Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Hangman in the Mirror by Kate Cayley

Rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley 
Read: Oct. 25, 2011 

A strong-willed 16-year-old girl fights for survival in 18th-century North America. Françoise Laurent has never had an easy life. The only surviving child of a destitute washerwoman and wayward soldier, she must rely only on herself to get by. When her parents die suddenly from the smallpox ravishing New France, Françoise sees it as a chance to escape the life she thought she was trapped in. Seizing her new found opportunity, Françoise takes a job as an aide to the wife of a wealthy fur trader. The poverty-ridden world she knew transforms into a strange new world full of privilege and fine things -- and of never having to beg for food. But Françoise's relationships with the other servants in Madame Pommereau's house are tenuous, and Madame Pommereau isn't an easy woman to work for. When Françoise is caught stealing a pair of her mistress's beautiful gloves, she faces a future even worse than she could have imagined: thrown in jail, she is sentenced to death by hanging. Once again, Françoise is left to her own devices to survive... Is she cunning enough to convince the prisoner in the cell beside her to become the hangman and marry her, which, by law, is the only thing that could save her life? Based on an actual story and filled with illuminating historical detail, The Hangman in the Mirror transports readers to the harsh landscape of a new land that is filled with even harsher class divisions and injustices.

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I lucked out with this one. True to form I saw a vaguely interesting cover and filed it away in the recesses of my mental archive as 'to-read' without reading the description. For once, my inattention worked in the author's favor for if I had read the blurb there would have been no reason to read the book. Ninety-five percent of the content is spelled out for the reader in that simple passage. Rather disappointing really.

In addition to giving away most of the plot, the blurb is one of the two places that state the book is based on true events. During the reading, I noted the unique story line but upon reading the blurb I realized how little of the plot actually came from the author's imagination. Again I found myself disappointed as the aspects I appreciated most came straight out of an obscure history book.

Françoise Laurent, the central character of The Hangman in the Mirror, lacks the charm and charisma of Moll Flanders and Becky Sharp but she is without doubt molded in their image. Morally ambiguous, she is a difficult personality to warm to and while I admired the direction Cayley took in crafting her identity, I was less than enthusiastic about the execution. Françoise is selfish and irritating but she is presented in such a way that I found myself flat out disinterested in her fate.

All things considered it would be all too easy to dismiss the book entirely but I prefer to give credit where it is due. I was displeased by Cayley's leading lady but I found Françoise's parents intriguing. Her father, a drinker and gambler of little skill, reveals himself as more complex than he appears. A hard man, it comes as a surprise that he, in his way actually cares for his sole surviving child. Françoise's mother, a laundress, is a classic example of what happens to those who lose all hope. Depressed by the harsh reality of her existence, she spends much of her time recounting the glories of France while attempting to drown herself in bottles of cheap booze. The depravity of their situation was well-illustrated and the multifaceted nature of these two characters gives me hope for Cayley's future publications.

Not my cup tea but then, not every book is. Recommended to fan's of Celia Rees' Sovay.

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They will hang me in the winter and I will hang dead in the snow. My face swollen, my spine broken, I will swing in the wind, in the wide open spaces of New France, and I will stand as a warning for all those who are born with nothing and wish for more.
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Monday, October 24, 2011

Jacob T. Marley by R. William Bennett

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ 
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: Oct. 24, 2011 

Marley was dead to begin with... These chillingly familiar words begin the classic Christmas tale of remorse and redemption in A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Now R. William Bennett rewinds the story and focuses the spotlight on Scrooge s miserly business partner, Jacob T. Marley, who was allowed to return as a ghost to warn Scrooge away from his ill-fated path. Why was Marley allowed to return? And why hadn t he been given the same chance as Ebenezer Scrooge? Or had he? Written with a voice reminiscent of Dickens, Jacob T. Marley is to A Christmas Carol as the world-famous Wicked is to The Wizard of Oz as this masterfully crafted story teaches of choices, consequences, and of the power of accountability. It is sure to become a Christmas favorite.

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If there is a truly tragic character in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, it is Jacob Marley. Ebenezer Scrooge gets a second chance at redemption but Marley is condemned to shoulder the weight of his transgressions for all eternity. Not a whole lot of justice in that is there? Now apparently, I’m not the only who feels this is a serious offense. Author R. William Bennett also concluded Dickens treated Marley unfairly and being a far more creative person than myself, he penned a positively delightful reprisal of the classic tale in an effort to address the maltreatment.

I can honestly say this is one of the best retellings I have come across. It is also one of only three that I rate higher than the work that inspired it. I’m not exactly a fan of A Christmas Carol but that made Bennett’s job all the more challenging. It is a testament to his skill I enjoyed Jacob T. Marley as much as I did.

In an interesting twist Bennett’s story exposes the extent of Jacob’s influence on Ebenezer. As a young man, Scrooge stands on the edge of a great precipice. He understands greed but it is not until he forms a partnership with Marley that Ebenezer crosses over and begins to transform into the greedy miser we all know so well. Only in death is Marley able to recognize his role in the molding of Scrooge’s character, whereupon he swears he will do all in his power to save his former associate from damnation.

Bennett not only respects and follows the familiar plot of the original; he also imitates the language of the holiday favorite. The extra effort goes a long way in recreating the feel of A Christmas Carol and helps the two stories blend seamlessly together.

A heartfelt recreation of the spirited favorite. Recommended to fans of This Dark Endeavor by Kenneth Oppel and The Looking Glass Wars by Frank Beddor.

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Marley was, of course, perturbed at this younger version of himself. And of the fact that Scrooge was exactly that younger version, Marley was admiring as well, the way an opponent who had just been checkmated might feel about the one who possessed the skill to do it to him.
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Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Last Letters of Thomas More by Thomas More, Introduction by Alvaro De Silva

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Personal Kindle Library
Read: Oct. 16, 2011 

Written from the Tower of London, these letters of Thomas More still speak powerfully today. The story of Thomas More, recently told in Peter Ackroyd's bestselling biography, is well known. In the spring of 1534, Thomas More was taken to the Tower of London, and after fourteen months in prison, the brilliant author of Utopia, friend of Erasmus and the humanities, and former Lord Chancellor of England was beheaded on Tower Hill. Yet More wrote some of his best works as a prisoner, including a set of historically and religiously important letters. The Last Letters of Thomas More is a superb new edition of More's prison correspondence, introduced and fully annotated for contemporary readers by Alvaro de Silva. Based on the critical edition of More's correspondence, this volume begins with letters penned by More to Cromwell and Henry VIII in February 1534 and ends with More's last words to his daughter, Margaret Roper, on the eve of his execution. More writes on a host of topics—prayer and penance, the right use of riches and power, the joys of heaven, psychological depression and suicidal temptations, the moral compromises of those who imprisoned him, and much more. This volume not only records the clarity of More's conscience and his readiness to die for the integrity of his religious faith, but it also throws light on the literary works that More wrote during the same period and on the religious and political conditions of Tudor England.

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As the title suggests, the book is the collected correspondence of Thomas More in the years prior to his execution. Poignant and thought provoking, I found the letters themselves fascinating even if they were challenging to read. Be warned, don't attempt this one if you struggle with Old English. In truth, Last Letters gave me more trouble than Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.

Without the introduction this would be a four star book but I took issue with Silva's commentary. I felt it was ridiculously lengthy and long winded but also found it detrimental to my enjoyment of the missives. His analytical dissection and exposition undermined the emotion and power of More's words. On top of that it was flat out boring to read. If I wanted a dissertation, I would have attended a lecture dude. Bad form friend, bad form.

Those who follow my reviews are aware I usually close by recommending additional titles but Last Letters isn't that kind of book. The nature of the it is such that I can't recommend it to anyone but die hard scholars of the humanist/statesman.

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I neither look for, nor long for, but am well content to go, if God call me hence forth tomorrow.
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Rose's Pledge by Sally Laity & Dianna Crawford

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: Oct. 20, 2011 

Step back into the early days of America, where Rose Harwood and her sisters become indentured to the highest bidders. When Rose’s new owner takes her deep into Indian Territory, a young frontiersman named Nate Kinyon tags along, hoping to save Rose from the machinations of a grubby trader and the appraising looks of young braves. How much is he willing to pay—in dollars and sense—to redeem the woman he loves? And how much is Rose willing to sacrifice for his protection?

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Rose's Pledge begins in Bath but quickly takes us across the sea and deep into the wilderness and the center of a political firestorm about to erupt into what we know as the French and Indian War. Bonded in service, Rose Harwood has little choice in traversing miles into the unknown and soon finds herself living among the natives in a world she never imagined. Over the course of the novel we witness both the evolution of her faith and initial outbreak of conflict in the Ohio River Valley.

First off, I have to say I jumped at the chance to review this book because a) I love history and b) Sally Laity and Dianna Crawford are the ladies who turned me on to inspired fiction. Many authors in this genre focus on their message but these two ladies have mastered the art of weaving a remarkable amount of history into their novels in addition to their spiritual message. There are strong religious themes in their work but I find the context of their stories on par with some of my favorite secular writers. Needless to say I was excited to find the two had reunited and were collaborating once again.

That being said, the words 'indentured servant' set off warning bells. There are a lot of directions to take the concept but all the same, Laity and Crawford tackled the subject pretty extensively in The Gathering Dawn. The bells grew significantly louder in a scene where Rose stood on the deck of the Seaford Lady as it arrived in port. The brief conversation she shared with Seaman Polk is more than a little reminiscent of the exchange between Susannah Harrington and Seaman Yancy Curtis on the deck of another ship upon their arrival in the colonies in the opening scene of the aforementioned novel. Much to my relief the story took a new direction and bells soon ceased. Unfortunately, the respite was short lived. Not only does Nate Kinyon have the same solution to Rose's situation as Daniel Haynes did for Susannah but he is as inarticulate as his counterpart when it comes to propositioning the lady in question. At this point it really didn't surprise me that the ladies themselves reacted in an identical manner and brushed off their suitors with the same level of indignation.

As a fan I found this recycling sharply disappointing but it begged the question as to whether or not I should downgrade my rating. Having just completed Long Trail Home, a book where recycled material played a key role in determining my overall opinion, I wondered if it was hypocritical to let this one slide. Ultimately I decided that as a reviewer I needed to mention the similarities but it would not factor in my rating of the novel. Before you start rolling your eyes be assured I struggled with this one. The simple explanation is that Long Trail Home paralleled other books in the Texas Trail series where Rose's Pledge resembles a completely different collection that was published nearly two decades ago. Additionally, Rose's Pledge covers a significantly wider historic scope, the details of which provide more than adequate compensation for us older readers.

On the subject of content I want to mention the sub-story of Hannah Wright. She appears in a single chapter but I found her scenes to some of the most powerful of the entire novel. I  wont lie, the imagery wont appeal to everyone, especially readers whose imaginations are as vivid as my own. Ever a fan of realistic depictions in literature, the graphic quality of these scenes appeals to my historian nature. White settlers and traders who pushed west of the established colonies traversed an invisible line, essentially their movements placed them in the middle of a war zone. Tragically , many of these individuals were caught in the crossfire as England, France and assorted Indian nations vied for control of the territory. Hannah represents these individuals and the description of her experience was appropriately intense.

All things considered, I enjoyed Rose's Pledge and while I look forward to the next installment of the Harwood House series, it is not without trepidation. Mariah's character draws comparison to Jane, the flighty marriage obsessed sister of Daniel Haynes and I don't know if I'll be as inclined to dismiss the rehashing a second time. Recommended to fans of The Midwife of Blue Ridge and the Freedom's Holy Light series.

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If Rose wanted him to be one of those Christians who shunned anyone who came from another country or had darker skin, she was barking up the wrong tree. As far as he was concerned his God didn't mind folks having a little fun now and then either.
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This Dark Endeavor: The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein by Kenneth Oppel

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Local Library 
Read: Oct. 16, 2011 

Victor and Konrad are the twin brothers Frankenstein. They are nearly inseparable. Growing up, their lives are filled with imaginary adventures...until the day their adventures turn all too real. They stumble upon The Dark Library, and secret books of alchemy and ancient remedies are discovered. Father forbids that they ever enter the room again, but this only piques Victor's curiosity more. When Konrad falls gravely ill, Victor is not satisfied with the various doctors his parents have called in to help. He is drawn back to The Dark Library where he uncovers an ancient formula for the Elixir of Life. With their friend Elizabeth, Henry and Victor immediately set out to find assistance from a man who was once known for his alchemical works to help create the formula. Determination and the unthinkable outcome of losing his brother spur Victor on in the quest for the three ingredients that will save Konrad's life. After scaling the highest trees in the Strumwald, diving into the deepest lake caves, and sacrificing one’s own body part, the three fearless friends risk their lives to save another.

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Before I begin I think I should confess something. I have never attempted to read Frankenstein. I've never even watched the films. Despite my abiding love of classic movie monsters I have never been remotely interested in the Modern Prometheus. As such this review is nearly free of comparison. It is impossible not to know bits and pieces of the story but for sake of argument, lets consider me a Shelley virgin.

Dr. Frankenstein is sort of a psychopath when you think about it. I mean, it takes a certain level of insanity to dig up, assemble and reanimate the dead. Disturbing though is sounds, I love the idea of exploring where this obsession comes from. The inclusion of mysteries chateau, a dark library and secret experimentation in the field of alchemy didn't hurt either. I understand from other reviews that Oppel took certain liberties with regards to the original but as I have no no particular regard for Shelley's work, I found the story enjoyable.

I have to assume there are references my limited knowledge base failed to recognize but I am familiar with Polidori. For those who don't know, John William Polidori was a contemporary of Shelley and author of The Vampyre. Considered the father of the romantic vampire genre his work predated Bram Stoker's masterpiece by nearly eighty years. Obviously outshone by his successor, Polidori doesn't enjoy the same notoriety and I appreciated the nod Oppel afforded him in This Dark Endeavor.

I rarely watch book trailers or author interviews but I made an exception with this book and watched both while polishing my review. First of all, I love that the book trailer features the same building I decided would represent chateau Frankenstein during my reading. I try not to indulge my ego but a small part of me likes that I was on the same page as the creator and marketers of the novel.  On the other hand, I was disappointed by the author interview. I enjoyed what Oppel had to say about the development of his idea but the admission that ARCs were used to sell the rights to the producers of Twilight irked me. I'm of the opinion that authors should care more for their readers and personal integrity than their pocketbooks and find Oppel's actions both distressing and unattractive.

My opinion of the author's actions aside, This Dark Endeavor is gratifyingly gothic tale of mystery and intrigue. Recommended to fans of The Raven Bride by Lenore Hart and Dracula In Love by Karen Essex.

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I dreamed of fame and wealth. But looking upon Elizabeth's face at that moment, I suddenly knew there was something I wanted even more.
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Long Trail Home by Vickie McDonough

Rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ 
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: Oct. 17, 2011 

The Long Trail Home is third in a six-book series about four generations of the Morgan family living, fighting, and thriving amidst a turbulent Texas history spanning from 1845 to 1896. Although a series, each book can be read on its own.When Riley Morgan returns home after fighting in the War Between the States, he is excited to see his parents and fiancee again. But he soon learns that his parents are dead and the woman he loved is married. He takes a job at the Wilcox School for the blind just to get by. He keeps his heart closed off but a pretty blind woman, Annie, threatens to steal it. When a greedy man tries to close the school, Riley and Annie band together to fight him and fall in love.But when Riley learns the truth about Annie, he packs and prepares to leave the school that has become his home and the woman who has thawed his heart. Will he change his mind and find the love he craves' Or will stubbornness deprive him from the woman he needs' Through painful circumstances, Riley and Annie learn that the loving and sovereign hand of God cannot be thwarted.

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Every series has one. The installment that just isn't on par with the rest. I want to be clear and say this is not a bad book. It is as well-written and endearing as the two preceding novels but the truth is I simply didn't enjoy this one as much as I did the others.

Where Lone Star Trail featured the wave of German immigration in the mid 1800s and Captive Trail focused on the plight of an Indian hostage, Long Trail Home centers on the Wilcox School for the Blind. I mean no offense to the visually impaired or McDonough when I say this but the history just wasn't as interesting to me. Unlike the other books, I've actually studied this topic and there wasn't a lot of new material for me to absorb. I believe McDonough's story will appeal to a lot of readers but personally, I am the wrong person to truly appreciate it.

I've established that I wasn't a fan of the subject matter but is that alone enough for a two star rating? Not in my world. The major factor was key elements that felt recycled from the other Texas Trails books. Annie's desire for a home and sense of belonging mirror Taabe/Billie's motivations in book two and Riley's situation with Miranda was all too reminiscent of Wande's experience with Konrad in book one. These books are marketed as a set so I have to assume that most readers will read the other installments. As book three of the collection, Long Trail Home should not feel like a rehash of its predecessors.

Obviously Long Trail Home is not one my favorite reads but the book has a few things going for it. I was pleased by the way McDonough approached Riley's struggles with PTSD and his determination with regards to aiding the women of the Wilcox school. Recommended to fans of the Spirit of Appalachia series by Gilbert Morris and Aaron McCarver.


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Having him around would make things so much more difficult for her. She'd have to stay on guard, always careful no to look into his eyes or walk too fast or do anything out of character for a blind person. Keeping an eye on the children would be a hundred times harder, as would gathering eggs and milking Bertha. Why had he stopped here? Why hadn't he kept riding or asked some rancher for work?
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Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Captive Trail by Susan Page Davis

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: Oct. 16, 2011 

Captive Trail is second in a six-book series about four generations of the Morgan family living, fighting, and thriving amidst a turbulent Texas history spanning from 1845 to 1896. Although a series, each book can be read singularly. Taabe Waipu has run away from her Comanche village and is fleeing south in Texas on a horse she stole from a dowry left outside her family’s teepee. The horse has an accident and she is left on foot, injured and exhausted. She staggers onto a road near Fort Chadbourne and collapses. On one of the first runs through Texas, Butterfield Overland Mail Company driver Ned Bright carries two Ursuline nuns returning to their mission station. They come across a woman who is nearly dead from exposure and dehydration and take her to the mission. With some detective work, Ned discovers Taabe Waipu is Billie Morgan. He plans to unite her with her family, but the Comanche have other ideas, and the two end up defending the mission station. Through Taabe (Billie) and Ned we learn the true meaning of healing and restoration amid seemingly powerless situations.

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I think I have mentioned I have a habit of picking up books because I’m attracted to the covers. This is yet another example. The contrasting blues and oranges are eye catching but there is something about the girl’s face, half hidden behind her hair that grabbed my attention.

Captive Trail offers a unique look at one of the many dangers faced by frontier families for it was common practice among the Texas tribes to take captives. Some were tortured and/or ransomed but many were assimilated into the tribes as slaves or family members. The experience is illustrated in the Texas Trail series through the story of Taabe aka Billie Morgan. Picking up eleven years after the events of Lone Star Trail, Taabe/Billie has lived more than half her life among the Comanche. Faced with an unwanted marriage, Taabe/Billie makes a desperate bid for freedom and the past she barely remembers.

I have to hand it to Davis. Like the previous novel, Lone Star Trail, the author had to struggle with a multilingual cast. Instead of flooding the text with bits of Comanche, Davis focused on the frustration the characters felt at their inability to communicate. As a reader, I really appreciated her handling of the issue. It was easy to read but at the same time, it offered a very personal perspective on the characters.

I was also impressed by Davis' handling of the more controversial events of Taabe/Billie's time with the Comanche. I don't want to give anything away so I wont go into detail but it is a very realistic possibility in the life a captive. A applaud the author's decision to include it. 

Captive Trail is a heartwarming edition to the Morgan Family saga and a charming follow-up to Lone Star Trail. Recommended to fans of the Spirit of Appalachia series by Gilbert Morris and Aaron McCarver.

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Once Taabe had drawn back the curtain over the doorway and peered in. Several candles flickered within. Unlike the other rooms, this one had a floor of flat stones. Sister Natalie was kneeling at a low bench, facing the wall farthest from the one slit of a window. On the wall was a figure like the one in Taabe's room, only larger. The dying man on the torture rack. Taabe shivered and dropped the edge of the curtain. Someday, when she knew enough words, she would ask Sister Adele about that man.
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Monday, October 17, 2011

Lone Star Trail by Darlene Franklin

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ 
Obtained from: Netgalley 
Read: Oct. 10, 2011

The six-book series about four generations of the Morgan family living, fighting, and thriving amidst a turbulent Texas history spanning from 1845 to 1896 begins with Lone Star Trail. Judson (Jud) Morgan's father died for Texas freedom during the war for independence. So when the Society for the Protection of German Immigrants in Texas (the Verein) attempts to colonize a New Germany in his country, he takes a stand against them. After Wande Fleischer's fiancé marries someone else, the young fraulein determines to make new life for herself in Texas. With the help of Jud's sister Marion, Wande learns English and becomes a trusted friend to the entire Morgan family. As much as Jud dislikes the German invasion, he can't help admiring Wande. She is sweet and cheerful as she serves the Lord and all those around her. Can the rancher put aside his prejudice to forge a new future? Through Jud and Wande, we learn the powerful lessons of forgiveness and reconciliation among a diverse community of believers.

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I confess I did not intend on reading this particular book. It was the second book of the Texas Trail series, Captive Trail, that caught my attention but alas, I am something of a compulsive reader. I find it incredibly difficult to start a series anywhere but the beginning. So, naturally, I set about locating a copy of Lone Star Trail for my literary enjoyment.

I love the amount of Texas history in this book.  I went to school in CA which afforded me a wonderful education with regards to Father Serra and the forty-niners but not a whole lot else. I’m not joking, we skipped Lewis and Clark and most of western expansion with two notable exceptions: Little Big Horn and the Alamo. Funny when you think about it as the United States lost both but I digress. My point here is that Franklin exposed me to a chapter of American history that I didn’t even know existed and, I hope I don’t sound arrogant when I say this, that is really saying something.

Franklin’s story revolves around Jud, an American horse rancher and Wande, a young immigrant. In the mid eighteen hundreds, thousands of Germans left Europe to establish themselves in rural Texas. Many of these individuals were unprepared for what awaited them across the sea and few were welcomed when they reached our shores. In my humble opinion, Franklin competently recreated the challenges faced by the new arrivals but it was her exceptional handling of the xenophobic sentiments of the Americans that made her work so fascinating.

Lone Star Trail is a wholesome and enjoyable story but I am not without criticism. Creating a believable cast is difficult but a multilingual collection of individuals presents a unique set challenges for both the author and the reader. The use of the German language is admirable but it is really difficult to read. I realize Franklin was trying to stress the communication barriers but at the end of the day readability is the bigger factor.

On a personal note, the references to the famous breeder were tediously repetitive. I grew up watching live action classics on vault Disney so maybe I take for granted that not everyone on the planet is aware that Justin Morgan Had a Horse but even so, this was leaning towards overkill. Again, just my personal opinion, but once was enough. 

All together, Lone Star Trail is a pleasant opener to the Morgan Family saga. Recommended to fans of the Spirit of Appalachia series by Gilbert Morris and Aaron McCarver.    

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Wande couldn't be as selfless as she claimed. No one was. No German was. He wouldn't tell her that the man who had jilted hoer so cruelly had asked him to give her a job. Or that her presence in his house disturbed his peace of mind.
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Wednesday, October 12, 2011

The Winter Palace: A Novel of Catherine the Great by Eva Stachniak

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: Oct. 12, 2011 

From award-winning author Eva Stachniak comes this passionate novel that illuminates, as only fiction can, the early life of one of history’s boldest women. The Winter Palace tells the epic story of Catherine the Great’s improbable rise to power—as seen through the ever-watchful eyes of an all-but-invisible servant close to the throne. Her name is Barbara—in Russian, Varvara. Nimble-witted and attentive, she’s allowed into the employ of the Empress Elizabeth, amid the glitter and cruelty of the world’s most eminent court. Under the tutelage of Count Bestuzhev, Chancellor and spymaster, Varvara will be educated in skills from lock picking to lovemaking, learning above all else to listen—and to wait for opportunity. That opportunity arrives in a slender young princess from Zerbst named Sophie, a playful teenager destined to become the indomitable Catherine the Great. Sophie’s destiny at court is to marry the Empress’s nephew, but she has other, loftier, more dangerous ambitions, and she proves to be more guileful than she first appears. What Sophie needs is an insider at court, a loyal pair of eyes and ears who knows the traps, the conspiracies, and the treacheries that surround her. Varvara will become Sophie’s confidante—and together the two young women will rise to the pinnacle of absolute power. Impeccably researched and magnificently written, The Winter Palace is an irresistible peek through the keyhole of one of history’s grandest tales. With dazzling details and intense drama, Eva Stachniak depicts Varvara’s secret alliance with Catherine as the princess grows into a legend—through an enforced marriage, illicit seductions, and, at last, the shocking coup to assume the throne of all of Russia.

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

Catherine the Great
Straight out of the gate I have to give Stachniak a lot of points. In a market flooded with Tudor lit, The Winter Palace stands apart. A lover of history and historic fiction, I was overjoyed to see an author branching out. Of course, I wont be happy until someone writes a solid fiction on Crown Prince Rudolf and Baroness Marie Vetsera but Catherine the Great is definitely a step in the right direction.

Overall, I enjoyed the book. There were times I was frustrated with the narrator, Varvara's long absence from court especially, but in general, I liked the female spy. Her ability to adapt to survive was intriguing but the nature of her work was down right fun to read. To Stachniak's credit, Varvara provides tidbits on several members of the court in addition to the young princess. I can't speak to the validity of these accounts but they were entertaining nonetheless.

For all that I appreciated Varvara, I can't say I enjoyed Catherine. She just didn't jump off the page for me. Catherine was a remarkable woman who would redefine her empire over the course of her thirty four year reign. Stachniak's characterization was too delicate to read as strong or astute as her historic counterpart. Likewise, Peter came off as childish and mildly unstable. Classically, Peter was a neurotic, mean and loathsome individual who was consumed by his obsession with the military and a steadfast hatred of his people. In comparison, Stachniak's interpretation was almost boring.

My commentary doesn't end with the issues of characterization. Lets examine the cover art. There is no shortage of artwork of Catherine the Great so I have to ask why the publisher chose to feature a partial portrait of one of her contemporaries for the cover image. While you can't see the head, the slim white hand caressing the golden robe actually belongs to the Empress Maria Theresa, mother of Marie Antoinette. 

Empress Maria Theresa
My second question regards the tagline 'A novel of Catherine the Great.' The book is not about the Empress so much as it is Varvara and her observations of life at court during the reigns of Elizabeth, Peter and Catherine. I feel something like 'A novel of Romanov Russia'  or 'A novel of the Romanov Court' would have been more appropriate when the content is considered. Additionally, I think the family name would generate equal if not more interest. I understand the concept of a head liner but thanks to the conspiracy theories surrounding the of death of Grand Duchess Anastasia Nikolaevna Romanov, the surname is far more recognizable than Catherine's name alone. 

On the subject of content I have to concede a certain resemblance to Philippa Gregory's The Queen's Fool. Hannah spies for Lord Robert and Queen Mary, Varvara for Chancellor Bestuzhuv and Empress Elizabeth. Both befriend the individual they are meant to be spying on, Elizabeth and Catherine respectively. Varvara is Roman Catholic in an Eastern Orthodox court and Hannah is Jewish in a... well it depends on the year but you see what I am getting at. Don't misunderstand, I appreciated both novels. I am just commenting that there are more than a few similarities between the two titles. Consider yourself warned.

My personal concerns aside, The Winter Palace is a clever introduction to the Romanov Court. Recommended to fans of Phillip Gregory and Juliet Grey

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Here in the Russian court, I could have warned the pretty newcomer from Zerbst, life is a game and every player is cheating. Everyone watches everyone else. There is no room in this palace where you can be truly alone. Behind these walls there are corridors, a whole maze of them. For those who know, secret passages allow access where none is suspected. Panels open, bookcases move, sounds travel through hidden pipes. Every word you say may be repeated ad used against you. Every friend you trust may betray you.
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Saturday, October 8, 2011

Avery's Crossroad by Deanna K. Klingel

Rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ 
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: Oct. 6, 2011 

The saga of Avery Junior Bennett and his hound dog Gunner continues into 1863 through 1865 in book two of this young adult Civil War series. Time and war age our young hero who finds himself at a moral, emotional, and political crossroad in his daily routine of doctoring during this cruel and punishing war. Serving the injured on both sides of the conflict, Avery is empathetic, yet stalwart. His feelings toward Claire, the nurse and friend always beside him, prove to be one of Avery's most puzzling challenges. Gunner, however, has his master all figured out. Mapping the war for his patient's on a piece of butcher paper, hung on the hospital wall, readers will follow the advance to the fall of Richmond along with Avery, mourn the loss of a president amid the jubilation of a Union restored, and shed tears of joy as the soldiers and their doctor find their way home in 1865.

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I am a huge fan of anything that makes the past interesting to young readers. As such, I really appreciate what Klingel was trying to do here. The Civil War was a defining moment in American history and an era that provides more than enough material for compelling fiction. Avery's Crossroad has a great premise and an exciting setting but I had a lot of trouble with the execution. Again, I am significantly older than the target audience, still, I think even adolescent readers will have trouble with this one.

Klingel has a wonderful grasp of the events but they hit reader in such quick succession that they begin to run together. The story needed more narrative between each juncture to flesh it out. Avery's story is nearly lost in a sea of factual information and period references. These aspects are the marks of great historic fiction but there needs to be a balance between story and setting. Avery's Crossroad has an abundance of one, a fact that makes the lack of the other all the more frustrating.

Maybe it is because I couldn't get into the writing. Maybe it is because I didn't read the preceding novel. Maybe it is because I don't belong to the target demographic. Whatever the reason, Avery's Crossroad didn't speak to me.       

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I thought the doctoring would be more about living. Now with the war, doctoring is mostly about dying. I really do get discouraged and depressed with all this... this dying.
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I'll Be Seeing You by Margaret Mayhew

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ 
Obtained from: Local Library 
Read: Sept. 17, 2011 

When Juliet Porter's mother dies, she leaves her a letter and an old Second World War photograph, which reveal a shattering secret. The father she had loved dearly until the end of his life had not been her father after all. Instead it seems that she is the daughter of an American bomber pilot who is completely unaware of her existence. Without knowing his name and with only the photograph to help her, Juliet sets out to find her real father. The task proves both daunting and difficult, but she feels compelled to go on. Her search takes her back to the old wartime Suffolk airfield where her mother fell in love with the American pilot in 1943, and, eventually, to California, where in the end she meets not only her past but also her future.

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Most history fanatics hold specific eras close to their hearts and I am no exception. WWII is one of the periods I can't get enough of. The title reference to Frank Sinatra didn't hurt either. That being the case, I anticipated liking this book a lot more than I did. Perhaps I expected too much going into it but I found Mayhew's work mediocre at best.

Juliet, a divorcee with a grown daughter of her own, is rattled by her mother's deathbed admission. Angry and confused she struggles to accept the truth of her paternity and understand the circumstance of her existence. Eventually, curiosity proves too much. Left with only a sketchbook, an unmarked photograph and fragmented memories of her mother's war experiences, Juliet sets out to discover what she can about the man who stole her mother's heart.

As the granddaughter of an American solider and an English woman, I feel like a hypocrite for saying I found this story overly romantic and unrealistic. Daisy's story was fine though there wasn't a lot of information regarding her position with WAAF and I never felt the intensity I know exists when your significant other is on the front lines. Howard's story was flat out laughable. The entirety of his twenty plus missions are wrapped into a mere thirty pages, the bulk of which focus on his concealed tenure in a French barn. Boring doesn't do it justice.

Juliet's story had a lot of potential. American soldiers fathered more than 37,000 children while overseas, many of whom were never acknowledged. Several organizations exist to aid these individuals but the vast majority have little luck locating their fathers. American privacy laws are difficult to work around but time is biggest obstacle. I think this is why I found Juliet's story so difficult to swallow. She experiences a few hiccups but she completes the puzzle in a matter of months. Mayhew wrapped everything up in a pretty little package that is too improbable to be realistic.

I'll Be Seeing you is a sugary novel with little to no action sequences and limited historic detail. Sadly, not my kind of book. Recommended to fans of light romance. 

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She was marble-constant, as Shakespeare also said. An illegitimate baby was a huge black mark in those days, remember. She could easily have had you adopted, but she didn't. She hung onto you and she married another man because she thought it was the best thing for you.
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Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Robber Bride by Jerrica Knight-Catania

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Kindle Loan
Read: Oct. 3, 2011 

When Victoria Barclay, privileged daughter of the Viscount Grantham, has a life-altering experience as a young girl, it sets the course for the rest of her life. She is determined to make a difference in the world, no matter the consequence, and becomes a highwayman—or woman, as it were—robbing the rich and donating her pilfered gains to the poor. Life-long friend and neighbor, Phineas Dartwell, Earl of Leyburn, suspects his dear friend is up to no good. She’s become evasive, and even worse, he cares that she’s become evasive. When she refuses to confide in him, claiming it’s for his own good, he severs the friendship out of wounded pride and a wounded heart. But when Victoria’s activities are brought to light in the eyes of the magistrate, Phineas must find a way to acquit his friend—and dare he hope, future wife?—of the charges.

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I love stories of women who defy traditional gender roles but novels of female highwaymen are a dime a dozen and a large portion of them aren't worth the time it takes to read the covers. After reading Celia Rees' Sovay, I've avoided these titles like the plague. Still, something about this novella said take a chance.

I was pleasantly surprised by The Robber Bride. The characters aren't as polished as I would like but they are charmingly appealing and witty. Almost from the 
first page, I found myself laughing out loud at the surprisingly anecdotes and dialogue.

Perhaps this is why I found the plot holes so disappointing. I'm still not clear on exactly how Lady Beecham came by her information nor do I quite understand how Finn was able to find so much support for Victoria when it was the very lack of compassion among her peers that led to her actions in the first place. I know it is a novella but that doesn't excuse loose ends. 

The Robber Bride is a sweet love story with just a hint of danger. Recommended light romance or beach read. 

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Sick was an interesting term to apply to Lady Hartswell. The woman was barely fifty years old, and the only sick thing about her was her mind. Never had Victoria met such a martyr. Her woe-is-me personality was pathetic. If she spent five minutes in this place, she'd realize what true suffering was.
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Sunday, October 2, 2011

Dracula My Love: The Secret Journals of Mina Harker by Syrie James

Rating: ★ ★ ★  ☆
Obtained from: Local Library 
Read: Sept. 23, 2011 

Many have read and loved Bram Stoker’s Dracula. But questions remain. What is the true story of Dracula’s origin? What if Mina could not bring herself to record the true story of their scandalous affair—until now? In Dracula, My Love: The Secret Journals of Mina Harker, Syrie James explores these questions and more. A vibrant dramatization, told from Mina’s point of view, brings to life the crucial parts of Stoker’s story while showcasing Mina’s sexual awakening and evolution as a woman, and revealing a secret that could destroy her life. Torn between two men—a loving husband and a dangerous lover—Mina struggles to hang on to the deep love she’s found within her marriage, even as she is inexorably drawn to Dracula himself—the vampire that everyone she knows is determined to destroy.

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Bram Stoker's masterpiece is one of my favorite classics. Lucy and Mina are the quintessential embodiment of Victorian chastity, purity and virtue. Stoker's Dracula is especially evil as he seeks to corrupt these women, seducing them and thus corrupting their innocence. They play an essential role in Stoker's work but for all that, they are victims of shallow characterization, necessary personalities in a fundamentally masculine novel.  

James' story beautifully remedies the situation. Dracula, My Love is a fleshed out re-telling of the story from Mina's perspective, something I don't imagine to have been easy as Stoker wrote little of her character in the original. According to Dr. Abraham Van Helsing, "[Mina] has a man's brain - a brain that a man should have were he much gifted - and a woman's heart." I was frustrated with the inconsistencies in Mina's character but for the most part, I was really impressed with what James was able to do.

Mina is deeply in love with Jonathan but like a moth drawn to the flame, she finds herself attracted to the darkly sensual Dracula. One represents a pure, innocent affection. The other, a dangerously passionate seductiveness. Mina finds herself caught between two very different men and questioning the very nature of love. Very similar to the situation Christine Daae faces with the Phantom and Raoul in Gaston Leroux's Phantom of the Opera, but intriguing just the same.

The plot revolves around this conflict of the heart which is why I was concerned by the lack of connection between Mina and Jonathan. James spent a lot of time revamping Dracula's character but I don't think she gave Jonathan the same amount of attention. Dracula is dark and interesting where Johnathan is conventional and drab. Mina's character grappled with her indecision but for the life of me I couldn't understand why. Johnathan's inattention and disregard for his wife turned me off almost from the beginning. James' story could have been much more convincing if she extended the same amount of consideration to both of her leading men.

Characterization issues aside, Dracula, My Love is a wonderfully engaging read that breathes new life into Stoker's well known tale. Recommended to fans of Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian.

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Oh! Why must I dream of him? What treacherous thing the subconscious mind was! Such dreams and imaginings, I believed, were as much a betrayal of my marriage vows as any physical act. And yet, I found myself in the dark for several shameful minutes savoring the imagined memory of his embrace...
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