next. Cameron’s submission was the first to show a different side of a previously established character and I was captivated by how Briseis’ opinions of Achilles contrasted Agamemnon’s. As a character Brises defied traditional gender roles and I loved how Cameron's choice of narrator allowed his to authentically illustrate the expanse of the battlefield. I formed a deep appreciation for the action itself, but Cameron capitalized on the enormity of the conflict and gave his readers a truly remarkable point of view.

* Best Battle Scene in A Song of War – Hand to hand combat between two ‘worthy’ opponents. *

War is brutal, but it is far more brutal to women than men, who, mostly, can only die when their bodies are torn asunder, rather than live on with their lives torn out like the entrails of an antelope taken by dogs.

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The Bow by Libbie Hawker
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I’d stumbled over Libbie Hawker’s work prior to reading A Song of War, but The Bow marks my first time reading it. As with Cameron's work I didn't know what to expect from the writing, but I knew where the story was going. I'd opinion about the material, but I was fairly open minded in regard to how it should play out which is why I was surprised to discover The Bow was the most personally challenging of the entire novel.

I didn’t care much for Penthesilea and struggled to engage in her arc. I liked the general idea, but as with the The Queen by Stephanie Dray, I felt this character could carry her own story and didn’t feel right about it being condensed to so short a piece. I thought Priam had some very interesting moments at this point in the story, but I was confused by Paris, Helen, Andromache, and Cassandra as Hawker’s interpretations weren’t entirely consistent with those of the authors who’d introduced them earlier in the novel.

That said, Philoctetes proved a breath of fresh air. Straight off the boat, he didn’t exude the war weary aura that had settled on much of the cast and I think his perspective allowed Hawker to explore the field in a way none of her peers could. I felt she took full advantage of the opportunity this afforded and applauded her for illustrating homosexual affection without effeminizing her protagonist in the process.

* Best Iconic Moment in A Song of War – Hawker popped the weasel! *

Life without honor is not worth living.

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The Horse by Vicky Alvear Shecter
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Vicky Alvear Shecter is not a new author for me, but as far as I’m concerned, The Horse left the rest of her work in the dust and I’m not just saying that because she had the guts to tackle my second favorite character. Odysseus is easily the most iconic voice in A Song of War and I honestly thought Shecter crazy for attempting to write him, but her interpretation blew me away and left me in absolute awe of her imagination and skill.

Troy is primed and ready to fall in these scenes. Alliances are shifting, some characters are breaking and others are showing their true colors. There’s a lot going on in this piece, but Shecter made it work while drawing the novel towards its climax in a way that complimented both the vision of her peers and the original source material.

* Best Submission in A Song of War – Finest adaptation of original story. *

How do I explain that I would not dare shed blood— especially the blood of the goddess’s servants— lest she curse me and my family for generations for the sacrilege? His approach would only beget an endless cycle of bloodshed. And yet because I shed no blood, I should be ashamed?

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The Fall by S.J.A. Turney
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S.J.A. Turney was in the hot seat from the beginning. His submission anchors the narrative which is challenging enough, but Shecter’s story upped the ante threefold. Aeneas is an interesting character, but Shecter’s Odysseus was untouchable and I wondered if Turney could possibly close the novel in a way that didn’t fizzle in the wake of its predecessor.

It was a legitimate question in the moment, but the concern proved entirely unfounded. Turney’s adaptation of the material didn’t inspire my imagination the same way Shecter’s had, but the emotional aspects of The Fall were nothing short of brilliant. Turney’s prose is my favorite of all the author featured in A Song of War and beautifully emphasizes the intense and powerful themes of his submission. His descriptions are stark and often crushing, but there is a candle flame of hope in his story and I loved how his conclusion tied A Song of War to the entirety of The H Team’s existing catalogue.

* Best Tone in A Song of War – Amazing illustration of human emotion. *

I straightened with a frown. ‘While there is still a Troy to save, I have to save it,’ I said with an air of finality. I do not know even now whether it was pride that drove me to turn my back on the notion of flight, or whether it was the call to duty that every warrior feels, for I suffer from both in equal measure. All I do know, as I look back on that decision, is that it was made in defiance of the urging of both men and gods, against the weaving of the Fates, and it brought us only more pain.

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Friday, October 14, 2016

The Kaiser's Last Kiss by Alan Judd

Rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Edelweiss
Read: October 11, 2016

A fictionalised account of the Kaiser Wilhelm's last years in Nazi-occupied Holland.It is 1940 and the exiled Kaiser is living in Holland, at his palace Huis Doorn.The old German king spends his days chopping logs and musing on what might have been.When the Nazis invade Holland, the Kaiser's Dutch staff are replaced by SS guards, led by young, eager Untersturmfuhrer Krebbs, and an unlikely relationship develops between the king and his keeper. While they agree on the rightfulness of German expansion and on holding the country's Jewish population accountable for all ills, they disagree on the solutions. Krebbs's growing attraction and love affair with Akki, a Jewish maid in the house, further undermines his belief in Nazism. But as the tides of war roll around them, all three find themselves increasingly compromised and gravely at risk.This subtle, tender novel borrows heavily from real history and events, but remains a work of superlative, literary fiction.Through Judd's depiction of the Lear-like Kaiser and the softening of brutal Krebbs, the novel draws unique parallels between Germany at the turn of the 20th century and Hitler's Germany.

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Kaiser Wilhelm
Alan Judd’s The Kaiser’s Last Kiss demanded my attention the moment I stumbled over it on Edelweiss. I waited impatiently to see if I’d be granted a copy for review and jumped for joy when one came through. Few stories get me this excited, but I’ve spent a lot of time reading about the Kaiser, WWI and WWII and couldn’t help feeling giddy about a story that features elements of all three. Unfortunately, my enthusiasm distracted me from my usual routine and I failed to do my homework before diving into the narrative.

Had I bothered to look, I might have approached The Kaiser’s Last Kiss differently, but I didn’t and missed noting that I’ve read Judd before and wasn’t impressed with the result. I’d eyed Dancing with Eva for several months before acquiring a copy in 2013 and was bitterly disappointed when the execution failed to live up to my expectations. The pacing was sluggish and the characters stilted. The telling was anticlimactic and I remember being impressed with myself for not throwing the damned book at the wall.

Why is any of this important? Well let’s just say history repeats itself and while I found The Kaiser’s Last Kiss marginally better than its predecessor, I honestly feel that it suffers many of the same technical and structural difficulties. I found Krebbs and Akki woefully underdeveloped and the fact that I felt something off in each negatively underscored Judd’s primary plot twist. Much like I did with his earlier work, I finished this novel feeling distinctly unsatisfied with the central story and wishing I hadn’t invested my time in the narrative.

The story lacked punch and I didn’t warm to Krebbs or Akki, but I did note some fun historic detail in the politics of the narrative and I actually liked Judd’s interpretation of Kaiser Wilhelm. Judd’s characterization of the exiled monarch mirrors my own impressions and I found his scenes amusing despite my lack of interest in the rest of the story.

Would I recommend The Kaiser’s Last Kiss? Probably not. I don’t mean to turn anyone away from the novel, I don’t think it capitalized on the full potential of the subject matter and I wasn’t impressed with the fictional elements of the piece.

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“People fear that because I have lived in Holland for over twenty years I do not know what the German people are thinking. But I do. I know very well what the German people think because people tell me and because I understand them here... It is not war itself they seek, but they hunger for justice and war is the only way. So for this new war, they have, since 1918, been ready to march at once, to strangle the French. Well, now they are doing that but they cannot finish the job properly until they have driven Juda out of England, as they are driving them from the continent. The Jews and Anglo-American commercialism and materialism make it impossible for European peoples to live in decent peace and spiritual harmony. This war will be a divine judgment on Juda-England, you will see. That is why the soldiers of the Wehrmachtare here in Holland, Major van Houten. It is not against you or your country, and when the business is complete they will go. I promise you that."
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Thursday, October 13, 2016

Cover Crush: Paper and Fire by Rachel Caine

We all know we shouldn't judge a book by its cover, but in today's increasingly competitive market, a memorable jacket can make or break sales.

I am not a professional, but I am a consumer and much as I loath admitting it, jacket design is one of the first things I notice when browsing the shelves at Goodreads and Amazon. My love of cover art is what inspired Cover Crush, a weekly post dedicated to those prints that have captured my attention and/or piqued my interest. Enjoy!

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I'm a sucker for cover are with bold colors, but the combination of shades and imagery on Rachel Caine's Paper and Fire is downright gorgeous. I'll grant it clashes a little, but the effective is striking and I love the layering of the design elements and the sparks that appear to be eating away at the jacket. 

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Did this week's cover catch your eye? Do you have an opinion you'd like to share? Please leave a comment below. I'd love to hear from you!


Magdalena at A Bookaholic Swede
Holly at 2 Kids are Tired
Stephanie at Layered Pages
Heather at The Maiden's Court

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