Thursday, July 31, 2014

A Matter of Breeding by J. Sydney Jones

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Historical Novel Review/Netgalley
Read: April 30, 2014

1901. Karl Werthen and his colleague, renowned criminologist Dr Hanns Gross, are investigating a bizarre series of murders in the small Austrian town of Graz. Meanwhile, back in Vienna, Karl's wife Berthe is looking into what seems to be a fraudulent breeding scheme involving the prized Lipizzaner horses. Could the two investigations be connected?

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The fifth installment of Jones’ Viennese Mystery series finds Karl Werthen and Dr. Hans Gross puzzling over a peculiar succession ritualistic of murders in the close-knit village of Graz. In her husband’s absence, Berthe Werthen has stumbled onto a mystery of her own, a conspiracy that threatens to destroy one of Austria’s most recognized treasures: the world renowned Lipizzaners of the famed Spanish Riding School. Following a complex series of leads, the Werthens soon discover themselves in a high stakes web of violence, scandal and corruption.  

A brilliantly atmospheric novel, A Matter of Breeding paints a remarkable portrait of Vienna at the dawn of the twentieth century. The city literally comes to life in a radiantly authentic display of pageantry and prejudice, effectively drawing the reader into a bygone age. Cameo appearances by Archduke Franz Ferdinand, artist Tina Blau, and author Bram Stoker deepen the illusion and bring genuine flare to the narrative. 

The mystery itself is elaborate and thought-provoking and though I felt it somewhat overwhelming, I honestly appreciate the underlying themes of Jones’ intrigue. The characterizations are rather thin, suggesting it best to read the books chronologically, but all told I found A Matter of Breeding both enjoyable and entertaining. 

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Gross could well understand the man’s concern. Nearing retirement, Thielman wanted simple pathological killings, not some religiously motivated murder that would spark a racial firestorm.
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Shadow on the Crown by Patricia Bracewell

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: March 09, 2013

In 1002, fifteen­-year-old Emma of Normandy crosses the Narrow Sea to wed the much older King Athelred of England, whom she meets for the first time at the church door. Thrust into an unfamiliar and treacherous court, with a husband who mistrusts her, stepsons who resent her and a bewitching rival who covets her crown, Emma must defend herself against her enemies and secure her status as queen by bearing a son. Determined to outmaneuver her adversaries, Emma forges alliances with influential men at court and wins the affection of the English people. But her growing love for a man who is not her husband and the imminent threat of a Viking invasion jeopardize both her crown and her life. Based on real events recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Shadow on the Crown introduces readers to a fascinating, overlooked period of history and an unforgettable heroine whose quest to find her place in the world will resonate with modern readers.

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Patricia Bracewell's Shadow on the Crown marked my first encounter with Emma of Normandy. The historic record is sketchy at best, so it isn't as if there's a lot of information for those looking to learn more about her, but even the basics were new to me. Naturally this blank slate mentality made it difficult to discern where fact met fiction, but it also made reading the book a unique experience as I was able to really lose myself in the narrative. 

Bracewell's interpretation of Emma is wonderfully dynamic. She is passionate, resilient and astute, but there is a vulnerability in her make-up that rounds out her character and draws on the reader's sympathies. I found the fire and spirit Bracewell folded into Elgiva of Northampton equally fascinating and enjoyed watching the two vie for power in Æthelred's court

I admit Bracewell's depiction of the Anglo-Saxon king didn't make much of an impression on me, but his eldest son is another story entirely. Little is known about Athelstan and his siblings, but the romantic arc she constructed for Æthelred's sixteen year old heir was highly satisfying and speaks volumes about the author who imagined it. 

Finally, I thought the world these individuals inhabited beautifully developed. Though the novel is character driven, the reader is afforded a thorough understanding of the period, the lifestyle of the court, and the political stage on which Emma's story takes place. I personally believe atmosphere an essential factor in any fiction and can't help but appreciate the effort and research Bracewell put into crafting such an authentic setting.

Impossible to put down, Shadow on the Crown captivated my imagination from the start and left me itching to see how things will unfold in future installments of the trilogy. 

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As Norman bride and English queen she would walk a fine line between the interests of two rulers -- her brother and her lord. Both men would demand her fealty. One, at least, would exact a heavy price if she were to prove disloyal.
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Potions and Paper Cranes by Lan Fang

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Obtained from: Historical Novel Review
Read: May 26, 2014

A stark, honest portrayal of cursed love during the Japanese occupation of Java and the struggle for Indonesian independence. Sulis is a young woman selling potions in Surabaya's harbor district. She meets Sujono, a coolie with dreams of becoming a freedom fighter, and whose passion for Matsumi, a geisha called to Java by a Japanese general, is destined to ruin all of them. In Potions and Paper Cranes, each tells the story of their lives during the end of World War II and Indonesia's transition from a Dutch colony to an independent republic.

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My nose for World War II lit led me to Lan Fang's Potions and Paper Cranes, but my appreciation for the novel has nothing to with global events of the period. Shocking as it sounds, it was Fang's depiction of individual experiences that captured my imagination. 

The main story shifts points of view between Sulis, Sujono and Matsumi, something I liked as the role of each character alters with each narrative voice. It is an approach few could manage, but I felt Fang handled it beautifully. Another thing I liked was contrast in Fang's approach to Chinese, Indonesian and Japanese culture and how those influences might have interacted during the uncertainty brought on by the larger conflict.   

deeply intuitive tale, Potions and Paper Cranes is a naked assessment of human nature, a haunting narrative that touches something in the reader's soul and shakes them to the core. 

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Life taught me that I did not need to give answers because He would make arrangements. Life was a skillful player - I had befriended Him when I was child and knew He did not need any answer from me. Life would determine my fate.
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Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Blowing on Dandelions by Miralee Ferrell

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

Do Dandelion Wishes Actually Come True? Katherine Galloway knew this moment of calm wouldn’t last, blown away like the dandelion seeds she scattered as a girl. In 1880, three years after her husband’s death, she struggles to run an Oregon boardinghouse and raise two girls alone. Things don't get easier when her critical, domineering mother moves in. Katherine must make the situation work, but standing up for herself and her family while honoring her mother isn't easy. And with a daughter entering the teenage years, the pressure on Katherine becomes close to overwhelming. Then she crosses paths with Micah Jacobs, a widower who could reignite her heart, but she fears a relationship with him might send things over the edge. She must find the strength, wisdom, hope, and faith to remake her life, for everything is about to change.

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Every now and then I like to try titles that fall outside my usual interests. As a reader, the variation makes a nice change of pace, but I find sampling various genres also helps me grow as reviewer which is why I volunteered to review Miralee Ferrell's Blowing on Dandelions. 

I knew going in the book was a crapshoot. I'd never heard of the author or the series she was writing. The book is inspired fiction which is always hit and miss with me and the gentle premise didn't inspired a whole like of excitement on my part. Still, I tried to be optimistic about my chances and went in hoping for the best. 

Finishing the book was an interesting experience. I felt the story sweet and the characters solid even if they were a little soft. There is a lot of soul-searching within the narrative which made it easy to understand each narrator, but the treatment also dragged down the pacing, a fact which annoyed me almost as much as the lack of atmospheric detail. I liked the themes, but can't say the presentation or impact of those ideas was particularly significant.

When push comes to shove, I simply wasn't impressed. The story was heart-warming, but I feel it a modest and forgettable tale that will fade from memory in the near future.  

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Katherine tilted her chin up. No more self-pity nonsense today. Tomorrow would bring enough troubles, and she wouldn’t borrow against that time. She’d make the most of this beautiful day and pray that somehow Mama had changed in the past two years.
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In the Field of Grace by Tessa Afshar

Rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: June 12, 2014

Two women. Alone. With no provision. Can a woman who has lost everything, except her beloved mother, find hope in a foreign land? Ruth leaves her home with  a barren womb and an empty future, after losing her husband. She forsakes her abusive parents and follows the woman she has grown to love as a true parent, her husband's mother, Naomi. Ruth arrives in Israel with nothing to recommend her but Naomi's, love. She is destitute, grief-stricken, and unwanted by the people of God. Her loftiest hope is to provide enough food to save Naomi and herself from starvation. She is reduced to gathering leftovers once the harvesters have finished collecting grain from the field. A job only for the lowest of the low. But God has other plans for her life. While everyone considers Ruth an unworthy outsider, Ruth is shocked to find the owner of the field-one of the wealthiest and most honored men of Judah-is showing her favor.  Long since a widower and determined to stay that way, Boaz finds himself irresistibly drawn to the foreign woman with the dark, haunted eyes. He tells himself he is only being kind to his Cousin Naomi's chosen daughter when he goes out of his way to protect her from harm, but his heart knows better. Obstacles. Heartache. Withered dreams. How can God forge love, passion, and new hope between two such different people?

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In February 2013 I reviewed The Sinners and the Sea: The Untold Story of Noah's Wife by Rebecca Kanner and came out as self-admitted cover slut. I'd love to say things have changed, that I've matured into a more discerning individual, but no, good cover art still makes me weak in the knees. I get lightheaded, all rational thought goes out the window and I just can't help myself. Okay, not really. 

Don't misunderstand, DogEared Design, LLC is primarily responsible for my interest Tessa Afshar's In the Field of Grace, but I did actually look at the book's content before picking up the title. I'm not a huge fan of biblical fiction, I'm not even all that religious, but I am familiar with Ruth's story and felt it had potential in terms of a fictional narrative and looking back, I honestly wish I'd been able to appreciate the story more than I did. 

Afshar is a decent writer, but her style is far too preachy for my particular tastes. Take that as you will, publicly chastise me if it will make you feel better, but it wont change my opinion. Again, this has nothing to do with faith or some pre-existing prejudice, I just don't like when an author's tone eclipses their setting, characters, and/or plot. 

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“I could not imagine a better way to be remembered. I hope our descendants will understand that without the stones, there can be no oil. I pray they will learn fortitude and faith when they look at these trees you dream of planting.”
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Monday, July 28, 2014

Blade of the Samurai by Susan Spann

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Obtained from: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours/Netgalley
Read: June 7, 2014

June, 1565: Master ninja Hiro Hattori receives a pre-dawn visit from Kazu, a fellow shinobi working undercover at the shogunate. Hours before, the shogun’s cousin, Saburo, was stabbed to death in the shogun’s palace. The murder weapon: Kazu’s personal dagger. Kazu says he’s innocent, and begs for Hiro’s help, but his story gives Hiro reason to doubt the young shinobi’s claims. When the shogun summons Hiro and Father Mateo, the Portuguese Jesuit priest under Hiro’s protection, to find the killer, Hiro finds himself forced to choose between friendship and personal honor. The investigation reveals a plot to assassinate the shogun and overthrow the ruling Ashikaga clan. With Lord Oda’s enemy forces approaching Kyoto, and the murderer poised to strike again, Hiro must use his assassin’s skills to reveal the killer’s identity and protect the shogun at any cost. Kazu, now trapped in the city, still refuses to explain his whereabouts at the time of the murder. But a suspicious shogunate maid, Saburo’s wife, and the shogun’s stable master also had reasons to want Saburo dead. With the shogun demanding the murderer’s head before Lord Oda reaches the city, Hiro and Father Mateo must produce the killer in time... or die in his place. Susan Spann's Blade of the Samurai is a complex mystery that will transport readers to a thrilling and unforgettable adventure in sixteenth-century Japan.

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I felt I'd come late to the party when I picked up Susan Spann's Blade of the Samurai. Every review said her sophomore release was better than her debut and there I was jumping into book two, one eyebrow raised, wondering what the hell everyone was going on about. I'd never heard of the author, wasn't familiar with the series, was slightly wary of all the praise, and wasn't feeling it as I moved through the first few chapters. 

I don't know if it's because I was unfamiliar with the cast, was still getting to know Spann's voice or that I'm just a stubborn skeptic, but I struggled to get into this book and was half-convinced I'd be penning a lukewarm commentary when Spann threw a curve ball I didn't see coming.

Moving forward after that was an entirely different experience. Spann had caught me off guard and in so doing, engaged my interest. The general levity of the narrative was still difficult for me to digest, but the mystery at the heart of the novel more than made up for it. Shrewd, sophisticated and imaginative, Spann constructs a riddle that keeps her audience on their toes. 

From a historical perspective, there is a lot of interesting detail, particularly that pertaining to the samurai code and the Jesuit missionaries operating in Japan during the sixteenth century. There are also some rather lovely representations of Japanese architecture if ambiance is something you look for in literature.

In hindsight I wish I'd read the books in order as there are several elements that seem to build on concepts from the previous installment, but I can't say I regret the time spent with Blade of the Samurai. I ultimately enjoyed the story a great deal and would definitely recommend to anyone with an interest in culture based fiction. 

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Hiro understood the threat. Innocence wouldn't save Kazu if the guilty party escaped. Unfortunately, with Kazu gone, Hiro and Father Mateo were next in line and equally viable candidates for punishment. The law would hold Hiro liable because he was Kazu's friend. But the chain of responsibility extended upward too, and Father Mateo was Hiro's official employer. If anyone suspected Hiro of helping Kazu escape, or decided to punish him in Kazu's absence, the Jesuit would share the shinobi's penalty.
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Check Out All the Stops on Susan Spann's Blade of the Samurai Blog Tour Schedule

Monday, July 7
Spotlight & Giveaway at Passages to the Past
Tuesday, July 8
Review at Closed the Cover
Wednesday, July 9
Review at Staircase Wit
Guest Post & Giveaway at So Many Precious Books, So Little Time
Thursday, July 10
Review at Boolover Book Reviews
Monday, July 14
Review at Bibliophilia, Please
Wednesday, July 16
Review at Buried Under Books
Thursday, July 17
Spotlight at Reviews by Molly
Friday, July 18
Review at History Undressed
Monday, July 21
Review at Oh, For the Hook of a Book
Tuesday, July 22
Review at Judith Starkston
Interview at Oh, For the Hook of a Book
Thursday, July 24
Interview at Layered Pages
Friday, July 25
Review at The True Book Addict
Monday, July 28
Guest Post & Giveaway at Historical Fiction Connection
Tuesday, July 29
Review at Flashlight Commentary
Wednesday, July 30
Review at Princess of Eboli
Thursday, July 31
Review at A Fantastical Librarian
Friday, August 1
Review at Reading the Ages

Lies Told in Silence by M.K. Tod

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Read: June 22, 2014

In May 1914, Helene Noisette’s father believes war is imminent. Convinced Germany will head straight for Paris, he sends his wife, daughter, mother and younger son to Beaufort, a small village in northern France. But when war erupts two months later, the German army invades neutral Belgium, sweeping south towards Paris. And by the end of September, Beaufort is less than twenty miles from the front. During the years that follow, with the rumbling of guns ever present in the distance, three generations of women come together to cope with deprivation, fear and the dreadful impacts of war. In 1917, Helene falls in love with a young Canadian soldier wounded in the battle of Vimy Ridge. But war has a way of separating lovers and families, of twisting promises and dashing hopes, and of turning the naïve and innocent into the jaded and war-weary. As the months pass, Helene is forced to reconcile dreams for the future with harsh reality. Lies Told in Silence examines love and loss, duty and sacrifice, and the unexpected consequences of lies.

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“The torch be yours to hold it high.... though
poppies grow in Flanders Fields”. The poem is
"In Flanders Fields" by John McCrae.
Torch-bearing figure is in front of the
Vimy memorial.
Unravelled, M.K. Tod's debut novel, made quite an impression when I read it last year. Moving and emotionally authentic it was unlike any wartime romance I'd yet encountered and if I'm honest, it set an expectation that was unusually high for an newly published author. Naturally, I was both excited and nervous about tackling the follow-up, but Lies Told in Silence proved just as eloquent and emotive as its predecessor. 

Written as a complimentary stand-alone, Lies Told is Silence incorporates faces and events familiar to those who've read Unravelled, but the story is in no way dependent on Tod's original publication so one needn't worry over reading the books in any particular order. That said, I personally enjoyed picking out those details that connect the two and appreciate the effort Tod put into crafting continuity despite the varied motifs and themes of each piece.

A multi-generational story, Tod's chronicle of a French family during the chaos of WWI intrigued me for a number of reasons. First and foremost, I liked seeing the war from the perspective of those who bore witness to the destruction of their homeland rather than those who sought glory in its defense. I also enjoyed the contrast Tod created not only between the male and female characters, but among the different age groups represented within the narrative. 

Historically speaking, Tod offers a wonderfully detailed glimpse of the period, but as with Unravelled, I felt her understanding of what it means to be human amid the terror and torment of such hostilities outshone the fact-based elements of the book. Set against the backdrop of war, Tod writes of lives transformed by combat and the vitality of those left standing when the dust finally settles. Her books make wonderful war stories, but she is in her element writing not of the action, but of those caught in its wake. 

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Some days, Helene felt paralyzed by the indiscriminate fortunes of war. She reflected on Francois's need to confide in someone and society's expectation for men to be stoic. They must fear for themselves and their fellow soldiers. 
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Check Out All the Stops on M.K. Tod's Lies Told in Silence Blog Tour & Book Blast Schedule

Monday, July 28
Review at Unshelfish
Review at Flashlight Commentary
Book Blast at Our Wolves Den
Tuesday, July 29
Review at Just One More Chapter
Book Blast at Book Babe
Book Blast at A Book Geek
Book Blast at Mel’s Shelves
Wednesday, July 30
Review at Bookish
Guest Post at Just One More Chapter
Book Blast at Passages to the Past
Thursday, July 31
Book Blast at Royalty Free Fiction
Friday, August 1
Book Blast at Back Porchervations
Book Blast at So Many Books, So Little Time
Saturday, August 2
Book Blast at Mythical Books
Monday, August 4
Review & Guest Post at A Bookish Affair
Book Blast at Historical Tapestry
Tuesday, August 5
Book Blast at Layered Pages
Book Blast at Princess of Eboli
Book Blast at What Is That Book About
Wednesday, August 6
Book Blast at Literary Chanteuse
Book Blast at Caroline Wilson Writes
Thursday, August 7
Review at The Book Binder’s Daughter
Book Blast at Kinx’s Book Nook
Friday, August 8
Book Blast at The Maiden’s Court
Monday, August 11
Review at Dianne Ascroft Blog
Book Blast at Svetlana’s Reads and Views
Tuesday, August 12
Book Blast at Book Nerd
Book Blast at The Bookworm
Wednesday, August 13
Review at The Writing Desk
Thursday, August 14
Book Blast at Words and Peace
Book Blast at CelticLady’s Reviews
Friday, August 15
Review at Lost in Books
Book Blast at The Mad Reviewer
Sunday, August 17
Book Blast at Brooke Blogs

Monday, August 18
Review at The Librarian Fatale
Review at Historical Fiction Notebook
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To win a copy of M.K. Tod’s Lies Told In Silence please complete the Rafflecopter giveaway form below. 

Giveaway is open internationally!
Giveaway ends at 11:59pm on August 18th. You must be 18 or older to enter.
Winner will be chosen via Rafflecopter on August 19th and notified via email.
Winner have 48 hours to claim prize or new winner is chosen.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Interview with Elizabeth Fremantle, author of Sisters of Treason

Author interviews are one of my favorite things to post which is why I am super excited to welcome author Elizabeth Fremantle to Flashlight Commentary to discuss her latest release, Sisters of Treason. 

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Welcome to Flashlight Commentary Elizabeth. Great to have you with us. To start things off, please tell us a bit about Sisters of Treason.
Sisters of Treason opens with the execution of Lady Jane Grey about eight years after the end of Queen’s Gambit. Mary Tudor is on the throne, dragging the country back to strict Catholicism, and keeping a close eye on Jane Grey’s younger sisters for fear they might become the focus of plots to oust her. These Grey girls, living in constant danger, are the focus of the novel and their story is interwoven with that of royal portrait painter Levina Teerlinc, who offers an outsider’s perspective of the complex court politics. When Queen Mary dies childless it is her half sister Elizabeth who ascends to the throne, but things become increasingly difficult for the Grey girls. Their story is heartrending and tells of women, power, politics and thwarted love.

What inspired you to write this story? Where did it begin?
It is a natural progression from Queen’s Gambit in which we meet the three young women, Jane Grey and Elizabeth and Mary Tudor, who will all become queen. The stories of these women, and those of the younger Grey girls whose lives are inextricably enmeshed, allowed me to continue my exploration of the theme of women and power. 

Lady Catherine and Lady Mary Grey are rather well-known in the world of Tudor fiction. How did you approach characterizing these women for your story?
I’m not sure I agree that Katherine and Mary Grey are well known and I was particularly drawn to them as I felt they were less familiar than some other Tudor women. There is a fair amount about the girls in the historical record due to the fact that they were so close to the throne, so I extrapolated a sense of their personalities by researching the events of their lives and how they responded to them.

Jane Grey is makes a brief appearance in the novel, but leaves a lasting impression. Can you tell us a little about her role in the novel and how her fate affects Catherine and Mary?
It was my intention for Jane Grey, with the weight of her deeply tragic story, to haunt the narrative. In a sense she becomes the reason why Katherine and Mary become the women they do.

Your third narrator is Levina Teerlinc. Who is Levina and what about her appealed to you as an author?
I’m always interested in women who break the boundaries and Levina Teerlinc is one such woman. To have earned her living as a court painter was remarkable in an age when women were expected to be little more than obedient wives and mothers. Women, like Katherine Parr, who were early female writers are fascinating as they sought to find a voice from within a culture that denied them the right to be heard. It seems to me that Teerlinc, through her art, was seeking to express herself too. Very little is known about her life but her links, through her portraits, to the Grey family gave me the idea of interweaving their stories for the purposes of the novel. 

I personally loved your interpretation of Elizabeth. Why did you chose to portray her as you did in Sisters of Treason?
My portrayal of Elizabeth was dictated by the experiences of the Grey girls, as she is seen from their perspective and it seemed clear to me that they would have regarded her with great suspicion. I find her an endlessly fascinating woman who defies straightforward explanation.

Another character who stands out in my mind is Frances Grey. Can you tell us a little about her character?
Frances Grey has long been vilified on the strength of a single piece of hearsay recorded as the words of her daughter Jane suggesting that she was a harsh and violent mother; and because of her supposed overarching ambition she has been judged as largely responsible for her eldest daughter’s rise and subsequent fall. I chose to adopt the view of historian Leanda de Lisle (whose biography of the Grey girls is exceptional) who is of the mind that Frances has been misjudged. I wanted to show Frances as a woman thrust into an intolerable position and also as one who sought to put the safety and interests of her children above everything. 

Tudor England was very much a man’s world, but your story is told by women. How did you find balance between the masculine setting of the novel and its feminine voice?
For me it is precisely this tension that is interesting and was the reason I embarked on the Tudor trilogy.   

More than four hundred years separate you and your readers from period in which your story takes place. How did you bridge the gap in time to recreate Tudor England?
Almost all my research is textual and there is a great deal of historical material dealing with the era – from deeply personal letters to receipts and recipes – but beyond that architecture, portraiture and artifacts helped me build a plausible environment in which to set the action of my novels.   

You probably have many, but is there a scene you particularly enjoyed writing?
It may sound macabre but my favourite scenes to write are death scenes; they are so invested with emotion and I find myself completely immersed in them whilst writing. Though perhaps it is a stretch to call the task enjoyable, it is entirely absorbing and I am usually in floods of tears as I write. In Sisters of Treason it was probably the execution of Lady Jane Grey, as it is such a pivotal event in terms of the narrative.

What scene posed the greatest challenge for you as an author? Why was it troublesome and how did you work through it?
It is not so much individual scenes that pose the greatest challenges but in making all the scenes hang together in a cohesive whole and making the narrative flow so that the reader remains engaged.  

Sometimes fiction takes on a life of its own and forces the author to make sacrifices for the sake of the story. Is there a character or concept you wish you could have spent more time with or expanded on?
There was an event in Katherine grey’s life that I had originally included but which slowed down the narrative at a crucial moment. I resisted making the cut because I felt it was such an interesting episode but my editor was right in that it took the focus away from the drive of the main story. There are a thousand digressions one could potentially make in any historical story and it is my job to decide which to follow and which to leave out. I like to include biographical notes at the end of the book to air some of those stories.

Historical novelists frequently have to adjustment facts to make their stories work. Did you have to invent or change anything while writing Sisters of Treason and if so, what did you alter and why?
Much of history is disputed and as a fiction writer I have to take a position on a particular version of events and stick to it. There is no place for indecision in fiction, as characters would end up being implausible. It is my policy to be entirely respectful of the history we know and it is in the gaps between that knowledge where I allow my imagination to reign. For example there is no record of a close relationship between Frances Grey and Levina Teerlinc but for me there was enough – the portraits of Katherine Grey, shared religious beliefs and that they had both been in Katherine Parr’s household – to support my creation of a fictional friendship within the world of the novel. 

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?
Probably Mary Grey because, as a disabled woman, she held a unique position at court. I admire greatly the courage and defiance she showed.

Just because I’m curious, if you could pick a fantasy cast of actors to play the primary roles in a screen adaptation of your work, who would you hire?
My characters all exist fully formed in my head so it’s impossible to imagine them played by actors, but I have sold the screen rights to Queen’s Gambit so I suppose I might one day discover what it is like to see my creations depicted in that way. 

Okay, we've talked a lot about your book. Let's switch gears and talk a little bit about you. How would describe your writing process?
I write a strict minimum of 1,000 words a day and I’m very disciplined about this. I am of the school of thought that writing is ten percent talent and ninety percent discipline. 

Who are your favorite authors?
Stephan Zweig is a particular favourite – Beware of Pity is an astonishingly good novel. I enjoy the work of women writers of the early twentieth century like Daphne du Maurier, Elizabeth Taylor and Rosamund Lehman and have a particular fondness for Elizabethan poetry: I can read Sidney and Shakespeare’s sonnets endlessly. Of contemporary authors I’m a fan of Rose Tremain, Sarah Waters and Hilary Mantel. 

What are you currently reading?
I’m reading Elizabeth Buchan’s forthcoming novel, I can’t Begin to Tell You, about female spies in Denmark in WW2. I’m finding it hard to put down.  

What do you like to do when you're not writing? Any hobbies?
I’m a cinema fan, and have a particular liking for 1930s screwball comedies. Much of my leisure time is spent visiting galleries, museums and old houses, which is essentially research – I suppose I am hardly ever not working, even when I’m walking my dogs I’m thinking about my writing. 

Where do you stand on the coffee or tea debate?
Tea, most definitely, strong and with a drop of milk please! 

And finally, what's next for you? Do you have a new project in the works?
I have just delivered my third novel, which completes my Tudor trilogy. It focuses on the last gasps of Elizabeth’s reign and the Essex uprising. The story is set around Essex’s sister, Lady Penelope Devereux, a woman who was no stranger to controversy. Following that I have planned a Stuart quartet, which will begin with the story of Arbella Stuart a girl raised to be Queen of England whose expectations were tragically thwarted. 

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As a child I was the one in the corner with my nose in a book who wanted to be a writer, but with the onset of a turbulent adolescence I left school under a cloud aged fifteen with nothing more than a fistful of O Levels and a hapless sense that things would somehow work themselves out. Eventually, after working in various dodgy dives – I've served grey scrambled eggs to squaddies at 5.30am; I've served vintage champagne to raucous hoorays; I've pulled pints for all and sundry – I managed to find myself, much in the way Forrest Gump always landed on his feet, working as a dogsbody on a fashion magazine. From there I climbed the slippery pole that is fashion, working for titles such as Vogue, Elle and The Sunday Times and contributing to many others.

Marriage took me to Paris, a stint at French Vogue and the birth of my two gorgeous children but divorce saw me back in Blighty where I have happily remained, in London, the city that spawned me. Fuelled by frustration with the fashion world I decided to complete my truncated education, enrolling on a BA in English at Birkbeck and miraculously achieving a first – I couldn't have surprised myself more. I followed that with an MA in Creative Writing and driven by blind optimism had the barmy idea that I would fulfil my childhood dream of becoming a novelist. 

A decade on that is what I am, but had I known it would be as hard as it has been to get to this point – a trio of what I now think of as 'practice' novels; a file stuffed with rejection letters from agents and publishers; touting for other work to support my writing habit – I wonder if I would have done it... I think I probably would.

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"If you love historic royal fiction (with a dash of romance) you'll want to pick up Elizabeth Fremantle's Sisters of Treason, about two sisters reeling after the execution of their teenage sister, having been on the throne for just days." - PopSugar

“An enthralling story of love and tyranny, Sisters of Treason brings the Tudor Courts to life again, in all their romance and horror.” - Leanda de Lisle, author of Tudor: The Family Story

“Tudor fiction fans will enjoy Fremantle’s fresh take, marked by solid writing and absorbing detail, on a rather well-told tale.” - Library Journal

"I did not expect to become so involved in this story, but I did. Lots of detail, spectacular writing, and an engaging plot kept me involved right to the very last page. Definitely a book not to overlook, especially if you are a fan of English history!" - Great Historicals

"There is no doubt that this new voice in historical fiction really knows how to bring the royal court alive in a believable and realistic way. Beautifully written and meticulously researched Sisters of Treason abounds with danger and political skulduggery, and offers a unique insight into a royal court where being a potential Tudor heir and female was fraught with danger, and which ultimately would have no happy ending for any of the trio of Grey sisters." - Jaffareadstoo, Amazon Reviewer

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Format: Print & eBook
Publication Date: July 8, 2014
Released by: Simon & Schuster
ISBN-13: 978-1476703091
Length: 448 pages
Genre: Historical Fiction

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Friday, July 18, 2014

Grand Central: Original Stories of Postwar Love and Reunion by Karen White, Kristina McMorris, Jenna Blum, Sarah Jio, Alyson Richman,Pam Jenoff, Erika Robuck, Amanda Hodgkinson, Melaine Benjamin & Sarah McCoy

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Obtained from: Personal Kindle Library
Read: July 18, 2014

A war bride awaits the arrival of her GI husband at the platform… A Holocaust survivor works at the Oyster Bar, where a customer reminds him of his late mother… A Hollywood hopeful anticipates her first screen test and a chance at stardom in the Kissing Room… On any particular day, thousands upon thousands of people pass through New York City’s Grand Central Terminal, through the whispering gallery, beneath the ceiling of stars, and past the information booth and its beckoning four-faced clock, to whatever destination is calling them. It is a place where people come to say hello and good-bye. And each person has a story to tell. Now, ten bestselling authors inspired by this iconic landmark have created their own stories, set just after the end of World War II, in a time of hope, uncertainty, change, and renewal…

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Grand Central Terminal

I don't read a lot of anthologies. In point of fact I actually make serious effort to avoid them whenever possible. I know it isn't fair, but these collections drive me crazy. The authors are rarely matched, the stories usually bleed together and by the time I reach the end, I usually want to scream. 

Now I know what you're thinking. If I hate these publications so much, why did I not only pick up, but actually spend money on Grand Central? The answer my friends is simple: World War II. I'm a sucker for any fiction set during the conflict. The fact that three of my favorite authors happened to contribute to the collection didn't hurt, but the truth is, if it connects to the war, I'm in. No questions asked. 

Fair warning friends, what follows promises to be a long review so please make yourselves comfortable. On the rare occasions in which I've consented to review an anthology, I've made a habit of offering thoughts to each author and with ten contributors on the docket... you get the idea. 

Before I get too far ahead of myself, however, I do want to note how well each of the stories fit together. Though each entry touches on something unique and often times profound, Grand Central is very much a collective narrative that highlights the individual style of each author as well as their ability to work collaboratively. Reading this book was everything experience has taught me not to expect from such collections, but the attention to detail and mutual respect shown by each contributor made discovering these stories a rare pleasure. 

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Going Home by Alyson Richman
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Alyson Richman was one of the three authors whose contributions prompted my notice of Grand Central and as usual, she did not leave me disappointed. 

The nature of the anthology requires that Gregori and Liesel's story be brief, but I loved what Richmond did with it. I found the concept of two people connecting through music amid the hustle and bustle of Grand Central quite romantic and I loved her nod to the old world masters and the comfort cultural compositions might have brought those who escaped the turmoil and devastation of the war. I also appreciated the addition of historic references such as those to Carl Laemmle and Terezin as these facts anchored the story to the period and added depth where I didn't expect to find it. 

"He realized he was playing it both for himself and for the girl, two strangers in New York who were neither Americans nor complete refugees. But a pair of souls finding themselves caught between each of those worlds."

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The Lucky One by Jenna Blum
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This being my first experience with Jenna Blum, I had no idea what to expect from The Lucky One, but was both pleasantly surprised and thoroughly impressed with her contribution to Grand Central. 

A powerful short, the story centers Peter, a German Holocaust survivor who is haunted by the ghosts of loved ones lost in the genocide. Though notably less atmospheric than Going Home, The Lucky One is remarkably emotive. Blum taps into something incredibly poignant in her deft interpretation of Peter's experience, his personal loss and his struggle to move forward in a world whose prejudice and perceptions find him socially displaced.  

"What did it matter whether he was performing like a trained seal or lying on the cot in the Loom Room, hands crossed behind his neck, staring into the dark? There was no place he wasn't without them, Masha and Vivi and Ginger, and no place where he could be with them either. There was no respite from this grinding existence, no restful place anywhere anymore."

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The Branch of Hazel by Sarah McCoy
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Sarah McCoy's The Branch of Hazel is factually interesting, but I admit I found the piece something of a challenge. Historically speaking I loved the material in Cata's story, but I couldn't help feeling as though I were missing something.

It is my understanding that both Cata and Hazel were introduced in McCoy's The Baker's Daughter, a fact which probably explains my bewilderment as I've not yet had opportunity to read the title. Still, I was drawn to McCoy's use of the Lebensborn program and the varied emotions and ideologies she attributed to the mothers who took part. 

"So many people believe that his minute is all here is to the story, when in truth it is so much larger and freer than that. It is the wind sweeping up to the stars and bubbling down through the fathoms, round and through the planet regardless of our temporal lives."

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The Kissing Room by Melanie Benjamin
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I was more than eager to get into Melanie Benjamin's The Kissing Room. Already a fan of her work, I was intrigued by the title of her piece and couldn't wait to see how it played into the anthology. 

Several things about this chapter really appealed to me. One, it incorporated an aspect of the terminal as a major component in the story. Two, the lead was not an immigrant and had a mindset that was very different from the characters I'd already been introduced to. Three, Marjorie's naivety is fun to read and offers a nice break from the heavier drama in McCoy, Blum and Richman's contributions. And four, the ending. I wont ruin it for you, but I loved the one-eighty Benjamin pulled off and how that moment stood in such contrast to the rest of the short. 

But onstage, underneath a mask of makeup with her hair pinned up inside a hot wig, wearing a threadbare, stained costume that still turned her into someone else entirely; onstage, beneath bright lights that nourished her, fed her, made her blossom and go and expand...

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I'll Be Seeing You by Sarah Jio
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Confession: The title of Sarah Jio's contribution made poor first impression. No joke, I actually stifled a groan. I adore Sinatra as much as the next girl, but the nod to his iconic tune is such a cliché. Don't believe me? Ask Suzanne Hayes, Margaret Mayhew, Benita Brown, Jerry Borrowman...

Now my initial reaction aside, I loved this story and not just because I need a Grace in my life. This whole idea of standing at a crossroad, needing closure, being intimidated by the decisions one is faced with - the whole thing spoke to my soul. I'm not much of a crier, but if I were I would have been reaching for a tissue over this one. Sentimental and stirring, Rose's story isn't one I'll soon forget. 

"The details of true love are so faint that sometimes we fail to see them unless we stop and look more closely. They're there, you just have to really want to see them." 

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I'll Walk Alone by Erika Robuck
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This sounds ridiculous, but I'm actually speechless. Like Sarah Jio, Erika Robuck tapped into something raw and relatable. I know I shouldn't make this about me, but there is a moment in this piece where I literally saw myself and had to do a double take before continuing. 

Josie's story is heartbreaking, but it is also hopeful. There is something very authentic in Robuck's submission, something intimate and emotional. Again, I'm not one to blubber, but I really liked how Robuck harnessed such an intense theme and molded into something that is both meaningful and thought-provoking. 

I should have seen the strength of his charm and been wary, but I was just as snowed as everyone else...

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The Reunion by Kristina McMorris
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Moving back into period specific fiction, author Kristina McMorris' The Reunion tackles two birds with one stone. Touching on both female pilots and the loss of a fellow service member, her submission adds new dimension to the collection for its incorporation of topics yet seen in Grand Central.

I don't want to downplay the historic content in this piece, but I truly appreciated McMorris' depiction of feminine friendship. Maybe it's just me, but I found the complex dynamic she created between Millie and Virginia refreshing for its accuracy. At risk of looking the fool, I'll also admit to developing a bit of a literary crush on Taz. I know the adage, boys are better in books, but the simple charm in McMorris' portrayal of her romantic lead added much to the story. 

Trust your instincts, she heard Millie say. And only then did it occur to Virginia that maybe, all along, the advice was intended for more than flying. 

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Tin Town by Amanda Hodgkinson
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War brides are easily one of the most romantic plot points in war fiction, so I figured it was only a matter of time before one appeared in Grand Central and while it took longer than expected, my assumption proved correct with Amanda Hodgkinson's Tin Town.

Interestingly enough, this piece proved one of the more intriguing submissions in the collection. Traditionally, we think of young women, running into rushed affairs with dashing soldiers, but Hodgkinson threw readers a curve ball in matching a widowed English mother with a New York lawyer turned officer. Told from the perspective of a child, Hodgkinson turns the romantic stereotype on its head while examining the magnitude of what happened to those women who crossed the Atlantic for their GIs. 

We hadn't seen Jack for five months. He'd gone back to America in April, just before the war. Would I even recognize him without his uniform?

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Strand of Pearls by Pam Jenoff
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Strand of Pearls was a fun piece for me. Jenoff has been on my favorites list for a while, but the fact that I read Grand Central while reading The Winter Guest marked the first time I'd ever attempted two works by the same author at the same time.

Does this mean I favored her? No. In fact I was probably harder on this piece than I was any other as I couldn't help cross-comparing the two, but that's neither here nor there. What I liked about this piece is how Jenoff used Ella and David to examine micro level issues like survivor's guilt and faith, as well as macro level points such as global politics and cultural change in the aftermath of World War II. The ending hit a little close to home, but even so, I liked the piece and can't help wishing there were more to Ella's story.

There were soldiers everywhere. Though the heaviness of the war had lifted from their faces, the pain and hardship were still fresh enough that their eyes danced with appreciation at everything ordinary around them. 

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The Harvest Season by Karen White
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Of all the contributors to Grand Central, Karen White was the only name with which I was entirely unfamiliar. I checked her out before opening the anthology and I wasn't exactly sold so the fact that her submission is my favorite is as much a surprise to me as it is anyone reading this. 

There is so much in this piece that I hardly know where to begin. White's treatment of Germanophobia by itself would have hooked me, but the story she created between Will and Ginny was so wonderfully unpredictable... It sounds like a cheesy pitch, and I don't mean to sway anyone as every story in this collection is worth reading, but if you limit yourself to one, let The Harvest Season be the one you choose. 

Three years is a lifetime when each minute is measured by all the things that have been lost.