Friday, January 29, 2016

Reading Challenge 2016: January Update

When I posted Reading Challenge 2016, I promised a monthly update regarding my progress and here it is. Three hundred and sixty-five days flies by quicker than you can blink and I'm definitely feeling the pressure to meet my goals. Curious to know how I am doing? Read on and find out!

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2016 Target Total: 130
It's been a busy month for me, but I feel I'm still on track to hit my target. I've completed a total of ten titles and have another four in progress. 

2016 Book Budget: $20
I've managed to avoid making impulse purchases on Amazon, but I'm not above taking advantage of a deal and purchased The Keeper of Secrets: A Novel by Julie Thomas for a grand total of $0.99.

2016 Must Reads: 7
Of the seven titles I shortlisted at the beginning of the year, I owned only Hanging Mary by Susan Higginbotham. I've yet to read it, but I've made other strides toward completing this goal.

I acquired a copy of The Silver Suitcase by Terrie Todd in late December and finished the title the first week of January. It wasn't my favorite piece, but completing it brought me that much closer to finishing this part of my Reading Challenge.

I also lucked out and managed to land advanced reader copies of America's First Daughter by Stephanie Dray & Laura Kamoie and Marlene: A Novel by C.W. Gortner. 

Netgalley Target Turnaround: 60%
I began the year with a turnaround of 44%, but halfway through January I took a good hard look at my Netgalley account and cleaned house. I turned in reviews I'd forgotten to submit and made a calendar to work toward knocking out those titles that remained. When I finished, my turnaround sat at 56%, but I've requested few titles and currently sit at 55%.

Flashlight Commentary Rebuild: 100%
Of all my goals, this is the only one I've not addressed this month. Going to have to prioritize it moving forward.

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There you have it folks! What do you think? Have you set a goal for yourself? How's it coming? Leave a comment below and tell me all about it!

Platinum Doll by Anne Girard

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: January 29, 2016

Set against the dazzling backdrop of Golden Age Hollywood, novelist Anne Girard tells the enchanting story of Jean Harlow, one of the most iconic stars in the history of film. It's the Roaring Twenties and seventeen-year-old Harlean Carpenter McGrew has run off to Beverly Hills. She's chasing a dream;to escape her small, Midwestern life and see her name in lights.In California, Harlean has everything a girl could want;a rich husband, glamorous parties, socialite friends;except an outlet for her talent. But everything changes when a dare pushes her to embrace her true ambition :to be an actress on the silver screen. With her timeless beauty and striking shade of platinum-blond hair, Harlean becomes Jean Harlow. And as she's thrust into the limelight, Jean learns that this new world of opportunity comes with its own set of burdens. Torn between her family and her passion to perform, Jean is forced to confront the difficult truth;that fame comes at a price, if only she's willing to pay it. Amid a glittering cast of ingenues and Hollywood titans: Clara Bow, Clark Gable, Laurel and Hardy, Howard Hughes, Platinum Doll introduces us to the star who would shine brighter than them all.

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Jean Harlow
My first experience with author Anne Girard took place in 2014 when I read Madame Picasso. The book impressed me and played a large part in prompting my interest in Platinum Doll. I knew next to nothing about Jean Harlow when offered an advanced reader’s edition of the book, but I love old Hollywood and knew I’d enjoyed Girard’s style of writing. Long story short, I accepted the offer and quickly lost myself in Girard’s interpretation of Jean’s story. 

The narrative itself follows Jean’s life from 1927 to 1932, covering the course of her marriage to Charles "Chuck" McGrew and the rise of her professional career. Girard emphasizes the tumultuous relationship of a young couple who don’t see eye to eye and a domineering mother who is hell bent on vicariously living her dreams through the success of her only child. Historically, I found the novel illuminating, but I feel the strength of the narrative is in Girard’s illustration of these relationships and the emotion turmoil they create in Jean.

Chuck was a hard character for me personally, but my struggle to appreciate him highlighted how realistically he’d been written. There is a painful authenticity to him, but at the end of the day I felt his character added much to the narrative. I found Mother Jean equally difficult and on more than one occasion I found myself wishing someone would slap her across the face, but even here, I felt Girard’s ability to manipulate my emotions spoke to her abilities as a storyteller. Last, but certainly not least, I found Jean both complex and endearing. Her personality is sweet and I felt the candid nature of Girard's illustration inviting. There is a certain ambiguity to her professional motivations, but I greatly appreciated her character just the same.  

Atmospherically I think the novel quite fun. Girard takes her readers into the offices of Howard Hughes, onto the back lots of MGM, and into the famed glamour of The Brown Derby. Several golden age and silent film star enjoy cameo roles in the narrative, but I felt the most notable were those minor scenes featuring Clark Gable. Unlike Harlow, I’ve studied the actor, and saw a spark in Girard’s rendering of his personality and persona.

When all is said and done, I feel the time I spent with this piece rewarding. Platinum Doll is a striking and poignant illustration of a remarkable young woman. An irresistible novel that effortlessly evokes the glamour and sophistication of Hollywood during its Golden Age. 

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Harlean wasn’t certain she could be any happier than she was at this moment, doing something she loved, with people she so admired. Life’s road was certainly full of twists and turns but she had really begun to enjoy the ride.
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Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Cover Clichés: Coin Headdress and Veil

Sometimes, while browsing the virtual shelves on Amazon and Goodreads, I see an image that gives me an oddly disconcerting sense of deja vu. I could swear I've never read the book, but I know I've seen the jacket image somewhere before.

This phenomenon is what inspired Cover Clichés. Images are often recycled because cover artists are often forced to work from a limited pool of stock images and copyright free material. That said, I find comparing their finished designs quite interesting.  

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A'isha bint Abi Bakr is the daughter of a rich merchant from Mecca in the harsh, exotic world of seventh-century Arabia at the time of the foundation of Islam. When she is married to the Prophet Muhammad at the age of nine, she must rely on her wits, her courage, and even her sword in a struggle to control her own destiny and carve out a place for herself in the community, fighting religious persecution, jealous sister-wives, political rivals, and her own temptations. As she grows to love her kind, generous husband, her ingenuity and devotion make her an indispensable advisor to Muhammad. Ultimately, she becomes one of the most important women in Islam, and a fierce protector of her husband's words and legacy.Extensively researched, The Jewel of Medina evokes the beauty and harsh realities of life in an age long past. At once a love story, a history lesson, and a coming-of-age tale, it introduces readers to the turmoil that surrounded the birth of the Islamic faith through the eyes of an unforgettable heroine.

There is no woman with a worse reputation than Jezebel, the ancient queen who corrupted a nation and met one of the most gruesome fates in the Bible. Her name alone speaks of sexual decadence and promiscuity. But what if this version of her story, handed down to us through the ages, is merely the one her enemies wanted us to believe? What if Jezebel, far from being a conniving harlot, was, in fact, framed? In this remarkable new biography, Lesley Hazleton shows exactly how the proud and courageous queen of Israel was vilified and made into the very embodiment of wanton wickedness by her political and religious enemies. Jezebel brings readers back to the source of the biblical story, a rich and dramatic saga featuring evil schemes and underhanded plots, war and treason, false gods and falser humans, and all with the fate of entire nations at stake. At its center are just one woman and one man—the sophisticated Queen Jezebel and the stark prophet Elijah. Their epic and ultimately tragic confrontation pits tolerance against righteousness, pragmatism against divine dictates, and liberalism against conservatism. It is, in other words, the original story of the unholy marriage of sex, politics, and religion, and it ends in one of the most chillingly brutal scenes in the entire Bible. Here at last is the real story of the rise and fall of this legendary woman—a radically different portrait with startling contemporary resonance in a world mired once again in religious wars.

Hannah and Isaac Levi, Venetians in exile, have set up a new life for themselves in Constantinople. Isaac runs a newly established business in the growing silk trade, while Hannah, the best midwife in all of Constantinople, plies her trade within the opulent palace of Sultan Murat III, tending to the thousand women of his lively and infamous harem. But one night, when Hannah is unexpectedly summoned to the palace, she's confronted with Zofia, a poor Jewish peasant girl who has been abducted and sold into the sultan's harem. The sultan favours her as his next conquest and wants her to produce his heir, but the girl just wants to return to her home and the only life she has ever known. What will Hannah do? Will she risk her life and livelihood to protect this young girl, or will she retain her high esteem in the eye of the sultan? An adventurous, opulent and deliciously exciting read, peopled with fascinating, unforgettable characters (a court eunuch; the calculating sultan's mother-in-law; the beguiling harem ladies; and a very mysterious young beauty from Venice who shows up on Hannah's doorstep causing much havoc), this novel is sure to please fans of The Midwife of Venice and extend Roberta's reputation as one of Canada's most loved historical fiction authors.

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Which cover strikes your fancy and why? What colors draw your eye? Do you think the image appropriate next to the jacket description? Leave your comments below!

Have you seen this image elsewhere? Shoot me an email or leave a comment and let me know. 

Monday, January 25, 2016

The Confession of Richard Plantagenet by Dora Greenwell McChesney

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: January 5, 2016

England, 1471. The War of the Roses is raging and Richard Plantagenet must stand fast to support for the Yorkist throne. In pursuit of crushing of the Duke of Warwick’s rebellion, Edward IV and Richard stand side by side with their brother George once more, despite his earlier switch in allegiance. Following Warwick’s defeat, Richard meets his daughter, Anne, but as his standing increases and their relationship blossoms, his own family begins to falter. George’s dance with treachery resurfaces, and Edward grows frail with illness; Richard ends up in a position he did not expect, nor wish, to be in. Although made Lord Protector for his nephews, forces outside Richard’s control threaten to throw everything into jeopardy, and battle lines begin to be drawn as intrigues take over. Will Richard survive this turbulent time? Will he be able to make his own decisions or will those around him force his hand? Written in Plantagenet blood and rich with period detail, this is an arresting and complex tale of family and friendship, politics and betrayal, and love and loss. Traditionally portrayed as one of the great villains of British history, ‘The Confession of Richard Plantagenet’ is a sympathetic novel of the last king of the House of York. Set against the tumultuous second half of the Wars of the Roses, fact is seamlessly woven with fiction as the heroic Richard III is revealed. 

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Richard III
I haven’t read many novels featuring Richard III, but Dora Greenwell McChesney’s The Confession of Richard Plantagenet is the only sympathetic interpretation I’ve laid my hands on. Deserved or not, his legacy has been much maligned and few authors have sought to paint him in a sympathetic light which is why I was so captivated by the sensitivity and compassion set forth in the novel’s description. 

The book was originally published in 1913, but was re-released by Albion Press in late 2015. Does age matter? Well, that depends on what you are looking for. In terms of content, historic fiction is dated by definition, but McChesney’s style and prose is very different from what we see in mainstream publishing today. It isn’t bad by any means, but her language is distinctly formal and while I recognize the tone may be difficult for some, I personally felt her prose added to my experience of her work.

Historically speaking, my knowledge base is limited to the basics so I can’t say much in regard to how accurately the novel is written, but I can say that I found McChesney’s themes and her characterizations quite fascinating. She made me think about the material I liked how her book prompted deeper consideration even when I didn’t necessarily agree with the direction and/or angle she chose. 

The Confession of Richard Plantagenet is heavier historic fiction, but I’d definitely recommend it to anyone with an open mind and/or an appreciation for the Plantagenets. 

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‘Old friend and true servant,’ he said gravely, ‘thou didst know Richard of Gloucester well, and though he be dead and gone, somewhat of him liveth yet in Richard of England. Wilt thou take my pledged word that never by deed or word did I wittingly devise my nephews’ death?’ 
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Friday, January 22, 2016

Guardian of Paradise by W.E. Lawrence

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: December 17, 2015

In 1888, Kira Wall, surviving daughter of missionaries swept away in a tsunami, lives a primitive, but enjoyable life with natives on an isolated island in the South Pacific. But her serene world is turned upside down when an Australian merchant ship, commanded by the sinister Captain Darcy Coleman, arrives with an overabundance of modern and lavish goods. Kira suspects ill intent. Chief Ariki refuses to listen to Kira’s warning, forcing her to uncover the real plan of the captain on her own. Unfortunately, she has a distraction. A six-foot tall, blond, and handsome distraction. Trevor Marshall, doctor and botanist, hopes to find exotic plants on the island to research new cures and medicines. He is dedicated to science, but when meeting the strong-willed, beautiful Kira Wall, he’d prefer to spend time researching her—all night. The captain thwarts Kira’s attempts to call him out at every step, turning the village chief against her. With only Trevor and her best friend Malana by her side, she stalks the captain and his officers through the dense, predator infested jungle, toward the island’s inactive volcano. Frustrated by her failure to reveal the captain’s true intentions, Kira begins to think maybe she’s wrong about everything. Then an explosion and earthquake bigger than anyone on the island has ever seen renews her resolve. Was the blast natural or man-made? She is determined to prove it was the captain’s doing. Kira races against time and the island people’s naivety to stop the captain from destroying her home and killing everyone she loves.

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I owe my interest in W.E. Lawrence's Guardian of Paradise to the artist who designed the jacket. I'm well aware one shouldn't judge a book by its cover, but in today's market it is impossible to deny the importance of eye-catching imagery. Much as I loathe admitting it, I wouldn't have stopped long enough to read the description on Guardian of Paradise without the richly colored graphic that graces its cover and I admire the author for recognizing its marketing potential when self-publishing his work. 

Moving into the narrative itself, I have to admit that I found Lawrence's setting unique. His story unfolds on an isolated island in the South Pacific in the late eighteen hundreds. It's not a time and place that are paired often and I found the exotic nature of the island, its people, and their lifestyle easy to indulge in.

That said, I wasn't overly impressed with Lawrence's cast and couldn't help being bored with the author's generic character designs. Heroine, Kira Wall, is beautiful, intelligent, and genuinely good. Hero, Trevor Marshall, is handsome, astute, and kind. They are a golden couple who are ideally suited to one another, but they lack complexity, intrigue, and depth. They're stock characters and I found little to appreciate in the make-up.

The novel suffers pacing issues and I wasn't sold on historic elements of the plot. Guardian of Paradise is a romance, but I think it would have read more strongly if the author had invested more in both character development and period detail. 

Would I recommend the book? Yes and no. The book has its moments, but pales next to volumes like Alan Brennert's Molokaʻi. Guardian of Paradise is a lighter piece, the kind of thing I might take to the beach, but at the end of the day, I'd have difficulty suggesting it to hardcore fans of historic fiction.

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“You were right, Kira. God did not mean for us to live forever. But if we could, for me, that life would be a long time of misery unless you were part of it.”
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Thursday, January 21, 2016

Interview with author Doreen McNicol

Author interviews are one of my favorite things to post which is why I am super excited to welcome author Doreen McNicol to Flashlight Commentary.

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Welcome to Flashlight Commentary Doreen. It’s great to have you with us. To start things off, I’d like to know a little bit about you. Where are you from? What is your background?
Thank you so much Erin, for having me as your guest. I live in Kelowna, British Columbia in Canada.. I have been writing since I was seventeen though I only began publishing a few years ago. I enjoy learning history and enjoy using it in my writing.

How would you characterize your writing style? What sort of themes are you drawn to?
I try my best to have a realistic historical voice in my writing. I try to use actual facts of history in my work and weave my story around it whenever I can. I will only change names of people or places if and when I am not comfortable using them, like in the case there could be descendants to think about. If this was the case, I would reveal that in a forward of the novel. In “The Starlings of Chatham Street,” I did not have to do this. All my characters are fictional.

As for the sort of themes I try to draw upon, I try to focus on the inner strength of my characters. I believe the human spirit is inspiring under incredible strive and therefore something to explore in my work.

Historic fiction is obviously a favorite genre of mine, but why do you think it holds so much appeal for modern readers?
When you learn about history in a class room, more often than not you are learning about the political end of history. You learn about wars and battles more than the day to day life of the societies you may be drawn to. I look for the everyday person in novels about history and how they deal with the events of the day.

How would you describe your writing process? Where do you start and how do you get into the right mindset?
I usually begin by reading about a period in history that attracts me. If I find out about an event that surprises and even shocks me, I feel driven to learn more about it. The more I learn the more I want to write about it. If I am having difficulty even after I have my research in place, I have an excellent sounding board in my sister Donna McNicol who helps me focus my thoughts on the right objectives.

Do you struggle with dialogue, research, plotting, character development, etc.? If so, how do you overcome it?
I usually struggle with plotting more than anything else but if my research is sound, I will have historical fact to help pull me along. I also talk it out with my sister, as I said. Every writer should have someone like that to help them figure things out. She is currently writing a novel as well and we work together, helping each other stay focused.  

Many people, myself included, dream of publishing their stories. How and when did you know it was time to start writing professionally?
For me, the time to publish came when I was working on a novel entitled, “Parts Beyond the Seas: The Unwanted” I had a number of people reading it at the time and from their feedback, I felt I had gotten my writing skills to a level that I felt comfortable enough to share with the rest of the world. Once I started looking for an agent, I just couldn't let it go. Like Starlings, Parts was a novel involving multiple lead characters and the publishers were nervous to have that as my first published work, especially since I was still an unknown writer. Fair enough, but I had to keep trying to publish and I did with my novel, “Rachel Wicks”, followed by the sequel “Rachel Blackburn” and then my novel “The Starling of Chatham Street”.

Navigating the ins and outs of the industry can be confusing for many. What was the most difficult hurdle for you as far as getting your work on the market?
I went into it expecting the rejection slips and I got them but for me they are merely stepping stones. Its part of the process. I think the most difficult part came with the changes I am asked to make. That's hard. I pour a lot of myself into each book and to hear someone wants a change is a bit of a blow but in the end, it too is part of the process. I would also say the marketing end of things is a bit of a mountain to climb but I'm learning everyday on that. I just can't give up on it. There are people out there that are more than generous, who will help if you let them, such as this blog for instance, so thank you again Erin..

Those of us in the book world understand writing the novel is only the tip of the iceberg. What tool or tools have you found to be the most beneficial in terms of advertising and promoting your work?
In my personal case, I would have to say networking and social media have been a life saver. It's difficult for me to go on social networking and talk about my books. I'm a writer but not a good marketer. Still, I have connected with many people like yourself, who will help boost your public profile. Word of mouth is very important to anyone trying to sell a product.

I would also point to my agent Sharon Belcastro and the Belcastro Agency who gave plenty of much needed help and advice along the way. I thank them very much.  

As an author, who inspires you? Who are your favorite authors and what are your favorite books?
I have a great admiration for the Bronte's, with Anne as my favorite. In the “Tenant of Wildfell Hall” a wife runs away from her abusive husband when she sees he is teaching their son his cruel behavior. I admired Anne Bronte for writing such a strong, forward thinking woman. I was deeply impressed. I love “Jane Eyre” by Charlotte Bronte as well, as I see Jane as a very strong willed woman who will stand up for herself even if it goes against social convention. In “Wuthering Heights” I often imagine I am seeing Emily Bronte in the Cathy Character. My hands down favorite however would be Jane Austin and her novel “Persuasion”. I can identify with Anne Elliot on many levels.

Midnight in Paris is one of my favorite movies, I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but it centers on a writer who falls through time and meets many of his own literary heroes. If you could do the same, who would you want to meet and why?
I would always choose to meet Jane Austen. I would love to go for a walk with her and hear her discuss her stories and what inspired her to write them. How did she really come to the decision to dedicate “Emma“ to the Prince Regent? I would also ask her how it felt to sit at a table and heard people gushing over her books without realizing she was the writer? I think it would be a very interesting visit.

In looking ahead to possible future projects, what subjects or historic characters interest you the most?
I plan on publishing “Parts Beyond the Seas: The Unwanted” which is a book about six women who are all arrested for minor crimes in England. All are sentenced to transportion to parts beyond the seas. This is the first of four books. The first book  covers the girl's first year in prison. Four are in Newgate prison in London and two are in a county gaol. They all come together at the end of the novel on board the ship that will take them to New South Wales. As well, I am soon releasing a novel entitled “Red Upon the Wind”. Set at the turn of the century in San Francisco. It is the story of a Chinese girl sold into slavery. This is the first of a three book series. I will of course be finishing the Starlings series too, with the next novel entitled, “The Starlings of the Five Bells Inn”, which takes the girls to New South Wales to start their new lives there.

What advice, if any, do you have for aspiring authors?
Get your research. The internet is a very good place to start but so is the library, magazines, text books, etc. The more research to back you up the more confidant you will be.

I would also say, never give up. I know it is something everyone hears over and over but there really is no better advice to give. You write for yourself and with each and every word you choose to link to your story it will lead you closer to your goal. When you send your work out, expect the rejection slips. Every single published writer has gotten them. Be proud of them. They mean someone did look at your work, even if it was a for a second. That really is a success in a sense. They can't reject what they don't see. And they can't accept what they don't see so just keep going.

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I started writing as a teenager. I started just to see if I could do it and before I knew it my first story was 130 pages long with a number of my friends and a few of their mothers as my readers. I finished my first full length novel when I was 19 with a pencil and paper. My next novel was completed a year later. I continued with a few other novels after that. Yes, (LOL) all hand written. My typing is horrible.

I did not write for the next few years as I moved around from city to city, living in Winnipeg, Calgary and finally settling again in Kelowna, British Columbia.Along with writing I enjoy exploring my creative side through photography and painting. I enjoy reading about history and travelling to historical sites.

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Wednesday, January 20, 2016

The Photographer's Wife by Suzanne Joinson

Rating: ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: January 5, 2016

In 1920s Jerusalem, eleven-year-old Prudence watches her architect father launch an ambitious (and crazy) plan to redesign the Holy City by importing English parks to the desert. He employs a British pilot, William Harrington, to take aerial photographs of the city, and soon Prue becomes uncomfortably aware of the attraction flaring between Harrington and Eleanora, the young English wife of a famous Jerusalem photographer. Palestine has been a surprisingly harmonious mix of British colonials, exiled Armenians, and Greek, Arab, and Jewish officials rubbing elbows, but there are simmers of trouble ahead. When Harrington learns that Eleanora's husband is part of an underground group intent on removing the British, a dangerous game begins. Years later, in 1937, Prue is an artist living a reclusive life by the sea when Harrington pays her a surprise visit. What he reveals unravels her world, and she must follow the threads that lead her back to secrets long-ago buried in Jerusalem. The Photographer's Wife is a powerful story of betrayal: between father and daughter, between husband and wife, and between nations and people, set in the complex period between the two world wars.

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I always hate admitting it, but I owe my interest in Suzanne Joinson’s The Photographer’s Wife to the cover artist who designed the jacket. I’d never read the author, I’d never even heard of her, but the vintage outfit stopped me dead in my tracks and I couldn’t resist reading the description at which point any and all restraint flew straight out the window. I requested a review copy from Bloomsbury USA, they approved my request and here I am.  

I know very little about 1920s Jerusalem and I’d hoped Joinson’s fiction would offer insight to city’s atmosphere and political landscape. Unfortunately, her descriptions never jumped from the page and I was never able to picture the world Joinson’s characters inhabited. On the upside though, I found the political dialogues fascinating and felt they went a long way in illustrating culture clash between Palestine and Britain.

Structurally, the book reminded me of Atonement. There is no ‘hit you like a ton of bricks’ moment at the end of the narrative, but much of what Prue witnesses as a child is only understood years later when she reflects on her experiences as an adult. I appreciate the idea, but Joinson’s execution didn’t work for me. I found the pacing tedious and I had little to no interest in the 1937 story line.

Joinson’s characterizations didn’t work for me either. I wasn’t intrigued by Prue, Eleanora, Charles, or Khaled. William had some interesting moments and I found his emotional struggle thought-provoking, but generally speaking, I couldn’t rouse much enthusiasm for the cast or the situations they faced. 

When all is said and done I would have a hard time recommending The Photographer’s Wife to other readers. I wanted to like it, but the descriptions and themes just didn’t appeal to my particular tastes. 

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I have never been able to determine the shifting sands of trust. I sometimes believe that we are designed to betray the people we love, just as sometimes we hand everything over, like a bright unclipped purse, or a secret part of our body, to a stranger.
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Interview with author Kaaren Christopherson

Author interviews are one of my favorite things to post which is why I am super excited to welcome author Kaaren Christopherson to Flashlight Commentary.

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Welcome to Flashlight Commentary Kaaren. It’s great to have you with us. To start things off, I’d like to know a little bit about you. Where are you from? What is your background?
Thanks so much for having me. I’m a native Michigander, but I’ve lived for many years in the Washington, DC, area. Like many people who come to the DC area, I came for a job. Currently I’m a senior writer and editor for a large international development non-profit. I’ve been writing and editing as some aspect of my “day job” for 30 years. I’ve been writing fiction for my own pleasure ever since I was in school. I’m an artist as well as a writer. My degrees are in history, art, and education. I enjoy travel, museums, galleries, historical sites, theater, music, and spending time with friends and family—including my two cats.

How would you characterize your writing style? What sort of themes are you drawn to? 
I don’t think of myself as having a particular style as an author, but I do try to have my writing “voice” reflect the historical period that I’m writing about. In other words, since Decorum is a story about deception, betrayal, bigamy, and murder in Gilded Age New York, one of my goals was to achieve a narrative that “sounds” like it was published in 1890 rather than in 2015. As I think about all my early attempts to write historical fiction, I think this goal holds true. In terms of themes, the theme that interests me most is how women in different social circumstances live out their lives within the boundaries that society has set up in the particular period I’m writing about. So, for example, does wealth make it any easier to be a woman in the 1890s, or does she share many of the same social restrictions as a poor woman? If a woman is poor and her choices for employment are few, how does she survive in 1890? 

Historic fiction is obviously a favorite genre of mine, but why do you think it holds so much appeal for modern readers? 
If anyone has ever asked a parent or grandparent what it was like to live in the “olden days” then that person would probably enjoy historical fiction. We have such an abundance of technology and conveniences that we are fascinated by how people got along without—without mobile phones, without computers or tablets, without television, or cars or airplanes or microwave ovens and frozen food (or refrigerators, for that matter). Can you imagine life before plastic—plastic in our luggage, phones, furniture, eyeglasses, dishes, and many small parts of items that aren’t plastic on the whole? Historical fiction is a way for us to see how people functioned successfully in times very different from our own. Like Decorum, historical fiction doesn’t even have to center around a particular historical event; the story can come out of the author’s imagination but be steeped in a historical period. 

How would you describe your writing process? Where do you start and how do you get into the right mindset?
Decorum is very character driven; I let the characters have a lot of latitude in growing the story. Connor O’Casey and Blanche Wilson de Alvarado were the first characters to pop into my imagination, quickly followed by Francesca Lund. The scenes that came to me first actually occur midway through the story, so I had to let them lead me out from those points so I could discover who these people were and what their relationship was to each other. I probably had close to one hundred pages of manuscript written before I could start putting a book together.

In terms of getting into the mindset, that’s where the research comes in. I began with several survey books about the period—mostly social history about how people lived (what they wore and ate, how they were educated, what work they performed), what technology was like, what discoveries had just been made, what political or economic forces affected ordinary people, how people traveled. I didn’t try to know everything, but have a good grasp of what life was like and the limitations and opportunities of the period so that the characters would act with credibility. Then I let the writing dictate the next phase of research, which is largely the details—what to call items of clothing, what kind of carriage might be used for a particular event, how a dinner table is set. Researching the 1890s was very interesting because of the variety of material available, not just history books, but biographies and memoirs, photographs, engravings, paintings, novels from the period, all sorts of resources that helped me get closer to the characters and their surroundings. I also took advantage of historic home shows and what the museums and historic homes in New York and Washington, DC, have to offer for steeping myself in the period. One of my favorite resources was my great-grandmother’s etiquette book called Decorum, published in 1881. It not only gave me a wealth of information on the expected behavior of the period, but also gave me the novel’s title and organizing theme.

Do you struggle with dialogue, research, plotting, character development, etc.? If so, how do you overcome it? 
Honestly, I think the most challenging part of writing is simply getting out of the way and letting the characters speak to each other and live out the plot. Usually when I’m struggling it’s because I’m trying to make the characters say something or act in a certain way rather than let them show me or tell me. Sure, I set up the situation, but they take the lead. One of the most satisfying aspects of writing is dialogue. I love writing dialogue. I don’t think of it as writing or “devising” dialogue as much as it is taking dictation from the characters as they speak to each other. I’m listening in on the conversation they are having in my imagination and filling in the description with what they and I see around them. Probably the other big challenge is to be able to wield a lot of material and turn it into a single story.

Many people, myself included, dream of publishing their stories. How and when did you know it was time to start writing professionally?
Interesting that you should put it that way—that it was time to seek publication for my novel. I’ve wanted to have a novel published for most of my adult life. Decorum went through many drafts, which I asked a number of discerning friends to read before I thought it was far enough along to begin to look for an agent. Then I joined a year-long writing workshop that really helped to knock the story into a draft that I felt confident about having an agent see. It was my workshop leader who finally pushed me to look for an agent and pointed me to resources and coached me along in the process.

Navigating the ins and outs of the industry can be confusing for many. What was the most difficult hurdle for you as far as getting your work on the market? 
I think for most writers finding an agent who believes in and respects their work is the most difficult part of the process. I have been so fortunate to have Victoria Skurnick as my agent and to be guided by her wisdom and experience. Then, of course, it’s up to the agent to find a publisher. I was tremendously lucky to work with Kensington Publishing on Decorum, my first novel. Kensington has many wonderful people who have guided me through, not only the editing and publishing process, but also helped me with advice on social media and how I can help get the word out about Decorum.

Midnight in Paris is one of my favorite movies, I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but it centers on a writer who falls through time and meets many of his favorite authors. If you could do the same, who would you want to meet and why? 
I would love to have a conversation with Edith Wharton, whose novels were a great help to me as I searched for a voice and tone that reflected the Gilded Age; John Galsworthy for the same reason. I’d also like to meet authors whose work is completely different from mine—different pacing, sparser language, yet beautiful storytelling—like Willa Cather or Alan Paton. I’d love to meet Jane Austen just because.

In looking ahead to possible future projects, what subjects or historic characters interest you the most? 
I have several ideas for stories in different time periods, but right now I’m working on a story that takes place in the pre-Revolutionary War period. I’m probably about 15,000 words into the writing (Decorum was 140,000 words, for comparison), and I’m in the midst of doing the general background research.

What advice, if any, do you have for aspiring authors?
Read, read, and read some more. Write, write, and write some more—and write what you love. I know there is a lot of advice out there about what a first novel should be like, but I believe that if you write what excites you and what’s in your heart you’re more likely to make it than if you write to a formula that doesn’t capture your imagination.

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“A story of discovery, entitlement and love.” – Northern Virginia Magazine

“Remarkable in its similarities to the work of Edith Wharton. The reader feels drawn into a world of glamour, glitz, and supreme hypocrisy. Everything is permissible as long as one does not get caught. It is a drama of manners and the stakes are high—one misstep could mean social oblivion…[Decorum] will appeal to a wide range of readers, particularly those who enjoy period novels such as Age of Innocence and The Portrait of a Lady.” – The Historical Novel Society

“Beautiful heiress Francesca Lund must figure out how to assert her ideas within the confines of 1890’s New York high society.” – Library Journal

“Reminiscent of Washington Square but with a more modern heroine, Decorum illuminates the dark world beneath New York society. Christopherson incorporates a clever mystery and populates the novel with a large cast of characters.” – RT Book Reviews, 4 Stars

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Kaaren Christopherson is the author of Decorum—a novel about Gilded Age New York—that began taking form in 1999 during a course on writing historical fiction. From that moment, Connor O’Casey (who had been rattling around in her brain for months) finally appeared one night and said, “All right, woman. Here I am. What are you going to do about my story?” So she began to put his words on paper, and he hasn’t kept quiet since. Soon Francesca, Blanche, Tracey, Vinnie, and the rest of the characters began arguing, gossiping, loving, and forming themselves into Kaaren’s first novel.

Kaaren has had a professional career writing and editing for over 30 years and is a senior editor for an international development nonprofit organization in Washington, DC. A Michigan native, Kaaren received her BA in history and art and her MA in educational administration from Central Michigan University in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan.

She has written fiction since her school days, story poems, children’s books, historical fiction, and time travel, and continues to be active in writer’s groups and writing workshops. In addition to her career as a writer, Kaaren was the owner of a decorative painting business. She loves to travel and prowl through historical sites, galleries, and museums. She is active in several churches in DC and in her local Northern Virginia community, where she shares her home with feline brothers, Archie and Sammy.

Website ❧  Facebook ❧  Twitter ❧  Goodreads

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Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Cover Clichés: The Barred Bodice

Sometimes, while browsing the virtual shelves on Amazon and Goodreads, I see an image that gives me an oddly disconcerting sense of deja vu. I could swear I've never read the book, but I know I've seen the jacket image somewhere before.

This phenomenon is what inspired Cover Clichés. Images are often recycled because cover artists are often forced to work from a limited pool of stock images and copyright free material. That said, I find comparing their finished designs quite interesting.  

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When Anne Boleyn falls to the executioner’s ax on a cold spring morning in 1536, Anne Seymour knows her family faces peril. As alliances shift and conspiracies multiply, the Seymours plot to establish their place in the treacherous court of King Henry VIII, where a courtier’s fate is decided by the whims of a hot-tempered and fickle monarch. Lady Anne’s own sister-in-law, Jane Seymour, soon takes Anne Boleyn’s place as queen. But if Jane cannot give King Henry a son, history portends that she, too, will be executed or set aside—and her family with her. In desperation, Lady Anne throws herself into the intoxicating intrigue of the Tudor court, determined to ensure the success of the new queen’s marriage and the elevation of the Seymour family to a more powerful position. Soon her machinations earn her a reputation as a viper in a den of rabbits. In a game of betrayal and favor, will her family’s rise be worth the loss of her soul?

Jane Seymour is a shy, dutiful fifteen-year-old when her eldest brother, Edward, brings his bride home to Wolf Hall. Katherine Filliol is the perfect match for Edward, as well as being a breath of fresh air for the Seymour family, and Jane is captivated by the older girl. Only two years later, however, the family is torn apart by a dreadful allegation—that Katherine has had an affair with the Seymour patriarch. The repercussions for all the Seymours are incalculable, not least for Katherine herself. When Jane is sent away to serve Katharine of Aragon, she is forced to witness another wife being put aside, with terrible consequences. Changed forever by what happened to Katherine Filliol, Jane comes to understand that, in a world where power is held entirely by men, there is a way in which she can still hold true to herself.

England 1536. Bridget Manning is forced to leave the safety and tranquillity of her home at Rivers Abbey in order to join the household of the queen, Anne Boleyn. Once there she enters a world seething with intrigue and plots against her new mistress. Will Bridget be able to navigate her way through the dangerous maze of the court or will it destroy her as it is destroying her queen?

Political schemes, religious partisanship and unbridled love shake the Royal Court of Scotland at the end of the Stuart dynasty. Witness to sordid murders, spy for Her Majesty among the Protestants of the infamous preacher John Knox, forced to give up her one true love, thrown out onto the streets then ruthlessly attacked by a drunkard, Charlotte Gray will do everything in her power to remain the sovereign’s lady-in-waiting. As for the Queen of Scots, she faces turmoil of a completely different kind: prisoner in a castle under the command of her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I of England, Mary Stuart learns that she is the victim of a vast conspiracy and that her English counterpart has ordered her imminent execution. Despite their hardships, Mary and Charlotte will keep their dignity throughout the storm. The two women will finally find serenity, one in the arms of a man and the other in the arms of God. Interwoven with historical facts of the era, the thrilling The Captive Queen saga is worthy of the greatest royal intrigues that still fascinate us several centuries later.

Victoria could not remember a day that she had not already been promised to a man who lived thousands of miles away. She had tried to avoid this day her whole life. She had begged, pleaded and finally threatened to go into a convent rather than marry a man she did not know and did not want to know. Even with the whole estate around her with life, she did not share the same sentiment. As the days got closer to her wedding day, she went to extreme lengths to avoid this preplanned life that had been mapped out by her parents. Even to the point of escaping at any cost, only to be caught in the end.

‘I shall never marry!’ the young Elizabeth declared, a vow she kept throughout her life in the frightening and brutal world of shilling fortunes that was Henry VIII’s heritage.

At the tender age of eight, the Lady Elizabeth has already learnt that the sanctity of marriage is a lie. Her father, King Henry VIII, is notorious not only for his succession of wives, but his ways of divesting himself of them. When she draws the name of Robert Dudley in St Valentine games as a child, Elizabeth hotly declares she will never marry — a proclamation that amuses her elders, who expect that in time she will come to desire husband, home, and children of her own, regardless of whether she succeeds her father’s throne or not. The succession itself is a turbulent and ever-changing affair, one fraught with religious concerns and questions of legitimacy. 

Like her older half-sister, Mary, Elizabeth is displaced from the line of succession by their younger half-brother Edward, who is destined for the crown…and whose will explicitly excludes both young women from succeeding him on the event of his death. Yet it is Edward’s death that catapults Elizabeth’s story forward; her sufferings throughout her sister’s reign, and her observations of Mary’s dismal marriage, shape the decades that stretch before her. Throughout the fraught years between childhood and being crowned queen, Robert Dudley stands fast at Elizabeth’s side, becoming an extension of herself that she cannot do without. 

Drawn irresistibly to him and loving him as she has never loved anyone else, Elizabeth finds herself caught between desire and fear, wanting to love and refusing to fall victim to the agonies of marriage she has witnessed in every other married person she has known. Robert hopes to one day sit at her side, her king as well as her confidante, but as the years march on, his hopes falter as Elizabeth resists the pressure put upon her by councillors and subjects alike to marry and produce an heir. Seemingly unconcerned with securing the question of succession, she flirts and dodges the issue, clinging to the isolation of singledom and sovereignty as a protection against the heartbreak she views as inevitably imparted in married life. 

England’s Virgin Queen, as Rhoda Edwards paints her, is not a woman of ice and diffidence, but of fire and passion to match her coppery hair — a true successor to her fiery father. As a child, the confusing world frightens her; as a woman, she refuses to compromise. Her path from childhood through sovereignty is fraught with danger and conflict and love, a struggle between Elizabeth the queen and Elizabeth the woman… The only question is which woman prevails in the end…

From the National Best Selling Author A Bride Abandoned Lady Jaime Macpherson learned the meaning of betrayal on the Isle of Skye when her beloved Malcolm MacLeod wed another woman to save his inheritance. Her dreams of happiness crushed, she sought refuge in the elegant palace of the Duke of Norfolk. There, desire and intrigue mixed with the haunting music of the lute...and the duke's treacherous son sought to make Jaime his. A Passion Unconquered And there Jaime would find Malcolm again, a prisoner in the castle dungeon. In the icy darkness, she learns how to love again. But with England and Scotland at war, her bold scheme to free Malcolm would imperil her own life...though her passion swept her onto a battlefield of blood and tears where only a brave and true heart could save her... 

In Italy during the Second World War, as the allied invasion works its way northward from Anzio, art connoisseur Nicholas Kluge writes a novella in Pushkin Sonnets, Ocular Proof, to while away the empty hours. "Ocular Proof "tells the story, in twenty chapters structured by the phases of the alchemical process, of how two works of art came into being: a portrait of Maddalena de Medici which served as an early prototype for the Mona Lisa, and da Vinci? creation of ?he first photograph, ?the Shroud of Turin.

The coded references within Ocular Proof? Renaissance narrative reveal a plan involving MI6 and the Catholic Church to provide the Nazis with fake masterpieces as they prepared to loot the Vatican of some of its greatest art treasures.

"Ocular Proof" reveals the secrets Nicholas Kluge carried with him to the grave of a life of divided loyalties and lost ideals, and how his time with MI6 altered the course of the war and the course of his life. The novella? meditations on the nature of art and the creation of ?he authentic image?eerily prefigures the obsessions of an era when the term Machiavellian had never seemed more contemporary.  

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Which cover strikes your fancy and why? What colors draw your eye? Do you think the image appropriate next to the jacket description? Leave your comments below!

Have you seen this image elsewhere? Shoot me an email or leave a comment and let me know. 

Interview with author Chris Thorndycroft

Author interviews are one of my favorite things to post which is why I am super excited to welcome author Chris Thorndycroft to Flashlight Commentary.

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Welcome to Flashlight Commentary Chris. It’s great to have you with us. To start things off, I’d like to know a little bit about you. Where are you from? What is your background? 
Hi! Thanks for having me. I’m from England, Portsmouth to be exact but I’ve travelled about a bit. I now live in Norway with my wife and daughter. I’m 32, studied Psychology at the University of Wales, Bangor and have always enjoyed writing.  

Historic fiction is obviously a favorite genre of mine, but why do you think it holds so much appeal for modern readers? 
It’s the appeal of dropping out of the here and now for a bit and experiencing a different time and place. I firmly believe that the appeal of historical fiction is the same as the appeal of fantasy or science fiction. We all want to experience the ‘other’ once in a while. Our history is such a massive sandbox with limitless stories to be told. Even people who didn’t like history in school can find joy in historical fiction if a human connection can be established. History isn’t facts. It’s stories.  

How would you describe your writing process? Where do you start and how do you get into the right mindset?
With novels I actually start at the end. People always ask how you start a story, but I always have a destination in mind before I figure out how the story starts. The ending is the goal, the journey to it is something that can take many forms and have many possible beginnings. 

Do you struggle with dialogue, research, plotting, character development, etc.? If so, how do you overcome it? 
I used to struggle with dialogue and it took a lot of writing to get over that hurdle. It’s all about finding the balance between ‘realistic’ dialogue and ‘poetic’ dialogue. Too much of the former doesn’t read well and too much of the latter can sound silly. Finding the right voice only comes with practice. Historical fiction adds another layer of difficulty as the way we speak is constantly changing. People don’t want to wade through passages of dialogue that are 100% authentic to the medieval era but if you have knights and ladies speaking like a modern soap opera then you risk losing some of the period feel. 

Many people, myself included, dream of publishing their stories. How and when did you know it was time to start writing professionally?
It was a gradual process. It started as a hobby and then, after I got a couple of short stories published, I felt like I should try and get a novel out. This was about ten years ago. I spent many years going the traditional route with little success. I got fed up jumping through hoops to satisfy the submission criteria of publishers just to make it into the ‘slush pile’. That was just about the time that the whole ebook thing was really taking off, so it was perfect timing. That’s not to say that I just threw my stuff on Amazon immediately. I’ve spent the last few years figuring the whole business out and getting my novels as perfect as they can be, treating the whole thing as a private business. The more momentum I gain the closer I come to my dream of living off my writing.  

Those of us in the book world understand writing the novel is only the tip of the iceberg. What tool or tools have you found to be the most beneficial in terms of advertising and promoting your work?
Facebook groups work well. Sometimes you can find a readymade audience in the groups that share your interests. It’s no good tossing your work to the wind and hoping it lands in the right hands. Seek out groups or even individuals who might like your book. But you have to be clever about it. Don’t bombard people with your novel or you’ll just come across as a spammer. Try and give a little in exchange for exposure. Blog posts connected to your novel will be read by people with an interest in the topic. All you have to do is find them. 

In looking ahead to possible future projects, what subjects or historic characters interest you the most? 
I can make myself comfortable in just about any historical period as long as I can see a story in it. I’ve mainly focused on Dark Age Britain so far and still have plans for books set in that era, but I’m excited to start exploring other periods. I have written a story about smugglers in 18th century England which will be my next release but after that, who knows? That’s the joy of history. The possibilities are limitless. 

What advice, if any, do you have for aspiring authors?
Don’t be an aspiring author. Be an author. Find some platform for your work and go for it. Traditional publishing has its advantages but I don’t regret going indie at all. The creative control is wonderful. The important thing is the writing. You can worry about selling your book afterwards. As most successful authors always say; the only way to get good at writing is to keep writing. It’s a muscle. Train it. 

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Chris Thorndycroft is a British writer of historical fiction, horror and fantasy. His early short stories appeared in magazines and anthologies such as Dark Moon Digest and American Nightmare. History has long been his passion and he began thinking about a series set in Arthurian Britain when he was a student. Ten years later, A Brother’s Oath is his first novel under his own name and the beginning of a trilogy concerning Hengest and Horsa. He also writes Steampunk and Retropulp under the pseudonym P. J. Thorndyke.

Blog ❧  Twitter ❧  Goodreads

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Monday, January 18, 2016

A Brother's Oath by Chris Thorndycroft

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours
Read: January 17, 2016

Denmark, 444 A.D. Two brothers – the cold and calculating Hengest and the intrepid but headstrong Horsa – find their separate worlds thrown into turmoil by royal treachery and an evil cult thought long dead. Reunited by an oath sworn in their youth, they set off on a journey that will define their destiny and set them upon the path to greatness. When Hengest’s family is kidnapped by an unknown enemy, Horsa knows his oath has become more than a thing of words and he infiltrates the crew of one of the most feared raiders in the northern world to find out who took them. Meanwhile, Hengest struggles to unite his rag-tag group of followers into a united people. His heart yearns for a safe haven for his family; a land that he and his followers can call their own for generations to come. This is the first part of the thrilling saga of the two warriors who spearheaded the Anglo-Saxon migrations to Britain and whose names became legendary as the founders of the land that would one day be called England.

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Hengist and Horsa Landing in England
It isn't often that I receive offers to review books I know absolutely nothing about, but when I do, curiosity usually overcomes inhibition. Something about not knowing sinks into my subconscious and I can't help wondering what new insight the story might afford. Chris Thorndycroft's A Brother's Oath was one such book and threw myself into the narrative as soon as it was made available.

Based on the traditional tales of Hengist and Horsa, Thorndycroft takes his readers back in time to carefully examine the intricacies of a relationship tested by time, distance, and deceit. Rich in detail, the narrative sheds light on an intriguing period of English history. The writing is a light and engaging and while I wish the telling had incorporated more in terms of atmospheric detail, I few complaints over the story's structure. It's a heavily masculine tale, but I think the tone highly appropriate to the subject matter.

I certainly enjoyed the time I spent reading A Brother's Oath and would definitely recommend Thorndycroft's work to fans of both Vikings and The Last Kingdom.

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Passion surged within him, a passion and a lust for life that had been dampened by the cold winter. The shimmer of gold from the ancient sword and the news of his brother - whom he had not seen in twelve years - had rekindled a flame within his soul that was determined to burn free, oath or no.
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Check Out All the Stops on Chris Thorndycroft's A Brother's Oath Virtual Book Tour

Monday, January 18

Tuesday, January 19
Interview at Flashlight Commentary
Spotlight at A Literary Vacation

Wednesday, January 20
Guest Post at The Writing Desk

Friday, January 22
Character Interview at Boom Baby Reviews

Saturday, January 23
Excerpt & Giveaway at Teddy Rose Book Reviews

Monday, January 25
Spotlight at CelticLady’s Reviews

Tuesday, January 26
Review at Book Nerd

Wednesday, January 27
Excerpt at Let Them Read Books

Friday, January 29
Spotlight & Giveaway at Passages to the Past