Tuesday, December 24, 2013

City of Jasmine by Deanna Raybourn

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: December 24, 2013

Set against the lush, exotic European colonial outposts of the 1920s, New York Times bestselling author Deanna Raybourn delivers the captivating tale of one woman who embarks upon a journey to see the world—and ends up finding intrigue, danger and a love beyond all reason. Famed aviatrix Evangeline Starke never expected to see her husband, adventurer Gabriel Starke, ever again. They had been a golden couple, enjoying a whirlwind courtship amid the backdrop of a glittering social set in prewar London until his sudden death with the sinking of the Lusitania. Five years later, beginning to embrace life again, Evie embarks upon a flight around the world, collecting fame and admirers along the way. In the midst of her triumphant tour, she is shocked to receive a mysterious—and recent—photograph of Gabriel, which brings her ambitious stunt to a screeching halt. With her eccentric aunt Dove in tow, Evie tracks the source of the photo to the ancient City of Jasmine, Damascus. There she discovers that nothing is as it seems. Danger lurks at every turn, and at stake is a priceless relic, an artifact once lost to time and so valuable that criminals will stop at nothing to acquire it—even murder. Leaving the jewelled city behind, Evie sets off across the punishing sands of the desert to unearth the truth of Gabriel's disappearance and retrieve a relic straight from the pages of history. Along the way, Evie must come to terms with the deception that parted her from Gabriel and the passion that will change her destiny forever...

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I have fond memories of the time I spent reading Deanna Raybourn's Silent in Grave, but I confess it has been more than three years since I've had opportunity to revisit her work and while I fully intend to track down the rest of the Lady Julia series, I can't say I was disappointed with her lastest standalone, City of Jasmine.

Much of my admiration is tied to Raybourn's protagonists, Eveangeline and Gabriel Starke. Her spunky confidence against his stoic devotion. His furtive sense of duty against her propensity to fly impetuously by the seat of her pants. I really enjoyed how their personalities played off one another and the character that contrast brought to their relationship. 

Another thing I liked about this piece is the setting. The exotic beauty and hidden dangers of Damascus and the Badiyat ash-Sham come to life under Raybourn's pen, giving the reader a real sense of the great Syrian desert, its people and its history. Far from a mere backdrop, Raybourn's depiction of the region is as multilayered and dynamic as the characters who inhabit it.

I wont stoop to rehashing the plot, but I will say the story strikes the perfect balance of adventure and allure. Steeped in intrigue and bursting with Raybourn's signature wit, City of Jasmine is a cleverly entertaining read that brilliantly recreates the romance of the late Imperial Age amid the thundering hooves, glinting swords and rolling dunes of the Middle East. 

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"Here I am, Gabriel—the girl you should have married but didn’t. I smoke cigars and I barnstorm and I wear red lipstick and I do as I damned well please."
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Sunday, December 22, 2013

Sisters of the Bruce, 1292-1314 by J.M. Harvey

Rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: November 7, 2013

Set against the wild and perilous background of Scotland in the late 13th century, the adventurous lives of Robert the Bruce’s five sisters come to life through their own words in a series of letters. Courage and tenacity are often associated with Scotland’s great hero, but few appreciate the enormous challenges experienced by these remarkable sisters. Their intimate account of family life resonates still with love, loss and hope. Isa leaves home to sail to the land of the Vikings to become Queen of Norway whilst her sister, Kirsty, finds herself Countess of Mar and chatelaine of the great Kildrummy Castle in Scotland’s far northeast. Danger looms and the younger sisters, Mathilda and Margaret, escape to Orkney with Kirsty’s children. As Scotland spirals into war, Robert’s sisters face the wrath of King Edward of England, whose vengeance wrought the brutal death of William Wallace. Kirsty is incarcerated alone in an English nunnery, whilst Mary endures years of misery within a cage hanging from the walls of Roxburgh Castle. Under Robert’s kingship, old wounds heal and Scotland’s fighting force achieves a resounding victory at the Battle of Bannockburn. Only then are the fragile, traumatised women released, through the ransoming of English nobles, to return home to rebuild their shattered lives… Sisters of The Bruce is a captivating work of fiction that weaves family history with a gripping narrative through the social and political landscape of medieval Scotland, Norway and Orkney. J. M. Harvey has been inspired by Sharon Penman, Elizabeth Chadwick and Sigrud Undset.

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Despite my intense interest in the subject matter, J.M Harvey's Sisters of the Bruce didn't work for me. The content had potential, but the style and mechanics of the narrative were so awkward and unpolished that I found it impossible to enjoy the time I spent reading the book.

In looking at my notes, I think my difficulties stem from Harvey having bitten off more than she could chew. The language/prose is tedious and dry, the overall tone left me indifferent to both her characters and their experiences and I was greatly disappointed by the story's lack of theme. The author did not properly develop her cast, relies heavily on macro level conflicts - practically ignoring those personal arcs that would have added depth to the narrative - and pads out the text with an excessive amount of filler.

All told, the end result doesn't feel like fiction. A dense fact-based rehash of the trials and tribulations suffered by Robert and his siblings, the narrative lacks the spirit and dimension I associate with this particular genre and fails to achieve the promise touted so prominently in the jacket description. 

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Never had our violent past seemed so real. If I was to flourish as Queen of Norway, it would serve me well to follow Grandfather's creed. Fierce courage had been his greatest defense. 
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Thursday, December 19, 2013

Into the Whirlwind by Elizabeth Camden

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: December 13, 2013

After her father's death, Mollie Knox takes over his watchmaking company and uses her head for business to solidify the good name of the 57th Illinois Watch Company. Her future looks bright until the night her beloved city is destroyed in the legendary Great Chicago Fire. With her world crumbling around her, Molly must do whatever it takes to save her company in the aftermath of the devastating fire. Zack Kazmarek is an influential attorney with powerful ties to the political, mercantile, and ethnic roots of Chicago. His only weakness is Mollie Knox, a woman who has always been just beyond his reach. However, all bets are off after the fire destroys Chicago, and Mollie is in desperate need of assistance. Just as Zack finally begins to pursue the woman he loves, competition arises in the form of a hero from her past who can provide the help she needs to rise from the ashes. While Mollie struggles to rebuild, the two men battle for her heart. One has always loved her, but the other has the power to save her. In the race to rebuild the city, can she survive with her business and her heart intact?

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I've of two minds when it comes to Elizabeth Camden's Into the Whirlwind. On one hand, I like the period and the historic details that were worked into the plot, but on the other, I think the romance between Molly and Zach was too straightforward, predictable and repetitive.

The Great Chicago Fire takes place early on and while I don't feel Camden offered a comprehensive glimpse of the damage wrought by the flames of 1871, she did create an interesting and dynamic portrait of the massive reconstruction effort that followed. By this I mean the reader witnesses the metamorphosis of the city on a variety of levels. Mollie is forced not only to rebuild, but to reimagine her business model in order to keep her father's company afloat and Zach ultimately utilizes his legal expertise and firsthand knowledge to affect bureaucratic reform in the wake of the disaster. Their story plays out among both the upper and lower classes and combined, affords Camden’s audience a very well-rounded view the transition and reinvention that takes place after such a large scale tragedy. 

Unfortunately, I felt the strength of that message was undermined by the romantic elements of the piece. Excuse my impertinence, but the relationship between Mollie and Zach is routinely compromised by their tendency to jump to conclusions and act before seeking explanation. Camden dances circles round miscommunications in an attempt to fabricate intrigue, but I personally felt the repetition annoyingly redundant. I also wasn't impressed with the late addition of Colonel Lowe who in my eyes, never seemed a legitimate rival for Mollie's affections. 

A sweet if somewhat fluffy tale, Into the Whirlwind was a nice break from the hard hitting historicals I've buried myself in of late. A nice beach read, but in the end, lacked the drama promised in the jacket description. 

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In all the years she had known the impeccable Zack Kazmarek, there had never been a hint of a pulse beneath his tailored suits and starched collars, but now he looked at her with desperation in his eyes. He grasped her arms as though he couldn’t bear to let her go and it made her think... well, it looked as if he actually cared about her. Which was impossible... they barely knew each other.
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Thursday, December 12, 2013

Giveaway: Erika Mailman's Woman of Ill Fame

Flashlight Commentary is pleased to offer readers the chance to win an ecopy of Erika Mailman's Woman of Ill Fame!

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Looking for a better life, Nora Simms sails from the East Coast to gold rush San Francisco with a plan for success: to strike it rich by trading on her good looks. But when a string of murders claims several of her fellow “women of ill fame,” Nora grows uneasy with how closely linked all of the victims are to her. Even her rise to the top of her profession and a move to the fashionable part of town don’t shelter her from the danger, and she must distinguish friend from foe in a race to discover the identity of the killer.

“I loved Woman of Ill Fame. Nora Simms is hilarious, tough, perceptive … and one of the most engaging characters  I’ve ever met between the pages of a book.” -Diana Gabaldon, author of the Outlander series


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Giveaway is open to US residents only.


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Interview with Erika Mailman, author of Woman of Ill Fame

Today, Flashlight Commentary is pleased to welcome author Erika Mailman to our little corner of the net to discuss her novel, Woman of Ill Fame.

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Welcome to Flashlight Commentary Erika. To start things off, please tell us a bit about Woman of Ill Fame.
Thanks so much for hosting me! It’s a pleasure to be here. Woman of Ill Fame is a novel about a Gold Rush prostitute who unwittingly becomes involved in a serial killer’s snare. Immediately upon arriving in San Francisco, she learns her trunk has been stolen, leaving her without clothing (not the worst thing for a prostitute, let’s say) and resources. But things become worse when women start turning up dead, each with an item of her clothing.

What inspired you to write this story?
I used to spend a lot of time researching a newspaper history column at the Oakland (California) Public Library’s History Room. One day I sat at a different table and let my eyes wander over the spines of the books on a nearby shelf. There were about three or four nonfiction books on turn-of-the-century prostitution, including Daughters of Joy, Sisters of Misery and Soiled Doves. I devoured them. I had been considering starting a new novel, since my first had been such a disaster (unpublished, for good reason!), and I figured this would be a great topic. Sex sells, history sells…. and I was fresh out of a job, as luck would have it, and entirely free to hammer out a draft. Woman of Ill Fame was published by Heyday Books in Berkeley in 2007, and is still in print with them. Last month, I released an e-book version since the subsidiary rights still rest with me. I’m excited Diana Gabaldon contributed an amazing blurb to add to the book cover.

What research went into Woman of Ill Fame and did you discover anything particularly surprising while investigating the background material for you book?
Many surprises! One was that many U.S. cities at the turn of the century tolerated prostitution so long as it was limited to a certain prescribed zone, and as long as prostitutes agreed to register with the police department (!) and use a logbook, which a doctor would stamp on a semi-weekly basis to “prove” the woman’s freedom from disease. It was said that for the photograph in the book, many prostitutes would make funny faces and screw up their eyes because they didn’t trust the police and didn’t want their calm, recognizable face associated with the prostitution passport. Oakland was one of those cities—the area around Jack London Square was the legally-recognized prostitution zone.

Another surprise, and a very disturbing one, was the treatment of the Chinese prostitutes. They were brought overseas literally in crates. They were very young, and kept as slaves even once they arrived. They were misleadingly considered indentured and could earn out their freedom by working a certain time period. The very brutal truth, though, was that their contracts added on several days work for any missed day. Since they didn’t work during their menstrual cycle, each month that they worked put them deeper into servitude.

You probably have many, but is there one scene that you particularly enjoyed writing?
I really enjoyed writing a scene where Nora attends a dinner very kindly hosted by Mehitabel, the woman who runs the boardinghouse where Nora rents a room. Nora has chosen not to sleep where she works, like most girls of the line did. A few of the men at the boardinghouse resent having to sit down to eat with a prostitute and let their discontent show. I enjoyed letting Nora bait them, and seeing poor Mehitabel defend her even though she is uncomfortable with Nora’s line of work. I liked creating sparks and drama …and it was fun to see some of the men afterwards make arrangements with Nora for trysting.

What scene posed the greatest challenge for you as an author?
Hm, how to avoid a plot spoiler here. Wellllll, there’s a scene where Nora fights for her life, and that was hard really just from a technical perspective. What happens when that fist lands there, how does that skin react, how does that lamp fall, what noise does it all make, etc.

Sometimes fiction takes on a life of its own and forces the author to make sacrifices for the sake of their story. Is there a character or concept you wish you could have spent more time with or expanded on?
I loved Mehitabel and was sad she had to bow out at one point. I liked Nora’s interactions with her, but Nora had to leave the boardinghouse to improve her lot in life.

Do you see yourself in any of your characters and is there one of them you wish you were more like?
I really wish I was as ballsy as Nora. She has a lot more fire and is more outspoken than me; I appreciate and admire her self-confidence. She’s also incredibly resilient. Yes, she has to work as a prostitute because of her economic situation and the time period she lives in…. but she wastes no time in feeling sorry for herself. She is pragmatic and yet optimistic for the future. She’s unapologetic.

If you could sit down and talk with one of your characters, maybe meet and discuss things over drinks, who would you choose and why?
I might find Nora intimidating to sit down and have a cocktail with! Maybe Abe—but I might not be as comfortable talking with him as Nora was. The professor? I know I keep harping on Mehitabel, but I think she is really who I would choose. She is tart, unjudgmental and plays piano. 

What do you hope readers come away with after reading your work?
A better understanding of women’s choices in the past. We are so lucky today; we really have no idea. I love Nora and her spirit, but would not have wanted her life.

Finally, what is next for you? Any new projects waiting in the wings?
My next foray into publishing is in the young adult world. Kensington has acquired my contemporary Gothic in a three-book series tentatively titled The Arnaud Legacy. The first will appear in early 2015. It’s about a teen who must go live in the ancestral mansion in England, which is unfortunately still inhabited….

Thanks for such fun questions, and for hosting me today.

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About the Author: Erika Mailman is the author of The Witch’s Trinity, a Bram Stoker finalist and a San Francisco Chronicle Notable Book, and Woman of Ill Fame, a Pushcart Press Editor’s Book Award nominee. While writing The Witch’s Trinity, she learned she was the descendant of a woman accused twice of witchcraft in the decades predating Salem. 

For more information please visit Erika Mailman’s website and blog.

About the Book: Looking for a better life, Nora Simms sails from the East Coast to gold rush San Francisco with a plan for success: to strike it rich by trading on her good looks. But when a string of murders claims several of her fellow “women of ill fame,” Nora grows uneasy with how closely linked all of the victims are to her. Even her rise to the top of her profession and a move to the fashionable part of town don’t shelter her from the danger, and she must distinguish friend from foe in a race to discover the identity of the killer.

“I loved Woman of Ill Fame. Nora Simms is hilarious, tough, perceptive … and one of the most engaging characters  I’ve ever met between the pages of a book.” -Diana Gabaldon, author of the Outlander series

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Check out all the stops on Erika Mailman's Woman of ill fame virtual book tour


Monday, December 9
Giveaway at Passages to the Past
Tuesday, December 10
Guest Post & Giveaway at HF Connection
Wednesday, December 11
Review at Flashlight Commentary
Thursday, December 12
Interview & Giveaway at Flashlight Commentary
Friday, December 13
Review at Historical Fiction Obsession
Monday, December 16
Review at A Book Geek
Review at Unabridged Chick
Tuesday, December 17
Review at Book of Secrets
Interview & Giveaway at Unabridged Chick
Wednesday, December 18
Review & Giveaway at Peeking Between the Pages
Thursday, December 19
Review at A Bookish Libraria
Friday, December 20
Review at CelticLady’s Reviews
Review at Confessions of an Avid Reader

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Woman of Ill Fame by Erika Mailman

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Read: December 8, 2013

Looking for a better life, Nora Simms sails from the East Coast to gold rush San Francisco with a plan for success: to strike it rich by trading on her good looks. But when a string of murders claims several of her fellow “women of ill fame,” Nora grows uneasy with how closely linked all of the victims are to her. Even her rise to the top of her profession and a move to the fashionable part of town don’t shelter her from the danger, and she must distinguish friend from foe in a race to discover the identity of the killer.

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I freely admit that I approached Woman of Ill Fame with a certain degree of caution. Generally speaking I haven't had a lot of luck with gold rush era lit, but I'd also never heard of Erika Mailman and my unfamiliarity with the author didn't exactly help matters. Fingers crossed, I was hoping for a halfway decent read, but what I found was a captivatingly authentic tale of an enterprising soiled dove trying to make her way on the streets of San Francisco.

It's been my experience that most who tackle this subject rely on trite stereotypes and sap-saturated gimmicks to warm readers to their not so virtuous heroines - the hooker with a heart of gold, etc. and so on. What I liked about this piece though, was Mailman's refreshingly blunt approach to the world of eighteenth century prostitution. From the provocative tricks of the trade to the more mundane details of daily life in a society that looked down its nose at the ladies of the night, Mailman's realistic portrait of the profession really appealed to me.  

Another aspect I appreciated was the range of characters that populate these pages. San Francisco was a hub of activity in 1849 as people from all over the world flooded the port in hopes of finding their fortunes in the hills of California. Mailman not only recognized this fact, but took advantage of it and created a cast with a really diverse set of backgrounds, principles and personalities.

Finally, I have to applaud the mystery at the heart of this story. Crime rates during this period were exceptionally high so a string of murders is not in and of itself particularly interesting or original. It was absolutely imperative that Mailman do something more than recreate a violent crime wave. She needed to make it personal and here again I think she rose to the challenge, offering up a truly chilling series of events that keeps both her cast and her audience on their toes. 

A surprisingly engaging and creative fiction, Woman of Ill Fame is a well-balanced and highly enjoyable historic thriller. 

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And now today was a famous day in Nora history—November 3 in the Year of our Gold, 1849. I was sick as a pirate’s mother from all the grappling the boat did with the water, but the long voyage and the leaning over the ship’s side to donate all my dinners to the sea was worth it. Soon I’d be dipping my hands into the cold stream to pick up gold, without even getting out of bed: I’d let the men collect the shiny stuff, then I’d dig into their pockets and help myself. Call me a prospector of a different variety.
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Check out all the stops on Erika Mailman's Woman of ill fame virtual book tour


Monday, December 9
Giveaway at Passages to the Past
Tuesday, December 10
Guest Post & Giveaway at HF Connection
Wednesday, December 11
Review at Flashlight Commentary
Thursday, December 12
Interview & Giveaway at Flashlight Commentary
Friday, December 13
Review at Historical Fiction Obsession
Monday, December 16
Review at A Book Geek
Review at Unabridged Chick
Tuesday, December 17
Review at Book of Secrets
Interview & Giveaway at Unabridged Chick
Wednesday, December 18
Review & Giveaway at Peeking Between the Pages
Thursday, December 19
Review at A Bookish Libraria
Friday, December 20
Review at CelticLady’s Reviews
Review at Confessions of an Avid Reader

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Severed: A Tale of Sleepy Hollow by Dax Varley

Rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: December 4, 2013

Katrina’s still haunted by her encounter with the Headless Horseman - the night he beckoned to her. Now he has risen again, slashing heads and terrorizing the quiet countryside. Her only joy during this dismal darkness comes when Ichabod Crane, a gorgeous young man from Connecticut, moves to Sleepy Hollow and their attraction turns to romance. When the Horseman marks Ichabod as his next victim, Katrina, despite dangerous efforts to save him, sees no other choice than for them to flee. But the Horseman awaits. Now it’s up to her to sever the horror and alter the Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

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Ichabod Crane by William J. Wilgus
For those who haven't read it, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow isn't quite as sexy as popular culture suggests. Katrina is a shameless flirt, Brom is a street smart and mischievous man's man, the Horseman is a local legend in a community with a firmly established belief in the supernatural, and Ichabod is a haplessly awkward, self-serving and superstitious wimp. The reader is not offered a clear explanation of events and much of the story is in fact left open ended. 

So what does this have to do with Dax Varley's Severed? Not a lot. The underlying structure of the story bares a certain resemblance, but the characterization and themes of this young adult retelling have a lot more in common with the television series starring Tom Mison and Tim Burton's 1999 big screen adaptation than Washington Irving's 1820 classic and is something this purist found rather disappointing.

Replicating the spirit of the original was obviously not Varley's intent, but conforming to the values and expectations of eighteenth century society proved yet another challenge for this author. Katrina and Elise have far too much freedom and hold very modern ideals for individuals born in the late 1700s. Ichabod's principles are also rather avant-garde and I think that both aspects undermined the integrity of the story as it meant to be a period piece.

I will admit Varley's attempt at misdirection in the final chapter of the story is quite creative, but by comparison, I have to say I found Irving's twist much more provocative. The Legend of Sleepy Hollow concludes on an ambiguous note, leaving the reader to come to their own conclusion and personally I found the inherent uncertainty of that far more enticing than the carefully crafted explanation offered readers in Varley's finale. 

The language and flow of Severed are not bad for a young adult piece and I'm sure many will find its trendy motifs quite enjoyable, but for me, Severed missed the mark and was definitely not what I was looking for in a retelling of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. 

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I rested my head onto my arm. “They’re going to hang me.” He reached in and brushed back my hair. “Not as long as I’m breathing."
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Saturday, December 7, 2013

Empress of the Night: A Novel of Catherine the Great by Eva Stachniak

Rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: October 26, 2013

Catherine the Great muses on her life, her relentless battle between love and power, the country she brought into the glorious new century, and the bodies left in her wake. By the end of her life, she had accomplished more than virtually any other woman in history. She built and grew the Romanov empire, amassed a vast fortune of art and land, and controlled an unruly and conniving court. Now, in a voice both indelible and intimate, she reflects on the decisions that gained her the world and brought her enemies to their knees. And before her last breath, shadowed by the bloody French Revolution, she sets up the end game for her last political maneuver, ensuring her successor and the greater glory of Russia.

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What is that old admonition? If you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all?

It's a wonderful rule of thumb, but I'm afraid abiding by it would compromise my integrity as I wouldn't be able to write much of anything and as a reviewer, well, that's kind of a problem. 

This being the case, perhaps I should take comfort in knowing honesty to be the best policy.

I came to Eva Stachniak's Empress of the Night with high hopes. Her first Catherine novel, The Winter Palace, had been an interesting enough read and I was optimistic that her follow-up would outshine its predecessor. Unfortunately, when face to face with the reality, I found my confidence grossly misplaced.

In all fairness, I think the idea of an aged Catherine, reflecting on her legacy as the final moments of her life slip unceremoniously through her fingers is an interesting and creative premise, but Stachniak's narrative is so disjointed and incoherent that wading through her character's musings quickly became a first class test of endurance. After four hundred pages I should have felt connected to Catherine, but the jumbled nature of the narrative made forming any kind of attachment absolutely impossible and severely undermined the emotional impact of the novel. 

To make matters worse, I think Stachniak placed emphasis on the wrong aspect of Catherine's life. Her decision to downplay the Empress' political and public personas in favor of promoting the more amorous moments of her existence was, I felt, an exceedingly poor choice. The monotony of Catherine's steady parade of paramours left me bored and disinterested in the narrative, caring more about when I'd reach the end than how the novel would conclude. 

Much of my disappointment stems from being familiar with Catherine's history prior to reading this piece as I was well aware of how much was being omitted from the story, but my real concern was Stachniak's failure to bring anything new and interesting to the table in terms of characterization and theme. 

Despite my initial optimism, I can't say I'd recommend Empress of the Night and am not sure I will be continuing with the series. 

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Fury racks her. Ancient, vast. Fury at Serge. At herself. Fury mixed with pity plunging into sorrow, to become fury again. She paces the room; her heels strike the floorboards like musket shots... She shudders. But another voice is sounding already. Small but clear. Betrayal is like poison. A dose too small to kill strengthens you instead.
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Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Forgotten Seamstress by Liz Trenow

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: October 23, 2013

It is 1910 and Maria, a talented young girl from the East end of London, is employed to work as a seamstress for the royal family. As an attractive girl, she soon catches the eye of the Prince of Wales and she in turn is captivated by his glamour and intensity. But careless talk causes trouble and soon Maria’s life takes a far darker turn. Disbelieved and dismissed she is thrown into a mental asylum, shut away from the real world with only her needlework for company. Can a beautiful quilt, discovered many years later, reveal the truth behind what happened to Maria?

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Liz Trenow's debut novel, The Last Telegram, made a significant impression on me. I found her ability to convey such poignant emotions against the tumultuous backdrop of WWII highly appealing and couldn't wait to read more of her work. As you might well imagine, that anticipation made waiting for The Forgotten Seamstress something of a challenge. 

Now I can't say Maria's story struck the same chord as Lily's, but I feel that actually worked in Trenow's favor as this is an entirely different kind of narrative. The Last Telegram was a relatively linear piece, but The Forgotten Seamstress is as layered and diverse as the patchwork quilt around which the story unfolds. 

Take for example, the novel's title character. Despite being the central figure of Trenow's narrative, the reader never meets Maria face to face. Her story comes to us piecemeal in a series of half-remembered family histories, personal letters and audio cassettes. One feels naturally distanced from this character, but the manner in which we come to understand the events of her life is remarkably intimate. The contrast that created, the inherent sentimentality of it, translates beautifully and becomes, I think, one of the strongest aspects of the entire narrative. 

Another interesting facet of this piece is that it is a multigenerational story, a feature that allowed Trenow to explore evolving social norms in a very unique fashion. Separated by decades, Maria and Caroline share a very similar personal experience. The resulting parallel produces nice symmetry between both portions of the novel, but the variation highlighted by the side by side comparison of their situations is also quite fascinating. 

Last, but certainly not least, I love the historic details Trenow worked into the fabric of this piece. Her foray into the world of twentieth century psychiatrics offered an unexpected twist that sparked my interest and encouraged me to research a topic I knew very little about. For me, this is the difference between good and great historic fiction. The good is entertaining, but the great inspires you to look between the lines of text and absorb those details that inspired author to put pen to paper in the first place.

A definite addition to my list of personal favorites, The Forgotten Seamstress is a moving tale of lost love, enduring hope, and renewed faith.

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The words were so heartfelt, and yet nowhere in the medical notes was there a single mention of any pregnancy, or a baby. Was all of that just a fantasy, too? Perhaps most of the story was true, or just delicately embroidered, like Maria’s elegant stitching? But wherever the truth lay, I loved her descriptions of how she had made the quilt, and how she had designed the individual frames. Each concentric section had been created to represent or commemorate individuals she had known: her lover – whoever he was – the lost baby and the hospital visitor who befriended her and helped bring back her speech. Her history was held in the fabrics she’d used, the designs, and the appliquéd figures. It was the patchwork of a life – the metaphor pleased me – and now I understood the meaning of that little vers
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Interview with Liz Trenow, author of The Forgotten Seamstress

Today, Flashlight Commentary is pleased to welcome author Liz Trenow to our little corner of the net to discuss The Forgotten Seamstress.

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Welcome to Flashlight Commentary Liz. To start things off, please tell us a bit about The Forgotten Seamstress.
Two stories are told in parallel: In 1910 a young seamstress, Maria, is noticed by Queen Mary, patron of the London Needlework Guild, and employed in the royal household. In 2010 Caroline discovers that a patchwork quilt inherited from her grandmother contains unique royal silks. Through the fading memories of her mother, some family letters and photographs, some old cassette tapes and the help of a local journalist Caroline uncovers an extraordinary story involving a royal affair, a life of incarceration and two women whose lives collided with devastating consequences. Finally, she comes to understand what her Granny wanted her to know – the truth about herself and how she wants to live her own life.

What inspired you to write this story?
When I went to the Warner Textile Archive in Braintree, Essex, doing research into my own family history, I chanced upon a case of the ‘May Silks’: beautiful damasks and brocades, some with interwoven gold and silver threads, hand woven by Warner and Sons for the trousseau of Princess May for her wedding to the heir to the British throne in 1893. The silks themselves were entrancing but it was the story behind them which most intrigued me. 

What research went into The Forgotten Seamstress and did your research yield any surprises in terms of historical events or illuminate a character in any particular way? 
The character of Maria, told in first person, seemed to arrive almost fully-formed. I had a clear visual picture of her and could actually hear the sound of her voice in my head. But finding out about what her life as a servant in Buckingham Palace was more difficult. I visited the building of course, but you are only allowed into the royal reception rooms and are never shown ‘downstairs’. Downton Abbey was quite helpful! I read a number of accounts and histories of the Palace and of the royal family at that time, but couldn’t discover whether they had ever employed a seamstress.

The setting of the asylum was straightforward. As a teenager, I was an inpatient in a ward set aside for minor clinical operations at an enormous Victorian mental hospital close to my home town. The sights and sounds of the place left a deep impression on me. It was like a country mansion set in its own grounds but surrounded by high fences – outwardly grand and yet with such an oppressive and ominous atmosphere. 
I owe a great debt to the sociologist and author Diana Gittins for her book, Madness in its Place (Routledge 1998). She includes first-hand accounts of staff and patients, which really brought the place and people to life and led me to one of those light-bulb moments: solving the problem of how to tell Maria’s story. I created a character – Professor Patsy Morton – who had undertaken a research project not unlike that of Diana Gittins’, although a couple of decades earlier. This was the perfect way of allowing Caroline – and the reader – to hear Maria’s story first hand. Although we never actually meet her in the book, the tapes help us to feel that we know her.

The Forgotten Seamstress is a multigenerational story. Did you find it difficult working with characters from such different background, decades and social circumstances? 
That’s an interesting question because, as I said, Maria came to life almost instantly. On the other hand Caroline, a thirty-something contemporary metropolitan girl, was much harder to conjure. Fortunately I have two daughters who live in London (aged 27 and 33) who became my regular advisers and helped me see into Caroline’s mind. It can be a tough time, your late twenties and thirties, trying to make sense of what you want for your future and, at the same time, worrying about your parents getting older, and I wanted to reflect some of that. I really enjoy writing multi-generational stories because our own histories resonate so powerfully through our lives, even though we sometimes don’t appreciate it until we are a little older!

I would like to have spent more time with Caroline’s grandmother, Jean. But I already had two strong characters and storylines (Maria and Caroline) and to have expanded on Jean’s would have made the story confusing. Also, because Jean’s life story reveals the secret at the heart of the novel, this could only be told ‘posthumously’ at the end of the novel.

You probably have many, but is there are scene you particularly enjoyed writing?
Definitely the scenes in which Maria is seduced by the Prince of Wales. I read several biographies of the prince and, by all accounts, women were mesmerised by his charm and his astonishingly blue eyes. We may not approve of what he did in later life (sympathizing with the Nazis, for example) but at the age I was writing about him, he was young and innocent, hating being a royal, and he had not yet gained his later reputation as a serial womaniser. 

I also loved writing all the sections about the quilt. I needed an expert to help me and was fortunate to be introduced to the internationally-acknowledged patchwork quilter, teacher and author: Lynne Edwards, who in 2008 was awarded an MBE for her services to arts and crafts. With typical enthusiasm, Lynne completely embraced the project. We met several times and, over bottles of wine and lots of laughter, ‘devised’ the quilt that Maria made, taking into account the influences and sources of inspiration that she would have had at different times of her life, and the sort of fabrics she might have had at her disposal. 

By the time we had finished I had, in my mind’s eye, a very clear view of what the quilt would look like. We very much hope that someone, someday, will be inspired by the pattern Lynne has very generously devised (available for free at www.liztrenow.org) and create ‘Maria’s quilt’.  If you do, please let us know!

What scene posed the greatest challenge for you as an author?
The relationship between Caroline and Ben was problematic at first – I didn’t want it to have a straightforward trajectory, but at the same time there had to be a spark of something from the start. Perhaps the most difficult scene to write was their first meeting in a café, and then later when they went for a meal in a pub. I used the dismal pub and its terrible food as a metaphor for Caroline’s discomfort.

If you could sit down and talk with one of your characters, maybe meet and discuss things over drinks, who would you choose and why?
Definitely Maria. There are so many more questions I want to ask her!

Buckingham Palace Gate
Image by Carlos Delgado
Do you see yourself in any of your characters and is there one of them you wish you were more like?
Ooh that’s really difficult. I don’t think I really see myself in any of the characters, although of course there must be aspects of me in all of them. I sympathise with them and feel an affection for them, but would not want to be more like any of them!

The Forgotten Seamstress is your second novel. How did your experience writing it differ from that of The Last Telegram? 
It was a completely different experience, from start to finish. My first novel, The Last Telegram, was based on real-life characters, events and places from my family history and childhood, and by the time I’d finished writing it I felt that all that a lifetime of memories and experience had been ‘used up’. My husband wisely counseled me to write ‘something completely different’ and not to try to recreate the atmosphere of the first one, which is what I set out to do. As I wrote, The Last Telegram was published and received almost unqualified five star reviews. Each time someone told me how much they loved it I would start to panic again, wondering whether The Forgotten Seamstress would ever match up. 

As I struggled, I happened to watch a television documentary in which the crime writer Ian Rankin talked about the process of writing Standing in Another Man’s Grave (now out in paperback). He talked about how, with each novel, he experiences what he describes as ‘the fear’, a point at which he thinks he’s writing complete rubbish that will never get published, and even if it did, that reviewers would slate and readers hate. He talked about having to work your way through it and hold faith that it will come right in time. It was so reassuring to hear that even Britain’s number one bestselling crime novelist should suffer such crises of confidence that I came back my manuscript with renewed determination. After a major restructuring and quite a lot of rewriting I found my rhythm again, and now believe it is just as good as the first (although very different). I hope readers think so too.

What do you hope readers come away with after reading your work?
A greater curiosity about human nature, and how our own family histories make us what we are today. I would also urge all readers, if possible, to talk to their parents, grandparents and other older relatives about their own lives and record what you hear, before it is too late. There is so much to learn from them.

Finally, what is next for you? Any new projects waiting in the wings?
I have already written the first draft of my next book, The Poppy Factory. It will be published in August 2014, marking the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War. As the title suggests, the story revolves around the work of the real-life Poppy Factory which still employs disabled veterans making Remembrance Day poppies in Richmond, Surrey. Besides a poignant First World War strand it also has a powerful contemporary storyline based on interviews with two extraordinary young women who served as army medics on the front line in Afghanistan. 

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About the Author: Liz Trenow's family have been silk weavers for nearly three hundred years, and she grew up in the house next to the silk mill which provided the inspiration for her debut novel, The Last Telegram, and still operates today. Instead of becoming a weaver, Liz worked for many years as a journalist for national and regional newspapers, and for BBC radio and television news, and is now a full time writer. The Forgotten Seamstress is her second novel. For more about Liz, please visit her website

About the Book: It is 1910 and Maria, a talented young girl from the East end of London, is employed to work as a seamstress for the royal family. As an attractive girl, she soon catches the eye of the Prince of Wales and she in turn is captivated by his glamour and intensity. But careless talk causes trouble and soon Maria’s life takes a far darker turn. Disbelieved and dismissed she is thrown into a mental asylum, shut away from the real world with only her needlework for company. Can a beautiful quilt, discovered many years later, reveal the truth behind what happened to Maria?

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Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Guest Post: Homesickness by Anna Belfrage

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Many thanks to Erin for allowing me the opportunity to ramble on at length on her excellent blog! While I am not the best at abbreviating, I promise to keep the rambling to a minimum – or at least try to J

Approximately a year ago, we bought a house – well, an old farm – out in the Swedish countryside. My best friend, who is also my Beta, Alpha and Omega reader, took one look at the place, turned towards me and grinned.
“It’s just like Graham’s Garden,” she said, referring to the imaginary homestead in Maryland in which Matthew and Alex make their home after having emigrated from Scotland.
“No it isn’t,” I protested, even if I silently agreed. But where Alex has a river, I have a lake, and anyway, how pathetic is it to buy a place because it evokes the general outline of a place I’ve made up?

Whatever the case, there we were with a big spread on our hands – and a lot of trees. Now my husband and I don’t need to clear land to survive, but we sure wanted a better view of the lake, and so we decided to cut down 150 trees. That’s A LOT of trees, people, and yet the cleared land was approximately the size of two basketball courts – sufficient to keep a family of six in potatoes over a winter, no more. It isn’t as if hubby and I chopped down the trees on our own; we asked the neighbouring farmer to bring in his huge forestry thing and take them down. In return, he got the timber, and we were left with piles of discarded branches. It took us twenty bonfires and close to twenty working days to get rid of all that, which had me reflecting over how daunting and exhausting it must have been for Matthew Graham to establish himself in the wilds of Maryland – even more so as his family depended on his success to survive.

I have always had a soft spot for those intrepid emigrants who left their home countries to set off for unknown lands. Many of them, like Matthew, had no choice; to stay was to be persecuted, to live in constant fear of imprisonment and deportation, and all for holding to religious beliefs that did not conform with the Anglican Church. If you dig a bit deeper into the history of the United States, one finds that most of the early colonists came due to reasons of faith. Massachusetts and Rhode Island were colonised by people of Puritan inclination (more or less hard-core), Maryland welcomed all settlers as long as they were Christian, and so had large Catholic and Presbyterian communities. The exception to the rule would be Virginia, originally colonised by people in search of gold rather than of spiritual freedom….

Whatever their reasons, the settlers did not arrive to a land of plenty. It wasn’t as if they could sit around with their mouths wide open and have sparrows fly in, so to say. Even today, driving along the eastern coast of the US is to drive through a lot of forest, and back then there’d be a fringe of populated land beyond which stretched the vast unknown, miles after miles of undulating wooded slopes. No wonder most early settlers stayed close to the coast – but some of the more intrepid set off towards the west, with promises of larger grants, massive tracts of land that lay there for their claiming.

Except that it wasn’t that easy.  Men like Matthew Graham and his neighbours, the Leslie brothers, had deeds proving their ownership of their homesteads. Deeds prepared by colonial authorities, signed by colonial authorities, taking for granted the white man’s right to give away that which was not really the white man’s to begin with. After all, the land already belonged to someone else – it belonged to the Native Americans. Not that Matthew’s white contemporaries would agree. The Indians were nomadic people who moved about a lot, and as far as the colonists were concerned, the Indians were borderline savages, incapable of domesticating land. Yes, they’d been around for ages, but their societies were loosely knit groupings, there were no major cities, no kings, none of the attributes Europeans associated with highly developed civilizations.

Obviously, the colonists’ constant hunger for more land would at some point result in open hostilities with the Native Americans. But initially, at least, many of the Indians were friendly and supportive. Trade was brisk between the Dutch and the natives of Manhattan, John Smith found a relatively warm welcome among some of the tribes he visited along the Chesapeake Bay, and soon the Indians were bartering furs for muskets, food for powder.

In A Newfound Land, Matthew’s relationship with the Indians is the least of his problems. His challenge is the need to clear more land, to build houses and stables, barns and storage sheds, to feed his family and keep them safe. Further to this, he struggles with a constant heartache for his lost home in the faraway north.

Homesickness is a debilitating condition.  I have seen first-hand how eyes glaze, how mouths droop as the person before me sighs and utters the word “home”. People who have lived for decades in their new homeland still perceive of it as being “away”, a temporary substitute for the land they long for, the landscape that sings in their blood. I imagine that very many of the new immigrants to the colonies suffered from this affliction. After all, when you’re forced to leave, the lost homeland acquires dreamlike qualities, the remembered land of your birth forever bathed in rosy sunsets. Like the proverbial donkey, these men and women would look upon their new home and rather than see the opportunities, they’d see what they had lost, yearning always for the far greener meadows of “home”.  Conveniently, the people suffering from homesickness would forget why they left; the persecution, the years of failed harvests, the dismal fogs of winter, the stench of the far too much humanity crammed into the slums of cities like London and Edinburgh.

Sometimes, the reluctant emigrant – then or now – is given the opportunity to return home. So they travel back, and with each mile they cover, their anticipation grows. Home.  Soon they’ll be home, with their people, in their land. The last stretch is unbearable, an extended countdown where every second feels like a lifetime. And there, at last, is the familiar bend in the road. The returning emigrant gets to his feet and throws an encouraging look at his accompanying son. “Home,” he says, and his mouth quivers as he struggles not to cry – or laugh out loud.  The last bend, the last lane, and there, at last, is home. Except that it no longer is, and the home-comer throws a bewildered look at his surroundings, still so familiar and yet so changed. Home? Where is home?  The carefully conserved memories are rent asunder, the rosy hue fades into grey, as reality collides with dreams. Oh yes: homesickness is a dangerous disease. It causes you to distort reality into make-believe, forgetting that time never stands still – not even in the land you left behind.
The below is an extract of the prologue to A Newfound Land (available on my website, http://www.annabelfrage.com ), illustrating just how homesick Matthew is.

It was an eerie, otherworldly experience to wake in their little cabin and it was only them, only him and Alex. The silence made him restless, and he didn’t like it that the pallets where his bairns would normally sleep were empty of warm sleeping bodies. Alex was fast asleep and the single source of light was the banked fire, emitting a weak reddish glow that only served to deepen the shadows in the stuffy room. Alex coughed and rolled onto her back. She coughed again, struggling up to sit.
“Are you alright?”
“Better,” she assured him and coughed again, before subsiding back against the pillows. “Still very tired,” she added through a yawn. He curled himself around her, fitting her into the hollow of his body, and sighed contentedly. She was still too thin, he concluded after running his hands up and down her flank, her thighs, her breasts. He lifted her heavy braid out of the way and sniffed at her nape. Sweat, salt, smoke, fresh green apples and a comforting scent of warm milk – he inhaled, held the taste and scent of her in his lungs and slowly exhaled.
“I want my children back,” she said.
“Aye, so do I. But not yet, a few more days of peace and quiet.”
"Mmm...” Alex yawned, shifted closer to him. He held her, staring out at the cramped space that was their home. Home? This was a pathetic excuse of a home, a far cry from their house in Ayrshire, his beautiful Hillview. He sighed deeply and Alex shifted in his arms.
“What?” she asked.
“Nowt,” he replied.
Alex raised herself off his chest. “And you tell me I’m a bad liar.” She moved up, enough that she could rest her forehead against his. “It was the right decision. We’ll be fine.”
“Fine,” he echoed, more because he felt it was expected of him than out of conviction. Part of him was permanently severed, remaining forever back in Scotland.
“Matthew...” Alex half sat up, shook her head and laid down, turning her back on him. They didn’t say anything for a long time. Finally, she got out of bed and busied herself at the hearth.
“I can’t help it,” he said gruffly over breakfast. “I live the loss of it, constantly.”
She didn’t reply, setting down his porridge bowl with something of a bang. They ate in silence, Matthew’s eyes every now and then sliding over in Alex’s direction, but she evaded them.
Once they’d eaten, she shoved the bowl away from her and looked at him from under her lashes. “You wallow. I miss it too, you know.”
“Not like I do. Hillview was my home, it was never yours as it was mine,” he said brutally, half closing her eyes at the hurt that flashed across her face.
“No,” she agreed in a small voice, “after all I don’t have a home, do I? Not so that I can go back to it anyway.”
Matthew looked away; nay, that would be difficult, given that she shouldn’t be here to begin with, a freak thunderstorm transporting her through time to land at his feet.
Alex clumsily got to her feet, grabbed at her cloak and then she was out, the wee fool, barefoot in the November cold, and when Matthew rushed after her she was already ducking in among the trees. He caught up with her easily enough, yanked her to a stop and picked her up in his arms, berating her for rushing thus undressed through the cold, ailing as she was. He carried her all the way back home, kissed her cheek and tucked her into bed.
“We’ll build a new home, here,” he said, “a fine home.” She just nodded, keeping her eyes on the fringe of her shawl. “Our home, Alex.” When she refused to meet his eyes, he gently grabbed her by the chin, forcing her to face him. He sank his eyes into hers, his big thumb drawing small circles over her skin. “Our home, lass,” he repeated. She nodded once, giving him a brief smile.
He bent and kissed her nose. “And Hillview was as much your home as mine,” he said softly. “No home of mine would be complete without you.” He patted her leg, mumbled something about having work to do, and stepped outside into the pale autumn day. Cool clear air filled his lungs, there was a promise of rain in the wind. Under the denuded trees, the leaves lay in thick russet carpets, and when Matthew inhaled, it smelled almost like it did in Scotland. Almost. For a brief second, Matthew Graham closed his eyes and raised his face to the sky, pretending he was home.
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About the Author: I was raised abroad, on a pungent mix of Latin American culture, English history and Swedish traditions. As a result I’m multilingual and most of my reading is historical – both non-fiction and fiction. I was always going to be a writer – or a historian, preferably both. Instead I ended up with a degree in Business and Finance, with very little time to spare for my most favourite pursuit. Still, one does as one must, and in between juggling a challenging career I raised my four children on a potent combination of invented stories, historical debates and masses of good food and homemade cakes. They seem to thrive … Nowadays I spend most of my spare time at my writing desk. The children are half grown, the house is at times eerily silent and I slip away into my imaginary world, with my imaginary characters. Every now and then the one and only man in my life pops his head in to ensure I’m still there. I like that – just as I like how he makes me laugh so often I’ll probably live to well over a hundred. I was always going to be a writer. Now I am – I have achieved my dream. For more information, please visit Anna Belfrage’s website.  You can also find her on Facebook or follow her on Twitter.

About the Book: It’s 1672, and Matthew Graham and his family have left Scotland. Having taken the drastic decision to leave their homeland due to religious conflicts, Alexandra and Matthew hope for a simpler, if harsher, life in the wilds of the Colony of Maryland. Unfortunately, things don’t always turn out as you want them to, and the past has a nasty tendency to resurface at the most inappropriate moments. Both Matthew and Alex are forced to cope with the unexpected reappearance of people they had never thought to meet again, and the screw is turned that much tighter when the four rogue Burley brothers enter their lives. Matters are further complicated by the strained relations between colonists and the Susquehannock Indians. When Matthew intercedes to stop the Burleys from abducting Indian women into slavery he makes lifelong – and deadly – enemies of them all. Once again Alex is plunged into an existence where death seems to threaten her man wherever he goes. Will Matthew see himself – and his family – safe in these new circumstances? And will the past finally be laid to rest? A Newfound Land is the fourth book in Anna Belfrage’s time slip series featuring time traveller Alexandra Lind and her seventeenth century husband, Matthew Graham.

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check out all the stops on anna's belfrage's a newfound land virtual book tour


Monday, December 2
Review at Flashlight Commentary
Giveaway at Bibliophilic Book Blog
Tuesday, December 3
Guest Post at Flashlight Commentary
Wednesday, December 4
Review at The Most Happy Reader
Thursday, December 5
Interview & Giveaway at The Most Happy Reader
Friday, December 6
Giveaway at Historical Fiction Connection
Monday, December 9
Review at Just One More Chapter
Tuesday, December 10
Review at Oh, for the Hook of a Book
Guest Post at Just One More Chapter
Wednesday, December 11
Review at So Many Books, So Little Time
Thursday, December 12
Review at bookramblings
Friday, December 13
Review & Giveaway at Broken Teepee
Guest Post at The Little Reader Library
Monday, December 16
Review at Griperang’s Bookmarks
Giveaway at Passages to the Past
Tuesday, December 17
Review at Anglers Rest
Review at CelticLady’s Reviews
Wednesday, December 18
Review & Interview at Kincavel Korner
Guest Post & Giveaway at Let Them Read Books