Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Cover Clichés: The Penitent Hero

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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In the world of Terit’re, where the gods and magic exist, a secretive band of warriors known only as Knight Protectors, are tasked with defending the people of the world against the evil of the dark gods. A new evil arises; the rules have changed. One by one, the warriors are assassinated. Faeder, ruler of the New Gods, learns of a future where they are all wiped from existence by this new dark force – and so his race for Terit’re and all of their futures begins. Forbidden to influence events directly, he reaches out to two warriors to fight his cause. But can they be trusted? One is a former Knight Protector who now hates the organisation that created him. The other is a soldier who fights for this new evil.

Ranulf Ombrier’s fame throughout England for his skill at swordplay is rivaled only by his notoriety as King Edward I’s favorite killer. Ranulf's actions have gained him lands, title, and a lasting reputation as a hired butcher. But after years of doing his king's bidding, he begins to fear for his mortal soul and follows his conscience away from Edward, all the way to the wilds of Wales. Gwenllian of Ruardean, Welsh daughter of a powerful Marcher lord, has every reason to leave Ranulf for dead when one of her men nearly kills him. As a girl she was married by proxy to a man Ranulf murdered, only to become a widow before she ever met her groom. In the years since, she has shunned the life of a lady, instead studying warfare and combat at her mother’s behest. But she has also studied healing and this, with her sense of duty to knightly virtues, leads her to tend to Ranulf’s wounds. Saving her enemy’s life comes with consequences, and Gwenllian and Ranulf are soon caught up in dangerous intrigue. Forced together by political machinations, they discover a kinship of spirit and a surprising, intense desire. But even hard-won love cannot thrive when loyalties are divided and the winds of rebellion sweep the land.

Lady Juliana Verault gladly left England—and its men—far behind in her quest to live as a Beguine. But the Christian community ceases to provide a safe haven when she’s called to travel to Palermo, Italy, where she’s entrusted with a letter from the pope that could radically change the church’s stance on women. Juliana holds the key to upending the power structure throughout Europe, but only if she can dodge her cousin, King Edward I of England, and his plans to marry her off as political leverage. Edward sets Sir Robert Clarwyn, a knight errant and loyal hunter of criminals and traitors, on Juliana’s trail to retrieve her. Robert has never failed to bring home his target before… but then, he has never encountered a quarry like Lady Juliana, who can befuddle and bemuse him with just a smile. If he can’t find a way to compel her to return to England, he’ll lose any chance of regaining his family lands and redeeming his heritage. Yet Juliana must complete her mission or risk endangering her gender’s future in the faith. With danger and intrigue mounting, Robert and Juliana must rely on each other and be willing to risk everything… including their hearts.

Every story has a beginning often driven by Fate. With The McKinnon Legends that beginning starts with Nic McKinnon and his unconventional bride, Morgan Pembridge, Seventh Duchess of Seabridge. Not your typical Knight in Shining Armor - Damsel In Distress story, The Beginning starts the reader on a journey of deep love, treachery, and mystery of the way time and space collide with characters that are believable. Staged initially in the late fifteenth century this love affair sets the foundation for an amazingly strong and solid family legacy spanning centuries in an eight volume series. Join them on their journey of growth and change to ultimately evolve into the McKinnon Legends.

A Mediaeval tale of pride and strife, of coming of age in a world where chivalry is a luxury seldom afforded, especially by men of power. An awkward misfit, loathed by his powerful and autocratic grandmother, nine-year-old Fulke FitzWarin leaves his family to be fostered in the household of Joscelin de Dinan, Lord of Ludlow. Here Fulke will learn knightly arts, but before he can succeed, he must overcome the deep-seated doubts that hold him back. Hawise FitzWarin is Joscelin's youngest daughter and she befriends Fulke. As they grow up, an implacable enemy threatens Ludlow and as the pressure mounts, their friendship changes until one fateful day they find themselves staring at each other across a divide. Not only does Fulke have to overcome the shadows of his childhood, he faces a Welsh threat to his family's lands, and the way he feels about Hawise endangers all his hard won confidence. As the menace to Ludlow intensifies, he must either confront the future head on, or fail on all counts, not knowing if Hawise stands with or against him.

Lady Alice knows she is not the type to entice a man. She's too voluptuous, too intelligent, too strong minded. Why, she even reads! But then Jonathan, Earl of Fairley, arrives at court. Tall, dark and handsome, the knight is any woman's dream. And he has just been ordered by the king to find a bride… and Alice is to help him! Jonathan has been evading his mother's matchmaking schemes for years, so why does she insist that Lady Alice isn't for him? Alice is only to aid in his search for a bride, yet Jonathan can't help but be distracted by her glorious hair—the color of a sunset—and a figure that is like a lush berry about to burst to full ripeness… Has Jonathan fallen prey to love?

Carnegie Medal finalist and winner of the Guardian Fiction Prize: Beware of shaking hands with a Sterkarm . . .

The sixteenth-century Sterkarms are tough, determined, and brave. They are also vicious, violent, and dirty, and spend most of their time warring with neighbors and stealing livestock. But what they lack in charm, they make up for in pristine land.

Scotland in the sixteenth century is teeming with natural resources and fossil fuels that the twenty-first century lacks. FUP, a modern-day corporation, intends to make billions by mining the past with an industrial secret: a time machine. To facilitate their plunder, they send Andrea Mitchell, an anthropologist with a knack for languages, through the Time Tube to the sixteenth century to study the community. There, she meets Per Sterkarm, a handsome young warrior, and despite their differences, the two fall in love. When Per learns of FUP’s intentions, he vows to protect his land and destroy the invaders. In the bloody battle that follows, Andrea will have to choose not only to which side she belongs, but also which century . . .

Perfect for fans of Outlander, The Sterkarm Handshake is a rich historical portrait about the clashing of cultures, finding home, and falling in love.

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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. 

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Roanoke: The Lost Colony by Angela Elwell Hunt

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Personal Kindle Library
Read: February 03, 2016

The enduring mystery of what happened to the first English colony in the New World... In 1587, a group of would-be colonists set sail from England and later landed on Roanoke Island, now part of North Carolina's Outer Banks. Their ship returned to England and the settlers were never heard from again. This is the story, based on legendary and historical information, of what might have happened to them. Jocelyn White, a newlywed married to Thomas Coleman, is reluctant to leave her home in England for the wild shores of the New World. The journey is fraught with danger, but her dependence on God and God's providence carry her safely through. 

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1585 map of the east coast of North America from the
Chesapeake Bay to Cape Lookout by John White
I knew the history of Roanoke prior to purchasing Angela Elwell Hunt’s Roanoke: The Lost Colony, but my interest in the novel didn’t begin with its subject matter. Truth be told, I stumbled over the book because I wanted to read one of its sequels. Unfortunately, the jacket description on Charles Town led me to believe the Keepers of the Ring series built on one another so rather than breaking sequence and jumping in at book five, I redirected my attention to book one. 

I’ll grant it’s not the most auspicious start, but I’ve opened books on a lot less so let’s not get caught up on the details. Roanoke: The Lost Colony actually has a few things going for it and while certain elements of novel left me wanting, there was enough going on to hold my interest and satisfy my famously particular tastes. 

Fair warning to all, the religious aspects of the novel are not subtle, but I felt Hunt’s themes blended well with the historic details of her fiction. I know I’m in the minority when I say this, but I enjoy this kind of balance and am always impressed with writers who take the time and care to create it. Hunt obviously put a lot into researching the colony, but she put equal thought into integrating her message of faith into the material and I truly appreciated how to two complement one another as the story progressed. 

I felt Jocelyn a likable heroine, and I appreciate much in both Audrey and Rowtag, but like many other reviewers, I struggled to appreciate Thomas. His views are rather extreme and while I’ve no problem with difficult characters, I felt his arc awkward and forced. I greatly enjoyed his entry and introduction, but his personality fractures and takes a seemingly unnatural tangent. In looking back at the book, I have to admit his character confused me and even now, I’m not entirely sure what Hunt was trying to accomplish with his role. 

I found the pacing tedious, but became addicted to the authenticity and harsh descriptions of Hunt’s narrative. Christian fiction is usually positive and upbeat, but Roanoke: The Lost Colony is decidedly bittersweet. Hunt allowed history to shape this story and while I recognize how disappointing that is for some readers, I personally respected the author more for her adherence to the historic record. 

As a family saga, I can’t say the Keepers of the Ring series has much on Jack Cavanaugh’s American Family Portrait, but I enjoyed the time I spent with piece and look forward to tackling additional installments in the near future.  

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“Let each family draw together tonight for prayer. Let each man fight on the morrow for his life. And let us be confident that in this, as in all things, God’s will must be done.”
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Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Hanging Mary by Susan Higginbotham

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley/HNS
Read: March 10, 2016

Meet Mary Surratt, the woman who could have saved Lincoln. Find out what stopped her in this vivid reimagining of Lincoln's assassination. In 1864 Washington, one has to be careful with talk of secession. Better to speak only when in the company of the trustworthy, like Mrs. Surratt. A widow who runs a small boarding house, Mary Surratt isn't half as committed to the cause as her son, Johnny. If he's not escorting veiled spies, he's inviting home men like John Wilkes Booth, the actor who is even more charming in person than he is on the stage. But when President Lincoln is killed, the question of what Mary knew becomes more important than anything else. Based on the true history of Mary Surratt, Hanging Mary reveals the untold story of those on the other side of the assassin's gun.

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Mary Surratt
I’ve been wanting someone to fictionalize Mary Surratt’s life since watching Robert Redford’s The Conspirator. The movie was inspired by Kate Larson’s The Assassin's Accomplice and though I’ve not read the book, the film made me think about Mary’s situation in an entirely new light. I’d known the history, but where I’d often speculated the question of Mary’s guilt, I’d rarely considered her character and personality. Could there be more to her? How did she view her circumstances? Did she believe her gender would shield her from the noose?

It took years, but author Susan Higginbotham stumbled over the story and accepted the challenge. An ARC of her book, Hanging Mary, found its way to me at the Historical Novel Society Conference in Denver last year and I added it to my short list of must reads for 2016 this past January. Reviews have been largely favorable and while I find I agree much of what has been stated in the four and five star commentary, I admit my personal experience and reflections fall in the more moderate three star range.

First and foremost, I have to admit to struggling with Higginbotham’s style. Please forgive my blunt statement, but I found the pacing of the novel insufferably slow. Hanging Mary is the first Higginbotham novel I’ve had opportunity to read so I am unsure if it is indicative of her particular approach, but I am adamant in that it did not work for me this time around. I felt the novel found its feet and picked up in the latter chapters, but by that point, I felt it was too little, too late. 

In looking at Mary, I again beg pardon, but I feel Higginbotham missed the mark in her characterization. I might be alone in this, but Mary struck me as rather detached and frequently seemed to act as a place holder in her own story. She goes through the motions, hitting her marks in accordance with the historic record, but most of her chapters are dedicated to recounting her son’s movements, establishing character relationships, and providing exposition. As a reader, I desperately wanted to get inside Mary’s head, but Higginbotham’s portrait lacked the depth I craved, struck me as superficial and left me decidedly unsatisfied. 

The premise set forth in the jacket description pushes Mary and her history, but it says nothing about second narrator Nora Fitzpatrick. If you’re scratching your head, don’t worry, I did the same thing and had to do a little background reading to learn that Nora was one of Mary’s boarders. Records suggest Nora was close to both Mary and Anna Surratt and indicate that she testified for both sides during the trial that followed Lincoln’s assassination. As a fictional character, I felt Nora interesting, sympathetic and well-rounded, but I was frustrated that she eclipsed the novel’s headliners so completely. As a Unionist, Nora was a safe and uncontroversial choice and perhaps that made her easier to write, but I found it impossible to ignore the depth and dimension in her make-up. Higginbotham is obviously talented, but in comparing narrator to narrator, I couldn’t help wondering if Mary’s historical significance and notoriety stifled the author’s creativity when it came time to set her vision to paper. 

Would I recommend the title? Certainly. It didn’t live up to my expectations, but there is no denying its virtues. Anna Surratt enjoys a supporting role, but she exhibits the sort of intrigue that taunts the imagination and leaves you wanting more. Higginbotham’s characterization of Booth was equally captivating and I quite enjoyed the wealth of historic detail the author slipped into the backdrop of the novel. Yes, I felt the narrators were unevenly matched and yes, I struggled with the pacing, but in terms of content Hanging Mary is both genuine and illuminating. 

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War is men’s business, I had always believed, but on the day Lincoln was inaugurated, my oldest son, Isaac, rushed off the Texas and later joined the Confederate army, so it drew me in.
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Sunday, March 20, 2016

The Royal Nanny by Karen Harper

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Obtained from: Edelweiss
Read: February 10, 2016

Based on a seldom-told true story, this novel is perfect for everyone who is fascinated by Britain’s royal family—a behind the scenes look into the nurseries of little princes and the foibles of big princes. April, 1897: A young nanny arrives at Sandringham, ancestral estate of the Duke and Duchess of York. She is excited, exhausted—and about to meet royalty... So begins the unforgettable story of Charlotte Bill, who would care for a generation of royals as their parents never could. Neither Charlotte—LaLa, as her charges dub her—nor anyone else can predict that eldest sons David and Bertie will each one day be king. LaLa knows only that these children, and the four who swiftly follow, need her steadfast loyalty and unconditional affection. But the greatest impact on Charlotte’s life is made by a mere bud on the family tree: a misunderstood soul who will one day be known as the Lost Prince. Young Prince John needs all of Lala’s love—the kind of love his parents won’t…or can’t... show him. From Britain’s old wealth to the glittering excesses of Tsarist Russia; from country cottages to royal yachts, and from nursery to ballroom, Charlotte Bill witnesses history. The Royal Nanny is a seamless blend of fact and fiction—an intensely intimate, yet epic tale spanning decades, continents, and divides that only love can cross.

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Charlotte Bill and Prince John
I requested a review copy of Karen Harper’s The Royal Nanny with half-hearted curiosity. I had a vague historic interest in George V and his family, but I can’t say I was chomping at the bit to experience a fictional account of Prince John and his beloved nurse, Charlotte Bill. In retrospect, this lack of enthusiasm is rather embarrassing as it represents a severe understatement of both author and subject matter, but it is something I gladly cop to in order to emphasize how profoundly impressed I was on completing the narrative. 

Harper’s pen bewitched my imagination in such a way that even now, weeks after completing The Royal Nanny, I find myself at a loss for words. I’m a picky reader and there are a few things I’d have loved to see Harper elaborate on over the course of this story, but those details are so insignificant that they don’t bear mentioning. At the end of the day, my wants stem from a desire for more time with certain members of Harper’s cast and I don’t feel it appropriate to criticize when the root cause of my comments is in fact adoration and praise. 

Charlotte proved a charmingly endearing heroine in my eyes. She isn’t particularly complex in terms of disposition and temperament, but her internal struggles and personal relationships are so intimately drawn that it’s hard not to be moved by her experiences. There is an authenticity in her character that pulls at the heartstrings and despite knowing how events would unfold, I often found myself lost in both her joys and sorrows. Society has changed a lot in the last hundred years, but the intensely personal ramifications of her career choices felt relevant even by contemporary standards. Charlotte could not have everything she wanted in life and watching her accept that reality and find her own happiness despite that which life denied her was truly inspiring.

The children themselves added another layer of depth to novel. Harper took great care to depict each in a way that would complement their real life experiences and I loved how her attention to detail manifested itself through her adolescent cast. I often found myself exasperated with Edward, sympathetic toward Albert, and delighted with Mary. Henry and George play smaller roles, but the moments they share with Charlotte also hint at the trials their historical counterparts faced as adults. John’s relationship with Charlotte is different, but appropriately so. In many ways John was her child and I felt the shift seen in narrative as he grows fitting in light of the situation and circumstances of the life they shared. 

My favorite element of the story, however, was Chad. He wasn’t a character I’d anticipated and his role caught me entirely off guard. I worried about his relevance in the early chapters, but soon realized his importance and admire how Harper used him to round out and challenge Charlotte throughout the story. He’s the perfect counterbalance and I think he brings out something in Charlotte that is often overlooked when examining her legacy and involvement with the royal family. 

At the end of the day, I can’t recommend The Royal Nanny highly enough. Author Sandra Byrd dubbed it compulsively page-turning and I couldn’t agree more. It is a brilliant illuminating novel that affords exceptional insight to the world of Britain’s monarchs, their children, and their staff.  

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It seemed that these glorious ­people in their silks and satins and jewels glittered as much as the gifts and the tree. And to think, Mabel and Rose had both told me that more gifts would be given to the downstairs staff and estate workers in a week on New Year’s Day, another time for celebration and a party. But for me, among these glittering ­people who ruled the realm, a new year—­a new life—­had already begun.
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Saturday, March 19, 2016

The Girl from the Savoy by Hazel Gaynor

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Edelweiss
Read: February 10, 2016

Dolly Lane is a dreamer; a downtrodden maid who longs to dance on the London stage, but her life has been fractured by the Great War. Memories of the soldier she loved, of secret shame and profound loss, by turns pull her back and spur her on to make a better life. When she finds employment as a chambermaid at London’s grandest hotel, The Savoy, Dolly takes a step closer to the glittering lives of the Bright Young Things who thrive on champagne, jazz and rebellion. Right now, she must exist on the fringes of power, wealth and glamor—she must remain invisible and unimportant. But her fortunes take an unexpected turn when she responds to a struggling songwriter’s advertisement for a ‘muse’ and finds herself thrust into London’s exhilarating theatre scene and into the lives of celebrated actress, Loretta May, and her brother, Perry. Loretta and Perry may have the life Dolly aspires to, but they too are searching for something. Now, at the precipice of the life she has and the one she longs for, the girl from The Savoy must make difficult choices: between two men; between two classes, between everything she knows and everything she dreams of. A brighter future is tantalizingly close—but can a girl like Dolly ever truly leave her past behind?

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Hazel Gaynor is not a new author for me. I had the privilege of reading Hush, her contribution to Fall of Poppies: Stories of Love and the Great War in December 2015 and was so impressed with the piece that I made up my mind to read at least one of her full length titles during 2016. I own a copy of The Girl Who Came Home, but it was The Girl from the Savoy that I ultimately picked up. I wish I could say something intelligent about the subject matter piquing my interest and/or imagination, but the shameful reality is that I am cover slut and the volume has an absolutely gorgeous jacket.

Generally speaking, I liked the premise of Gaynor’s book, but the structure and format confused me. I felt protagonist Dorothy 'Dolly' Lane an intriguing young woman and I liked how her experience paralleled that of fellow narrator Loretta May. I felt their ties a little coincidental, but when push comes to shove fiction is chock full of such twists and there was nothing overtly annoying in the connection these women shared. I’d have been quite happy if the novel had centered on Dorothy and Loretta alone, but the inclusion of third narrator Teddy Cooper left me scratching my head. The character had enormous potential, but his role carries little weight alongside Gaynor’s leading ladies and while I enjoyed his scenes and the ideas they inspired, I couldn’t help feeling his perspective superfluous to the story at hand.

I felt Gaynor’s descriptions of life at the Savoy brilliantly imagined, but the hotel is not a character in and of itself. The comparison to Downtown Abbey is inevitable given the time period, Goodreads reviewer Sheena Lambert actually made it in her review, but I feel the television series only emphasizes what the novel lacks. The house is an integral part of the show and most of the drama is tied to the mansion, what it represents, and the lives lived within its walls. Gaynor’s Savoy is colorful, but it does not factor in the story the same way. It is one of many backdrops on which Dorothy’s story unfolds, but it is not fundamental to the drama of her experience which I found disappointing in light of the novel’s description.

In terms of pacing, I felt Gaynor spent too much time laying her groundwork. There are many inspired moments in the first two thirds of novel, but the narrative took so long to find its feet that I was bored by the time I really took interest in what was happening. The concept of life after loss, especially during the Great War held a lot of appeal for me and I thought the diversity of Gaynor’s illustration intensely creative, but its delayed delivery left me frustrated and only partially satisfied.

Would I recommend the novel? As usual, that answer depends on the reader. The Girl from the Savoy is an emotional piece and I think it touches on a lot of intense and deeply compelling themes, but I found it difficult to appreciate the style and tone of the narrative and offer caution to those readers who require instant gratification from their fictional experience.

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"By the time the war was over, my heart was broken, my dreams were shattered, my hopes were bruised. Without ever stepping onto a battlefield, I too was wounded."
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Saturday, March 5, 2016

The Vatican Princess by C.W. Gortner

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: March 1, 2016

Glamorous and predatory, the Borgias became Italy’s most ruthless and powerful family, electrifying and terrorizing their 15th-century Renaissance world. To this day, Lucrezia Borgia is known as one of history’s most notorious villainesses, accused of incest and luring men to doom with her arsenal of poison. International bestselling author C.W. Gortner’s new novel delves beyond the myth to depict Lucrezia in her own voice, from her pampered childhood in the palaces of Rome to her ill-fated, scandalous arranged marriages and complex relationship with her adored father and her rival brothers—brutal Juan and enigmatic Cesare. This is the dramatic, untold story of a papal princess who came of age in an era of savage intrigue and unparalleled splendor, and whose courage led her to overcome the fate imposed on her by her Borgia blood.

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I didn’t set out to read C.W. Gortner’s The Vatican Princess because I love the Borgias. I appreciate their role in politics, but I’ve never been particularly enamored with their legendary drama. Truth be told, my interest in the novel was inspired by the author who penned it. Gortner’s books hold a treasured place in my personal library and I couldn’t resist adding another of his volumes to my collection.

Historically speaking, I’m accustomed to seeing Lucretia painted as a cold and calculating temptress, but the vulnerable and vibrant woman Gortner created within these pages bears little resemblance to traditional interpretation. She is introduced as a naïve innocent and I found the development of her personal and political awareness refreshingly thought-provoking. To the outside world she is an integral part of a frighteningly powerful family, but behind the scenes she is considered little more than a pawn to be bought, sold, traded, and used in her family’s ambitious and deadly machinations. As a reader, I sympathized with her character, fell in love with her tenacity, and adored the juxtaposition in how she ultimately wielded her own brand Borgia determination and strength against her oppressors. 

Speaking of antagonists, I was thoroughly impressed with Gortner’s range. Too often authors paint good and evil in simple opposition, but Lucretia’s adversaries are a diverse collection of serpents that challenge her both emotionally and physically. Gortner doesn’t hold back in his descriptions of Borgia brutality and I felt the approach, while graphic, created a necessary intensity in the fabric of the narrative. The material is shocking and uncomfortable, but the author’s handling of the subject matter produces a tangible tension and unsettling sense of menace in the minds of his audience. 

Gortner utilizes the lurid myths surrounding the family to his advantage, but historically speaking, he takes relatively few liberties. There are embellishments here and there, but I’ve no complaint regarding his deviations. He blend of fact and fiction is seamless and the changes he incorporated into the narrative only enhance the telling. 

A sympathetic portrait steeped in passionate political intrigue, The Vatican Princess stands as testament to both Gortner’s talent and vision. In redefining Lucretia his novel challenges long-standing standing perceptions and bring new dimension to the life she lived.

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“There can be no other reason. Infamy is no accident. It is a poison in our blood. It is the price of being a Borgia”
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Friday, March 4, 2016

Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Obtained from: Local Library
Read: March 4, 2016

Winter, 1945. Four teenagers. Four secrets.Each one born of a different homeland; each one hunted, and haunted, by tragedy, lies…and war. As thousands of desperate refugees flock to the coast in the midst of a Soviet advance, four paths converge, vying for passage aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff, a ship that promises safety and freedom. Yet not all promises can be kept. Inspired by the single greatest tragedy in maritime history, bestselling and award-winning author Ruta Sepetys (Between Shades of Gray) lifts the veil on a shockingly little-known casualty of World War II. An illuminating and life-affirming tale of heart and hope.

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Generally speaking I turn to young adult lit when I’m in the mood for something light. I mean no offense in that admission, but the genre doesn’t satisfy my tastes the way it once did. This being the case, I seriously considered bypassing Ruta Sepetys’ Salt to the Sea altogether, but the truth of the matter is that the subject matter was simply too tempting to ignore.

The sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff is a tragedy I’m very familiar with, but Sepetys’ work marks the first time I’ve seen it adapted to fiction. The disaster serves as the backdrop for the novel’s climax and I loved how the magnitude of event was emphasized by the individual experiences of Sepetys’ cast. The author’s incorporation of the mystery surrounding the Amber Room was also noteworthy, but it was her descriptions of Operation Hannibal that struck the most emotional chord. I read a lot of World War II fiction and genuinely feel the desperation Sepetys illustrated within these pages beyond compare.

Joana’s resolve and generous heart made her an intensely compelling heroine. Florian is flawed, but his tenacity and courage endear him to Sepetys’ audience from page one. Emilia, sweet and gentle Emilia carries a burden of memory and experience I’ve rarely seen in adult fiction and while I was both horrified and heartbroken over the revelation of her backstory, I feel the loss of innocence that defines her journey the most powerful arc of the narrative. I found Heinz, the shoe poet, singularly charming and felt Ingrid refreshingly inspired. Like many readers, I struggled to appreciate Alfred though I can’t decide if that because I felt his voice superfluous or because I pegged his story in the early chapters of the narrative.

In the author’s note, Sepetys states she was “… haunted by thoughts of helpless children and teenagers – innocent victims of border shifts, ethnic cleansings, and vengeful regimes. Hundreds of thousands of children were orphaned during World War II. Abandoned or separated from their families, they were forced to battle the beast of war on their own, left with an inheritance of heartache and responsibility for events they had no role in causing.” Sepetys novel is intense, painful, and at times, uncomfortable, but it truly reflects the horrors faced by children of the period and stands as a testament to the terror they endured and overcame.

Salt to the Sea is not an easy read, but it is a brutally powerful one that I highly recommend.

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“I unbuttoned my coat, enduring the freezing temperature in order to allow the bloodstains on my shirt to be visible. I had another stain of course. One that wasn’t visible. Sippenhaft. Blood guilt.” 
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