Thursday, January 30, 2014

My Past by Countess Marie Larisch

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Obtained from: Personal Library
Read: January 29, 2014

The personal reminiscences of life in the courts of Austria and Bavaria, together with the 'true' story of the events leading up to the tragic death of Rudolph, Crown Prince of Austria by his cousin, Countess Marie Countess Marie Louise Larisch-Wallersee.

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Ostracized by the royal court and bitter at having to bear the burden of responsibility for the deaths of Crown Prince Rudolf and Baroness Marie Vetsera, Countess Marie Larisch is a woman with a grudge. Chock-full of venom, her memoirs are positivity brimming with antipathy and thus cannot be trusted as a truly objective source of information. 

Trading largely in contemporary gossip, Larisch isn't interested in promoting truth so much as her own self-importance and ultimate innocence in the tragedy with which she is associated. Utilizing her work as a platform to air her grievances, she also goes to great lengths to discredit those whom she holds responsible for her subsequent social downfall, characterizing Crown Prince Rudolf as a wolfishly immoral schemer and the Empress Elizabeth as vain and insecure adulteress.

All things considered, I think one would be exceeding naive to take Larch’s vague, unsubstantiated, and often contradictory explanations at face value, but that being said, My Past presents a fascinating psychological portrait of Larisch and affords an intriguing firsthand account of her duplicitous nature and less than sparkling personality.

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"Do the Emperor and Empress realise that I have been treated shamefully? I have been the cat's paw in this affair. I've been deceived throughout..."
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Monday, January 27, 2014

Cloaked in Danger by Jeannie Ruesch

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Read: Januarary 17, 2014

Aria Whitney has little in common with the delicate ladies of London society. Her famous father made his fortune hunting archaeological treasures, and her rustic upbringing has left her ill-prepared for a life of parties and frippery. But when Gideon Whitney goes missing in Egypt, Aria must embrace the unknown—armed with only the short list of highborn men who’d backed her father’s venture, she poses as a woman looking for a husband. She doesn’t intend to find one. Adam Willoughby, Earl of Merewood, finds London’s strangest new debutante fascinating, but when he catches her investigating his family’s secrets, he threatens to ruin her reputation. He doesn’t intend to enjoy it so much. When their lustful indiscretion is discovered, Adam finds that he regrets nothing. But now, as her father’s enemy draws near, Adam must convince his betrothed that she can trust him with her own secrets... before it’s too late.

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Jeannie Ruesch's Cloaked in Danger caught me off guard. Far from the average romance, Ruesch's second novel defied my expectations and swept me into a whirlwind of wit, romance and intrigue. 

I think my favorite aspect of the book is that the romantic storyline doesn't overwhelm the narrative. A lot of writers in this genre lose sight of the story when their characters start coming together, but not Ruesch. Neither Aria nor Adam are solely consumed by their passions. Both have a personal objective driving their actions over the course of the narrative, a fact which greatly appealed to my personal taste in literature.

Diehard fans of historic fiction might object to Ruesh's quirky and unconventional leading characters, but I found both Miss Whitney and Mr. Willoughby rather endearing in their way. I admit their values and personalities are probably a little too avant-garde for the period, but it isn't enough to ruin the story and actually leads to some rather delightfully entertaining exchanges. 

The mystery itself didn't keep me on the edge of my seat, but it included enough twists and turns to sustain my interest. It also retained a fairly steady pace beginning to end, which again, kept me engaged in Aria's adventure.

A pleasantly amusing piece, Cloaked in Danger is notable for its clever structure and humorous prose. A refreshingly original regency era mystery. 

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“I have my doubts. But I have done plenty in the name of protecting my family. I understand. But you’re not alone now. We’ll continue this, and whatever truths are to be found, we’ll deal with them together.”
They had lived in such different worlds, and yet, somehow, they were so alike in some ways. They loved fiercely. They would both do anything for their families. It was a powerful bridge.
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Check out all the stops on Jeannie Ruesch's Cloaked in Danger Virtual book tour


Monday, January 27
Review at Flashlight Commentary
Facebook Launch Party (3:00 – 7:00pm PST)
Tuesday, January 28
Interview at The Maiden’s Court
Wednesday, January 29
Review & Giveaway at Unabridged Chick
Spotlight & Giveaway at Book Reviews & More by Kathy
Thursday, January 30
Review at History Undressed
Interview at Layered Pages
Friday, January 31
Guest Post & Giveaway at History Undressed
Monday, February 3
Review at Closed the Cover
Review at The Most Happy Reader
Tuesday, February 4
Review at The Lit Bitch
Review at Ageless Pages Reviews
Wednesday, February 5
Spotlight & Giveaway at Mina’s Bookshelf
Thursday, February 6
Review at Kincavel Korner
Review at I Heart Romance
Friday, February 7
Interview & Giveaway at Kincavel Korner


Friday, January 24, 2014

The Emperor & the Actress: The Love Story of Emperor Franz Josef & Katharina Schratt by Joan Haslip

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Obtained from: Personal Library
Read: January 24, 2014

She was the darling of the Austrian stage, a blond "bird of paradise" with "laughing blue eyes and a little girl's face." He was one of the nineteenth century's most influential rulers, the last great Hapsburg emperor, who, years later, would plunge the world into war. She rose from a broken marriage and financial ruin to become the pampered confidante of Europe's rich and powerful. He grew hopelessly obsessed with this guileless girl from the Vienna woods, and lavished his affection—and his wealth—on her. The Emperor and the Actress is a factualaccount of the relationship between Emperor Franz Josef and Katharina Schratt, a leading lady described by one drama critic as "the average man's ideal. . .both seductress and housewife, earthy and sophisticated." This is a riveting tale of forbidden love and political intrigue, of madness and murder, of a woman's conquest of her monarch—and of the terrible sacrifices both were forced to endure. In following Katharina's progress through the theatres, palaces, and watering spots of Europe, author Joan Haslip provides an engrossing glimpse of daily life off and on the stage and at court. She resurrects the forgotten theatrical customs and luminaries of the era. And she describes—in rich detail—the world of princely opulence and sumptuous luxury enjoyed by a privileged few. The Emperor and the Actress is far more than just the story of Katharina Schratt—the toast of fin-de-siecle society, the mistress "enslaved in golden chains," a friend to Strauss, Mahler, and Brahms. It is a study of power—the power of beauty, of seduction, of tradition, of wealth, of art, of madness, and of change. And it is a haunting portrait of vanished European monarchy, the last gasp of the Hapsburgs, the excesses of absolute rule.

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I have an obsessive interest in Crown Prince Rudolf which is unfortunate as there isn't a lot of material available for those wishing to understand the details of his short and tragic existence. 

Emperor Franz Josef
Having devoured The Road to Mayerling: Life and Death of Crown Prince Rudolph of Austria by Richard BarkeleyCrime at Mayerling: The Life and Death of Mary Vetsera by Georg Markus, The Mayerling Murder by Victor Wolfson and Mayerling: The Facts Behind The Legend by Fritz Judtmann, I wasn't entirely sure where to turn for additional infornation. I continued my research online, but it wasn't until discovering tidbits of otherwise unpublished information in The Assassination of the Archduke by Greg King & Sue Woolmans that I gave serious thought to reading titles unrelated to the 'incident' itself. 

My first instinct was to look for anything related to Mitzi Kaspar, but she proved more elusive than her royal paramour. Next up, Johann Salvator, but beyond an entertaining conspiracy theory that connected the Archduke to François Bérenger Saunière, I found myself at a dead end. Third on my list, Katharina Schratt, which is how I came to Joan Haslip's The Emperor & the Actress.

Beginning with Katharina's humble origins, Haslip chronicles her early interest in acting, the energy she put towards honing her skills on the stages of central Europe, and of course, her enigmatic and much speculated 'friendship' with Emperor Franz Josef.

Katharina Schratt
For the record, I knew very little about Schratt going into this piece, my understanding of her being limited to three facts. One, she was an actress. Two, her affair with the Austrian Emperor lasted much of his marriage. And three, upon the death of their son and heir, Empress Elisabeth summoned the younger woman to the Hofburg to comfort her grieving husband. Needless to say Haslip's examination of Schratt's background, career, friends and relations brought Franz Josef's lover into focus, shedding light on both her public and private personas. 

Haslip's portrayal of the Austrian political arena is equally fascinating, the author having gone out of her way to describe the impact Franz Josef's responsibilities and obligations had on his relationship with Schratt. Being familiar with the history, I can't say whether Haslip's work is a good introductory piece, but that being said, it is noteworthy for its emphasis on lesser known players and their associated social network.

The glamour and intrigue of the court is contrasted in Haslip's representation of Vienna's theater culture. Through it, Haslip brings the city to life, painting a dynamic and alluring account of upper and middle class life at the heart of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. 

Bottom line folks, The Emperor and the Actress is a must read for anyone interested in the twilight of the Austrian Hapsburgs and the affair that came to define one of its longest reigning monarchs. 

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It was only after Elisabeth's death that Katharina Schratt was to realize how much she owed the Empress when, bereft of her protection, she found herself exposed to all the calumnies and petty humiliations of which a jealous court was capable.
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The Lost Queen by Norah Lofts

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Open Library Loan
Read: November 13, 2013

Princesses are born to be exiled. What is the alternative? Spinsterhood?' Thus the future of Caroline Matilda, youngest sister of George III, was settled - exile to a foreign country, and marriage to a nearly insane Crown Prince of Denmark. Entreatingly prompted by a sense of foreboding, she begged that one of her sisters be sent in her place. But Caroline was the healthiest, the strongest of the English princesses, and as well as being exiled, princesses were meant to be brood mares. Here is the life of Caroline Matilda set against the stark contrasts of 18th century Denmark; the cruelty, poverty and oppression of life under an absolute monarch sinking into madness; and the hatreds and court intrigues that swirled around the young English girl who was Queen of Denmark.

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I can't say Norah Lofts' The Lost Queen will go down as one of my all-time favorite reads, but I will say the book sparked a genuine interest in both Princess Caroline Matilda and the general history of Denmark. A literal blank slate, I knew nothing about this story prior to picking it up, but by the time I'd finished I was consumed with a desire to know more.

This being my first encounter with Lofts, I didn't know what to expect in terms of style and while I quite liked the language, the tone and flow of the narrative were difficult for me to appreciate. Slow and overly drawn-out, I frequently felt a desire to skim ahead. Inexperienced as I am, I can't say if this is characteristic of all Lofts' work, but it is certainly something I'll keep in mind should I attempt another of her titles. 

Lofts' intimate portrayal of Caroline Matilda was initially promising, but the character was ultimately one dimensional. Struensee was similarly disappointingly, wooden and entirely unmemorable. I did, however, like what Lofts did with Christian. I'll grant he is a little over the top, but all things considered, I think that actually worked in her favor as his deepening madness gave dimension to Caroline Matilda's relationship with Struensee.

The Lost Queen offers an interesting glimpse at an oft overlooked affair, but that being said, Lofts certainly played it safe. Like so many authors in this genre, she adds only modest embellishment to the historic record and while I appreciate her dedication to accuracy, I can't say the final product was particularly remarkable.

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She took the paper, read the horrible charge—criminal communication with Count Struensee—and recognized it as the polite, legal term for adultery. She heard again the old Queen Mother's rasping voice ordinary women commit adultery, Queens commit treason.
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Godiva by Nicole Galland

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Local Library
Read: January 23, 2014

Everyone knows the legend of Lady Godiva-the woman who (in)famously rode naked on horseback through Coventry to relieve her people from unfair taxation. But why would a lady of the court take it all off and risk everything, including husband, home, and well-being? In this richly imagined retelling of an oft-told ancient tale, Nicole Galland gives us Lady Godiva in all her, um, glory, as she and her best friend (the Abbess Egdiva) and husband (Leofric, Earl of Mercia) embark on an adventure filled with courtly intrigue, deceit, back-stabbing, and romance.

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Lady Godiva. Wife of Leofric, Earl of Mercia, the only woman to remain a major landholder in the years following the Conquest, made famous for the most erotic ride never made.

That's right folks, well-known as the legend is, most scholars agree the ride itself never happened. Why you ask? Well, the first verified record of the countess' exhibitionism was put down in the 13th century, which sounds great until you realize Godiva lived in the 11th century, a fact which makes Roger of Wendover's word for word account of the event inconsequential at best, but why let probable truth get in the way of a good story, eh? 

Being vaguely familiar with the legend I was interested to see how Nicole Galland would fictionalize it and while I wasn't disappointed, I wasn't what you'd call blown away. 

Admittedly, I have high expectations of fiction set in this era. The Norman Conquest is where I started my love affair with historic fiction and I've never quite gotten over it so it's really no surprise that the lack of atmospheric detail in Galland's work rubbed me the wrong way. Galland efforts aren't bad, but they don't jump from the page or give a real sense of life in this period. 

Galland's leading lady is similarly unconvincing. Under Galland's pen, Godiva, who is witnessed standing bare before Sweyn Godwinson by Edward the Confessor and her husband, understands and embraces her femininity, routinely using coquetry and flirtation to manipulate medieval politics. So why I ask, does Galland do a one-eighty in the second half of the novel, suddenly presenting a shy noblewoman who fears riding nude will endanger her immortal soul and the impact such action would have on what I imagine was an already tarnished reputation? Was she the promiscuous siren or the chaste wallflower and am I wrong for wanting continuity in her character either way? 

Galland attempts to explore several themes over the course of the novel, one of which is the relationship between Pagans and Christians in a world where faith is becoming an exceedingly tense political issue. Don't get me wrong, I love this idea and think Galland could have touched on some intensely interesting material if she'd really developed it, but I can't help feeling it overburdened a narrative that was already encumbered by excessive plot. 

By her own admission, Galland set out to write about the Abbess of Leominster and her love affair with the Earl of Wessex and personally, I would have appreciated that story much more than her foray into the Godiva legend. Why? Because, it's the truth. Regulated to supporting roles, Edgiva and Sweyn outshine Galland's headliner. They actually journey from one emotional plane to another in a compelling and thought-provoking series of events that challenge both their personal beliefs and those of the medieval world. Their story, cheapened though it is by the emphasis Galland placed on their contemporary, made this novel worth reading.

So, do I or do I not recommend Godiva? Well, that depends on what you're looking for. There are definitely more convincing and coherent pieces on the market, but the book is notable for its depiction of an all but forgotten footnote of English history. 

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“I do not fear humiliation. I am a woman of the Church. The Church preaches nothing but humiliation.”
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Thursday, January 23, 2014

For Better, For Worse by Elizabeth Jeffrey

Rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Local Library
Read: January 22, 2014

Newly widowed after a whirlwind wartime romance, Stella Nolan is preparing to meet her late husband’s family for the first time.  But not all her new in-laws are prepared to offer Stella a warm welcome. The war has left a bitter legacy and at Warren’s End Stella finds a family riven with tension, disappointments, shameful secrets and bitter quarrels.  In particular, Stella’s new sister-in-law Rosalie makes her hostility plain, and it’s not always easy for Stella to stand up to her overbearing mother-in-law. An unforeseen turn of events means that Stella ends up staying with the Nolan family a great deal longer than she had planned – and her extended visit is destined to bring joy, heartbreak, scandal – and unexpected love...

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I'm not entirely sure what I expected from Elizabeth Jeffrey's For Better, For Worse when I picked it up, but the end result was decidedly underwhelming. Not a horrendously bad read, simply a bland and gracelessly constructed one that will soon fade to a watery and monotonous blur. 

Stella's newfound romance hardly qualifies as such. Not to say a companionable friendship cannot be rewarding, but in the realm of fiction, the term is usually indicative of relationships with a bit more heat. Jeffrey's tasteful depiction of unspoken longing, garnished with demure moments of impetuous hand holding is sweet in its way, but I found the awkwardly sedate courtship thoroughly unconvincing.

To add insult to injury, this lack of tangible desire was further undermined by the distinct warmth Jeffrey constructed between Henry and Emma. Meant to augment the thematic significance of Stella's burgeoning affection, this poignantly emotional subplot upstaged the primary story in every possible sense.

More frustrating than Jeffrey's wobbly and blasé premise, however, is her tendency to repeat herself, an aspect best illustrated in her own words. 

Take for example the following statement:

‘I wouldn’t want you to think I’m ashamed to be pregnant,’ she assured the assistant in the dress shop as she paid for her purchases.
‘Indeed, no, Madam, but one prefers not to flaunt one’s condition, particularly where there are gentlemen,’ the assistant said primly.

Which was followed sometime later by: 

It’s what I wear to church every Sunday,’ Stella replied cheerfully. ‘In fact, it’s what I wear every time I go out. Not that I’m ashamed of my condition,’ she added quickly.
‘No, no, of course not,’ Doreen said hurriedly, adding in a low voice, ‘But one doesn’t wish to flaunt it, especially in front of the men.’ 

Or perhaps this little jewel: 

‘It’s a scandal the way these men who’ve fought for their country are treated. Standing on street corners because there’s no jobs, or going round selling matches to try and make a few coppers. It’s not right in this day and age'

Which was echoed here: 

He’s like hundreds of others who fought for their country and now get no help to get back on their feet. Worse than that, they’re virtual outcasts. Standing on street corners, propped on crutches trying to sell matches to get enough money to feed their wives and children. It’s an absolute disgrace!’

And here: 

‘I think the thing that affected me most was seeing ex-servicemen, proud men who’d had decent jobs before the war, standing on street corners trying to sell matches, or bootlaces, or packets of pins, some of them on crutches, some with only one arm or with a leg missing. Decent men should never be humiliated like that.’

Forgive me for asking, but where was Jeffrey's editor and why didn't they correct her rampant repetition before deeming her manuscript ready for print? 

Unremarkable in both content and structure, it's safe to say I was unimpressed with Jeffrey's work and would have a hard time recommending it to fellow readers. 

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"For better, for worse; in sickness and in health..." she murmured.
He snorted. "Ah, yes, that’s an easy enough promise to make in a fairy-tale wedding when you are both young and fit and a golden life lies ahead. Not quite so easy when reality kicks in."
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Manor of Secrets by Katherine Longshore

Rating: ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: Janurary 21, 2014 

The year is 1911. And at The Manor, nothing is as it seems... Lady Charlotte Edmonds: Beautiful, wealthy, and sheltered, Charlotte feels suffocated by the strictures of upper-crust society. She longs to see the world beyond The Manor, to seek out high adventure. And most of all, romance. Janie Seward: Fiery, hardworking, and clever, Janie knows she can be more than just a kitchen maid. But she isn't sure she possesses the courage -- or the means -- to break free and follow her passions. Both Charlotte and Janie are ready for change. As their paths overlap in the gilded hallways and dark corridors of The Manor, rules are broken and secrets are revealed. Secrets that will alter the course of their lives... forever.

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I'm not sure what amazes me more, that it's been two hundred and fifty one days since I last issued a one star rating or the fact that I can make that calculation. Either way it is a personal best, a record now broken by Katherine Longshore's Manor of Secrets. 

Had I been at all familiar with Longshore's work, I would have avoided this title altogether. Simply put, modernist historicals aren't my cuppa tea. I think context is an essential element of good historical fiction and to me that means a lot more than a few turn of the century gowns. It's about recreating a bygone age, ambiance authentic to the period, characters who embody a society with different rhythms, norms and expectations. Unfortunately for me, Longshore, like the creators of CW's Reign, isn't particularly interested in historical accuracy and while I recognize there is an audience for this type of literature, I stand firmly outside that demographic.

Were my criticism limited to the novel's tone, I might have gone two or even three stars on Longshore's work, but it extends far beyond that. Her characterizations are blatantly shallow, her themes are downright campy and I had some concern regarding the continuity of the story. When we first meet Lady Charlotte she isn't entirely sure of Jenny's name, or is it Jean, oh wait, that's right, it's Janie, but only a couple of days later her ladyship is emphatically declaring she loves Janie like a sister and has for some time. I'm sorry folks, but I don't buy it. 

The biggest objection, however, is that The Manor's so-called 'secrets' can be seen a mile and half off. From the moment Lady Beatrice arrives at The Manor, I knew exactly where this story was going and unlike some authors, who can bring an element of creativity to an otherwise predictable course of events, Longshore's story plods slowly to its obvious conclusion without fanfare or flourish. 

A tedious and rather forgettable piece, Manor of Secrets held no entertainment value for me whatsoever, but I can't say the time spent with it was entirely wasted. Negative though it was, my experience firmly destroyed any interest I had in reading Gilt, Tarnish or Brazen, and at the end of the day, removing another three titles from my TBR list isn't all that bad a consolation prize. 

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"Only when I came here did I know what it was like to be loved. No, to be cherished. To love without need or dependence, but with simple generosity. And I never want to lose that.”
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The Boleyn Bride by Brandy Purdy

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: January 15, 2014

From carefree young woman to disillusioned bride, the dazzling lady who would become mother and grandmother to two of history's most infamous queens, has a fascinating story all her own... At sixteen, Elizabeth Howard envisions a glorious life for herself as lady-in-waiting to the future queen, Catherine of Aragon. But when she is forced to marry Thomas Boleyn, a wealthy commoner, Elizabeth is left to stagnate in the countryside while her detested husband pursues his ambitions. There, she raises golden girl Mary, moody George, and ugly duckling Anne—while staving off boredom with a string of admirers. Until Henry VIII takes the throne.. When Thomas finally brings his highborn wife to London, Elizabeth indulges in lavish diversions and dalliances—and catches the lusty king's eye. But those who enjoy Henry's fickle favor must also guard against his wrath. For while her husband's machinations bring Elizabeth and her children to the pinnacle of power, the distance to the scaffold is but a short one—and the Boleyn family's fortune may be turning...

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Scarlett O'Hara!

Sorry folks, couldn't help it. I look at this cover and my mind jumps immediately to Vivian Leigh and Max Steiner's iconic accompaniment. Probably not what the jacket artist was going for, but that's neither here nor there. 

Far removed from the reconstruction of the American South, Brandy Purdy's The Boleyn Bride is actually a fictional chronicle of Elizabeth Howard - wife of the first Earl of Wiltshire, mother of the Marquess of Pembroke and grandmother of Queen Elizabeth I. Usually regulated to the sidelines, Purdy's latest novel turns the spotlight on Lady Boleyn, in an attempt to illuminate her oft forgotten role Henry VIII's "great matter".

Like most who read Tudor era fiction, I've seen this story a hundred times, but even so, I found the idea of seeing it from a nontraditional point of view intensely fascinating. Historically speaking, we know very little about Anne's mother and I'd hoped Purdy's depiction would offer perspective, both on her character and that of Henry's court. 

Unfortunately, Purdy's tendency to characterize Elizabeth as an outside observer left me rather underwhelmed. With rare exception she didn't feel like the lead character in this story, reading more like a Watson than a Holmes if you take my meaning. Don't get me wrong, I loved the prologue, epilogue and Elizabeth's romance with Remi Jouet, but the rest of the narrative felt much like any other novel of Anne's rise and fall. 

Distanced as she is from her more illustrious relations, Elizabeth proves a fickle narrator, but her inconstant nature make her all the more difficult to understand. At times it seems Elizabeth's sole motivation is to revenge herself on Thomas, but the Boleyn patriarch spends much of the narrative absent from both her side and conscious. She claims no satisfaction in motherhood, yet is emotionally devastated at the respective fates of her children. A walking contradiction, Purdy's characterization lacked the coherency I feel necessary in a leading lady. 

A light and flirtatious fiction, The Boleyn Bride has its moments and will certainly be appreciated by fans of Tudor era fiction, but despite the originality of Purdy's angle, I think the final product more fluff than substance. 

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Did someone spy me, a slender, black-haired woman in the shadows indulging in some quick and indiscreet intimacy with Mark Smeaton, and mistake me for Anne because the light was dim or because there was already malice in their mind? Did I unwittingly, with my own indiscretions, help condemn my daughter? I will never know.
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Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Interview with J. Boyce Gleason, author of Anvil of God

Author interviews are one of my favorite things to post which is why I am super excited to welcome author J. Boyce Gleason to Flashlight Commentary to discuss his debut release, Anvil of God. 

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Welcome to Flashlight Commentary. To start things off, please tell us a bit about Anvil of God.
It is a story about what happens to the family of Charles the Hammer when he dies.  The power behind the Merovingian kings (recently made famous by Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code) Charles wants to take the throne for his children.  Only one thing stands in his way.  He is dying.  He tries to bequeath the kingdom to his three sons and marry his daughter off to a Lombardy prince (to secure his southern border), but the only thing to reign after he dies is chaos.  Son battles son, Christianity battles paganism and his daughter must choose between love and her family’s ambition.

What inspired you to write this story?
I had studied Charlemagne in college and read the Song of Roland, an epic poem about one of Charlemagne’s greatest knights.  I remember thinking that it would the basis for a great novel. I always thought that if I were to write a novel, I would start there.  Years later when I finally decided to write it, I had to decide whether to follow the true history of Charlemagne and Roland or follow the legend. When I did the research, I fell in love with the history. 

What research went into Anvil of God and did you discover anything particularly surprising while investigating the background material for you book?
Researching that period of history is a bit of a challenge.  There are very few sources that bring all the pieces together into one place.  I had to research Bavarian history, Alleman (German) history, Thuringian (Flemish) history, French history, Italian history, Church history.  Then, after I had put the timeline together, I struggled with where to start.  I couldn’t seem to find a good place. I kept moving back in time to discover something compelling that would capture my (and the reader’s) interest. I found that the story kept getting more interesting, the further back in time I moved.  I ended up so far back in time, that the Anvil doesn’t even mention Charlemagne – it is the story of his parents and the conflicts that led to the family’s rise to power. 

What drew you to this particular period and why use it as the backdrop of your story?  
One story in particular captured my interest.  Charles the Hammer’s daughter fled his court to find love amongst his enemies.  It was, according to some historians, the biggest scandal of the Eighth century.  How could that have come to pass?  How did they meet?  When did they fall in love? How did she get away?  How did she cross the continent on her own?  She must have been quite a character.  When I read her story, I knew I had found a place to start.

Another question from my research begged an answer.  I knew that Christianity had become the dominant religion on the continent (the Merovingian kings converted two centuries earlier), but so much of the Church history of that time period had to do with converting the pagans (and/or suppressing the pagans).  How could that be?  St. Boniface, who is a main character in the story, made his mark doing missionary work in what is now Germany and Bavaria.  If Christianity was so dominant, why was all that missionary work necessary?

That led me to make the conflict of religions (and the power associated with it) a key factor of the story.  

The historic record for this period is sketchy at best. How did you approach composing a novel from a story with so many unknown elements? 
Actually, by writing the novel, I got to fill in the gaps.  I knew what happened, but I didn’t know why.  And you can’t understand why unless you figure out what motivates the people who shaped the history.  So, when you get down to it. Anvil is a story about a family. And by telling their story – what motivates them, and the choices they make – the history falls into place.  I didn’t try to write the history, I tried to tell the story of a family in crisis. Only this family’s choices affect an entire continent.

You probably have many, but is there one scene that you particularly enjoyed writing?
I enjoyed bringing to life a religion about which we know very little.  Having been raised in the Catholic Church, I was very familiar with the rites and prayers that surround that faith.  What rites and prayers would bring the pagan faith to life?  There is a scene about mid-way through the book with a sibyl that seemed to come out of nowhere for me.  It was so otherworldly, that I took great delight in writing it.     

What scene posed the greatest challenge for you as an author?
The sex scenes were difficult, at first.  So much has been written about sex – and so much of it poorly – that I struggled with finding the right tone.  I didn’t want to have the characters kiss and then fade to black.  I felt like it was dishonest for me as an author to shutter such a big window into their characters. 

But the language for sex has been so overdone, I agonized over the first scenes I wrote.  A writing professor eventually helped me out.  She said sex between two people is so intimate that people create their own language for it; they establish their own rituals. So, if you are writing about sex, it must be intimate to that character.  It must use language that that character would use.  Writing about sex should provide a unique insight into the character.  If you are writing to titillate you reader (or yourself for that matter) you are doing it for the wrong reasons.  After I understood that, it became easy.

Sometimes fiction takes on a life of its own and forces the author to make sacrifices for the sake of the overall story. Is there a character or concept you wish you could have spent more time with or expanded on? 
There were a lot of scenes that never made the final cut.  My problem, as an author, (or so my editors tell me) is that I like to tell ALL the story.  I take out the mystery.  You see the story from every perspective.  What they’ve taught me, is that sometimes it is better for the reader to wander around in the dark – just like the characters – to build some suspense for the resolution.  

Fortunately, I have some good editors.  Unfortunately, some of my favorite scenes had to be cut.

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 would love to meet Charles.  The man was a force of nature.  He literally conquered a continent and saved Christianity in Europe.  Bradius would be my second choice because his character is so complex. I’d love to see the world from his perspective – as painful as it is.   I’d also love to meet Sunni, but I doubt she would take time to bother with me.  She too was a force of nature and didn’t suffer fools lightly.  

What do you hope readers come away with after reading your work?
I hope they put down the book and say “Wow!  What a great story.”  Then, I hope they say, “I can’t wait for Book II.”

Finally, what is next for you? Any new projects waiting in the wings?
I’m about halfway through Anvil’s sequel “Wheel of the Fates” which picks up the story two months after Anvil’s conclusion.  I’m also working on a novel that is somewhat closer to our timeframe and perhaps more familiar to readers.  It’s called “Sin of Omission.” It’s the not-so-pretty story of Ben Franklin as a young man.

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About the Author: After a 25-year career in crisis management and public affairs, J. Boyce Gleason began writing historical fiction and is publishing his first novel Anivil of God, Book One of the Carolingian Chronicles. With an AB in history from Dartmouth College, Gleason brings a strong understanding of the past to his historical fiction. He is married, has three sons and lives in Virginia. For more information please visit www.jboycegleason.com.  You can also find him on Facebook and Twitter.

About the Book: It is 741. After subduing the pagan religions in the east, halting the march of Islam in the west, and conquering the continent for the Merovingian kings, mayor of the palace Charles the Hammer has one final ambition-the throne. Only one thing stands in his way-he is dying. Charles cobbles together a plan to divide the kingdom among his three sons, betroth his daughter to a Lombard prince to secure his southern border, and keep the Church unified behind them through his friend Bishop Boniface. Despite his best efforts, the only thing to reign after Charles’s death is chaos. His daughter has no intention of marrying anyone, let alone a Lombard prince. His two eldest sons question the rights of their younger pagan stepbrother, and the Church demands a steep price for their support. Son battles son, Christianity battles paganism, and Charles’s daughter flees his court for an enemy’s love. Based on a true story, Anvil of God is a whirlwind of love, honor, sacrifice, and betrayal that follows a bereaved family’s relentless quest for power and destiny.

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Check out all the stops on J Boyce Gleason's Anvil of God virtual Book Tour


Monday, January 20
Review at Flashlight Commentary
Tuesday, January 21
Interview at Flashlight Commentary
Monday, January 27
Review & Giveaway at Unabridged Chick
Friday, January 31
Review & Giveaway at The Novel Life
Saturday, February 1
Review at Closed the Cover
Monday, February 3
Review & Giveaway at Words & Peace
Thursday, February 6
Review at The Lit Bitch
Friday, February 7
Review at A Bookish Affair
Interview at The Novel Life
Wednesday, February 12
Review at Ageless Pages Reviews
Thursday, February 13
Review at Peppermint, Ph.D.
Friday, February 14
Giveaway at Passages to the Past

Monday, January 20, 2014

Anvil of God by J. Boyce Gleason

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Read: January 18, 2014

It is 741. After subduing the pagan religions in the east, halting the march of Islam in the west, and conquering the continent for the Merovingian kings, mayor of the palace Charles the Hammer has one final ambition-the throne. Only one thing stands in his way-he is dying. Charles cobbles together a plan to divide the kingdom among his three sons, betroth his daughter to a Lombard prince to secure his southern border, and keep the Church unified behind them through his friend Bishop Boniface. Despite his best efforts, the only thing to reign after Charles’s death is chaos. His daughter has no intention of marrying anyone, let alone a Lombard prince. His two eldest sons question the rights of their younger pagan stepbrother, and the Church demands a steep price for their support. Son battles son, Christianity battles paganism, and Charles’s daughter flees his court for an enemy’s love. Based on a true story, Anvil of God is a whirlwind of love, honor, sacrifice, and betrayal that follows a bereaved family’s relentless quest for power and destiny.

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Imagine you're under water; swimming low, along the bottom of a pool. You push off the floor, slowly rising till you break the surface and you take that first breath, filling your lungs to capacity. That's how I felt finishing Anvil of God... like I'd been released from another world. 

Honestly, this is the kind of book I dream about stumbling over. An engaging narrative, J Boyce Gleason's startling debut brought 741 brilliantly to life, capturing my imagination in its recreation of an all but forgotten empire, drawing me into a whirlwind of intrigue that, even after days after reading, refuses to let me go. 

For the record, my knowledge of this period was and to some extent remains overwhelmingly vague. I'm not exaggerating, before reading this piece I couldn't have differentiated Charles Martel from Charles Garnier which leads me to one of the more remarkable aspects of this book. 

Gleason has a deep comprehension of and obvious affinity for this particular era, but he doesn't take that familiarity for granted. Exercising great care, he carefully reconstructs the political playing field, fleshing it out with vividly atmospheric descriptions and imaginative details that make the narrative easy to follow, even for those encountering the material for the first time.  

Like most political epics, Anvil of God incorporates an extensive cast, but here again, Gleason exhibits a flawless mastery of his craft. Charles, Carloman, Pippin, Gripho, Boniface, Childbrand, Liutbrand, Odilo, Bradius, Sunni, Trudi, Greta, Bretrada... each has an individual personality, distinct emotional makeup and unique motivation. Independently dynamic, Gleason's characters are universally well-rounded, multidimensional and authentic.

Fast-paced and fluid, Gleason hits the ground running, but what amazed me is how deftly he was able to sustain that momentum for all four hundred plus pages of the book. I'd intended to read Anvil of God a few chapters at a time, but quickly realized doing so was a practical impossibility. A compulsively addicting fiction, I simply couldn't put it down.

Heartfelt romance, religious conflict, convoluted family dynamics, contrasting gender roles, political power struggles, violently gritty battlefield combat, Gleason fits it all in a single exciting volume. A spellbinding tale of valor, rivalry, and ambition, Anvil of God isn't to be missed. 

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"Power without purpose is self-serving. You are being chosen because you are men of power who have faith. You are being chosen," Boniface paued for effect, "because you serve God."
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Check out all the stops on J Boyce Gleason's Anvil of God virtual Book Tour


Monday, January 20
Review at Flashlight Commentary
Tuesday, January 21
Interview at Flashlight Commentary
Monday, January 27
Review & Giveaway at Unabridged Chick
Friday, January 31
Review & Giveaway at The Novel Life
Saturday, February 1
Review at Closed the Cover
Monday, February 3
Review & Giveaway at Words & Peace
Thursday, February 6
Review at The Lit Bitch
Friday, February 7
Review at A Bookish Affair
Interview at The Novel Life
Wednesday, February 12
Review at Ageless Pages Reviews
Thursday, February 13
Review at Peppermint, Ph.D.
Friday, February 14
Giveaway at Passages to the Past

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