Saturday, September 29, 2012

She Wulf by Sheryl Steines

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Crimson Flower Review Team
Read: September 14, 2012

He came through the centuries to find her, the girl who could save them all. Annie Pearce runs through the streets of the city, chasing a demon, the likes she has never seen before. As she works to find out where the demon came from, the Wizard Guard encounters something even more bizarre. A tenth century Viking. When Annie gets sucked into the past, she must struggle with the knowledge of the prophecy that tells of her destiny. The one she must fulfill if she is to return home. What happens in the past will change the world.


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Viking Chieftain by Bob Nolan
Used with permission of the artist
I liked Sheryl Steines' She Wulf a lot in terms of plot, but I wasn't entirely sold on other aspects of the book. Some of this might be due to my having skipped book one of the series, but the elements I didn’t appreciate seemed structural in that they felt underdeveloped within the context of the story.

Many reviewers have claimed to feel real chemistry between Annie and Cham, but I didn't see it. Forgive me, but is seemed a very one sided affair in my eyes. Cham reads as an adoring, almost obsessive, devotee. For her part, Annie is tolerant, but the affection she returns feels lukewarm at best. From what I understand, the relationship is a prominent in book one of the series and had I not bypassed the novel, I might have had a greater understanding and appreciation for the dynamic between these characters, but as it stands, something struck me as missing from their relationship. 

Magic is something of an ambiguous concept in fiction. I can understand that, but I still like to see some effort put towards explaining its nature and function. "'We could divine for them using a written timeline like a map... I think it should work just like a map once I link it to a crystal. I can use the fabric from the demon.'" Say what? There is no explanation to how this works! How does one link a crystal to anything? Are we to assume the crystal is also linked to the fabric? I needed explanation. 

I’m obviously a picky reader, but the book is not entirely without merit. Steines' combining of Nordic and Anglo Saxon culture and mythology was a stroke of genius. It’s not the page turner I was anticipating, but its adaptation of Beowulf is noteworthy in its own way. 

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"I see you struggling with this, but you're a good woman and you will stay and help us. It's in your nature to fix what is wrong. You are lost and need to find your way."
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Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Lost Crown: A Novel of Romanov Russia by Sarah Miller

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Obtained from: Local Library
Read: July 17, 2012

Olga, Tatiana, Maria, and Anastasia. Like the fingers on a hand--first headstrong Olga; then Tatiana, the tallest; Maria the most hopeful for a ring; and Anastasia, the smallest. These are the daughters of Tsar Nicholas II, grand duchesses living a life steeped in tradition and privilege. They are each on the brink of starting their own lives, at the mercy of royal matchmakers. The summer of 1914 is that precious last wink of time when they can still be sisters together--sisters that link arms and laugh, sisters that share their dreams and worries, and flirt with the officers of their imperial yacht. But in a gunshot the future changes for these sisters and for Russia. As World War I ignites across Europe, political unrest sweeps Russia. First dissent, then disorder, mutiny, and revolution. For Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia, the end of their girlhood together is colliding with the end of more than they ever imagined. At the same time hopeful and hopeless, naive and wise, the voices of these sisters become a chorus singing the final song of Imperial Russia. Impeccably researched and utterly fascinating, this novel by acclaimed author Sarah Miller recounts the final days of Imperial Russia with lyricism, criticism and true compassion.

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Anastasia, Olga, Maria and Tatiana in 1916
I attempted a fictional account of the Romanovs' last days almost a year ago and I'm still not over the experience. I was and am so disgusted with The House of Special Purpose that I almost skipped out on Sarah Miller's The Lost Crown. I seriously considered abandoning it at my library’s hold desk when they informed me it was ready, but I hate making the librarians process requests for no reason so I schlepped my butt downtown. Four hundred and forty eight pages later, well, let’s just say the trip was well worth the effort. 

Most fictional versions of the story focus on a single individual, usually one of the younger set and inevitably tackle how they escaped the basement of the Impatiev house and went on after the revolution. I tend to excuse stories published before 2008, but since the official identification of the last two family member, I find my tolerance for such fantasies is extremely limited, especially when they appear without a disclaimer. Yes, I’m referring to The House of Special Purpose. I did mention I’m still bitter right? Point I’m getting at here is that Miller's version ends in July 1918 and I found her adherence to what we now know to have happened both admirable and refreshing. 

The true genius of The Lost Crown can be found in its format. Telling the story from the combined perspective of all four Grand Duchesses must have been quite an undertaking, but her effort pays off in the best possible way. Each girl is distinct and I liked how Miller’s treatment of each allowed the reader to interpret them as individuals rather than a combined group. I enjoyed Miller's interpretation of the younger set, but it was the older set that caught my eye. Olga and Tatiana are usually regulated to supporting roles and I relished the opportunity to explore their characters through Miller’s fiction.

Another particularly noteworthy aspect of The Lost Crown is Miller’s exploration of the family's public roles prior to captivity. The book doesn't focus entirely on the glamour and privileges of their station, but also covers the relatively mundane patterns of their daily lives as well as the volunteer work the girls did as part of the war effort. Miller took great care to honor historic context over the course of the narrative and I think that attention to detail sets the novel above much of its competition.

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I cross myself and close my eyes. Where we go next we go together.
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Saturday, September 8, 2012

The Cove by Ron Rash

Rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Local Library
Read: July 14, 2012

The New York Times bestselling author of Serena returns to Appalachia, this time at the height of World War I, with the story of a blazing but doomed love affair caught in the turmoil of a nation at war. Deep in the rugged Appalachians of North Carolina lies the cove, a dark, forbidding place where spirits and fetches wander, and even the light fears to travel. Or so the townsfolk of Mars Hill believe–just as they know that Laurel Shelton, the lonely young woman who lives within its shadows, is a witch. Alone except for her brother, Hank, newly returned from the trenches of France, she aches for her life to begin. Then it happens–a stranger appears, carrying nothing but a beautiful silver flute and a note explaining that his name is Walter, he is mute, and is bound for New York. Laurel finds him in the woods, nearly stung to death by yellow jackets, and nurses him back to health. As the days pass, Walter slips easily into life in the cove and into Laurel's heart, bringing her the only real happiness she has ever known. But Walter harbors a secret that could destroy everything–and danger is closer than they know. Though the war in Europe is near its end, patriotic fervor flourishes thanks to the likes of Chauncey Feith, an ambitious young army recruiter who stokes fear and outrage throughout the county. In a time of uncertainty, when fear and ignorance reign, Laurel and Walter will discover that love may not be enough to protect them. This lyrical, heart-rending tale, as mesmerizing as its award-winning predecessor Serena, shows once again this masterful novelist at the height of his powers.

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I feel like the only person I know who doesn’t shiver with admiration at the mention of Ron Rash. I mean no offense, but I don’t get the hype. The Cove the first of his novels that I’ve had opportunity to sample and if I’m completely honest, it left me with no interest in the rest of his work. 

Rash has been credited for his stunningly recreation of the atmosphere of Appalachia and I can’t say the compliments are undeserved. The descriptions are beautiful, but I also found them intensely boring. Rash would get into the quiet beauty of the woods and my eyes would begin a slow rotation to the back of my head. I can’t tell you how many times I woke up with this book still open on my lap. Seriously folks, I stopped keeping track after five. 

As to the characters, I admit they are well-crafted, but I can’t say that I cared for them much. Across the board the cast the character arcs felt stilted and I couldn’t relate to their experiences. It is very ‘what you see is what you get’ and I don’t find that sort of static, black and white depiction appealing. 

Needless to say, The Cove didn’t live up to the expectations. Probably my fault for setting the expectation so high, but I really think this is another situation in which the author’s style and my reading preference failed to meet.

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He stared at the mountains and thought how small and fleeting human life was. Forty or fifty years, a blink of time for these mountains, and there'd be no memory of what happened here.
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Crime at Mayerling: The Life and Death of Mary Vetsera by Georg Markus

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Obtained from: Personal Library
Read: September 2, 2012

Crime at Mayerling deals with two of the most sensational crimes committed during the past century. Although separated in time by a hundred years, the two events are inextricably connected. In January 1889 the corpses of Archduke Rudolf, Crown Prince of Austria-Hungary, and the Baroness Mary Vetsera were discovered in the prince's hunting lodge at Mayerling, near Vienna. The circumstances were hushed up and for decades scientists and historians had been trying to solve the mystery of what had happened at Mayerling. An Austrian "Mayerling buff" felt compelled to reach an explanation in his own way: in December 1992 he stole the coffin with the Baroness's remains and had them examined by forensic specialists. Markus describes the remarkable findings which finally resolve the mystery of Mayerling.


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Mary Vetsera
Crime at Mayerling is one of the first nonfiction titles I would recommend to anyone interested in the tragedy. It isn't the most detailed text on the subject, but it is a pretty decent introduction. The text is straightforward, easy to follow, and not overly detailed politically.  

Another major selling point is that author Georg Markus was literally on the front lines of the latest twist in the Mayerling story. In 1991, Helmut Flatzelsteiner, in his obsession with the case, removed the remains of Mary Vetsera from her grave in Heiligenkreuz. Markus became involved in 1993 when Flatzelsteiner tried to sell the story to various media outlets. His book is an account these events as well as the 1889 murder/suicide. 

It was published in 1993, ahead of the examination reports on Mary’s remains. Depending on your particular interest, this could be a positive or a negative. I personally didn’t care much either way, but other readers may feel slighted by the omission.

Crime at Mayerling is the most recently published nonfiction available in the United States which is sad as it is nearly two decades old. That said, it is the most concise version of the story and though I don’t think it the best volume for those already familiar with the case, it is by far the best English language primer available regarding the mystery.

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January 30, 1889, caused indescribable horror throughout the world. Crown Prince Rudolph who, as future King of Austria-Hungary, was destined to guide the fate of a gigantic empire, died in a mysterious way in his hunting lodge at Mayerling near Vienna. In the first reports there was no mention of violence nor anything about a second corpse.
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Monday, September 3, 2012

Maiden Behind the Mask by Tara Chevrestt

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ 
Obtained from: Crimson Flower Review Team 
Read: September 1, 2012

When Catalina Rodriguez is attacked by a would-be rapist and rescued by the dashing Ricardo Garcia, she not only becomes more aware of the handsome man, but also vows that she'll never be a damsel in distress again. Using the timeless method of blackmail, she convinces her uncle to teach her to fight and becomes a masked crusader in the night, saving other damsels from robbers and rough handling. However, scandalous rumors and dwindling funds force Ricardo and Catalina to marry. Not immune to each other's charms, their marriage starts fiery, but when one of Catalina's nightly escapades results in dire consequences, she is forced to spurn her husband's amorous advances…or reveal a secret that could turn him away from her forever. Ricardo’s not a man to be cuckolded or left in the dark. Is his wife having an affair with El Capitan, the masked savior? If so… they will both pay.


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If you believe laughter is good for the soul then Tara Chevrestt's Maiden Behind the Mask is the book for you. The book is marketed as historic romance, but it was the author's delightful brand of humor that captured my attention. 

Chevrestt is making her name synonymous with strong, independent women and Maiden Behind the Mask's Catalina Rodriquez is not exception. Faced with the stark realities of life, this relatively sheltered young woman takes up the sword against the loathsome characters who stalk the streets of El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de Los Angeles after sundown. The transition isn’t easy, but Chevrestt’s treatment of it works well in the context of the narrative. 

Ricardo Garcia is also worth mentioning. He isn’t the typical romantic hero and I liked that about him. He is flawed and is prone to act on his emotions and I think that gave him more depth than most. I remember reading Chevrestt's A Facebook Affair and thinking Brandon was a rather one dimensional figure, but Ricardo exemplifies her growth as an author and her dedication to her craft.  

Maiden Behind the Mask is a lighter historical, but its appealing brand of humor makes it an exceedingly fun and pleasurable read.

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Catalina wanted to rage at the man, but she knew he meant well. It was her concern. She had almost been raped. How could the constable be too busy to ensure the safety of the women of Pueblo de Los Angeles? And if he wouldn't, who would?
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Saturday, September 1, 2012

The Bridge of Deaths by M.C.V. Egan

Rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Crimson Flower Review Team
Read: August 28, 2012

On August 15th 1939, at the brink of World War II, an English plane crashed and sunk in Danish waters. Five deaths were reported: two Standard Oil of New Jersey employees, a German Corporate Lawyer, an English member of Parliament, and a crew member for the airline. Here is a conceivable version of the events.


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*** NOTE: It has come to my attention that The Bridge of Deaths has been re-published since the release of this review. I will not be returning to the piece, but encourage readers to understand the issues I noted may not apply to more recent editions of the novel.

The Bridge of Deaths by M.C.V. Egan presents a lot of challenges to me as a reviewer. I enjoyed the plot and greatly admire Egan's passion, but her style didn’t strike the right kind of chord in me. 

Please don't make assumptions from that comment, Egan is by no means a poor writer. I just don't feel she knew what kind of book she wanted to write when she penned this piece. Were she to have cut the fabricated characters/content and presented the story as a strict nonfiction of either her journey or her grandfather's, I would have issued a much higher rating. Similarly if she had cut down the amount of factual information, lost footnotes, concentrated on one particular plot line, and shown more than she told, I would have enjoyed it more as fiction.  

I feel Egan has talent and vision, but I am convinced her work would be easier to digest if she’d pick an angle and streamline her work along traditional genre lines. 

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"I am swimming. The water is salty and cold, and I am swimming, and I am scared. Someone else had to get out. Someone else has to get out..."
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