Wednesday, August 5, 2015

The Lady Bornekova by Sara R. Turnquist

Rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Personal Kindle Library
Read: July 28, 2015

The red-headed Karin is strong-willed and determined, something she inherited from her father. She tries to keep her true nature a secret to avoid being deemed a traitor by those loyal to the king. Karin and her father butt heads over her duty to her family and the Czech Crown. She is then sequestered to the Royal Viscount’s hunting lodge. Not aware of everything that is happening, she becomes the target of an individual with murderous intent. Her heart soon becomes entangled though her father intends to wed her to another. The turmoil inside Karin deepens and reflects the turmoil of her homeland, on the brink of the Hussite Wars.

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I began Sara R. Turnquist’s The Lady Bornekova with absolutely no knowledge of the Hussite Wars. My imaginings were shaped by the author’s descriptions and the atmosphere she created within the narrative. I found the initial chapters vague in terms of plot, the author’s deliberate attempts to manufacture intrigue lacked polish, but I felt reasonably confident in my understanding of Karin’s situation and the period in which her story took place. That is, until I googled the Council of Constance. 

I didn’t have an exact date of reference, but my rough estimate is that the story began in late October 1414. To put this in perspective, Joan of Arc is two and the battle of Agincourt is barely a year away. Neither of these facts have anything to do with Turnquist’s story, but they do add a certain perspective for those with any knowledge of the age. Most, if not all, of Turnquist’s descriptions of social custom, fashion, architecture, and interior design were appropriate to a Victorian romance. She mentions wallpaper, empire waists, settees, drapes, a breakfast buffet and a four poster carriage, none of which are a characteristic of life in the early 1400s. 

Taking a few deep breaths, I steeled my nerves, and set about finishing the book, but my enjoyment dissipated as I noticed more and more historical anachronisms. I believe the book was reviewed in terms of grammar and spelling, but what Turnquist needed here was a content editor. The number of factual errors and period contradictions in this piece had me dumbfounded and while I give the author a lot of credit for tackling a lesser known event in a rarely seen locale, I admit the research that went into this piece left me disappointed. 

My issues, however, are not limited to historical accuracy. Turnquist employs multiple narrators in this piece, but she often draws on characters of limited importance. Maybe I’m alone in this, but I’d have appreciated the story much more if the author had exercised more restraint and limited herself to two or three well-rounded and defined POVs. 

The characters themselves didn’t leave much of an impression on me and I didn’t find the politics particularly interesting. The dialogue didn’t strike me as authentic and I couldn’t have cared less for the romance. The book is readable and ambitious in terms of the material it covers, but I didn’t enjoy the time I spent with it and would have a hard time recommending it to fellow readers.  

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Lord, help me to remember You are in control and that vengeance is Yours.
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Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Season of Mists by Jennifer Corkill

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Author
Read: July 13, 2015

The year is 1888. Justine Holloway finds herself an orphan after her parents die in a horrific fire. She is sent to live with her godparents, Harold Mendenhall and his sister Frances. On the boat ride home, she meets Amun Farouk, a handsome Egyptian Ambassador who is also sailing to England to meet her godfather. What Justine does not realize as she dons the veil of mourning is that Harold runs a secret organization under the nose of polite society, much to the dismay of his genteel sister. The Council was created for the protection of humanity from the Varius, refugees from a parallel universe who shift their form while others channel the forces of magic. They seek refuge in Victorian London, hidden in the slums, easily forgotten until a human ends up incinerated or sucked dry. Drawn into the plot against her will, Justine finds herself the object of a vampire’s lurid obsession. According to ancient texts, vampires kill humans for fodder, their blood and the air they breathe inferior, but this killer has other intentions for her. Does Justine’s survival depend on Amun or will he kill her to save humanity?

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Jennifer Corkill’s Season of Mists was one of those books that more or less found me. The author very kindly offered me a copy in exchange for an honest review and the rest is pretty much history. 

I’ll be blunt, the cover doesn’t do much for me. I’ve seen the same model on a lot of ebooks and much like the image that once graced Andrea Zuvich’s The Stuart Vampire, I don’t think the jacket does justice to Corkill’s story. 

Part paranormal fantasy and part historic fiction, the novel has a lot of fun material in it. Other reviewers have compared Justine Holloway’s adventure to The Mummy and Downton Abbey, but I personally think Corkill’s work closer to The Young Sherlock Holmes, you know, with a stronger female protagonist, shape-shifters and vampires.

In terms of style and technique, I won’t lie, the novel took me a while to get into. It wasn’t until chapter eight that I felt the story really took off so if you’re reading this, understand patience will be rewarded. Ideally, I’d have liked more in terms of world building, but I’m pickier than most and generally speaking, I found Corkill’s representation of paranormal London dark, engaging and fun.

All told, Season of Mists is a solid paranormal debut. Recommended alongside That Scoundrel Emile Dubois by Lucinda Elliot and Mozart's Blood by Louise Marley.

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"... trust me when I say humans are not the only species living in London. In fact, we are the docile ones in comparison.”
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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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