Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Love and Death in Vienna: The Story of Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria & Baroness Mary Vetsera by Bunny Paine-Clemes

Rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Personal Library
Read: January 30, 2013

He's been her obsession throughout her young life. Yet to seventeen year old Marie Vetsera, he is more than that - he is her destiny. But Crown Prince Rudolf of Austro-Hungary - heir to the throne, a man of the world, much older than Marie and disease-ravaged from his indiscriminate liaisons - moves in the upper circles of society to which she, of minor aristocracy, can barely aspire. Through sheer stubbornness, however - and maybe a touch of the spoiled child who has always got everything she wanted - the girl succeeds in making a fateful meeting with him happen; an encounter that leads to a passionate, not-so-secret affair, one marked, on her side at least, by total adoration. But all is not right in his world. There is a darker side to Rudolf's life, in which he ultimately sees only one way out. Is is the only way that will ensure the lovers can be together forever. By love united until death.

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Marie Vetsera
On Jan. 30, 1889, valet Johann Loschek discovered the bodies of Crown Prince Rudolf and his seventeen year old mistress, Baroness Marie Vetsera. Each had suffered a gun shot wound to the head. To this day mystery surrounds what has become known as the Maryerling Incident as no satisfying explanation has ever been confirmed. The fact that I timed my reading of Bunny Paine-Clemes' Love and Death in Vienna to coincide with the anniversary of Rudolf and Vetsera's deaths might be a clue as to how I feel about the story. I only wish I were as enthusiastic about the book as I am the event that inspired it.

For me, this one started downhill from page one. I'm sorry, but I cannot believe Marie began an intense all-consuming obsession with Rudolf at the tender age of six. I am prepared to believe that much like William and Harry, Rudolf had his legion of female followers, but a six year old is simply going too far.  Even as an adult character Marie bothered me. She has an entirely one track mind and exhibits no actual growth in the course of the book. She is wholly and completely infatuated with Rudolf from page one to page two hundred and six. She is something of a one-trick pony: tiresome, dull and all told, rather boring.

I'm not sure anyone unfamiliar with the history would notice, but for someone like me the author's inability to integrate fact into fiction is glaringly obvious. Facts are embedded rather than integrated into the story. They hit the reader systematically,
 almost as if one were looking over a series of bullet points. Ideally I would have liked to see fact and fiction blended together as one, but that is not what I found here. 

The nail in the coffin however came back to show, don't tell. Love and Death in Vienna had no emotional power, nothing that drew me in or blew me away. To be entirely honest this is the kind of writing I expect from nonfiction writers - straightforward, shallow and flat. 

Not something I would recommend, especially against alternatives like The Time of Murder at Mayerling.

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She had been born to make this decision. She had written to her governess Hermione as the affair began, long before he himself had proposed the pact, 'I am ready to die for him.'
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Sunday, January 20, 2013

A Summons From the Castle by Catherine Gayle, Suzie Grant, Christi Caldwell

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Author
Read: Nov. 19, 2011 

The powerful Duke of Danby summons all of his wayward grandchildren home for the holidays. Book two of the Regency Christmas Summons Collection.

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Image by Viktoria Ridzel
Used in accordance with the artist's terms of use.
This review is different than most of the books I feature here as it is an anthology collection. I feel commenting on the entire book as I do with most of my reviews would be unfair to each of the authors so I have opted to review each piece on it own though my overall rating reflects my opinion of the book in its entirety.

An Unintended Journey by Catherine Gayle: A very simple story, but a sweet one, notable for its content as well as its construction. I would have loved to see this heartwarming tale expanded but understand the nature of anthologies prevented Gayle from elaborating too much into Abigail and Wesley's romance. Still, Gayle made an impression on me in only a few short pages and I can only hope to encounter her work again in my literary wanderings. 

A Caribbean Jewel for Christmas by Suzie Grant: A well-written page-turner, I would have liked this one more as a standalone novel. Though I thought the exotic fusion creative, I didn't feel it blended with the other pieces of the Regency Christmas Summons Collection as well as it might have. Randall and Jewel's adventure is without doubt the most exciting addition to the series thus far, but not my favorite as it stands in such stark contrast to the other installments of the series. 

Winning A Lady's Heart by Christi Caldwell: According to Goodreads, Christ Caldwell's only published work appears in this anthology. It makes me sad for I would greatly enjoy reading more of from her. Alexandra and Nathan's story was my favorite installment of this book and one of the strongest pieces of the series in my humble opinion. A delightfully humorous and moving holiday romance.

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Any pain was preferable to the hellish torment he'd inflicted this evening - both on her and himself. He waved off his carriage, instead opting to walk the distance to his townhouse in the midnight cold. It was a meager attempt at penance for the sins he'd committed, a kind of absolution that would not come. 
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The Wicked Wives by Gus Pelagetti

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Author
Read: January 14, 2013

"Wicked Wives" is based on the true story of the 1938 Philadelphia murder scandals in which seventeen wives were arrested for murdering their husbands. Mastermind conspirator Giorgio DiSipio, a stunning lothario and local tailor who preys upon disenchanted and unfaithful wives, convinces twelve of them to kill their spouses for insurance money. The murder conspiracy is very successful until one lone assistant D.A., Tom Rossi, uncovers the plot and brings the perpetrators to justice. "Wicked Wives" is a story made for Hollywood, combining murder, corruption, treachery, love, lust and phenomenal detail as it vividly captures Depression-era Philadelphia.

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I couldn't have been more excited when author Gus Pelagetti asked me to review his book The Wicked Wives. I love true crime novels and the very idea of a bunch of women poisoning their husbands was more than a little provocative. I eagerly agreed to take on the book in exchange for an honest review.

Overall I liked the book but I particularly enjoyed the obvious effort Pelagetti put into making sure the complex web of intrigue didn't overwhelm his readers. Each part of the conspiracy evolves naturally, moving from one event to the next with fluidity I am unused to seeing in the work of first time authors.

Still, for all that I applaud this effort; I also feel the cast is rather shallowly characterized. Take Tom for example. We know he is the First Assistant D.A. with hopes of being elected D.A. when his superior retires, but reading the book cover to cover, I never really understood what drove this character. I wanted to know what made him tick, to get into his head, to understand why he is the way he is especially since he is the primary lead. There are so many characters that one could hardly expect to get to know them all, but still, I would have liked to see a lot more depth to characters like Tom, Hope and Giorgio.

Ultimately my rating came down to a single factor: I called who did it and nothing kills the ending of a whodunit so much realizing the hunch you've been sitting on most of the book is correct. Though I think Pelagatti's mystery has excellent movement, I can't say it kept me guessing and in the end that is what makes a mystery in my eyes. I want to be hanging on the author's every word, to be blown away by the reveal and that just didn't happen here.

Definitely interesting and worth looking into, especially to those who enjoy true crime novels.

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The NYSE did not return to pre-1929 levels until 1954, and in the years following the crash, every dollar was coveted. Desperate for money, a group of Philadelphia housewives found a way to get some of those coveted dollars. All it took was a willingness to kill. 
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Sunday, January 13, 2013

Roma by Steven Saylor

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Obtained from: Local Library
Read: January 13, 2013

Spanning a thousand years, and following the shifting fortunes of two families though the ages, this is the epic saga of Rome, the city and its people. Weaving history, legend, and new archaeological discoveries into a spellbinding narrative, critically acclaimed novelist Steven Saylor gives new life to the drama of the city’s first thousand years — from the founding of the city by the ill-fated twins Romulus and Remus, through Rome’s astonishing ascent to become the capitol of the most powerful empire in history. Roma recounts the tragedy of the hero-traitor Coriolanus, the capture of the city by the Gauls, the invasion of Hannibal, the bitter political struggles of the patricians and plebeians, and the ultimate death of Rome’s republic with the triumph, and assassination, of Julius Caesar. Witnessing this history, and sometimes playing key roles, are the descendants of two of Rome’s first families, the Potitius and Pinarius clans: One is the confidant of Romulus. One is born a slave and tempts a Vestal virgin to break her vows. One becomes a mass murderer. And one becomes the heir of Julius Caesar. Linking the generations is a mysterious talisman as ancient as the city itself. Epic in every sense of the word, Roma is a panoramic historical saga and Saylor’s finest achievement to date.

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A Vestal Virgin,, detail of an engraving
by Sir Frederic Leighton 
I had no expectations whatsoever going into Steven Saylor's Roma. I only stumbled on it by accident, deciding to read it on a whim more than anything else. I had no comprehension of what I was getting myself into, nor any real grasp of the extensive scope of material covered within these pages. This being the case you might understand what a pleasant surprise my ultimate enjoyment of the piece was.  

Most family sagas tell the story a family against the backdrop of history, but Saylor took Roma in the opposite direction, telling the story of Rome through several generations of two ancient households. Under Saylor's pen, Rome becomes a character in and of herself, more so than any of the individuals through which her story is told. It is an approach I'd never before encountered and one I found I greatly enjoyed.

I have never studied the history of Rome so many of the historic event and mythic legends Saylor incorporates into his work were entirely new to me. Not being well-versed in the the majority of the material, I found in every chapter something new and fascinating from the rape of Lucretia to the building of the Appian Way, from the founding of the Ara Maxima to the sacking of Rome by the Gallic Chieftain Brennus. Thoroughly captivating. There is just no other way to describe it.

Despite my appreciation for Roma, I wouldn't recommend it to the casual reader. This isn't character driven historic fiction. If that is your interest, look to Kate Quinn's Empress of the Seven Hills. No, the beauty of Saylor's work in his recreation of the social and political intricacies of the ancient city as well as the life he breathes into the events that shaped it. One need not be an authority to enjoy this book, but all the same, I think it best suited to those with a deep interest in the city's history and ancient culture. 

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In politics, reality and appearance are of equal importance. You cannot attend to one and neglect the other. A man must determine both what he is, and what others believe him to be.
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Saturday, January 12, 2013

A Murder at Rosamund's Gate by Susanna Calkins

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: January 12, 2013

For Lucy Campion, a seventeenth-century English chambermaid serving in the household of the local magistrate, life is an endless repetition of polishing pewter, emptying chamber pots, and dealing with other household chores until a fellow servant is ruthlessly killed, and someone she loves is wrongly arrested for the crime. To save this person from execution, Lucy finds herself venturing out of her expected station and into raucous printers’ shops, secretive gypsy camps, the foul streets of London, and even the bowels of Newgate prison on a trail that might lead her straight into the arms of the killer. In her debut novel, Susanna Calkins seamlessly blends historical detail, romance, and mystery into a moving and highly entertaining tale.

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I have mixed feelings about Susanna Calkins' A Murder at Rosamund's Gate. While I enjoyed the story both for its creativity and originality, there were aspects of it that didn't quite live up to my expectations. Please don't misunderstand, Calkins displays a wonderful imagination as well as a keen eye for intriguing subject matter within these pages, I simply feel she has room to grow as a storyteller.

Personally I like more complex characters than I found here. The cast of A Murder of Rosamund's Gate is interesting enough, but they come off a little flat and static. It isn't something I think will bother the casual reader, but think those with more particular tastes might have difficulty with such simple, cookie-cutter characterizations.

The other thing that rubbed at me was the exceedingly casual relationship between the Magistrate's family and their servants. The familiarity they exhibit towards one another just didn't feel authentic to me and proved a significant distraction. I realize this is something of a necessity for the sake of the story, but I can't say I found it appealing.

Since we are on the subject I want to address the issue some readers seem to be having with the modern terminology Calkins uses throughout A Murder at Rosamund's Gate. I love historic fiction and understand why it is ruffling feathers, but I think there is a difference between authors who make this error in ignorance as opposed to those who make an intentional decision for the benefit of their readers. Though I did mark the language during my reading, I find I am inclined to overlook it as Calkins took the time to explain herself in her notes - something I believe speaks to the personal love she has for the history that inspired her work, her professionalism and the respect she has for her audience.

Now what did I like about this book? I felt the mystery itself well-imagined and not entirely obvious which is quite an achievement for any author let alone one with only a single title to her name. I also felt the horrors of the Great Plague appropriately depicted as were the scenes that took place inside Newgate prison. No fluffy, vague, tiptoeing here and morbid as it sounds I will always appreciate conformity to historic fact over gentler fallacies.

Would I recommend Calkins' work? Certainly especially to those who enjoyed or think they might enjoy God Save the King or The Emperor's Conspiracy. Will I read her again? I fully intend to, rumor has it she already has a sequel in the works. I'm not above admitting it has a few hiccups, but still Calkins impressed me and I am most interested to see where she will go next. 

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The grimness in the city kept people out of the streets, a heavy fog further quelling the Londoners' spirits. No blooming bouquets, no dancing, and nary a maypole in sight, only withered dried flowers keeping death at bay.
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Sunday, January 6, 2013

The Midwife's Tale by Sam Thomas

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Read: January 6, 2013

It is 1644, and Parliament’s armies have risen against the King and laid siege to the city of York. Even as the city suffers at the rebels’ hands, midwife Bridget Hodgson becomes embroiled in a different sort of rebellion. One of Bridget’s friends, Esther Cooper, has been convicted of murdering her husband and sentenced to be burnt alive. Convinced that her friend is innocent, Bridget sets out to find the real killer. Bridget joins forces with Martha Hawkins, a servant who’s far more skilled with a knife than any respectable woman ought to be. To save Esther from the stake, they must dodge rebel artillery, confront a murderous figure from Martha’s past, and capture a brutal killer who will stop at nothing to cover his tracks. The investigation takes Bridget and Martha from the homes of the city’s most powerful families to the alleyways of its poorest neighborhoods. As they delve into the life of Esther’s murdered husband, they discover that his ostentatious Puritanism hid a deeply sinister secret life, and that far too often tyranny and treason go hand in hand.

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Sam Thomas' The Midwife's Tale is the kind of book you never see coming. You pick it up on a whim and before you know it you've been up half the night with your nose stuck between its pages. It is the kind of book I love stumbling across.

One my favorite aspects of this title appears in the Author's Note where Thomas' discloses the piece was inspired by the will of a real life midwife. His mystery is of course fiction, but Thomas' character was so vividly imagined, so tangible and authentic on the page, I just get a kick out of knowing she was based on someone who actually existed and commend Thomas for being able to so convincingly recreate the some of her spirit in his work.

Of course, Thomas' ability to create such wonderful characters wasn't the only impressive feature of his debut novel. I was also struck by how well-written the book is. Often I come across writers who rely on shock and awe to keep the reader's interest but Thomas' plot has a fluid and steady rhythm I greatly appreciate and I am not used to seeing in unseasoned authors.

An assistant history professor so it should come as no surprise that Thomas did his homework when it came to researching this piece, but what caught my attention was the manner in which he incorporated his research into the novel. There are no drawn out expositions in the book. No weighty passages stuffed with names, dates and trivia. Instead Thomas relies on subtle details to create a sense of life in the seventeenth century, things you hardly even notice as they are so appropriate to the telling they never disrupt the narrative.

The Midwife's Tale is not the most complicated mystery I have ever read, but the book is certainly one of the most fascinating historic pieces I've happened across. A beautifully crafted story that isn't to be missed.

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She is my friend and I am her midwife, so I cannot abandon her. I am the only chance she has to escape burning for a crime she says she did not commit.
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Check out all the stops on Sam Thomas' The Midwife's Tale virtual book tour

Monday, January 7
Review & Giveaway at A Chick Who Reads
Review & Giveaway at Flashlight Commentary

Tuesday, January 8
Review & Giveaway at Peeking Between the Pages

Wednesday, January 9
Review & Giveaway at Ageless Pages Reviews
Review & Author Interview at A Bookish Libraria

Thursday, January 10
Review at Raging Bibliomania
Friday, January 11
Review at The Musings of a Book Junkie

Monday, January 14
Review at A Bookish Affair
Tuesday, January 15
Review & Giveaway at Unabridged Chick

Wednesday, January 16
Feature & Giveaway at Book of Secrets

Monday, January 21
Review & Giveaway at Broken Teepee

Wednesday, January 23
Review at Book Journey
Review & Giveaway at Words and Peace

Thursday, January 24
Review at Book Dilettante
Review at Confessions of an Avid Reader

Friday, January 25
Review at Jenny Loves to ReadInterview at Unabridged Chick
Monday, January 28
Review at So Many Books, So Little Time

Tuesday, January 29
Feature & Giveaway at Passages to the Past

Wednesday, January 30
Review at The Bookworm
Review & Giveaway at Oh, for the Hook of a Book!

Thursday, January 31
Review at Book of Secrets
Review at Sharon’s Garden of Book Reviews
Review at The Musings of ALMYBNENR

Friday, February 1
Review at Reading the Past

Review at Impressions in Ink

A Breath of Eyre by Eve Marie Mont

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Local Library
Read: January 6, 2013

In this stunning, imaginative novel, Eve Marie Mont transports her modern-day heroine into the life of Jane Eyre to create a mesmerizing story of love, longing, and finding your place in the world... Emma Townsend has always believed in stories-the ones she reads voraciously, and the ones she creates. Perhaps it's because she feels like an outsider at her exclusive prep school, or because her stepmother doesn't come close to filling the void left by her mother's death. And her only romantic prospect-apart from a crush on her English teacher-is Gray Newman, a long-time friend who just adds to Emma's confusion. But escape soon arrives in an old leather-bound copy of Jane Eyre... Reading of Jane's isolation sparks a deep sense of kinship. Then fate takes things a leap further when a lightning storm catapults Emma right into Jane's body and her nineteenth-century world. As governess at Thornfield, Emma has a sense of belonging she's never known-and an attraction to the brooding Mr. Rochester. Now, moving between her two realities and uncovering secrets in both, Emma must decide whether her destiny lies in the pages of Jane's story, or in the unwritten chapters of her own...

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North Lees Hall, the inspiration behind Thornfield Hall
Image by J147 (CC-BY-SA-2.0), via Wikimedia Commons
I have a love-hate relationship with retellings. I find them a fascinating sub-genre, but concede they have as much potential to impress as they do to vex. Sometimes I am fortunate enough to cross paths with immensely satisfying reads such as Jax Garren's How Beauty Met the Beast, Elizabeth Bunce's A Cruse Dark as Gold or Sara Donati's Into the Wilderness. On the other end of the spectrum I have had titles that left me bitterly disappointed such as A.G. Gaughen's Scarlet, Alex Flinn's A Kiss in Time, or Steve Hockensmith's Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dawn of the Dreadfuls. Knowing where a book will fall is absolutely impossible which is why I tried to keep an open mind as I began Eve Marie Mont's A Breath of Eyre.

For the record I love Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre. In point of fact I reread the classic in conjunction with this novel in hopes of better appreciating Mont's work. Unfortunately I feel the decision actually detracted from the novel as it brought to light exactly how much of the original was sacrificed in its creation.

Jane Eyre Illustration by F. H. Townsend, 1868-1920
For instance, one of the primary themes in Bronte's work is that of forgiveness. Jane excuses the mistreatment she suffered as a member of the Reed household as well as Rochester's indiscretions and past wrongs. This idea is eliminated in the cross over portions of the retelling as the Reed family does not even make an appearance and Emma deviates significantly from Jane's path by ultimately refusing to overlook Rochester's actions in order to promote Mont's perception of feminism.

I say Mont's perception because I feel she imposed her modern sensibilities on Bronte's cast, something I feel entirely unjust for what is in part historic fiction, and in Jane's case, wholly unnecessary. For her time, Jane is the very definition of a feminist. By and large, Victorian women were not raised to value education nor were they expected to make decisions regarding their own futures. Bronte's Jane does both. She is a strong woman who defied the stereotypic roles to which society regulated her nineteenth century counterparts. In contrast, Mont uses Jane as a foil for Emma, allocating her to the role of doormat in order to promote Emma's 'superior' version of feminine independence.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
To say I was disappointed to see one of my favorite classics treated this way is something of an understatement. Mont's re-imagining of Bertha, her superficial recreation of Bronte's work as a period romance, the subtle alterations she made to Rochester's make-up... I don't mind retellings that deviate from the originals, but I feel the best ones are those that can emulate or at least compliment the work on which they are based. I didn't see that in A Breath of Eyre. Yes, Mont borrows Bronte's characters and certain events from their story, but I can't help feeling her work trivializes the merits and spirit of the classic.

Despite my ill-regard for this imprudence and the presentation of forgiveness as one of her own creations,  I did appreciate Mont's attempt to address some weightier subject matter, particularly as it applied to her target audience. Mental disorders, teenage romance, drug use, sex, alcohol, suicide... Mont covers all these subjects and more. I've never come across young adult fiction that covers these topics in such realistic tones and I couldn't admire the manner in which handled them more.

At the end of the day, A Breath of Eyre isn't something I would recommend as a retelling, but I think it fits the bill for those looking for intriguing young adult lit. For my part, I haven't given up on the Unbound series, the trilogy promises to incorporate elements from two more beloved classics, but I think my experience with the first installment will serve as something of a guide in the formation of my expectations from here on out.

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I feared what I had done to Jane's fate in coming here. But my curiosity as Emma far outweighed any sense of loyalty I felt to Jane's story.
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Friday, January 4, 2013

Lily's Plight by Sally Laity & Dianna Crawford

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: December 8, 2012

Journey to Pennsylvania back country during the French and Indian War. Indentured servant Lily Harwood has always thought of herself as a good Christian lass. . . until she is struck with a deeper, more profound plight than the war that rages around her. When her mistress’s husband returns home on a short furlough, Lily finds herself falling in love with him. As Lily is caught between passion and sorrow in harrowing times, can she find hope in the promises of God?

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Image by Luke M.
Used with Permission of the Artist
Those who follow my reviews might remember the disappointment I felt after completing book two in the Harwood House series, Mariah's Quest. It was the first of Laity and Crawford's novels that I issued less than four stars and it left me ambivalent about the final installment of the trilogy. That is, until I managed to get my hands on a copy of Lily's Plight.

One of my major complaints regarding Mariah's Quest was the lack of historic content, that the Barclay plantation was too far removed from the conflict, that in this regard it failed to equal the standard set its predecessor, Rose's Pledge, or Laity and Crawford's earlier work, the Freedom's Holy Light series which incorporated events from the American Revolution. In contrast, Lily's Plight takes us to the Waldon farm, to the Pennsylvania back country where a small community of intrepid homesteaders have carved out a rugged existence deep in the North American wilderness. Here the war isn't a thing whispered about at church socials or discussed over drinks at the local pub. Here the war real. Men serve in the militia, leaving their families to fend for themselves, wondering when their loved ones will return or if they will return at all. The historic angle of this series appeals to me a great deal and I was incredibly pleased to find myself back in the thick of things after being kept at a distance for so long. 

That being said I want to caution those who are easily offended. The Native people are portrayed as blood-thirsty savages, killers without remorse and though I understand the political incorrectness of this view I can forgive its inclusion. At this time, in this place, Anglo Americans had no real knowledge of the Native peoples and visa versa. Their information was based on fear, rumors and the violent confrontations that often take place as different societies struggle over the same piece of ground. The prejudice exhibited by the residents of Beaver Cove is not admirable, but it is at least historically accurate for individuals in their circumstances.

On the spiritual side I have to applaud Laity and Crawford. Not only did they tackle a delicate subject, they focused on one I have never before encountered in religious fiction. Usually I find stories of individuals who find faith or use it to get through some terrible circumstance, but here were two individuals struggling with feelings and emotions that came in direct conflict with their beliefs. When I realized this I couldn't help thinking that here was a story worth reading. Temptation and struggle, the fight to follow a path when the things you want are not yours to have. That is reality folks and I got to say, it makes pretty good fiction. Yes, Mrs. Waldon's passing makes the ending of the book inevitable, but the conflict John and Lily feel prior to that, the application of faith within the plot, all of it really impressed me.

It is safe to say I felt these ladies put together a wonderful story, one that more than made up for my experience with Mariah's Quest. A bit slow in places, predictable in the way most books of the genre are, but all in all a satisfying conclusion the Harwood House series.

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What might he have said to her if Eva Shepard wasn't hovering nearby? She didn't dare allow her imaginings to drift in that direction.
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Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Jane by Robin Maxwell

Rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Local Library
Read: December 8, 2012

Cambridge, England: 1905. Jane Porter is hardly a typical woman of her time. The only female student in Cambridge University’s medical program, she is far more comfortable in a lab coat, dissecting corpses, than she is in a corset and gown, sipping afternoon tea. A budding paleoanthropologist, Jane dreams of travelling the globe in search of fossils that will prove the evolutionary theories of her scientific hero, Charles Darwin. When dashing American explorer Ral Conrath invites Jane and her father on an expedition deep into West Africa, she can hardly believe her luck. Rising to the challenge, Jane finds an Africa that is every bit exotic and fascinating as she has always imagined. But she quickly learns that the lush jungle is full of secrets—and so is Ral Conrath. When danger strikes, Jane finds her hero, the key to humanity’s past, and an all-consuming love in one extraordinary man: Tarzan of the Apes.

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Never having read Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan books, I suppose I am at something of a disadvantage when it comes to reviewing Robin Maxwell's Jane. Still, I can't help feeling that there is value in my thoughts, that perhaps my unfamiliarity with the originals might present an alternative point of view for those readers like me who have never encountered the classic. Be warned, there are spoilers ahead.

I really liked the idea of Jane sitting down with Burroughs and relating her adventures, thus inspiring the books that made him famous, though I am not altogether convinced Burroughs' contributions were entirely necessary or appropriate. Would it have been so awful if the man merely admired her adventurous spirit? I guess I don't understand why Maxwell thought that relationship needed to include sexual undertones.

On the same note I wasn't a fan of Jane's preoccupation with sex. Though convenient for the story Maxwell wanted to tell, for a woman of Jane's era it seemed altogether wrong and for me personally, this aspect of her personality undermined the presentation of her character as a female academic of independent mind. Not to say that one can't be both, but on paper and in fiction it seemed a contradictory combination of motivations for a single cast member to possess.

While we are on the subject of things I didn't understand I suppose I should tackle the "New Egypt" story line Maxwell created. I'm going to be honest and tell you I found it ridiculous, but I also felt it in poor taste for a novel set on the west coast of Africa. Call me crazy, but why not give a nod to the native culture? Here again, I found myself both confused and disappointed.

Disappointment seems to have been something of a theme during my experience with this book, case and point being the way the story seems to emasculate its leading man. Did Jane really have master life in the jungle so quickly? It took Tarzan a lifetime to master these skills. Tarzan's accomplishments, the strength and fortitude necessary to his very survival is lost under Maxwell's pen. Not having read the original I don't know exactly how much damage is done to his character, but I can't imagine the story would have endured if its protagonist lacked the magnetism and charisma emulated in more than eighty Hollywood adaptations of Burroughs' work. I guess I don't understand why it is necessary to sacrifice one character's talents and triumphs when retelling their story from another's point of view.

There were things I liked. Jane's personal growth was a particularly satisfying aspect of the book and I also enjoyed Maxwell's writing style. It has been years since I have sampled this author and perhaps my memory is tinted various shades of rose, but the fact remains that I expected much more going into this book than I found between its pages.

*Addendum: While discussing this review with a friend, I was informed the Egyptian elements of the story are directly related to Burroughs' original works. I do not want to retract the portion of my review that addresses this plot element, it remains an accurate description of my feelings upon finishing the novel. Still, I want to note that my confusion and lack of appreciation is a byproduct modern day sensibilities and lack of familiarity with the classic works.

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But to hell with them! None of the other girls at Newnham had a fraction of the ambition that I did. I was going to make something of myself. Leave a mark on the world. And that was that.
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The Emperor's Conspiracy by Michelle Diener

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Obtained from: Personal Kindle Library
Read: January 1, 2013

Chance led to Charlotte Raven’s transformation from chimney sweep to zwealthy, educated noblewoman, but she still walks a delicate tightrope between two worlds, unable to turn her back on the ruthless crime lord who was once her childhood protector. When Lord Edward Durnham is tapped to solve the mystery of England’s rapidly disappearing gold, his search leads him to the stews of London, and Charlotte becomes his intriguing guide to the city’s dark, forbidding underworld. But as her involvement brings Charlotte to the attention of men who have no qualms about who they hurt, and as Edward forges a grudging alliance with the dangerous ghosts of Charlotte’s former life, she faces a choice: to continue living in limbo, or to close the door on the past and risk her heart and her happiness on an unpredictable future.

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Sixth months. That is how long I eyed Michelle Diener's work before getting my hands on a copy. The premise intrigued me, but even after buying the book I was hesitant. I had never encountered Diener's in my literary wanderings before and despite my optimism, I was nervous the piece wouldn't live up to my expectations. As it turns out I needn't have worried. I found The Emperor's Conspiracy both a satisfying and enjoyable read. Fair warning, there are spoilers ahead.

Still with me? Fantastic. First and foremost I love how Diener incorporated a real event into her fiction. At first glance Napoleon's attempt to destroy the English economy by exporting gold guineas sounds entirely too far-fetched to be true but then again, the best historic events are the ones that don't seem at all possible. Diener got a lot of points not only for exposing me to an event of which I was previously unaware, but also for the creativity she exhibited in adapting it to her fiction.

As for the fictional premise, well a chimney sweep turned noblewoman was and is a little too implausible for my taste, but I will say it made Charlotte's adventures into the rookeries relatively believable. Don't misunderstand, I really liked how it all played out, but the amateur historian in me wasn't exactly jumping for joy. It is a delightfully fun idea, but lacking the authenticity I look for in historic fiction and though I expected this going into the book, I wanted to share this personal preference in my review as it helps explain the rating I ultimately issued and serves as a bit of a warning to those who prefer weightier historic pieces.

Now I want to talk about character analysis, or rather one particular character analysis: Luke Braken. Oh my goodness, I love this guy. Driven, dedicated, resourceful, I'll admit he is a little warped, but I still can't get over the depth Diener put into him. At first his possessive regard for Charlotte annoyed me, but he became increasingly fascinating as more and more of his background came to light. Then came the moment. "'You want to talk to me about the thousands starving in the stews, while nobs like you ride past them in carriages that cost enough to keep them for life? You want to talk about the Hulks, and Old Bailey, where they lock up children as young as six years old, punishing them as it they were adults, all for take a scrap or two to feed themselves or their families? You want to stand there and tell me I betrayed England? No, Lord Nob, England has betrayed me.'" In that passage he became something entirely different; wounded, complicated, provocative, memorable. Did I mention I loved this character?

By contrast Charlotte and Edward left me wanting. Our heroine was interesting enough, but she never had that defining moment. She spends most of the story trying to keep a foot in each world and though she ultimately stands up and declares she will no longer live to please those around her, the moment is significantly subtler than Luke's, almost anticlimactic by comparison. Edward's journey is similarly bland. Like Charlotte's, it never stuck the chord I wanted it to.

So, will I be reading Diener again? Without a doubt. The Emperor's Conspiracy definitely isn't your average regency romance, that's for sure. An entertaining series of imaginative story lines interwoven with a complex historic mystery, perfect for any lover of light historic fiction.

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She smiled at the idea of being a captive princess of the rookeries, or a restrained mouse in the glitter of the ton. But Catherine's love and generosity had never come with a single string attached. That was what had won her battle.
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