Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Wild Hunt by Elizabeth Chadwick

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Obtained from: Personal Library
Read: September 27, 2015

During the 12th-century Welsh March Wars, King William Rufus orders Guyon, 28, to marry nearly 16-year-old Judith in order to secure lands from Judith's despised uncle, Lord Robert de Belleme. As the marriage begins, Guyon is angry and Judith is terrified. He is experienced in both love and war, and is hostile about marrying this child and surrounding himself with such a nest of political vipers. Judith, having watched her father abuse her mother, expects her own marriage to include rape, beatings, and humiliation. What gradually develops between them is a trust and respect that eventually blooms into a passionate love. Their story is tightly interwoven with a tenuous political situation as brothers battle for the kingdom and the barons divide themselves between the factions.

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William II and Henry I of England
I've read Elizabeth Chadwick's The Wild Hunt three times now and I love it as much today as I did when I first discovered it. As a teen, I was seduced by the romance between Guyon and Judith, but as an adult I find myself draw to the characters, atmosphere, politics, history and emotional conflict. Romance aside, there is a certain timelessness to the narrative that appeals on a variety of levels. 

Guyon's relationship with Judith might sound odd to some, but the pairing of a twenty-eight year old to a maid of sixteen was quite acceptable in the twelfth century and I like that Chadwick didn't shy from exploring the intricacies of that age gap. The novel spans four years and the emotions she illustrates in both hero and heroine are intensely authentic. The relationship ebbs and flows, it changes as the characters grow together and that really worked for me. 

Guyon's relationship Rhosyn is equally intriguing. Chadwick's treatment of the Welshwoman in downright captivating. On the surface, she is Judith's rival, a pebble in the boot of the Lady's marriage, but as a reader I couldn't help respecting Rhosyn's position and spirit. She is honest to herself, kind, generous, gentle, sensitive, accepting, practical and realistic. I liked that. Too often, authors paint the other woman in extreme shades, but I felt Chadwick's approach thought-provoking and appreciate how she handled Guyon's conflicting emotional allegiances without physical infidelity or blatant stereotyping. 

Several members of the supporting cast also caught my eye. The author had no cause to develop them as she did, but conflicts each faced over the course of the story added much to the fabric of the narrative. Eluned's childish infatuation and jealousy, Rhys' sense of possession and developing understanding of the world and Alicia's struggle for happiness both during and after her marriage pulled me further into the story. Each has an individual journey and I liked how their struggles played into the main story line. 

Chadwick's book marked my first introduction to the Welsh March Wars, but I've learned a lot about them over the years and revisiting the novel only heightens my admiration for her handling of the material. Most who read the book will remember the character drama, but the power struggle between Guyon and the other marcher lords is rather interesting if you've an interest in period politics. The novel touches on the death of William II and ascension of Henry I, but Chadwick's focus is definitely on the border violence that characterized the age. 

Atmospherically, I love this piece. There are a couple of words, treadmill for example, that stand out like sore thumbs, but for the most part the language and descriptions feel genuine to the era. Chadwick obviously understands the period and the lifestyles of those who lived in it. Folk remedies such as moldy bread are prominently depicted, but no one feigns to know why the treatment is effective and there are no undue hints that the concoction of bacteria on the aging crusts is in fact penicillin.

Bottom line, The Wild Hunt is a wonderful book. Brilliant in both historic detail and fictional drama. Highly recommended. 

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"I cannot tell you, love. Call it a political secret if you will, or just plain discretion. It is a confidence I think I would rather die than break."
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Thursday, September 24, 2015

Kurinji Flowers by Clare Flynn

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Obtained from: Kindle Unlimited
Read: August 10, 2015

It is 1936. Ginny Dunbar, an 18-year-old debutante and amateur artist, has been exploited for years by a charismatic, older man. The fallout from this abusive relationship jeopardises her future. Ginny gets a second chance with a new start living on a tea plantation in India. Left to cope with the repercussions of her past, Ginny has to battle her inner demons, the expectations of her husband, mother-in-law, and colonial British society, and her prejudices towards India and its people. Set in South India during World War II and India's struggle for independence, Kurinji Flowers traces a young woman’s journey through loss, loneliness, hope, and betrayal to unexpected love and self-discovery. 

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Kurinji Flowers by Suresh Krishna
The Kindle Unlimited catalog is chock full of titles. I've browsed it a couple of times and bookmarked more than a few promising pieces, among them, Clare Flynn's Kurinji Flowers. None of my friends had read it, but the premise sounded different and I loved the idea of a WWII story set in a nontraditional locale so I threw caution to the wind and checked it out.

Fortune, it's said, favors the bold and my daring was justly rewarded. I felt certain aspects of the novel could have been stronger, but I genuinely appreciated a lot of Flynn's ideas and admired much of the material she incorporated into Ginny's story. The social structure of the British, its contrast to that of the natives, and the inevitable struggle between the two was particularly noteworthy. I felt the relationship between Ginny and her mother struck a very intriguing note and I liked the subtle way that politics influenced events as the story progressed. 

Not to downplay Ginny, but I was fascinated by three of Flynn's male characters. Hector is a flat out brilliant addition to the piece. His character arc really appealed to me and I felt Flynn's treatment of his trials both appropriate to the period and sensitive to the subject matter. Rupert is a disgusting example of humanity, but such individuals do exist and despite my distaste, I admit a certain appreciation for Flynn's depiction of his depraved personality. I genuinely disliked him and right or wrong, my lack indifference speaks to a penetrating characterization and that is something I feel all authors should strive for. Tony rounds out the trio and though I felt his dialogue annoyingly reminiscent of Phil in Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, I felt his emotional journey the most engaging of the narrative. He is arrogant, but weak, sheltered and naive. He strives to fulfill society's expectations, but he is woefully ill-prepared to do so. I might be alone here, but I liked seeing so much emotional conflict and individual struggle in a male character. I personally thought it a refreshing change of pace and lent a certain authenticity to him and his role. 

Thematically, I liked what Flynn presented, but I'm not ashamed to say I felt there was too much going on. There is a lot of great concept material within these pages, but the various concepts compete for the reader's attention and I don't think any is explored as thoroughly as it could have been. Looking back, I certainly appreciate where the story went, but I can't help wishing Flynn hadn't tried to fit many underlying motifs into a single piece. Not to sound picky, but I honing in and really developing one or two of these ideas would have been more satisfying on the reader's end.

That said, I've no regrets over the time I spent with Kurinji Flowers. I found the novel original and thought-provoking and look forward to reading more of Flynn's work. 

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"Because we can. It's called running the empire. We've been getting away with it for centuries. But our days are numbered. It's only a matter of time before we have to throw in and give them what they want - what is, after all, their right. Then, they'll probably kick the lot of us out. They'll be glad to see the back of us."
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Thursday, September 17, 2015

Interview with Nathan Dylan Goodwin, author of The Orange Lilies

Author interviews are one of my favorite things to post which is why I am super excited to welcome author Nathan Dylan Goodwin to Flashlight Commentary to discuss The Orange Lilies.

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Welcome to Flashlight Commentary Nathan. It’s great to have you with us. To start things off, please tell us a bit about The Orange Lilies and Forensic Genealogist series.
Thank you for having me! Okay, so The Orange Lilies is a novella that can be read either as a stand-alone story or as a part of the Forensic Genealogist series. Technically it’s book 2.5, but Amazon weren’t keen on the decimal!  As with the other books in the series, it has a dual narrative—one running in the modern day and one running in the past—in this case, December 1914. The other books in the series have featured the forensic genealogist, Morton Farrier investigating mysteries, murders and mayhem in other people’s family trees, but in this book Morton gets to spend some time uncovering his own ancestors’ secrets. The past narrative shows the opening months of WW1 from the perspective of Morton’s great great grandparents, Charles and Nellie Farrier.

The books all feature Morton Farrier. Can you tell us about his personality and point of view? 
Morton was told at the age of sixteen that he was adopted, which created a shadow over his life that was partly the motivation for his becoming a forensic genealogist. His stubbornness and determination to help others reveal their family mysteries has been a way for him to ignore questions over his own past. Fascinated by history, he lives in a quirky house in Rye, England with his fiancée, Juliette. He doesn’t like to travel too far, so all of his cases have been in the South of England! He’s got a dark sense of humour and a bit of an addiction to coffee.

Why do you think your books appeal to so many readers?   
I’m very fortunate that my books overlap several genres—crime, mystery and historical fiction, so that gives me quite a scope for readership. However, it is the genealogical aspect to my books that appears to have the largest appeal; genealogy is a niche market, but it’s a big niche! Genealogists, by definition, love a good mystery, so they seem to enjoy my books! The positive feedback from the genealogy community has been tremendous.

The Orange Lilies features many memorable characters, but I was particularly struck by Margaret and Nellie. How would you describe these women and who or what inspired them? 
In the early stages of writing The Orange Lilies, Nellie was a bit more of a background, passive character whose actions and behaviour were dictated by people and events around her. She felt to me like a much stronger, decisive character than she was coming across, so in the redrafts of the story, much more of her personality and strength came through. Then, as the story developed, she actually became the linchpin of the story, providing one of the links from past to present. Nellie’s granddaughter, Margaret provides the other link. The Orange Lilies shows Margaret’s transition from a young, naïve schoolgirl through some difficult times to becoming a crucial element in Morton’s elusive past. I really enjoyed writing both these characters and, alongside Morton’s fiancée, Juliette, they provide a colourful contrast to the men in the story.

Charlie’s experiences in the trenches of WWI are brilliantly imagined in the novella. Were they difficult to write considering the nature of the material?  
Yes, very! The book has been the most difficult of the series to write so far because the past narrative is based on the real diaries of the Second Battalion of the Royal Sussex Regiment, something that I felt it was very important to get right. It was difficult trying to negotiate the need to tell the facts of the story whilst also attempting to bring something new or different to a period of time that has been written about so frequently and so well already. I read a lot around the subject and tried to imagine how I would have reacted to such horror and acute distortion of humanity; by the end of my research, I had a really deep sympathy for those men and what they had to endure.

A WW1 postcard
What sort of research went into The Orange Lilies? What sources did find most valuable? 
I tried to steer away from other people’s fictional accounts of WW1 and concentrate on the factual accounts and letters of soldiers who were serving in the trenches. The main basis of the research was the unit diaries of the Second Battalion of the Royal Sussex Regiment, that gave in-depth information on the locations, movements, activity and casualties on a day-by-day basis, which I replicated in the book. I had already researched some of the wartime activities of the Royal Sussex Regiment, as two of my relatives served with them. The other main research that I undertook provided the genealogical aspects of the book, all of which are real.

You probably have many, but is there a scene you particularly enjoyed writing?
I always enjoy developing the subplot of Morton’s background, so it was lovely to see him make progress on that front! But I think the scene I enjoyed writing the most was probably the 26th December 1914, when Charles Farrier has an epiphany that changes the course of his life and the lives of those around him. His decisions that night have a far-reaching impact that even stretch through to Morton in the modern day. This scene is the only part of the past narrative involving Charles Farrier which is not based on the unit diaries, so there was an element of extra freedom there!

What scene posed the greatest challenge for you as an author? Why was it troublesome and how did you work through it?  
I found the biggest challenge was writing the factual scenes involving death on such a large scale. In one scene Charles Farrier is sent out to check the wire perimeter, only to be confronted with more than a hundred dead German soldiers. What must that have been like? It was very hard to imagine what must have gone through the minds of those men surveying such regular atrocities. The soldier who accompanies Charles is full of a patriotic elation at their deaths, but Charles just can’t find it, as he sees them for who they really are: young men just like him. Although the scale of the destruction was a challenge to write, it helped solidify Charles’s personality and his eventual stance on the war, which informs his actions towards the end of the book.

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 on?
I had always intended this book to be a novella, so I knew that some sacrifices in the story and character development would be necessary. I would like to have spent more time with Nellie and her back story—I’m sure she had a very intriguing past and lots of challenges in her life that made her the woman she was in 1914. I’m sure she would have been an active suffragette! 

Historical novelists frequently have to adjust facts to make their stories work. Did you have to invent or change anything while writing The Orange Lilies and if so, what did you alter? 
I really didn’t want to change anything, so that the book followed the unit diaries exactly, however I just couldn’t make the ending of Charles’s story fit, so I did make up the entry for the 26th December, which I admit to at the end of the book! 

Le Touret Memorial, by Wernervc
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 wouldn’t choose Morton or Juliette—I feel I know them well enough already! I would actually probably choose Nellie because, as I mentioned above, I think there’s a lot more to her than meets the eye, although I think she would be very guarded about her past so I might not get very far.  

Just because I’m curious, if you could pick a fantasy cast to play the leads in a screen adaptation of The Orange Lilies, who would you hire? 
Tricky one! I’ve been asked this before, and I’ve come up with the British television actors Julian Ovenden and Keeley Hawes for Morton and Juliette. As for Nellie and Charlie…maybe Michelle Dockery and Luke Treadaway. I’d quite like Pam Ferris for the modern Margaret Farrier. Can you arrange it, please?

Believe me, I would if I could. I'd love to see this story on the screen!

Finally, what's next for you? Do you have a new project in the works? 
Yes, I have just published the follow-up book to The Orange Lilies, entitled The America Ground. It’s a full-length novel which sees Morton working on a new case, but he does still find some answers to the questions and mysteries raised in The Orange Lilies about his own past. I’m now working on the next installment of the series!

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PRAISE FOR THE FORENSIC GENEALOGIST

"Flicking between the present and stories and extracts from the past, the pace never lets up in an excellent addition to this unique genre of literature." - Your Family Tree

"At times amusing and shocking, this is a fast-moving modern crime mystery with genealogical twists.  The blend of well fleshed-out characters, complete with flaws and foibles, will keep you guessing until the end." - Family Tree Magazine

"As I have read books in the past, I can usually tell almost from the beginning how it will probably end. That is not the case in this crime mystery. Each chapter, with its twists and turns, gave me new clues and had me trying to figure out the puzzle that Morton was trying to solve." - Tina Sansone, Amazon Reviewer

"I couldn't put this book down! I stayed up half the night reading it, and finished it the next morning. What a fine blend of history, mystery, genealogy and great story telling." - Seashell, Amazon Reviewer

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Born in the famed battle town of Hastings, England, Nathan Dylan Goodwin has always had a passion for writing in one form or another. Having gained a 2:1 degree in Radio, Film and Television studies, Nathan went on to gain a Masters degree in Creative Writing, from Canterbury Christ Church University.

Nathan started his writing career with non-fiction, his first book ‘Hastings at War’ being published in May 2005. This was followed by three further local history books pertaining to the area around his home town of Hastings. His first forays into fiction writing culminated in the publications in 2013 of Hiding the Past (a genealogical crime mystery novel). This was followed up in 2014 with The Lost Ancestor, the second in the Forensic Genealogist series.

In his mid-thirties, Nathan enjoys reading, genealogy writing and time with his family and young son.

Website ❧  Goodreads ❧  Facebook  Pinterest  Blog   Twitter   Google+


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Format: Print & eBook
Publication Date: November 30, 2014
Released by: CreateSpace
ISBN-13: 978-1505314595
Length: 112 pages
Genre: Historical Mystery

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Sunday, September 13, 2015

Enchantress of Paris: A Novel of the Sun King’s Court by Marci Jefferson

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Obtained from: Agent/Netgalley
Read: August 10, 2015

Fraught with conspiracy and passion, the Sun King's opulent court is brought to vivid life in this captivating tale about a woman whose love was more powerful than magic. The alignment of the stars at Marie Mancini's birth warned that although she would be gifted at divination, she was destined to disgrace her family. Ignoring the dark warnings of his sister and astrologers, Cardinal Mazarin brings his niece to the French court, where the forbidden occult arts thrive in secret. In France, Marie learns her uncle has become the power behind the throne by using her sister Olympia to hold the Sun King, Louis XIV, in thrall. Desperate to avoid her mother's dying wish that she spend her life in a convent, Marie burns her grimoire, trading Italian superstitions for polite sophistication. But as her star rises, King Louis becomes enchanted by Marie's charm. Sensing a chance to grasp even greater glory, Cardinal Mazarin pits the sisters against each other, showering Marie with diamonds and silks in exchange for bending King Louis to his will. Disgusted by Mazarin's ruthlessness, Marie rebels. She sacrifices everything, but exposing Mazarin's deepest secret threatens to tear France apart. When even King Louis's love fails to protect Marie, she must summon her forbidden powers of divination to shield her family, protect France, and help the Sun King fulfill his destiny.

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Marie Mancini
I got excited about Marci Jefferson's Enchantress of Paris the moment I learned its release date. I'd fallen in love with Girl on the Golden Coin: A Novel of Frances Stuart in 2013 and had high hopes for the author's sophomore release. I knew nothing about Marie Mancini or Cardinal Mazarin, but I was excited at the prospect and eagerly anticipated watching the unfamiliar story unfold under Jefferson's pen.

Did the book live up to my expectations? Yes and no. There were a lot of things I loved about the story, but I'd be lying if I didn't admit the time I spent with this particular narrative left mixed impressions in its wake.

Like many of my fellow reviewers, I fell for Jefferson's heroine. Marie is intelligent, passionate, romantic, and tenacious, but my favorite aspect of her being is that she is vulnerable. This is a seventeenth century woman, but the flaws Jefferson incorporated in her characterization make Louis' mistress empathetic, engaging and relatable.

I've not spent much time on fictional accounts of the Sun King, but I thought Jefferson's interpretation of Louis XIV equally noteworthy. Young and idealistic, he is portrayed as a monarch still growing into the duties and responsibilities of his position. He is unsure of himself and easily manipulated, but his growing confidence endears him to the reader and gives them reason to overlook, or at least accept, his personal shortcomings.


I enjoyed the politics Jefferson folded into the narrative as well as the social drama experienced by her cast. I felt the multiple allegiances, rivalries and ambitions depicted within these pages authentically convoluted and appreciated the effort that went into crafting such a tangled web of pretension and purpose. I also thought the novel convincingly atmospheric and savored the descriptive details scattered throughout Marie's story.

That said, there were several elements I thought might have been stronger if they'd been more fully developed. I liked the ambiguity of the magic depicted within these pages, but I was disappointed at how thoroughly the theme faded as the story progressed. Marie's maid Morena fascinated me, but her character arc ultimately felt incomplete, unfinished and fragmentary in my eyes.

Olympia, Hortense and Marianne boasted similar potential, but despite their fascinating and controversial legacies, the trials of Marie's sisters go virtually unacknowledged. Don't misunderstand, I truly adore the story as written, but I couldn't help wishing she'd spotlighted the girls as Perinot did Marguerite and Eleanor in Sister Queens or Quinn did Cornelia, Lollia, Diana, and Marcella in Daughters of Rome.

Do I regret the time I spent on Enchantress of Paris? Hardly. Jefferson is a gifted storyteller and I adore the fiction she crafted. I believe more could have been done with the material, but I've no complaints of what appears within these pages and look forward to her next release. 

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“He must be convinced subtly, and that will take time. But when I'm ready to tell the king what I know, it will shake the very foundations of Paris.” 
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Saturday, September 12, 2015

Escape from Sobibor by Richard Rashke

 
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Obtained from: Open Library
Read: July 21, 2015

It was the scene of the biggest prison escape of World War II, yet hardly anyone has heard of Sobibor, one of three Nazi death camps in eastern Poland, where six hundred Jews revolted against their guards and broke through the walls. Three hundred of them made it to the woods of Sobibor, the forest of the owls. Because the Nazis destroyed all the physical evidence and all but three documents about the camp, even historians of the Holocaust scarcely mention Sobibor. But the Nazis did not destroy all the evidence. More than thirty survivors are still alive -- including the Red Army officer-prisoner who led the revolt -- and Richard Rashke has sought them out. From their diaries, notes, testimony at war crimes trials, and, above all, from their vivid memories, he has re-created an important piece of neglected history. In addition to recounting the compelling story of the uprising and the escape, Rashke gives us an unforgettable picture of the day-to-day existence in a Nazi death camp where a quarter of a million Jews were killed.

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Alexander “Sasja” Petsjerski
I owe my discovery of Richard Rashke's Escape from Sobibor to my father. He introduced me to the death camp in one of our notorious late night discussions and his account of operations within the compound and the subsequent uprising that took place there were so captivating that I took it upon myself to learn more about the remarkably obscure chapter of Operation Reinhard.

Rashke's was the first title Google turned up and thanks to Open Library, it was also freely available for download. I felt providence was on my side and I checked it out thinking myself well-prepared for the material it promised to address. A WWII junkie, I'd studied Auschwitz–Birkenau, Treblinka, Theresienstadt and Ravensbrück in some detail and couldn't imagine the accounts of this camp being much different. It took only a few pages for me to realize how wrong that assumption had been.


Broken into three sections, the book is extraordinarily comprehensive. It covers the prisoners, their lives before transportation, life and death behind Sobibor's barbed wire, the soldiers, their duties, the planning phase of the uprising, the execution of the mass escape and the events that followed in the surrounding forests. 

I spent almost a month wading through the accounts Rashke painstaking recorded within these pages, but I don't regret a minute of it. I put the book aside several times to process and consider events as I discovered them, but the publication was never far from my mind. Fact is it dominated my imagination and challenged my perception in ways I hadn't expected when I first cracked it open. It put my brain into overdrive and I liked the depth and dimension it brought to the subject matter.

Exceedingly intense, the book itself is a brilliant blend of historic detail and raw human emotion. Poignant, powerful, unapologetic and ofttimes overwhelming, Escape From Sobibor is easily the best Holocaust book I've had fortune to pick up. A highly recommended and unique volume that deserves a place in every WWII library collection.

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God hung over Sobibor like a gigantic unspoken question. He was all-powerful, yet seemed helpless in the face of a human hatred that knew no bounds. All-knowing, yet strangely indifferent. All-present, yet distant and aloof. All-loving, but deaf to the cries of His people. All-innocent, but guilty of neglect. All-pure, but covered with ashes.
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The Rules in Rome by A.L. Sowards

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: September 2, 2015

With Hitler’s forces firmly entrenched in Europe, countless heroes seek to end the madman’s reign. Bastien Ley is one of the best. Working in Italy for the Office of Strategic Services, he’s been tasked with sabotaging German convoys. When his team kills an officer headed for Rome, the man’s similarity to Bastien is undeniable, and seeing an opportunity to turn the tide of the war, Bastien makes a bold decision: he will assume the dead officer’s identity. He becomes Dietrich, an Iron Cross–wearing German officer—an ideal position from which to infiltrate the Nazi ranks in Rome. To help with his stressful assignment, his superiors send him a reinforcement in the form of the lovely Gracie Begni, an intelligent and eager radio operator with absolutely no undercover experience. With a gulf of resentment between them, these two agents must find a way to portray a couple in love. Soon their reluctant alliance becomes much more as Bastien and Gracie find themselves getting lost in their feelings for each other. But as they engage in battle against the deadliest foe the world has ever known, the pair quickly realizes their love may be doomed. As the Rome Gestapo threatens to destroy all they’ve worked for, will Bastien and Gracie survive their charade?

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To say I was excited when A.L. Sowards The Rules in Rome appeared in the Netgalley catalog is something of an understatement. I'd been eyeing the author's work for a while and was positively giddy when my request to review the novel was approved. I began reading it almost immediately and was pleased to discover my enthusiasm wasn't misplaced. The action and historic detail in the narrative impressed me so much that I actually reached out to author A.L. Sowards about hosting an interview before finishing the book, but looking back, I think what stands out the most is how different the novel feels in comparison to others of my experience. 

Most of the WWII fiction I've encountered takes place in England, France, Germany, Poland, Austria and Belgium, but Sowards chose Italy for the backdrop of her story and I found myself very intrigued by her decision to venture into territory that is less commonly portrayed. I wont deny that Belinda Alexandra's Tuscan Rose had more atmospheric and cultural detail, but Sowards' effort was easily more cohesive and engaging and I think that is why I appreciated her so much more than that of her predecessor. 

I admit there were elements of the book that felt somewhat coincidental, but the author created enough situational drama that I didn't feel things like Bastien's physical resemblance to Adalard Dietrich detrimental to the narrative. I found it curious tha0t the reader is afforded more face time with Gracie than Bastien and wish there'd been more balance between Sowards' leads, but here again, I don't feel the small disparity had any adverse affect on the finished publication.

My interest in the novel begins and ends with the history incorporated in its premise. The love story was harder for me to get into, but I think fans of wartime romance will really enjoy the emotional hurdles Bastien and Grace face. The story is clean in terms of language and explicit intimacy, but it is war era fiction and Sowards doesn't shy away from demonstrating the dangers of covert espionage with moments of extreme tension and deadly violence.

The politics of the novel are presented in light to moderate terms and are very easy to understand. Sowards kept this aspect straightforward enough that those with limited comprehension of events don't feel overwhelmed by the material which is nice as it is very easy to cripple a good story with heavy-handed description of fact. 

Bottom line, The Rules in Rome proved a quick and captivating diversion. Lightly religious, inventive and energetic. 

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Bastien had almost gotten used to the idea of working with Gracie until yesterday’s fiasco. Now he was certain Vaughn-Harris had thought up the whole thing as one more shot at revenge. It wasn’t right for Vaughn-Harris to try to get Bastien killed and risk the information he collected, nor was it fair for Gracie to be thrown into a mission she wasn’t ready for.
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The Memory Weaver by Jane Kirkpatrick

Rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: September 12, 2015

Eliza Spalding Warren was just a child when she was taken hostage by the Cayuse Indians during a massacre in 1847. Now the young mother of two children, Eliza faces a different kind of dislocation; her impulsive husband wants them to make a new start in another territory, which will mean leaving her beloved home and her departed mother's grave--and returning to the land of her captivity. Eliza longs to know how her mother, an early missionary to the Nez Perce Indians, dealt with the challenges of life with a sometimes difficult husband and with her daughter's captivity. When Eliza is finally given her mother's diary, she is stunned to find that her own memories are not necessarily the whole story of what happened. Can she lay the dark past to rest and move on? Or will her childhood memories always hold her hostage? Based on true events, The Memory Weaver is New York Times bestselling author Jane Kirkpatrick's latest literary journey into the past, where threads of western landscapes, family, and faith weave a tapestry of hope inside every pioneering woman's heart. Readers will find themselves swept up in this emotional story of the memories that entangle us and the healing that awaits us when we bravely unravel the threads of the past.

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I owe my interest in Jane Kirkpatrick's The Memory Weaver to the artist who created the jacket. The contrasting colors caught my eye and while I wasn't overly enthusiastic over the premise, the imagery that graced the cover sparked something nostalgic in my imagination and prompted me to disregard any and all hesitation I felt regarding the material. Unfortunately for me, the narrative it concealed proved an uphill battle. I struggled with Kirkpatrick's style and tone from the first page to the last, I threw the book aside several times out of frustration, and more than once considered abandoning it altogether. 

I understand the novel is inspired fiction, but I found Kirkpatrick's approach unabashedly preachy. I've said the same thing about a lot of Christian writers and I have been judged and openly harassed by many of their fans. I'm well aware that my opinions ruffle feathers, but I personally appreciate subtly and I'm not ashamed to admit it. I appreciate characters who live by their faith above those who shove it down everyone else's throats or play the ever-suffering martyr. It works for some, it just isn't a good fit for me. 

I felt Kirkpatrick's interpretation of Eliza Spalding Warren almost identical to that of her mother, Eliza Hart Spalding and the lack of definition was incredibly annoying. The two share significantly similar names which caused confusion in and of itself, but the fact that the author failed to gift them individual voices amplified the issue tenfold. 

I think the story would have been stronger if the author had abandoned the journal approach and told it from dual perspective of the Eliza and her mother before, during and after the massacre at Waiilatpu. I realize the author wanted to address family legacies and the dynamic between mother and daughter, but I didn't feel that angle had enough material to carry all three hundred and thirty six pages of this novel. It got lost in translation and didn't strike me as particularly compelling even when it shown through the events of Eliza and Andrew's marriage. 

I don't know much about the Nez Perce, my knowledge base begins and ends with Chief Joseph, but I'm very familiar with Indian Country and sites such as Sand Creek, Washita, Wounded Knee and Little Bighorn and feel Kirkpatrick's effort shallowly representative of the complex history and culture of the native people. What little there is comes to the reader through Eliza who, in my opinion, possesses jarringly compassionate and modern ideas for someone who witnessed the 1847 Whitman massacre firsthand. Maybe it's just me, but I think the experience would have left her somewhat conflicted and felt Kirkpatrick's handling of the subject both superficial and unauthentic.

Atmospherically I've little to comment on. I've driven this part of the country more times than I can count and was disappointed that so little of it came to life under Kirkpatrick's pen. The characters also failed to impress and their emotional journeys didn't capture or captivate my imagination. Other reviewers have been mightily impressed with The Memory Weaver, and while I can appreciate varied opinions and tastes, I can't say I share in their admiration or delight.

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Was that what I was being? I didn’t want stubborn to be the legacy I gave my girls or my sisters. I wanted them to see strength in their heritage, to learn that that they could grow from challenges face. Yes, I could tell a travel story, of my escape from terrible harm. But was that the only story I wanted to be remembered for? No, I wanted them to remember their grandmother’s courage, and see a bit of that inside of me and themselves. 
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Monday, September 7, 2015

Truce by Jordan Taylor

Rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Kindle Unlimited
Read: September 7, 2015

Great War Centennial short stories take you from home front to Western Front, into the trenches, across No Man’s Land, into the hearts of soldiers and civilians whose fates are forever altered by war. 1914, a bitter Christmas Eve on the front line; not how Thomas imagined spending his holiday. Even a Christmas parcel from family disappoints and, when his company becomes aware of strange sounds from No Man’s Land, he fears the worst. Now the young private is unsure what lies in store for his Western Front Christmas...

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I read most of Jordan Taylor's Great War Centennial series in November 2014. Young Blood, Old Grey, Poppy Lane and A Simple Mind were short reads, but enjoyable and I was initially quite thrilled to learn the author had added an additional title to their number. 

Unfortunately reality doesn't always meet expectation and Truce failed to live up to the standard set by its predecessors. Despite their modest length, the earlier installments had a clear beginning, middle and end. Truce, on the other hand, stuck me as vague and incomplete. 

I was also frustrated by how similar the novella felt in comparison to Sainsbury's 2014 Christmas Ad, Following the same format and formula, the novella covered the same emotional topic and historic scope as the commercial that went viral a month before its release. There are a handful of unique details, but generally speaking, if you've see the video, you've read the book. 

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More in khaki join those in gray. Lighters and matches are produced. Thomas hears greetings of, "Merry Christmas," and "Frohe Weihnachten."
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Saturday, September 5, 2015

The Orange Lilies by Nathan Dylan Goodwin

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Obtained from: Kindle Unlimited
Read: September 5, 2015

Morton Farrier has spent his entire career as a forensic genealogist solving other people’s family history secrets, all the while knowing so little of his very own family’s mysterious past. However, this poignant Christmastime novella sees Morton’s skills put to use much closer to home, as he must confront his own past, present and future through events both present-day and one hundred years ago. It seems that not every soldier saw a truce on the Western Front that 1914 Christmas… 

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I discovered Nathan Dylan Goodwin's The Orange Lilies while browsing the Kindle Unlimited catalog. None of my Goodreads contacts had read the novella and the Amazon reviews weren't particularly detailed, but the premise held promise and I decided to give it shot.

Before I get too far ahead of myself, I want to make a couple of things perfectly clear. The Orange Lilies is book 2.5 of Goodwin's Forensic Genealogist series, but it can be read as a standalone. I know because it's the first I picked up. It's also a bit of a slow starter so don't toss it aside if you aren't captivated by the end of chapter one. Here again folks, I'm speaking from experience.

Despite being a mere one hundred pages in length, the book is filled with several wonderful characters. Charlie, Nellie, Margaret and Morton in particular struck a chord with me. They each enjoy relatively modest face time with the reader, but they feel fresh and original nonetheless.

Goodwin's descriptions of the Western Front are brilliant. The author worked far more detail into the piece than I'd expected and I was quite impressed with his realistic portrayal life at the front. From the mud and blood to the mental fatigue and gallows humor of those struggling to survive the trenches, these scenes demonstrated both Goodwin's skill and dedication to authenticity.


The modern day story line is equally captivating. The multi-generational mystery of family secrets took longer for me to appreciate, but as the pieces fell into place, I recognized a growing fascination with the puzzle that represents Morton's personal history.

Highly recommended to fans of both historic and contemporary fiction.

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He wondered, if he survived all of this, if he could simply go back and find that naive man again. He doubted it. He was sure that he was forever lost, consumed inside the broken man that he was today, who had seen and been the cause of so much horror and brutality.
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Thursday, September 3, 2015

Interview with A.L. Sowards, author of The Rules in Rome

Author interviews are one of my favorite things to post which is why I am super excited to welcome author A.L. Sowards to Flashlight Commentary to discuss The Rules in Rome.

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Welcome to Flashlight Commentary. It’s great to have you with us. To start things off, please tell us a bit about The Rules in Rome.
Thank you so much for inviting me to be part of your blog!

The Rules in Rome is a WWII thriller about two American spies in Rome in the months leading up to the city’s liberation in June 1944. Bastien Ley is pretending to be a German officer, Hauptmann Adalard Dietrich. Gracie Begni is the OSS radio operator transmitting his reports. As they gather intelligence for the US Army, they have to stay a few steps ahead of the Gestapo—and avoid unnecessary complications like falling in love. The novel is a mix of action, history, and romance. I like to keep my books clean enough that my nephews can read them, so the romance and language are appropriate for most readers, even young ones.

Where did this story begin? What inspired you to write a story set in Rome during WWII? 
Normally my ideas are a little more original, but this one was inspired by another novel, Night of the Fox, by Jack Higgins. In Night of the Fox, an experienced male agent is paired with a young female agent and they’re sent on a mission to the Channel Islands. They fall in love (and lust) immediately. It got me thinking—what would happen if a pair of agents fell in love, but pretended they hadn’t? Or started off hating each other and then gradually fell in love? Rome seemed like a good location, so with the Higgins-inspired premise, I began the book.

How would you describe Gracie Begni? What kind of woman is she? 
Gracie has given up on pleasing her mother. She’ll never be thin enough or pretty enough. But Gracie thinks being smart is better than being beautiful. She jumps at the chance to join OSS for several reasons: she wants to help with the war effort and prove that she can do hard things, and she also wants to get away from her mother and a set of bad memories. She’s had a few cherished relationships in the past that have ended for one reason or another, and she hungers for a close friend. She wants to be valued as a talented radio operator, but she’s a little naive about how hard it will be to operate in occupied Italy. She has a difficult time adjusting to life in the field but she has good intentions and always tries to do the right thing.

How would you characterize Bastien Ley? What makes him tick? 
Bastien is driven. His father was arrested by the Gestapo when he was a young adult, and he is determined to keep the promise he made to his dad to take care of the family. Bastien is the oldest of five children (four still living when The Rules in Rome begins). His early efforts for the family included sneaking them out of Nazi Germany. Now he’d determined to do all he can to win the war as quickly as possible, before his youngest brother, Lukas, is drawn into the conflict. 

Bastien is a talented, competent spy. He’s a good friend because he worries about others before he worries about himself, but he can appear cold sometimes because he has the ability to focus on his mission and ignore any potential distractions. He’s sometimes independent to a fault, but he’s also loyal and thoughtful.

Odette Annable, author's choice to play Gracie Begni
I loved Otavia’s role in the story and think her a particular memorable supporting character. Without giving away too much, what can you tell us about her? 
Ottavia was raised in Rome and she loves the city. She’s expecting a baby but her husband had to flee Rome so he wouldn’t be rounded up by the Nazis. Her husband joined a band of partisans and Ottavia is basically a courier, transporting information from several sympathetic Italians to the Americans via Gracie. She’s empathetic and has a naturally sunny disposition and that makes her an ideal friend for Gracie.

What sort of research went into The Rules in Rome? What sources did find most valuable? 
I read lots of nonfiction books on WWII and used the internet too. Probably the single most useful book was The Battle for Rome: The Germans, the Allies, the Partisans, and the Pope, September 1943—June 1944. I read books about OSS, books about WWII radio operators, books about the military situation, and the memoir of an American spy who was really there at the time (Peter Tompkins). I even found an old OSS training video about clandestine radios on YouTube and that was enormously helpful for writing scenes when Gracie was working with her radio.

You probably have many, but is there a scene you particularly enjoyed writing?
For most of the book I was looking forward to writing the climactic scenes near the end (chapters 44-48). It was a federal holiday and my husband took the kids out for most of the day so I had a long stretch of quiet time. I wrote about 8,000 words that day, which I think is still my record.

What scene posed the greatest challenge for you as an author? Why was it troublesome and how did you work through it?  
Honestly, of the five books I’ve finished, this was probably the easiest to write. If I had to pinpoint a difficult scene, I’d say the first scene because the first scene is always hard. As an author you want to have something exciting to convince readers to keep reading, but you also want to introduce the characters and give readers a reason to care about them. It’s sometimes tricky to shift through what a reader needs to know right at the beginning and what can or should wait so you don’t bore them with background information. 

Originally, I was going to begin the book later chronologically, and have Bastien rescue an Italian partisan from prison after he’d already taken Dietrich’s identity. But I was going to have to explain how Bastien became Dietrich at some point, so I figured I might as well show the reader in a scene. 

I worked through it with lots of tweaks and some suggestions from my writers’ group.

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 on?
In an early draft, Adalard Dietrich (the German officer Bastien is impersonating) has a fiancée that Bastien isn’t initially aware of. She’s the daughter of a well-connected Nazi, so when she doesn’t get any letters from him, she has her daddy send out an SD investigator. The plot point added a fun twist to the novel—Bastien and Gracie suddenly have to make all their meetings secret, and Bastien’s friend Heinie is disappointed in how Bastien is mistreating both is fiancée and his Rome girlfriend. But the manuscript was too long (and that affects the paperback and audiobook price), and taking that out reduced the word count. I found another reason for the SD to investigate Bastien, so that part stayed. If the book hadn’t been so long, I would have left it all in.

Historical novelists frequently have to adjust facts to make their stories work. Did you have to invent or change anything while writing The Rules in Rome and if so, what did you alter? 
I try to adjust my story to fit history rather than the other way around, but of course I have to balance historical accuracy with good storytelling. Most of the changes I made involved inserting fictional characters into historical events. Every single character in my book with a speaking part is fictional. I usually have them involved in things that don’t contradict history, but sometimes the specific events aren’t historical. The curfew party, for example, was fictional, but mirrored what I’ve read about the real curfew parties that were common at the time. At the time of the story, Catholic churches in Rome frequently hid Jews, escaped POWs, and others trying to avoid arrest, but the specific dates and locations involving my characters are fictional. In one scene, Zimmerman searches prison records in a way that was done by a real SS officer, Herbert Kappler. In that chapter, I give a fictional character the credit (or blame) for what a real person did. 

It was also a bit of stretch to have Heinie work in Gestapo headquarters. But I needed him there, so I invented a reason.

Damian Lewis, author's choice to play Bastien Ley
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 Bastien. I’d love to pick his brain about the time period, especially about the US military during WWII. His knowledge would come in handy for the book I’m currently working on.

Just because I’m curious, if you could pick a fantasy cast to play the leads in a screen adaptation of The Rules in Rome, who would you hire? 
When I started this book, I’d just finished a trilogy with a hero who had brown hair, brown eyes, and about average height and build for the time. I wanted my next hero to be different, so I gave Bastien light brown hair and blue eyes, and made him tall.

Gracie was partially inspired by an eight-year-old child I taught in church. She had a birthmark on her cheek, and I thought it was cute, but I wondered if the time would come when she wouldn’t like it. For Gracie’s appearance, I described how this little girl might look in her early twenties.

So while neither of the main characters started out looking like movie stars, this was a fun question to brainstorm.

Bastien Ley: Damian Lewis. I didn’t realize he was British until I was looking his name up for this interview. But I figure if he can sound like an American for Band of Brothers (he played Dick Winters), then he can probably manage Bastien’s accent. 
Gracie Begni: Odette Annable. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her in anything, but she looks a lot like the woman on the book cover, and the cover designers did a good job matching my imagination (minus Gracie’s birthmark).
Heinie Vogel: Jeremy Renner
Otavia: Lily Collins
Angelo: Adrien Brody
Otto Ostheim: Tom Felton
Kornelius Zimmerman: Daniel Craig

Finally, what's next for you? Do you have a new project in the works? 
I have a World War One novel, The Spider and the Sparrow, due for release in February 2016, so I’m doing edits on it now. My other novels can be described as historical thrillers, but this one is more historical fiction. It’s still fast-paced, but it covers a longer time period, there’s more of a balance between the plot-driven and the character-driven aspects of the story, and I feel like the language is richer. It’s been challenging and rewarding to jump into a new time period.

I’ve also started a coming-of-age novel about Bastien’s younger brother, Lukas. It’s not really a sequel to The Rules in Rome, but readers will recognize a few characters.

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PRAISE FOR THE RULES IN ROME

I felt like I was holding my breath through most of the book and couldn't turn the pages fast enough. Some parts were hard to read as the realities of war were described. - Melanie, Amazon Reviewer

A.L. Sowards does an incredible job at writing suspenseful, action packed, spy thrillers set during WWII. I am amazed at how well she writes a novel that feels like you are reading history. - Lisa F- Bookworm Lisa "Bookworm Lisa", Amazon Reviewer

Where this book really shines is in its characterizations, both for the main leads and the secondary characters. Gracie and Bastian are immediately relatable, distinct, and you just can’t help rooting for them. Both change and adapt as the story progresses, keeping the reader engaged each step of the way. - Sarah L. Gruwell, Amazon Reviewer

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A little mystery, a little history, a little romance, and a lot of action, adventure, and suspense. Primarily, I write to entertain. I also hope my books will teach readers something new about history or about life. My books are usually set during wartime, so there is some violence, but I keep the language and romance family-friendly. My goal is for my writing to be thrilling, clean, and uplifting.

I was born in Georgia but consider Moses Lake, Washington my hometown. I came to Utah to attend school (BYU) and ended up staying. Books have always been an important part of my life. I remember writing self-illustrated storybooks at my grandparent's house when I was in elementary school (none of those made it to publication for many good reasons) and attending my first writer's conference when I was in third grade.

Now I'm a busy mom with young chidren. I still love to read and I also love to write. I'm usually reading a couple books at once and working on multiple writing projects too. Other than that, my life is pretty ordinary. I'm grateful for that. I'll let the characters in my books have all the adventures.

Website ❧  Goodreads ❧  Blog ❧  Newsletter ❧  Facebook ❧  Twitter


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Format: Print & eBook
Publication Date: February 3, 2015
Released by: Covenant Communications Inc.
ISBN-13: 978-1621088820
Length: 304 pages
Genre: Historical Fiction
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