Tuesday, August 23, 2011

#BookReview: India Black by Carol K. Carr

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When Sir Archibald Latham of the War Office dies from a heart attack while visiting her brothel, Madam India Black is unexpectedly thrust into a deadly game between Russian and British agents who are seeking the military secrets Latham carried.

Blackmailed into recovering the missing documents by the British spy known as French, India finds herself dodging Russian agents-and the attraction she starts to feel for the handsome conspirator.



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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆   |   Obtained from: Local Library    |   Read: Aug. 12, 2011
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I stumbled over India Black by accident. A librarian left it on a cart of returns while attending another patron. I’d heard good things about the title so I helped myself and hunkered down to read it as soon as I got home. I don’t know what I expected really, but for once I think the accolades deserved. Carr’s is a fabulous debut. A fun and fast-paced fiction beginning to end. 

I found India’s clever banter and internal dialogue wickedly entertaining. She’s a savvy business woman with genuine flare and should prove an entertaining heroine as the series moves on. Vincent also stands out in my mind. Not since Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist has a street urchin managed to work his way into my good graces and while I admit he’s a disgusting little blighter, but I found his personality charming and delightfully quirky. 

I felt the mystery itself simplistic, but well-executed just the same. There’s humor in it and the story kept my attention so I can’t really complain, but ideally I’d have liked to see a tad more complexity in the novel’s structure. 

I suppose my only real complaint is French. I wanted Tobias March, but there really is no comparison. French’s relationship with India is companionable, but lacked the chemistry one would expect between would-be lovers. He isn’t a bad character, but he is subtle and was easily overshadowed by his vivacious leading lady.

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There may be easier ways of earning a sou: I could allow some pedigreed ass to keep me in French perfume and silk gowns, tucked away in a cozy pied-à-terre in St. John's Wood, and driving a four-in-hand along Rotten Row. But I like my freedom. There is not enough money in this fair isle to entice me to flutter my lashes and drop my knickers for a pompous peer who smells of horses and hasn't got the brains God gave a goose. Owning Lotus House ensures that I am my own woman.
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Friday, August 19, 2011

#BookReview: Upstairs Girls: Prostitution In The American West by Michael Rutter

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Whether scorned as women of sin or politely referred to as upstairs girls, prostitutes played an interesting role in U.S. frontier society. An independent historian focuses on some of these colorful characters, their occupational hazards, and efforts made to reform them. Rutter includes a foreword by the head of American Studies at Brigham Young University, photos, a list of professional names (e.g., Squirrel Tooth Alice), and glossary of euphemisms for the world's oldest profession.




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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆   |   Obtained from: Local Library    |   Read: Aug. 19, 2011
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I got excited when I discovered Michael Rutter’s Upstairs Girls at my local library, but while I found it factually interesting, I can’t help feeling it failed to meet my expectations.

In terms of tone, Rutter failed these women like all the historians and newspaper men before him. He defines the daughters of joy by their role in the flesh trade, exploring their business dealings, their notable lovers and the memoirs of their clients rather than the women themselves. I can’t explain the oversight, but I was disappointed by the superficial portrait Rutter painted of the Wild West’s soiled doves.

Rutter touched on several business concerns, but omitted any information about children born in the red light district. Rutter mentions pregnancy alongside other occupational hazards, but ends the section before examining what happened to girls who carried children to term which is how I find myself here, still wondering what happened in such circumstance and why in heavens name didn’t the author think to include such a detail?

I found the text itself repetitive and disjointed, but also biased. Rutter places significantly more emphasis on the high-end girls than those who worked the streets on their own, but even then, he tends to highlight their clients above the women who serviced their interests and I personally found the imbalance deeply disappointing.

Not horrid, but not at all what I expected. Interesting, but I don’t think Upstairs Girls comes close to telling the entire story.

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Unless she was married, a woman could barely make ends meet working other kinds of jobs, none of which paid well and all of which were very labor intensive. In short, prostitution paid - especially if a woman worked in one of the high-class bordellos and not one of the dirty cribs or back alleyways.
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#BookReview: Waterfall by Lisa Tawn Bergren

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Most American teenagers want a vacation in Italy, but the Betarrini sisters have spent every summer of their lives among the romantic hills with their archaelogist parents. Stuck among the rubble of the medieval castles in rural Tuscany, on yet another hot, dusty archaeological site, Gabi and Lia are bored out of their minds...until Gabi places her hand atop a handprint in an ancient tomb and finds herself in fourteenth-century Italy. And worse yet, in the middle of a fierce battle between knights of two opposing forces. Suddenly Gabi's summer in Italy is much, much more interesting.




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Rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆   |   Obtained from: Local Library   |   Read: Aug. 19, 2011
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Fair warning folks, I’m in the minority on this one so try to keep an open mind. My feelings won’t be hurt if you disagree with me, but I’d hate to think of my word being gospel as most readers seem to really enjoy this series.

Bergren’s prose is alright, but I personally found it rather immature and while I’m not part of the target age group for this novel, I can’t help feeling my sixth grade-self would have groaned over the verbiage in this piece. "I'd never encountered such Italian hotness outside of Roma." Yeah, I definitely would have balked at that.

Continuity is another element I felt Bergren mishandled. Most of the novel takes place in 1332, a time that is utterly foreign to Gabi Betarrini. She doesn’t understand the culture, she doesn’t understand the protocol and she doesn’t understand the terminology. Bergren exploits this detail to add humor to the piece, but I couldn’t help noticing that many fourteenth century scenes felt inauthentic. Call me crazy, but I find it difficult to find Gabi’s ineptness amusing when her situation lacks validity.

Waterfall was recommended to me because of its historic content, but the only thing I really liked about it was Bergren’s treatment of faith. The religious aspects weren’t grating or preachy and I felt the incorporation of content appropriate to both the story and situational drama.

I’m not ruling out the rest of the series, but they definitely aren’t at the top of my TBR list.

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I finally meet a guy who's interesting and who seems to have a half-interest in me and it is TOTALLY the wrong time and place.
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Sunday, August 14, 2011

#BookReview: Mozart's Blood by Louise Marley

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As a young soprano in the eighteenth century, Octavia Voss was bitten by a vampire patroness during a sexual tryst with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and was imbued with the essence of his astonishing musical gifts. Since then, Octavia has enjoyed several careers as a celebrated soprano, taking on new identities to disguise her ageless beauty, and acquiring an assistant and companion in Ugo, a mysterious man who possesses a secret of his own. Together they travel the world for her performances at all the great opera houses. But during a run at La Scala, Octavia draws the attention of a secret vampire hunter who will do anything to make her talents his own.


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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆   |   Obtained from: Personal Kindle Library    |   Read: Aug. 14, 2011
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Beautiful isn’t a term I usually use to describe paranormal fiction, but I find it a fitting descriptor for Mozart’s Blood. The book suffers slight pacing issues and I had trouble with some of the Italian (apologies, but my brain only works in one dialect), but I found the content itself wonderfully imaginative and more than a little refreshing for the genre. 

The cover caught my eye, mainly because the model resembles Scarlett Johansson, but I actually really liked the premise Marley created for this piece. The paranormal aspects could have used some fine-tuning, but I loved getting into the musical aspects of Octavia’s multiple careers and felt Marley’s background brought something very special to the novel. 

I did have difficulties with certain aspects of the piece. I found the flashbacks distracting and I often had to pause to ensure my understanding of events. From a historical perspective, I wondered why Marley omitted Mozart’s children from the story and noted minor inaccuracies in common eighteenth century customs, but I’m not sure either would pose much of a problem for other readers. 

Bottom line, Mozart’s Blood is a solid piece. Different enough to standout in a market overflowing with vampiric lit, enjoyable and entertaining. 

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Octavia never tired of it. There had been failures, disappointments and betrayals and difficulties, but through it all, she sang. In those magical moments, when everything came together, the breath, the voice, the , and the theater, nothing else mattered.
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Saturday, August 13, 2011

#BookReview: The Vigilante's Bride by Yvonne Harris

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Robbing a stagecoach on Christmas Eve and kidnapping a woman passenger is the last thing Luke Sullivan expects to do. He just wanted to reclaim the money stolen from him, but ends up with a feisty copper-haired orphan thrown over his shoulder who was on her way to marry Sullivan's bitter enemy. 


Emily McCarthy is an orphan out of options. Forced to marry because she was too old for her orphanage, she doesn't take kindly to her "rescue."  Still she trusts God can turn any situation to good especially when it seems Sullivan may just be the man of her dreams. But Sullivan's crossed a dangerous man unused to losing and Emily may just be the prize he's unwilling to sacrifice.

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Rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆   |   Obtained from: Personal Kindle Library   |   Read: Aug. 10, 2011
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I really need to stop downloading kindle freebies. I’m sure there are good ones out there, but I never seem to snag them. Case and point, The Vigilante's Bride by Yvonne Harris, a cliché inspirational romance that left me both irritated and bored.

Orphans, saloon brawls, stage coach robberies, dinosaur eggs, it’s all here. Every trivial platitude of western literature, packed together in a single volume. Harris’ depictions of the Crow and their native land were equally disappointing. The author’s descriptions didn’t do justice to either and I felt the image she presented unrealistically thin and offensively stereotypical.

Speaking of imagery… “He had a nice square jaw and was certainly attractive for a gunfighter. Well, not really a gunfighter, but almost. And despite who he was and what he did, his chin was downright cute, with a Y-shaped cleft so deep it folded in on itself.” It folded in on itself? Really? What does that mean and why doesn’t it sound attractive?

Axel never developed into a despicable antagonist, I felt there was too much going on and I didn’t feel an ounce of chemistry between Luke and Emily. Bottom line, this is not a title that will remain in my library and not something I see myself recommending down the road.

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"What kind of man advertises in the newspaper for a wife, anyway? Is he crazy?"
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Wednesday, August 3, 2011

#BookReview: Beloved Pilgrim by Nan Hawthorne

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The doomed Crusade of 1101 is the backdrop for this story of a young noble woman who questions the values of her day and runs away to fight as a man. She learns along the way that honor and love are not always where you thought you would find them.





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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆   |   Obtained from: Kindle Loan   |   Read: July 22, 2011
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NOTE: It has come to my attention that Beloved Pilgrim has been republished by Ink Harmony Press. The descriptions for all editions of the novel have been updated and now affords more detailed insight to the content of the narrative. For personal reason relating to the author's response to my review, I will not be returning to this book, but I encourage readers to understand the issues I noted may not apply to more recent editions of the novel.

I am not ashamed to admit I was caught off-guard by the content of this piece. I originally thought the jacket description offered sufficient information on the title's subject matter, but quickly discovered my assumption false. I'd expected a story that explored gender roles and interracial relationships in the Middle Ages, but was surprised that the novel also focused on same-sex relationships. Personally, I couldn't care less one way or the other, medieval fiction is medieval fiction, but there are readers with different opinions and I worry the ambiguity in the description and cover art might backfire unfairly on both author and manuscript. 

That said, I liked Hawthorne's enthusiasm and thought the idea to set such a story in a particularly dark and dangerous period rather interesting. There are instances where I felt the attitudes and thinking too modern for the era, but that's just me. This was an age of extremes that didn't offer much in the way of acceptance and while I appreciate where Hawthorne took the story, I often felt the author allowed theme to outweigh the realities of medieval life. 

I thought the action sequences, battles and the characters very well-drawn and loved scenes where Elisabeth was faced with real issues like having to function in a suit of armor. The writing wasn't as fluid as I'd have liked, but again that's just me. I'm not sure it would bother anyone else, but there is it just the same. 

Not what I expected, but a solid, creative and thought-provoking piece nonetheless.

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Elisabeth cursed like one of the grooms as she tugged the hem of her skirt from the bramble where it was caught."Damn, if I could just wear britches like Elias and Albrecht I shouldn't have to deal with skirts!"
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Tuesday, August 2, 2011

#BookReview: War Brides by Helen Bryan

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With war threatening to spread from Europe to England, the sleepy village of Crowmarsh Priors settles into a new sort of normal: Evacuees from London are billeted in local homes. Nightly air raids become grimly mundane. The tightening vice of rationing curtails every comfort. Men leave to fight and die. And five women forge an unlikely bond of friendship that will change their lives forever. 

Alice Osbourne, the stolid daughter of the late vicar, is reeling from the news that Richard Fairfax broke their engagement to marry Evangeline Fontaine, an American girl from the Deep South. Evangeline's arrival causes a stir in the village, but not the chaos that would ensue if they knew her motives for being there. Scrappy Elsie Pigeon is among the poor of London who see the evacuations as a chance to escape a life of destitution. Another new arrival is Tanni Zayman, a young Jewish girl who fled the horrors of Europe and now waits with her newborn son, certain that the rest of her family is safe and bound to show up any day. And then there's Frances Falconleigh, a madcap, fearless debutante whose father is determined to keep her in the countryside and out of the papers. 

As the war and its relentless hardships intensify around them, the same struggles that threaten to rip apart their lives also bring the five closer together. They draw strength from one another to defeat formidable enemies - hunger, falling bombs, the looming threat of a Nazi invasion, and a traitor in their midst - and find remarkable strength within themselves to help their friends. Theirs is a war-forged loyalty that will outlast the fiercest battle and endure years and distance. 

When four of the women return to Crowmarsh Priors for a VE Day celebration fifty years later, television cameras focus on the heartwarming story of these old women as war brides of a bygone age, but miss the more newsworthy angle. The women's mission is not to commemorate or remember - they've returned to settle a score and avenge one of their own.
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Rating: ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆   |   Obtained from: Personal Kindle Library   |   Read: July 30, 2011
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NOTE: It has come to my attention that War Brides has been re-edited since the release of this review. I will not be returning to the piece, but encourage readers to understand the issues I noted may not apply to more recent editions of the novel.

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

Trifecta! Punctuation, spelling and formatting mistakes all in one publication! I’m sorry folks, but I can’t ignore it. Throughout the text I found double periods and significant blunders in both spelling and grammar. Some chapter headings were placed immediately after the last sentence of the preceding chapter and others began a full two pages later. This was not a finished product and I can’t ignore how much these errors impacted my experience with War Brides.

Continuity, or the lack there of, was another issue I noted in Helen Bryan’s work. “Evangeline Fairfax’s coming-out ball was the last party before Lent and everyone knew was going to be splendid.” Evangeline’s last name is Fontaine. I suppose you could make a stretch by saying she eventually marries Richard Fairfax, but as the story is written in the present tense I can’t give much weight to the argument. This book has a very large cast and I’m sorry, but I don’t see how the audience can be expected to keep everyone straight with this kind of execution. 

Plot development in the novel was almost nonexistent. Tanni discovers she is pregnant, has a normal pregnancy and holds her son in less than two pages. As a mother, that was difficult to wrap my head around and made it incredibly difficult feel any sort of empathy for her situation. Evangeline drugging Richard was similarly simplistic. One minute she is planning her elopement from New Orleans and the next Richard’s mother is announcing their marriage and arrival in England. What happened to his being in love with and engaged to Alice? Was the drug supposed to be some sort of voodoo meant to make him forget all sense of duty and obligation? I don’t understand.

To be fair, most of the dialogue is fine and I am all for colloquialism in literature, but there’s a line and I feel Bryan crossed it. “’Well, I can’t ‘ardly bear to think of it ‘appenin’ all over again,’ I says to ‘er. ‘It can’t,’ I says to ‘er. ‘But it will,’ she says, certain as anyfink. ‘I fink you can count on it, Mrs Pigeon.’” As a reader, I felt such passages awkward and disruptive to the story at hand. I found them annoying and I’m not sure that’s the impression Bryan was hoping to achieve. 

In terms of content, War Brides should have been a home run, but the execution was so unpolished that I found it impossible to appreciate the narrative beneath.

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Here's to you Laurent, Richard and you Frances, fifty years and they say that the sorry old war is done and over with. Folks who weren't there say that...
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#BookReview: Maids of Misfortune by M. Louisa Locke

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It’s the summer of 1879, and Annie Fuller, a young San Francisco widow, is in trouble. Annie’s husband squandered her fortune before committing suicide five years earlier, and one of his creditors is now threatening to take the boardinghouse she owns to pay off a debt. Annie Fuller also has a secret. She supplements her income by giving domestic and business advice as Madam Sibyl, one of San Francisco’s most exclusive clairvoyants, and one of Madam Sibyl’s clients, Matthew Voss, has died. The police believe it is suicide brought upon by bankruptcy, but Annie believes Voss has been murdered and that his assets have been stolen. Nate Dawson has a problem. As the Voss family lawyer, he would love to believe that Matthew Voss didn’t leave his grieving family destitute. But that would mean working with Annie Fuller, a woman who alternatively attracts and infuriates him as she shatters every notion he ever had of proper ladylike behavior. Sparks fly as Anne and Nate pursue the truth about the murder of Matthew Voss in this light-hearted historical mystery set in the foggy gas-lit world of Victorian San Francisco.
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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆   |   Obtained from: Kindle Loan   |   Read: July 21, 2011
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I'll be the first to admit I wasn’t expecting Maids of Misfortune to keep my attention past bed time. I'd already read Dandy Detects and though I found it enjoyable, the short story wasn’t exactly a page turner so I was unprepared when Locke's full-length mystery proved difficult to put aside. 

The first installment of the Victorian San Francisco Mystery series introduces readers Annie Fuller, an enterprising boarding house matron living in San Francisco during the late 1800s. Annie is a rare character. She is modern in many aspects, but not overly so and appropriate to the time and place of the novel. Too often authors forget context and I appreciated Locke's attention to detail and obvious admiration for the period in which the story takes place. 


I also liked that I didn’t call the ending. Not to toot my own horn, but I often anticipate twists and turns before they unfold and was pleasantly surprised that I was unable to do so here. Lighthearted though it was, I found Locke's enigmatic presentation quite satisfying and can't wait to see where she takes Annie and Nate next. 


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She may have been only twenty-six, a widow without any immediate family to protect her, but she refused to let Driscoll, or any other man for that matter, rip her home and independence away from her a second time.
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Monday, August 1, 2011

#BookReview: Madame Tussaud by Michelle Moran

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The world knows Madame Tussaud as a wax artist extraordinaire... but who was this woman who became one of the most famous sculptresses of all time? In these pages, her tumultuous and amazing story comes to life as only Michelle Moran can tell it. The year is 1788, and a revolution is about to begin.

Smart and ambitious, Marie Tussaud has learned the secrets of wax sculpting by working alongside her uncle in their celebrated wax museum, the Salon de Cire. From her popular model of the American ambassador, Thomas Jefferson, to her tableau of the royal family at dinner, Marie's museum provides Parisians with the very latest news on fashion, gossip, and even politics. Her customers hail from every walk of life, yet her greatest dream is to attract the attention of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI; their stamp of approval on her work could catapult her and her museum to the fame and riches she desires. After months of anticipation, Marie learns that the royal family is willing to come and see their likenesses. When they finally arrive, the king's sister is so impressed that she requests Marie's presence at Versailles as a royal tutor in wax sculpting. It is a request Marie knows she cannot refuse - even if it means time away from her beloved Salon and her increasingly dear friend, Henri Charles.

As Marie gets to know her pupil, Princesse Élisabeth, she also becomes acquainted with the king and queen, who introduce her to the glamorous life at court. From lavish parties with more delicacies than she's ever seen to rooms filled with candles lit only once before being discarded, Marie steps into a world entirely different from her home on the Boulevard du Temple, where people are selling their teeth in order to put food on the table.

Meanwhile, many resent the vast separation between rich and poor. In salons and cafés across Paris, people like Camille Desmoulins, Jean-Paul Marat, and Maximilien Robespierre are lashing out against the monarchy. Soon, there's whispered talk of revolution... Will Marie be able to hold on to both the love of her life and her friendship with the royal family as France approaches civil war? And more important, will she be able to fulfill the demands of powerful revolutionaries who ask that she make the death masks of beheaded aristocrats, some of whom she knows?

Spanning five years, from the budding revolution to the Reign of Terror, Madame Tussaud brings us into the world of an incredible heroine whose talent for wax modeling saved her life and preserved the faces of a vanished kingdom
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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆   |   Obtained from: Local Library   |   Read: Feb. 26, 2011
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I’m willing to bet there are readers who disagree with me, but I think Michelle Moran a fabulous writer. Her style has a way of drawing you in and though I’ve no idea how, she manages to relate a lot of history without sounding like a college professor. Honestly folks, I had a lot of trouble putting Madame Tussaud down and suspect I’d have been glued to the couch my entire reading if not for the demands of a one year old. 

My obvious appreciation aside, I will admit there are elements I found slightly disappointing. To begin with, Mademoiselle Grosholtz would be a far more accurate title for this piece. The story begins in 1788 and takes readers through 1795, the year Marie married Tussaud who really isn’t much of a character come to think of it. The remaining 55 years of Marie’s life are noted, but feel much like an afterthought which was frustrating as I find her life in England very interesting even compared to her time in France. The book is a wonderful story of the French Revolution, I just don’t think it a particularly good novel of Marie and her life’s work. 

Another thing that bothered me was how little we see Marie indulging her artistic talents. A Royal Likeness also omitted the details, but I desperately wanted a scene in which Marie is seen molding the wax, painting the figures, or creating a tableaux. I wanted to witness her passion for crafting and feel cheated that Moran never took readers into Marie’s workroom. There is plenty of detail regarding the business itself, the financial aspects and daily operation of ticket sales and managing customers, but I think it might have been nice to explore the effort that went into manufacturing a figure and the pride of the artist when her work was finally set of display. 

I was also confused by Marie’s sympathies for the royal family. I understand her personal relationship with them, but the fact that she felt more for them than her neighbors and peers left me scratching my head. Shouldn’t those relationships have caused intense conflict? People she loves were in danger on both sides, but only one came through the narrative. On the same note I would think the disparity between social classes would have made Marie more sympathetic to men like Marat and Robespierre, at least until their ideas took on a life of their own and led Paris into utter chaos. After all, Marie was a common woman and might have seen merit in some of their ideas despite the radical nature of their tactics. 

I've listed many complaints, but please know they are minor at best. Moran’s work is excellently atmospheric and filled with memorable characters and genuine tension. There are things I felt missing from the novel, but Madame Tussaud is still fantastic a fiction and one I’d highly recommend to anyone interested in the French Revolution. 

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Sometimes, it is not the kings and queen who make for the most fascinating history but the shadowy souls who happen to be in the right place at the right time.
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