Sunday, September 29, 2013

Havisham by Ronald Frame

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: August 27, 2013

Catherine Havisham was born into privilege. Spry, imperious, she is the daughter of a wealthy brewer. But she is never far from the smell of hops and the arresting letters on the brewhouse wall—HAVISHAM. A reminder of all she owes to the family name, and the family business. Sent by her father to stay with the Chadwycks, Catherine discovers elegant pastimes to remove the taint of her family’s new money. But for all her growing sophistication Catherine is anything but worldly, and when a charismatic stranger pays her attention, everything—her heart, her future, the very Havisham name—is vulnerable. In this astounding prelude to Charles Dickens’s classic Great Expectations, Ronald Frame unfurls the psychological trauma that made young Catherine into Miss Havisham, and cursed her to a life alone roaming the halls of the mansion in the tatters of the dress she wore for the wedding she was never to have.

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Arguably one of Dickens' best known characters, Miss Havisham has intrigued readers since the release of Great Expectations. I'm not a fan of the book itself, but even I am not immune to the eerie mystic that clings to the tattered remnants of her dilapidated mansion and decaying wedding dress. Like the novel or not, it's hard not to wonder how one could end up as psychologically grief-stricken as the mistress of Satis House and while we'll never know the full extent of her history from the pen of her creator, author Ronald Frame has given readers the next best thing in Havisham.

All things considered I don't think there are too many surprises in this piece, but at the end of the day we already know where this character ends up. The question is how she got there and in that regard I think Frame did an admirable job fleshing out her story. Using Dickens' work as a foundation Frame recreates her tragic history and draws his readers into her struggles. 

What I wasn't expecting was the light Frame shed on Estella's character. She is who she is, Frame doesn't alter her in the least, but watching her cold personality take shape under the bitter influence of her guardian was much creepier from this perspective than the hinted at chain of events we see in Dickens' work. 

A little slow in places, but all told Havisham is an enlightening and elegantly written companion to the much revered classic. 

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Look at me, in my train and veil. Tell me what magic you see. This is the awful damage men do. And still the foolish virgins go on believing. Look at me. Let your blood run cold at the sight. Take heed. Beware. Or you will suffer just as I have suffered. Love, devotion, married bliss. They're dizzards' dreams, that vanish with the dawn.
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Steampunk Darcy by Monica Fairview

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Author
Read: September 11, 2013

William Darcy is obsessed with his ancestors. So much so that he intends to rebuild Pemberley (destroyed during the Uprising) stone by stone, and he wants to employ reconstruction expert Seraphene Grant to help him. Or does he? Seraphene wasn’t born yesterday. She can smell a rat, particularly when it stinks all the way up to her airship. She knows Darcy is hiding something. But with the Authorities after her and her other options dwindling by the moment, the temptation of genuine English tea and a gorgeous Steampunk gentleman are very difficult to resist. But what if Darcy’s mystery job courts nothing but trouble? What if Darcy is harboring a secret to kill for? When kiss comes to shove, will Darcy’s secret destroy Seraphene, or will it be her salvation? Join us on a romantic adventure like no other in this whimsical Pride and Prejudice-inspired tribute, featuring Wickham, Georgiana, dirigibles, funky fish, and swash-buckling pirates.

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Traditionally a combination of science fiction, fantasy and history, steampunk is a fascinating genre that allows authors a practically limitless degree of freedom. There are no concrete rules dictating what an author may or may not do which is why I wasn't exactly shocked to discover author Monica Fairview had used the genre to re-imagine Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.

On the surface, Steampunk Darcy appeared to fall right up my alley of interest, but I must admit the final product left me somewhat underwhelmed. While I like the idea at the heart of this piece, I couldn't help feeling the adaptation lacked the depth of Austen's masterpiece as well as the detail I've come to expect when reading steampunk. 

Be it a modern adaptation such as Shannon Hale's Austenland or a period spin-off like Karen Aminadra's Charlotte, I open Austen inspired lit hoping for something that emulates the spirit of the original. Pride and Prejudice touched on arrogance, pretension, discrimination and partiality and while I don't expect modern authors to tackle the same subject matter, it is my hope that they approach their work with the intention of exploring some facet of human nature. I didn't see that here. Fairview took names and roles, twisted them around and presented a light romantic comedy and though I appreciate that this type of story works for some readers, I must admit it is a hard sell for me particularly.

Let's talk steampunk for a minute because it is more than a few clockwork gadgets and a skyline doted with streamlined airships and dirigibles. What draws readers to this genre is without doubt the atmosphere. The world these characters inhabit is an amalgamation of old and new, reality and fantasy. No two authors interpret it the same way which makes each new title an adventure in and of itself, but I personally feel the most successful writers are the ones who give life to their setting in the same manner they do their characters. I truly feel Fairview is on the right track with this piece, but I can't help feeling she didn't go far enough. I wanted to be wholly immersed in this imaginative world, but there just wasn't enough detail for me to get there. 

As stated, I liked the idea of this piece and applaud Fairview's creativity, but at the end of the day I think Steampunk Darcy is best suited to those readers who look for and appreciate lighter lit. A fun and amusing read in its own right, but one that might have difficulty alongside the works of Scott Westerfeld, Emma Jane Holloway and Felix J. Palma. 

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What price was too high to pay? Was he prepared to himself and everyone he loved those he had hired to help him - everyone, in short, on the ship - be killed to wipe out all evidence that the machine had ever existed? 
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Delia's Shadow by Jaime Lee Moyer

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: September 16, 2013

A dark, romantic fantasy set against the backdrop of San Francisco devastated by the Great Quake. It is the dawn of a new century in San Francisco and Delia Martin is a wealthy young woman whose life appears ideal. But a dark secret colors her life, for Delia’s most loyal companions are ghosts, as she has been gifted (or some would say cursed) with an ability to peer across to the other side. Since the great quake rocked her city in 1906, Delia has been haunted by an avalanche of the dead clamoring for her help. Delia flees to the other side of the continent, hoping to gain some peace. After several years in New York, Delia believes she is free…until one determined specter appears and she realizes that she must return to the City by the Bay in order to put this tortured soul to rest. It will not be easy, as the ghost is only one of the many victims of a serial killer who was never caught. A killer who after thirty years is killing again. And who is now aware of Delia’s existence.

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I picked up Jaime Lee Moyer's Delia's Shadow thinking it might make a nice transitional piece. I'd been reading a lot of historic nonfiction and thought a ghost story would be just what I needed to ease back into the world of fiction. Suffice it to say, I wasn't expecting a lot from this book and was caught entirely off guard when it swept me clean off my feet.

Moyer's San Francisco is populated with a multitude of ghosts and while that may not seem particularly imaginative, I think readers will be surprised by Moyer's spirited portrayal of the deceased. Not as well-rounded as the living cast, Delia's phantom following truly feels as if they are hanging somewhere between life and death. I don't know if this treatment was an intentional decision or not, but I feel it went a long way in establishing a hauntingly ethereal aura around the specters that dog Delia's steps.

More often than not I was able to guess where the story was going, but even so, Moyer's presentation often caught me off guard. You'll have to read the book to understand what I am getting at here, but Moyer's ability to manipulate the reader's emotions with language and prose more than makes up for the predictability of the narrative. 

In terms of romance, Delia Martin and Gabe Ryan have the kind of chemistry I really appreciate. Much like Amanda Quick's Tobias March and Levinia Lake, Moyer's leads aren't looking for love. It is inevitable that the pair end up together, but I like that their relationship is an extension of their partnership rather than unfulfilled longing. 

Is the book perfect? I don't think so. I would have loved a solid explanation regarding the serial killer's background, the details of what made that individual tick, but all in all I can't say I overly disappointed by the oversight. Delia's Shadow is a wonderfully written paranormal mystery set against the dazzling lights of the Panama–Pacific International Exposition. Not to be missed. 

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After the earthquake and subsequent fire nine years ago, I began to see them everywhere. Some ghosts were translucent with no more substance than the fog, barely in the world of the living. I'd no way of knowing for certain, but I thought them the oldest or with the fewest ties to loved ones. Others were so close to solid looking I might have thought them made of warm flesh is not for the old style of their clothes and ability to walk through objects. 
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Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Interview with Jamie Lee Moyer, author of Delia's Shadow

Today, Flashlight Commentary is pleased to welcome author Jaime Lee Moyer to our little corner of the net to discuss her debut release, Delia's Shadow.

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Welcome to Flashlight Commentary Jaime. To start things off, please tell us a bit about Delia's Shadow.
Delia's Shadow is a ghost story/murder mystery set in 1915 San Francisco. Delia Martin wakes up one morning to find herself haunted by a ghost who follows her everywhere. She's seen ghosts all her life, but this spirit is relentless and demands things of Delia. The ghost drives her back home to San Francisco in search of answers. Once she arrives, Delia meets Detective Gabe Ryan. Gabe is searching for a serial killer that is terrorizing the city. The two of them come to realize their quests are related.

What inspired you to write this story?
The entire novel grew out of a dream I had about Delia. She was standing next to a steam locomotive, looking over her shoulder for the person who'd been following her. Turns out that person was a ghost. The whole novel grew from that fragment.

What research went into Delia's Shadow and what challenges did you face writing a story set in San Francisco during 1915?
Life was very different in 1915. Cars were just becoming as common as horse drawn buggies, telephones were all on party lines, social interactions were vastly different. Slang and speech patterns were also very different from today. The past was truly a foreign country.

I researched so many things, from clothing styles to what the popular exhibits at the Panama Pacific Exposition were, what the most modern police techniques were--everything. The character's stories are told against the backdrop of the times. I needed to get it right.

What scene was the most difficult for you as an author?
I don't want to spoil the book for anyone who hasn't read it. But I can say that writing the aftermath of what happened on the 4th of July was very difficult for me.

What is your favorite scene in the novel?
Again, I don't want to spoil anyone, but if I had to pick a favorite--the scene in Colin's office at Stanford. I like that scene a lot.

Sometimes fiction takes on a life of its own and forces the author to make sacrifices for the sake of the story. Is there a character you wish you could have spent more time with?
No, none I can think of. The main characters in the story--Delia, Gabe, Sadie, Jack, Dora, Esther and Annie--all get plenty of screen time. The focus changes from book to book, but no one gets ignored.

Do you see yourself in any of your characters and is there one of your cast you wish you were more like?
It may sound odd, but I think I identify more with Gabe than anyone else. He is the poster child for responsible adult and in many ways, so am I. If I could be more like any of them, I'd grow up to be Dora. I never knew what she was going to say.

If you could sit down and talk with one of your characters, maybe meet and discuss things over drinks, who would you choose and why?
I don't think I could choose just one. What I'd love is to sit around a big table and spend a night talking to all of them. I like these characters. Spending time with them wouldn't be a hardship.

What do you hope readers come away with after reading your work?
My ultimate goal as a writer is to tell the best story I can. I hope people come away from reading this book thinking they read a damn good story, and found a character or two they can relate to. I don't think a writer can ask for more than that.

Finally, what is next for you? Any new projects waiting in the wings?
I've already finished and turned in two more Gabe and Delia books. A Barricade in Hell will be out June 2014, and Against A Brightening Sky, will be out February 2015. Those are the dates I have right now, but pub dates are always subject to change.

I have a few ideas for the next book. I just need to pick which writing project I want to focus on.

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About the Author: Jaime Lee Moyer lives in San Antonio with musician Marshall Payne, two cats, three guitars and a growing collection of books and music. Her first novel, Delia's Shadow, was published by TOR Books on September 17, 2013. Two other books in the series, A Barricade in Hell, and Against a Brightening Sky, will be published in 2014 and 2015. Jaime has sold short fiction to Lone Star Stories, Daily Science Fiction, and to the Triangulations: End of the Rainbow, and Triangulations: Last Contact anthologies. She was poetry editor for Ideomancer Speculative Fiction for five years and edited the 2010 Rhysling Award Anthology for the Science Fiction Poetry Association. A poet in her own right, she's sold more than her share of poetry. Find out more about Jaime on her website or follow her on twitter.

About the Book: A dark, romantic fantasy set against the backdrop of San Francisco devastated by the Great Quake. It is the dawn of a new century in San Francisco and Delia Martin is a wealthy young woman whose life appears ideal. But a dark secret colors her life, for Delia’s most loyal companions are ghosts, as she has been gifted (or some would say cursed) with an ability to peer across to the other side. Since the great quake rocked her city in 1906, Delia has been haunted by an avalanche of the dead clamoring for her help. Delia flees to the other side of the continent, hoping to gain some peace. After several years in New York, Delia believes she is free…until one determined specter appears and she realizes that she must return to the City by the Bay in order to put this tortured soul to rest. It will not be easy, as the ghost is only one of the many victims of a serial killer who was never caught. A killer who after thirty years is killing again. And who is now aware of Delia’s existence.

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Saturday, September 21, 2013

Tuscan Rose by Belinda Alexandra

Rating: ★ ★  ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: September 19, 2013

A magical, richly woven World War II– era saga filled with passion, secrets, beauty, and horror from internationally acclaimed bestselling author Belinda Alexandra. Florence, 1914. A mysterious stranger known as The Wolf leaves an infant with the sisters of Santo Spirito. A tiny silver key hidden in her wrappings is the one clue to the child’s identity.... Fifteen year later, young Rosa must leave the nuns, her only family, and become governess to the daughter of an aristocrat and his strange, frightening wife. Their house is elegant but cursed, and Rosa—blessed with gifts beyond her considerable musical talents—is torn between her desire to know the truth and her fear of its repercussions. All the while, the hand of Fascism curls around beautiful Italy, and no citizen is safe. Rosa faces unimaginable hardship: her only weapons her intelligence, intuition, and determination... and her extraordinary capacity for love.

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I had a really difficult time with Belinda Alexandra's Tuscan Rose. I respect that a lot of other readers feel differently, but if I am entirely honest with myself I have to admit that I seriously considered throwing my kindle at the wall while reading this book. Be warned, there are possible spoilers ahead. 

To begin, Alexandra spends both parts one and two laying the groundwork for her story which means things don't start moving until part three or page three hundred and five. Yes, you read that correctly, page three hundred and five. I've read books that are shorter than this set up and a lot more coherent at that, which brings me to difficulty number two. 

The first two parts of the story are held together by the barest of details. No joke, change Rosa's name and the circumstances of her arrest and you have two entirely different pieces. The magical powers that are so beautifully depicted in part one, disappear entirely in part two, along with most of the supporting cast. The sheltered orphan we knew is quite suddenly and without reason politically aware, confidant and entirely self-reliant. It just didn't make sense to me. I will grant, I found both portions appealing in their own right, but seeing them shoved together like this annoyed me to no end.   

Part three ties up what seems to be a rats nest of loose ends, but by that point I felt it was too little too late and it didn't help that the solutions to the many mysteries in the novel - the identity of the Wolf, Rosa's parentage, the identity of the Falcon, Antonio's whereabouts, Orietta's fate, etc. and so on - were all entirely obvious. Alexandra failed to pitch even a single successful curve ball and I was rather disappointed by that considering how many she attempted to pull off over the course of the narrative.

Too much plot and not enough movement, disjointed and ultimately unsatisfying. 

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Ada chuckled. "All women are witches," she said, brushing her hands down her apron. "Only some of us are more aware of it than others."
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Friday, September 20, 2013

Rebellious Heart by Jody Hedlund

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: September 20, 2013

In 1763 Massachusetts, Susanna Smith has grown up with everything she's ever wanted, except one thing: an education. Because she's a female, higher learning has been closed to her, but her quick mind and quicker tongue never back down from a challenge. She's determined to put her status to good use, reaching out to the poor and deprived. And she knows when she marries well, she will be able to continue her work with the less fortunate. Ben Ross grew up a farmer's son and has nothing to his name but his Harvard education. A poor country lawyer, he doesn't see how he'll be able to fulfill his promise to make his father proud of him. When family friends introduce him to the Smith family, he's drawn to quick-witted Susanna but knows her family expects her to marry well. When Susanna's decision to help an innocent woman no matter the cost crosses with Ben's growing disillusionment with their British rulers, the two find themselves bound together in what quickly becomes a very dangerous fight for justice.

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Those who follow me know I don't give out fives lightly, but if you're coming across my commentary for the first time, know that I reserve five stars for those books that I can't put down, the ones that keep me engaged cover to cover and/or the ones that strike a chord within me and spark my imagination. Jody Hedlund's Rebellious Heart is one such book.

First and foremost, I adore Hedlund's leads. It is obvious from the beginning that Ben and Susanna will end up together, but what surprised me is that their relationship isn't characterized by instant lust. Yes, you read that correctly. No instant lust. Amazing concept right? Two people who fall in love slowly, who are at times intimidated by their emotions and even deny their affection out of fear or spite. I rarely see such realistic portrayals and was pleased to find one here. 

Another thing that appealed to me was Hedlund's dedication to historic detail, especially when it came to colonial society and the prejudices it held. In the opening chapters readers are treated to a marvelous example of eighteenth century justice as the citizens of Braintree convict an elderly man of murder on little more than his status as an outsider. Later in the novel Susanna questions the fairness of laws and social dictates designed to penalize women and deny them the opportunities freely afforded their male counterparts. Hedlund touches on children conceived outside of wedlock, indentured servitude, slavery, smuggling and the growing political tension between the colonies and their English monarch. Hedlund wasn't intimidated by the ugly side of things and didn't try to shield her readers from the realities of the period which is something I truly appreciate. 

Finally, I liked that Hedlund's cast is composed largely of multifaceted personalities. Susanna is an intelligent young woman, but she has a tenancy to let her parents think for her. Ben is ambitious, but has difficulty overlooking past wrongs. Mrs. Smith spends much of her time aiding the poor, but is a prejudicial woman who isn't shy about denouncing those she feels inferior. There are few black and white characterizations here and again, I felt Hedlund's approach added to the overall authenticity of her work. 

As you might have guessed, I was quite impressed by this piece when I finished the final chapter, but the kicker came in when I read the Author's Note. Never having read Hedlund, I had no idea her entire body of work is inspired by and loosely based on real people and I have to admit that when I learned this fact, I was in absolute awe. I already liked the piece, but the idea that Hedlund found this story in a history book and re-imagined it for her readers made it all the more fascinating. 

Easily one of the best books I've read all year, Rebellious Heart is a wonderfully engaging story with a beautiful theme. Not to be missed.  

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Ben's body tightened with old insecurities. He fought the pressure to slouch and fade into the background. Instead he pushed himself to his full height and reminded himself why he was fighting against injustice - to give the downtrodden, like himself, a fair chance in a world in which those with the most power and wealth make the rules.
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Interview with Laura Joh Rowland, author of The Shogun's Daughter

Today, Flashlight Commentary is pleased to welcome author Laura Joh Rowland to our little corner of the net to discuss her latest release, The Shogun's Daughter. 

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Welcome to Flashlight Commentary Laura. To start things off, please tell us a bit about The Shogun's Daughter.
The Shogun’s Daughter begins in Edo (Tokyo) in 1704.  The shogun’s daughter Tsuruhime dies of smallpox.  Faced with his own mortality, the shogun names as his heir Yoshisato, the son he recently learned was his.  In the ensuing political turmoil, Sano Ichiro falls out of favor at court.  He thinks Yoshisato is a fraud masterminded by Yanagisawa, his foe. Suspecting that Tsuruhime's death was murder, Sano embarks on a dangerous investigation.  He and his family become targets of enemies seeking to rule Japan.

What inspired you to write this story? 
I wanted to write about a fascinating period in Japanese history—the time after a major earthquake and during a transition to a new regime within the ruling Tokugawa regime.  There’s always plenty of upheaval and excitement during events like these.  They provide the background for my story.  The real-life shogun’s real-life daughter did die during this period.  She wasn’t murdered (as she is in my book), but her death did force the shogun to face his own mortality (as he did in real life), and to designate a successor after putting it off for many years.  The battle for the succession weaves into Sano’s murder investigation.  I love the interplay between fact and fiction.

What research went into The Shogun's Daughter and what challenges did you face writing a story set in feudal Japan? 
Much of the historical background in the story comes from a wonderful non-fiction book by Beatrice M. Bodart-Bailey, The Dog Shogun.  It’s probably the definitive work (in English) about that period.  One of my challenges is that I don’t speak or read Japanese, so I’m unable to use Japanese primary resource material. Another challenge is that my books are fiction, so the research needs to ground and enrich the story but never overshadow it.

What scene was the most difficult for you as an author?
Every scene that contains more than two characters.  When you have lots of people talking and doing things, it’s like juggling—you have to keep all the balls in the air.  Throw in conflicting agendas and intense emotions, and it gets really hard.  My late mentor, the science fiction author George Alec Effinger, said that beginning writers tend to write scenes that have only one or two characters, and advanced writers can handle more. The climax sequence at the end of The Shogun’s Daughter, where I alternate between scenes in Sano’s, Reiko’s, Masahiro’s, and Taeko’s viewpoints was one of the most challenging I’ve ever written.

What is your favorite scene in the novel?
The climax sequence.  It was difficult to write, and harrowing, but also exhilarating—I felt as though I were with the characters every moment of a very wild ride.

Sometimes fiction takes on a life of its own and forces the author to make sacrifices for the sake of the story. Is there a character you wish you could have spent more time with? 
I wish I could bring back interesting characters from earlier books in the series.  Example:  the beautiful female ninja that Sano fell in love with before he married Reiko.  But there’s never any space for that.  Each book has to focus on its own characters, conflicts, and plot.

Do you see yourself in any of your characters and is there one of your cast you wish you were more like?
All the characters are me, in a sense.  I think all fictional characters embody aspects of their authors’ personalities.  Some aspects are admirable, some not.  I wish I were as athletic as Sano and Reiko.  It would be so great to be an expert swordfighter!  (Gym was my worst subject in school.)  I also wish I were as brave.  They face down violent killers in every episode.  Not me!  I might have gotten further ahead in the world if I were as ruthless as Yanagisawa.  But I’m glad I’m not.

If you could sit down and talk with one of your characters, maybe meet and discuss things over drinks, who would you choose and why? 
Yanagisawa, definitely.  In some ways the villains are the most interesting characters in mystery fiction.  Plus, he’s handsome and sexy.  I’d like to ask him if I portrayed him accurately.  My characters have become like real people to me, and when I write about them it’s as though I’m interpreting them as a reporter would instead of making them up.  I would have to be careful around Yanagisawa, however.  If he didn’t like how he’s portrayed in my books, he might slip poison in my drink.

What do you hope readers come away with after reading your work? 
I hope they feel as if they’ve read a great story and formed personal connections with the characters.  Not as if they’ve read a history textbook about feudal Japan.

Finally, what is next for you? Any new projects waiting in the wings?
I’m writing #18 in the Sano series.  It’s tentatively titled “The Iris Fan.”  The murder investigation continues the court intrigue that starts in “The Shogun’s Daughter.”  Readers, be prepared for some big surprises!

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About the Author: Laura Joh Rowland is the author of a mystery series set in medieval Japan, featuring samurai detective Sano Ichiro. The Shogun’s Daughter is the seventeenth book in the series. Her work has been published in 13 foreign countries, nominated for the Anthony Award and the Hammett Prize, and won the RT Reviewer’s Choice Award for Best Historical Mystery. Laura lives in New York City. For more information please visit Laura’s website. You can also follow her on Facebook.

About the Book: Japan, 1704. In an elegant mansion a young woman named Tsuruhime lies on her deathbed, attended by her nurse. Smallpox pustules cover her face. Incense burns, to banish the evil spirits of disease. After Tsuruhime takes her last breath, the old woman watching from the doorway says, “Who’s going to tell the Shogun his daughter is dead?” The death of the Shogun’s daughter has immediate consequences on his regime. There will be no grandchild to leave the kingdom. Faced with his own mortality and beset by troubles caused by the recent earthquake, he names as his heir Yoshisato, the seventeen-year-old son he only recently discovered was his. Until five months ago, Yoshisato was raised as the illegitimate son of Yanagisawa, the shogun’s favorite advisor. Yanagisawa is also the longtime enemy of Sano Ichiro. Sano doubts that Yoshisato is really the Shogun’s son, believing it’s more likely a power-play by Yanagisawa. When Sano learns that Tsuruhime’s death may have been a murder, he sets off on a dangerous investigation that leads to more death and destruction as he struggles to keep his pregnant wife, Reiko, and his son safe. Instead, he and his family become the accused. And this time, they may not survive the day. Laura Joh Rowland’s thrilling series set in Feudal Japan is as gripping and entertaining as ever.

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Check out all the stops on Laura Joh Rowland's The Shogun's Daughter Virtual Book Tour


Monday, September 16
Review at Oh, for the Hook of a Book!
Tuesday, September 17
Review at Let Them Read Books
Wednesday, September 18
Review at The True Book Addict
Guest Post & Giveaway at Let Them Read Books
Thursday, September 19
Review at Flashlight Commentary
Friday, September 20
Guest Post at The True Book Addict
Interview at Flashlight Commentary
Monday, September 23
Review at Sharon’s Garden of Book Reviews
Tuesday, September 24
Review at Ageless Pages Reviews
Wednesday, September 25
Review at Impressions in Ink
Interview at Oh, for the Hook of a Book!
Thursday, September 26
Review at Unabridged Chick
Friday, September 27
Review at Jenny Loves to Read
Review & Interview with A Bookish Libraria
Monday, September 30
Review at A Bookish Affair
Interview & Giveaway at Unabridged Chick
Tuesday, October 1
Guest Post & Giveaway at A Bookish Affair
Wednesday, October 2
Review at The Maiden’s Court
Review at Just One More Chapter
Thursday, October 3
Review at WTF Are You Reading?
Review & Giveaway at Broken Teepee
Friday, October 4
Review at Book Dilettante

Thursday, September 19, 2013

The Shogun's Daughter by Laura Joh Rowland

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley/Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours
Read: September 12, 2013

Japan, 1704. In an elegant mansion a young woman named Tsuruhime lies on her deathbed, attended by her nurse. Smallpox pustules cover her face. Incense burns, to banish the evil spirits of disease. After Tsuruhime takes her last breath, the old woman watching from the doorway says, “Who’s going to tell the Shogun his daughter is dead?” The death of the Shogun's daughter has immediate consequences on his regime. There will be no grandchild to leave the kingdom. Faced with his own mortality and beset by troubles caused by the recent earthquake, he names as his heir Yoshisato, the seventeen-year-old son he only recently discovered was his. Until five months ago, Yoshisato was raised as the illegitimate son of Yanagisawa, the shogun's favorite advisor. Yanagisawa is also the longtime enemy of Sano Ichiro. Sano doubts that Yoshisato is really the Shogun's son, believing it's more likely a power-play by Yanagisawa. When Sano learns that Tsuruhime's death may have been a murder, he sets off on a dangerous investigation that leads to more death and destruction as he struggles to keep his pregnant wife, Reiko, and his son safe. Instead, he and his family become the accused. And this time, they may not survive the day.

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The best historic fiction is the kind that presents imagined drama and intrigue against a backdrop of real events. It strikes a perfect balance and melds together in such a way that it is difficult to discern where one ends and the other begins. It is the kind of fiction I look for and the kind I found in Laura Joh Rowland's The Shogun's Daughter.

I know almost nothing about feudal Japan so I spent a lot of time researching facts while reading this piece and what I found only increased my appreciation for Rowland's work. Set during the reconstruction period that followed the December 1703 Earthquake that leveled much of Edo, Rowland's story is punctuated with scenes of a city trying to rebuild the shattered remnants of its former glory, her citizens suffering over their misfortunes and scrambling to scrape their lives together once more. A mere backdrop to her tale, Rowland's attention to detail gives her work an authentic quality that few mystery writers of my experience can rival.

The premise at the heart of The Shogun's daughter is similarly based in historic fact. In May 1704, Tsuruhime, only child and daughter of the shogun did in fact die. Her passing was not the result of a carefully plotted murder scheme, but here again, Rowland exhibits a certain aptitude for adapting fiction to compliment real events. Blending circumstance with intrigue, Rowland recreates the turmoil caused by Tsuruhime's death in an intriguing and well-imagined tale of secrets, subterfuge and ambition.

In terms of characters, I admit I liked the interactions and relationships of Rowland's cast more than any individual player. The inquisitive Taeko's desire to emulate Masahiro despite his protestation and obvious annoyance. The manipulating Yangisawa against the compliant if alternatively motivated Yoshisato. The gentle and competent Reiko alongside the determined Sano. The multiple and intricate connections Rowland created between her cast really worked for me and added a little something extra to the piece as a whole.

A creative and memorable read that is both action packed and original.


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"A son of hers would have supplied a rallying point for people who don't think Yoshisato is a true Takugawa and don't want Yangisawa dominating the government for another term," Lady Nobuko went on. "Were that the case, what would happen after the shogun dies? Yangisawa's opponent would start a war against Yoshisato, on behalf of Tsuruhime's son, and possibly seize control of the dictatorship. Yangisawa understood that. He had Tsuruhime killed because she was a potential threat to his future."
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Check out all the stops on Laura Joh Rowland's The Shogun's Daughter Virtual Book Tour


Monday, September 16
Review at Oh, for the Hook of a Book!
Tuesday, September 17
Review at Let Them Read Books
Wednesday, September 18
Review at The True Book Addict
Guest Post & Giveaway at Let Them Read Books
Thursday, September 19
Review at Flashlight Commentary
Friday, September 20
Guest Post at The True Book Addict
Interview at Flashlight Commentary
Monday, September 23
Review at Sharon’s Garden of Book Reviews
Tuesday, September 24
Review at Ageless Pages Reviews
Wednesday, September 25
Review at Impressions in Ink
Interview at Oh, for the Hook of a Book!
Thursday, September 26
Review at Unabridged Chick
Friday, September 27
Review at Jenny Loves to Read
Review & Interview with A Bookish Libraria
Monday, September 30
Review at A Bookish Affair
Interview & Giveaway at Unabridged Chick
Tuesday, October 1
Guest Post & Giveaway at A Bookish Affair
Wednesday, October 2
Review at The Maiden’s Court
Review at Just One More Chapter
Thursday, October 3
Review at WTF Are You Reading?
Review & Giveaway at Broken Teepee
Friday, October 4
Review at Book Dilettante

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Interview with Mingmei Yip, author of The Nine Fold Heaven

Today Flashlight Commentary is pleased to welcome author Mingmei Yip who has joined us to discuss her latest release, The Nine Fold Heaven. I absolutely love what Mingmei shared with me in this interview and am so excited to be able to share it with you. 

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Welcome the Flashlight Commentary Mingmei. To start things off, please tell us a little bit about The Nine Fold Heaven. 
The Nine Fold Heaven is about three femmes fatales – referred to as “skeleton women,” in Chinese. They are the singer spy Camilla, the magician Shadow, and the gossip columnist Rainbow Chang. But the journey is mainly Camilla’s. She undertakes an emotional and dangerous trip back to Shanghai to reunite with her lost lovers,  to find the baby she was told was stillborn, and to discover the secret of her parents’ murder.

 “A unique and enthralling style. . .flawless.” –Books Examiner

What inspired you to write this story and what convinced you it needed to be told? 
In China, “skeleton woman” is a phrase that refers to those women who are so beautiful, talented and scheming women that they can turn men into skeletons -- and even topple countries -- with a blink of their mascaraed eye. I heard this phrase when I was a child, then when heard it again at an academic meeting a few years ago, I was so intrigued by these relentless yet tragic women that I felt compelled to give them a voice.  

What research went into The Nine Fold Heaven and what, if any, challenges did you face setting your story in the 1930s? 
I love history, because it is like a mirror reflecting all that’s good and bad in humanity. I think the 1930’s Shanghai is one of the sexiest eras in world history, populated with larger than life characters: glamorous women, cynical politicians, and corrupt police. But also with idealists trying to help China find its way in the modern world. It was a time of extremes – from sybaritic luxury to abject poverty. I have tried to describe both from the indulgences of the rich to the miseries of the poor. 

In researching for my novel, I was fascinated to learn how women could overcome their rivalries and survive in a near-lawless world controlled by gangsters for whom murder was as routine as sipping a cup of tea. 
I visited Shanghai many times, but even real life experiences didn’t help much, because what I was going to write about had since disappeared. So I read books, looked at old photographs and watch old  movies to get a feeling for the settings, costumes, architecture, transportation, etc. 

Why did you choose to title this piece The Nine Fold Heaven and how does your title relate to your story?
A fortune teller in my novel said to Camilla,  “When a person is not ready, she should be like the dragon who does not act. Not until the right moment arrives, then she’ll soar to the nine fold heaven, looking down on the ordinary as she enjoys her long-awaited success and glory."

The phrase a dragon soaring to the nine fold heaven derives from the 3,000 year old Chinese classic Book for Changes. It means that we should be patient and wait for the right moment to act. Following the flow instead of acting against it will bring ultimate success. This is exactly what Camilla does – hide in Hong Kong and wait for the right time to go back to Shanghai to find her baby, his father, and attain revenge for her parents’ murder.   

What is you favorite scene in the novel? 
When Camilla reads her other lover, the bodyguard Gao’s, diary about his loveless relationship with his wife. I think this scene brings out layers of emotions that men feel for women they love, or can’t love. 

Which was the most difficult for you to write? 
Showing how Camilla uses her wisdom – instead of  violence - to outsmart and eliminate Shanghai’s two most powerful gangsters. It was during a birthday banquet where Camilla carried out her trick together with her  magician friend and rival Shadow. 

Your characters are fictional, but do you see yourself in any of your characters and is there one of them you wish you were more like? 
Yes, to a certain degree I put something of myself  into all of my protagonists. I let my philosophy of life and my sensitivity speak through them. That’s why the protagonist Camilla in The Nine Fold Heaven, though a scheming spy and assassin, is in fact vulnerable and kind deep down. I can’t portray my protagonist as pure evil character, that’s just not me. 

I think the character I wish I would be more like is Lily Lin in Song of the Silk Road. Not only does she travel by herself along the dangerous ancient silk route and speak to ghosts, but she twice saves her lover’s life in extremely dangerous situations. I hope I would be brave and fearless like her. 

If you could sit down and talk with one of your characters, maybe meet and discuss things over drinks, whom would you choose and why? 
I would like to have a chat with the protagonist Camilla in The Nine Fold Heaven. Being trained to have no emotions and forced to be a spy and an assassin, she is a complex mixture of good and bad.   
Camilla is an orphan rescued by a gangster head only to be trained to ingratiate herself with another gangster so as to be able to assassinate him. Camilla began life as an orphan, possessing nothing, and as a spy, all she was allowed to possess is only the  “four nothings,” no friends, no identity, no emotion, no scruples. 

So Camilla cannot allow herself to open to her feelings for other people, let alone feel compassion. But because of her love of books, she has gained wisdom -- from her years of studying the Art of War, the Thirty-Six Stratagems, and other ancient guides to survival amidst adversity. However, As she plots to kill the gangster head, she falls in love with his son and then also with his most trusted bodyguard. After she gives birth to a baby boy by her first lover, she experiences unconditional love for the first time. So after she has safely escaped from the gangs and is living quietly in Hong Kong, she decides, at the risk of her life, to return to Shanghai to find her baby and her two lovers.

I would ask Camilla what it was like to have been indoctrinated in the four nothingnesses, then began to feel love, how she was able to transform from a cold spy-assassin to a loving mother who’ll risk everything to find her lover and baby. 

What do you hope readers take away after reading your work? 
I’ve always been fascinated by women who use their beauty, talent, and especially intelligence to achieve near-impossible deeds. My novels are about such strong, diligent, unflinching women who worked against all odds and succeeded. Nevertheless, getting to the happy outcome requires that we use our judgment in deciding when to strive and when to just go with the flow. 

In doing so, we can learn compassion and wisdom. 

Camilla, the protagonist in The Nine Fold Heaven, knows that to have a chance at a happy life, she must somehow escape her bondage to gangsters and the violence that surrounds her. So she uses the wisdom of the ancient Chinese sages to plan her escape – and in the process learns to love.  

Writing about strong women who  never give up, I feel that they become my teachers. We are all on journeys, but theirs are tougher and more miserable. Now I have a comfortable life, but getting there was a long journey. I hope that along the way, like my heroines, my readers would acquire some wisdom and even compassion. 

Finally, what is next for you? Do you have any projects waiting in the wings?
Yes, my next and sixth novel is Secrets of a Thousand Beauties, to be published by Kensington Books in 2014. 
It is about a young woman who escapes a ghost marriage to join a community of celebrate embroiderers. Soon, stifled by the rigid routines of the group, she helps herself to one of their treasures – an imperial robe. Chased by agents of a secret society, she makes her way to Beijing. There she finds work in an embroidery shop, only to be tricked into marrying the boss’ son. Escaping again, she falls in love with a revolutionary and lives an even more dangerous life. Despite all these distractions, she continues with her needlework and earns fame and respect. 

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About the Author: When she was a child, Mingmei Yip made up stories like “how the moon reached to slap the sun” and “how the dim sum on my plate suddenly got up to tango.” At fifteen, she was thrilled that not only her article got published but she was paid ten dollars for it. Now Mingmei is a best selling novelist and children’s book writer and illustrator. Mingmei believes that one should, besides being entertained, also get something out of reading a novel. She has now twelve books to her credit, including five novels by Kensington Books: The Nine Fold Heaven, Skeleton Women, Song of the Silk Road, Petals from the Sky, and Peach Blossom Pavilion. Book Examiner praises her novels as “A unique and enthralling style…flawless.” Her two children’s books are Chinese Children’s Favorite Stories and Grandma Panda’s China Storybook, both by Tuttle Publishing. Mingmei is accomplished in many other fields. A professional player of the Guqin, Chinese zither, for over thirty years, she was recently invited by Carnegie Hall to perform in “A Festival celebrating Chinese Culture” in the same program with cellist Yo Yo Ma and pianist Lang Lang. She had her solo Goddess exhibition at the New York Open Center Gallery to great acclaim, gave calligraphy workshop at New York’s Metropolitain Museum of Art, and Taichi at the International Women’s Writing Guild. For more information please visit Mingmei’s website. You can also follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads and Amazon.

About the book: In this mesmerizing new novel, Mingmei Yip draws readers deeper into the exotic world of 1930s Shanghai first explored in Skeleton Women, and into the lives of the unforgettable Camilla, Shadow, and Rainbow Chang. When Shadow, a gifted, ambitious magician, competed with the beautiful Camilla for the affections of organized crime leader Master Lung, she almost lost everything. Hiding out in Hong Kong, performing in a run-down circus, Shadow has no idea that Camilla, too, is on the run with her lover, Jinying--Lung's son. Yet while Camilla and Shadow were once enemies, now their only hope of freedom lies in joining forces to eliminate the ruthless Big Brother Wang. Despite the danger, Shadow, Camilla, and Jinying return to Shanghai. Camilla also has her own secret agenda--she has heard a rumor that her son is alive. And in a city teeming with spies and rivals--including the vengeful Rainbow Chang--each battles for a future in a country on the verge of monumental change.

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Check out all the stops on Mingmei Yip's The Nine Fold Heaven Virtual book  Tour


Monday, September 16
Review & Giveaway at A Bookish Affair
Tuesday, September 17
Review at Flashlight Commentary
Wednesday, September 18
Review at Must Read Faster
Interview at Flashlight Commentary
Thursday, September 19
Review at Oh, for the Hook of a Book!
Friday, September 20
Interview at Oh, for the Hook of a Book!
Monday, September 23
Guest Post at Closed the Cover
Tuesday, September 24
Review at A Bookish Libraria
Thursday, September 26
Guest Post at HF Connection
Tuesday, October 1
Review at Sharon’s Garden of Book Reviews
Thursday, October 3
Review at A Chick Who Reads
Friday, October 4
Guest Post at History Undressed
Monday, October 7
Giveaway at Passages to the Past
Wednesday, October 9
Review at Ageless Pages Reviews
Friday, October 11
Review at Silver’s Reviews

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