Sunday, November 27, 2011

Island of Wings by Karin Altenberg

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ 
Obtained from: Netgalley 
Read: Oct. 9, 2011 

A dazzling debut novel of love and loss, faith and atonement, on an untamed nineteenth-century Scottish island. Exquisitely written and profoundly moving, Island of Wings is a richly imagined novel about two people struggling to keep their love, and their family, alive in a place of extreme hardship and unearthly beauty. Everything lies ahead for Lizzie and Neil McKenzie when they arrive at the St. Kilda islands in July of 1830. Neil is to become the minister to the small community of islanders, and Lizzie—bright, beautiful, and devoted—is pregnant with their first child. As the two adjust to life at the edge of civilization, where the natives live in squalor and babies perish mysteriously, their marriage—and their sanity—are soon threatened.

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St. Kilda is an archipelago some 40 miles from North Uist on the western edge of Scotland. Geographically remote, isolation emerged as the predominant theme of life in this sequestered corner of the world. Nowhere is this concept better illustrated than in Altenberg's portrayal of Lizzie McKenzie. Newly married and pregnant, Lizzie views St. Kilda as an adventure. Soon after her arrival, her fantasies are shattered by tragedy and she is forced to acknowledge the true nature of her situation. Removed from the natives by a difference of both culture and language, Lizzie must push the limits of her own character or perish.

Historically, Altenberg did her homework in regards to both the islands and their inhabitants. The descriptions of the native culture were extraordinarily detailed and skillfully folded into the plot. The additional exploration of the nature of faith, ethics and the relationship between a man and wife added an appealing emotional quality to the novel. Thoroughly impressive as Island of Wings is Altenberg's debut novel.

The flowery prose is somewhat overwhelming but underneath there exists a captivating story of hope and commitment. There is no denying that Island of Wings is a beautiful interpretation of the harsh realities of life on St. Kilda but is also a insightful tale of human nature and our ability to overcome. Powerfully moving if one can navigate the composition.

Recommended to fans of Confessions of a Pagan Nun: A Novel by Kate Horsley and the Women of Genesis series by Orson Scott Card.

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Time was no longer linear in this place where no one could remember who built the houses, cleits and dykes and where the seasons were marked by the comings and goings of the migrating birds. The ancestors were near the living, and the world of men was closely linked with the rock, the sea and the birds with which they shared these elements. Time and space seemed suspended, so that here and now was always and everywhere.
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Thursday, November 24, 2011

A Duty to the Dead by Charles Todd

Rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ 
Obtained from: Local Library 
Read: Nov. 9, 2011 

From the brilliantly imaginative New York Times bestselling author Charles Todd comes an unforgettable new character in an exceptional new series. England, 1916. Independent-minded Bess Crawford's upbringing is far different from that of the usual upper-middle-class British gentlewoman. Growing up in India, she learned the importance of responsibility, honor, and duty from her officer father. At the outbreak of World War I, she followed in his footsteps and volunteered for the nursing corps, serving from the battlefields of France to the doomed hospital ship Britannic. On one voyage, Bess grows fond of the young, gravely wounded Lieutenant Arthur Graham. Something rests heavily on his conscience, and to give him a little peace as he dies, she promises to deliver a message to his brother. It is some months before she can carry out this duty, and when she's next in England, she herself is recovering from a wound. When Bess arrives at the Graham house in Kent, Jonathan Graham listens to his brother's last wishes with surprising indifference. Neither his mother nor his brother Timothy seems to think it has any significance. Unsettled by this, Bess is about to take her leave when sudden tragedy envelops her. She quickly discovers that fulfilling this duty to the dead has thrust her into a maelstrom of intrigue and murder that will endanger her own life and test her courage as not even war has.

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I don't have much of a background with regards to World War I lit. All Quiet on the Western Front all but killed my interest in the genre. For years I wouldn’t touch anything on the subject. I changed my tune after reading Barbed Wire and Roses. The book left such an impression on me that I started looking for other books set during the Great War. One of the first titles that caught my eye was a murder mystery involving a young war era nurse. I all but ran to the library to find a copy of Duty to the Dead.

Now, I rarely have this problem but every time I opened this book I found myself fighting to remain conscious. The plot was decent but the writing was bland, the characters forgettable and the murder mystery decidedly mediocre. I did enjoy the complicated web of loyalty between the various members of the Graham family but the lifeless story telling killed the book as a whole.

Looking back, the only really notable aspect of Duty to the Dead was the sinking of the Britannic but even here I felt short changed. While technically well-illustrated I found myself caring more about the historical event than its place in Todd’s story. I liked it but it has little relevance to Bess Crawford's experience with the Grahams. I find it sad that the most interesting scenes in the book don't really fit the rest of the novel.

This was my first time reading Charles Todd and I can’t say I am that impressed. I’m not writing off other titles by this mother/son writing team but I’m in no hurry to sample their other work.

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It was impossible not to like him, and liking him, it was impossible not to feel something for him as he fought a gallant but losing battle with death. I wasn't foolish enough to believe I was in love, but I was honest enough to admit I cared more than I should. I'd watched so many wounded die. Perhaps that was why I desperately wanted to see this one and snatch a victory out of defeat and restore my faith in the goodness of God. But it was not to be.
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Love Finds You in Victory Heights, Washington by Tricia Goyer & Ocieanna Fleiss

Rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ 
Obtained from: Personal Kindle Library
Read: Nov. 10, 2011 

The Second World War has stolen Rosalie's fiance from her. But rather than wallow, Rosalie throws herself into her work at the Boeing plant in Victory Heights, shooting rivets into the B-17 bombers that will destroy the enemy. A local reporter dubs her Seattle's Own Rosie the Riveter, and her story lends inspiration to women across the country. While Rosalie's strong arms can bear the weight of this new responsibility, her heart cannot handle the intense feelings that begin to surface for Kenny, the handsome reporter. Fear of a second heartbreak is a powerful opponent - but will it claim victory over love?

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I’ve steered clear of the Love Finds You series for a long time. I can’t put my finger on what it is but something about the books told me to look elsewhere in my literary wanderings. Still, I am a WWII nut and the subject matter of this particular title proved a real temptation. My resistance crumbled entirely when Love Finds You in Victory Heights, Washington turned up as a kindle freebie. No offense to the authors or fans but next time around I hope I listen to my gut. I prefer grittier storytelling and this was just too sugar coated for my taste.

I had a real problem with Rosalie’s lack of emotion in the face of loss. Her grief over her fiancé’s death should have been palpable but for me it read only lukewarm. Additionally, I couldn’t give weight to Rosalie’s ‘fear of a second heartbreak’ when her first was never properly developed. What grief she experienced seemed to stem more from her own inadequacy and guilt than any real affection. Her belief that marrying Vic would have been a mistake further undermined the authenticity of her emotions and went a long way in minimizing the internal conflict touted so prominently in the book description.

Emotional depth wasn’t the only thing I noted as lacking. I also felt a distinct absence of creativity throughout the book but nowhere is it more obvious than with our leading lady. Christening the rivet wielding heroine Rosalie was as uninspired as Kenny’s exploitation of the Rosie the Riveter comparison in the newspaper. Thank you Captain Obvious. Is it really any wonder his boss wouldn’t give him a hard story? His breakthrough piece was half written in the American psyche before he even touched pen to paper. It might work for other readers but this was just too cutesy for me to get into.

One thing I did appreciate was the attention to detail. The story and writing style weren’t for me but there was an obvious amount of effort put into recreating war era America. The lingo, the pastimes, the prejudice experienced by women in the work place, all of it speaks volumes about the ladies who put Victory Heights together. The end result didn’t hold much water with me but even so, I applaud the effort that went into writing it.

Before descending my soapbox I want to note an observation not of the book itself but of some the other reviews. Many of those who issued lower ratings cite surprise over religious themes as the cause. With all due respect I can’t give these reviewers a lot of credit. I realize the blurb doesn’t hint at the inspirational content but that is the case with a lot of religious fiction. If you don’t appreciate the subject matter, take time to learn how to recognize it so you know what to avoid. That sounds harsher than I mean it to but there are plenty of indicators if you know where to look.

Both Amazon and Goodreads classify the novel as religion based entertainment. Summerside Press bills itself as “an inspirational publisher offering fresh, irresistible Christian fiction” on their website and in the publication information of the book itself. Tricia Goyer’s website and author bio states she was named ‘Writer of the Year’ at the Mount Hermon Christian Writer’s Conference in 2003. According to her author bio, Ocieanna Fleiss contributes to a bi-monthly column in the Northwest Christian Author. The Love Finds You series “features real towns and combines travel, romance, and faith in one irresistible package” per the series information in the back of the book. The copyright segment clearly states that “unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, King James Version.” The acknowledgement section even provides a few clues as it thanks the Emmanuel Orthodox Presbyterian Church and Jesus Christ before concluding with “Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but unto they name give glory. Psalm 115:1.”

Before you ask the answer is no, I do not seek out Christian fiction. It is my affinity for historic fiction that leads me to many of these titles. I’m not particularly religious but the subject doesn’t bother me. All the same, I like to be aware that I am venturing into the realm of faith based lit. It might sound complicated but once you know where to look these titles are easy to identify. Don’t blame the book because you didn’t do your homework. If it really inhibits your enjoyment you will find that spending an extra two minutes to research a particular title is more than worth your time

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All her life she never thought she'd love a man, not with the passionate commitment she loved Kenny with. And now, the one thing she dared not to dream of came to her like an unexpected gift.
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Sunday, November 6, 2011

Irish Healer: A Novel by Nancy Herriman

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ 
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: Oct. 26, 2011 

Fiction in the ever-popular Historical/Romance genre -- during the deadly 1832 cholera epidemic in London, a heartsick Irish healer must find the strength to overcome her most fearsome obstacles. Accused of murdering a child under her care, Irish healer Rachel Dunne flees the ensuing scandal while vowing to never sit at another sickbed. She no longer trusts in her abilities—or God’s mercy. When a cholera epidemic sweeps through London, she feels compelled to nurse the dying daughter of the enigmatic physician she has come to love. James Edmunds, wearied by the deaths of too many patients, has his own doubts about God’s grace. Can they face their darkest fears? Or is it too late to learn that trust and love just might heal their hearts?

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I don’t often find books like this. The Irish Healer by Nancy Harrimann is a beautiful novel with a message that both secular and nonsecular readers can enjoy. The Irish Healer is inspired fiction and incorporate strong religious themes but I think the personal journeys of Harrimann's cast have wide appeal.

I love getting lost in a good book and one of the easiest ways for an author to make that happen is to create characters and situations a reader can relate to. At the beginning of Harrimann's story, James is struggling with the death of his wife and Rachel is questioning her value as a healer after losing a young patient. Self doubt is something everyone can understand and most of us have experienced the loss of a loved one. By incorporating these very common emotions Harrimann was able to craft two notably compelling and unique leading characters.

The story itself is simple but I think it works in Harrimann's favor. Nothing here seems overly contrived. James and Rachel are brought together in very realistic circumstances and bond in similar fashion. The authentic quality of the story is something I really appreciate. The comprehensive depiction of evolving affection is much more affecting than the more dramatic and less believable love at first sight scenario.

Historically not as strong as I would like but The Irish Healer is a heartwarming tale of personal trial and triumph. Recommended to fans of The Song of Acadia Series by Janet Oak and Davis Bunn. 

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He signaled for Rachel to join him. When she came to his side, he slid his arm around her waist and tucked her close. Her slim, small body fit perfectly, as if made to be a part of him.
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Saturday, November 5, 2011

Destiny's Child by Iris Gower

Rating: ★  ☆ ☆ 
Obtained from: Local Library 
Read: Nov. 5, 2011 

It was a prophecy told to her by an old woman: she would marry a man with flame-coloured hair, and bring forth a King of England. But Margaret Beaufort had been forced by feeble-minded Henry VI to marry the Duke of Somerset's son, so how could she ever be married to handsome, red-haired Edmund Tudor, even though she loved him? And even if that came to pass, how could any son of theirs ever become King, when there were so many others with better claims to the throne? But slowly the prophecy began to be fulfilled: at the age of thirteen Margaret was married to her beloved Edmund, and she bore him a son — but not before Edmund had died of a fever. And so Margaret poured all her love and devotion into the life of her son Henry, vowing that, whatever the cost, one day he should be King of England.

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

Margaret Beaufort
I am absolutely never reading Iris Gower again. Destiny’s Child is a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad book and that is being generous. I give the author pity points for attempting to fictionalize the life of Margaret Beaufort but beyond that, the book is a waste of both time and paper.

The novel begins just before or after Margaret’s ninth birthday and concludes when Margaret is forty-one. Issue number one is that between point a and b there are exactly zero references to the date. You read that correctly, zero, as in none, nil, niente. Unless you are familiar with the timeline of Margaret's life you have absolutely no idea how much time has passed between events.

Issue number two is that time slows to a crawl or rushes forward without regard for the actual timeline of events. As I said the book starts at age nine(ish) and ends at age forty-one. At the halfway point, Margaret is a new mother at the age of thirteen. I’ll save you the trouble of calculating the figures and make it simple. The first half of the book covers four years while the second covers a span of twenty-eight. Atrocious formatting.

Issue number three. Margaret was twelve years old when she married the twenty-five year old Edmund Tudor Now, I can accept the age gap and in all honesty Margaret could have easily been married to a much older man so thirteen years is not that big a deal. The problem I have is that Gower made this marriage the love match of the century! I’m sorry but I don’t see it. This was pure politics my friends. Given time it may have evolved into an affectionate arrangement but I highly doubt it was the passionate affair Gower fabricates here.

Moving on to issue number four. Margaret is twelve when Gower writes “You are lovely and innocent as a child.” and “…lifting her skirts like a child, she ran across the green to meet him.” I hate to point this out but Margaret is in fact an adolescent. Now child marriages were common place in medieval England but even so, Margaret was younger than most. The issue here is that Gower has no understanding of an adolescent’s mind. Gower’s characterization of Margaret is as savvy and intelligent as Eleanor of Aquitaine at her height. Where was the development? Where was the growth?

I don’t think I need to go much further than issue number five. In Gower’s story Edmund becomes sick during an extended visit to his father. Margaret wakes in the night to his rasping breath and realizes her beloved husband’s time is limited. Sweet story but complete bull. Edmund was captured in mid-1446 and imprisoned in South Wales. The sixth month pregnant Margaret was not in attendance when he died of plague. Upon hearing the news, Margaret fled to the protection of her brother-in-law at Pembroke Castle. Being unable to create an appropriate character, fabricating a romantic attachment, and omitting chronological references are enough to make me angry but rewriting history is an offense I cannot forgive.

I’m going to end before I write a novel. Recommended to no one, avoid at all costs.

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Her breath caught in her throat as she watched it being placed on hair that was like a flame under the richness of the crown. Her son, this tall young man, was now the King of England.
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Friday, November 4, 2011

The Guardian Duke: A Forgotten Castles Novel by Jamie Carie

Rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: Nov. 2, 2011

The Guardian Duke is award-winning novelist Jamie Carie’s most exciting story yet, a uniquely arranged Regency-era romantic adventure where hero and heroine know each other through written letters but have yet to meet. Gabriel, the Duke of St. Easton, is ordered by the King to take guardianship over Lady Alexandria Featherstone whose parents are presumed dead after failing to return from a high profile treasure hunt. But Alexandria ignores this royal reassignment, believing her parents are still alive and duly following clues that may lead to their whereabouts. Gabriel, pressured by what are actually the King’s ulterior motives, pursues her across windswept England and the rolling green hills of Ireland but is always one step behind. When they do meet, the search for earthly treasure will pale in comparison to what God has planned for both of them.

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

As an avid reader I hate admitting this but I am confused as to what this book was trying to do. There are many aspects to the novel but none of them felt fully developed. Half-baked is a wonderful way to go when you making chocolate cookies or eating Ben and Jerry’s but it doesn't work as well with literature.

Lady Alexandria, as a character, lacks cohesiveness. She doesn't know how to write a proper letter to a duke who she believes by definition must be old, monocled and suffering from gout but she has no difficulty leaving the only home she has ever known, travelling across the country, tracking the movements of her parents a year after their last correspondence or booking passage to Iceland? Either she is an inexperienced aristocrat who has no idea how to cope with life off her island or she a determined young woman who is more than capable of taking care of herself despite the conventions of the day. She can’t be both.

Alex’s motives also seemed inconsistent. She is so determined to find her parents that she defies the king’s wishes but she tarries in Belfast to watch Baylor compete in a local contest and is more than content to order fine clothes and attend the opera and a masked ball in Dublin? I’ll grant that she intended to seek out information at both Dublin events but she seemed to lose her drive and focus during her sojourn there. I was left questioning where the heroine was coming from. 

Gabriel suffers from hearing loss mysteriously brought on when he is named guardian of the supposedly orphaned Alexandria Featherstone. The affliction plagues him the first half of the novel but disappears without mention when he leaves London. Naturally the condition reappears as he prepares to leave for Ireland which is why I am upset that there was so little attention paid to his momentary recovery. It is a good idea but the execution is sketchy. It needs to be all or nothing. Commit to the story line or forget it entirely. 

Jamie Carie is an inspired fiction writer and B&H is a religious publishing group but The Guardian Duke doesn’t feel like most of the religion based fiction I've encountered. Alex mentions God and faith in her letters and lets loose the occasional prayer but just the same, I found it incredibly easy to forget heroine is in fact a devout character. There is too much religion to say the book shouldn't be classified as inspired fiction but I also feel there isn't enough to it to feel like it solidly belongs in the genre. Again, half-baked.

In terms of storytelling I was frustrated that there was no real climax. There is this huge build up and then… nothing. There is an art to writing series. The books need to be connected but each edition also needs to feel like a complete story in and of itself. For me, The Guardian Duke felt like an extended epilogue.

On the upside, I did like what Carie did with the letters. I live in an age where people fall in love online, essentially losing themselves to someone else’s words. Carie’s handling of the letters between Gabriel and Alex and the emotions each felt upon reading the correspondence translated very well throughout the book.

Light regency romance recommended to fans of the Daughters of Mannerling by Marion Chesney. 

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It was a  sad truth that lies had always flown out of her mouth with the ease of a bard telling a tall tale. She couldn't seem to help it.
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Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Margaret Beaufort: Mother of the Tudor Dynasty by Elizabeth Norton

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ 
Obtained from: Personal Library
Read: Nov. 1, 2011 

Divorced at ten, a mother at thirteen & three times a widow. The extraordinary true story of the 'Red Queen', Lady Margaret Beaufort, matriarch of the Tudors. Born in the midst of the Wars of the Roses, Margaret Beaufort became the greatest heiress of her time. She survived a turbulent life, marrying four times and enduring imprisonment before passing her claim to the crown of England to her son, Henry VII, the first of the Tudor monarchs. Margaret's royal blood placed her on the fringes of the Lancastrian royal dynasty. After divorcing her first husband at the age of ten, she married the king's half-brother, Edmund Tudor, becoming a widow and bearing her only child, the future Henry VII, before her fourteenth birthday. Margaret was always passionately devoted to the interests of her son who claimed the throne through her. She embroiled herself in both treason and conspiracy as she sought to promote his claims, allying herself with the Yorkist Queen, Elizabeth Woodville, in an attempt to depose Richard III. She was imprisoned by Richard and her lands confiscated, but she continued to work on her son's behalf, ultimately persuading her fourth husband, the powerful Lord Stanley, to abandon the king in favour of Henry on the eve of the decisive Battle of Bosworth. It was Lord Stanley himself who placed the crown on Henry's head on the battlefield. Henry VII gave his mother unparalleled prominence during his reign. She established herself as an independent woman and ended her life as regent of England, ruling on behalf of her seventeen-year-old grandson, Henry VIII.

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Margaret Beaufort
The thing I appreciate most about this book is that Norton doesn't try to recreate Margaret’s personality. She hints here and there but it is always based on Margaret’s own words or actions. For example, Norton covers the intense feelings Margaret had regarding the early marriage of her granddaughter but she doesn’t make assumptions about Margaret's emotions during her own early marriage to a man nearly twelve years her senior. It would be all too easy to say Margaret was a terrified bride, widow and mother by age thirteen but Norton resists temptation, restricting herself to the available facts and allowing the reader to come to their own conclusions. It is a style I personally appreciate as I like forming my own opinions rather than being told what to think, especially when it comes to nonfiction.

Factually this is a wonderful biography of Margaret Beaufort but it is a tough book to read. The spelling reverts to old English at random. Now I’m reasonably proficient in old English but I found myself stumbling more often than I care to admit. More than that, I found the formatting of the book difficult to absorb. Norton frequently starts a paragraph but follows her thoughts through years ahead of where she started only to backtrack again with the next paragraph. Again, I love that amount of information Norton compiled here but all the same, I found it hard to follow.

By and large I have few criticisms of the book beyond what I've already mentioned. Norton's work is wonderfully detailed in so much as the surviving records allow. Fact heavy but well researched. Recommended to fans of Elizabeth and Mary: Cousins, Rivals, Queens by Jane Dunn.

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Fortune's Wheel was both kind and sometimes unkind to Margaret: the daughter of a probable suicide, the greatest heiress in England, divorced at ten, married to the King's half-brother at twelve, a widow at thirteen, a mother at thirteen, twice more a widow, a plotter, a prisoner, the mother of the king, most of all, Margaret Beaufort can be remembered as the mother of the great Tudor dynasty.
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