Saturday, June 30, 2018

#BookReview: Searching for Irene by Marlene Bateman

Genre
Christian Historical
Historical Mystery

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DESCRIPTION: 
Anna Coughlin is a modern 1920s woman armed with a college education and a partiality for numbers. Now, within the walls of a fantastic castle-like mansion in the hills of Virginia, her skill will be tested as never before. Hired to serve as financial advisor to wealthy Lawrence Richardson, Anna finds the welcome she receives anything but warm. Lawrence’s handsome but antagonistic son Tyler wants nothing more than to send her packing. The household staff isn’t much better, but who can blame them, considering the way Lawrence’s last advisor, Irene, disappeared...

Convinced that one of the enigmatic members of the household had something to do with Irene’s disappearance, Anna doesn’t dare trust anyone—not even temperamental Tyler Richardson, who, despite her best intentions, is beginning to steal her heart. A series of frightening incidents ensnare Anna in a maze of intrigue, putting her life in peril. But even as Anna begins uncovering the secrets hidden within the mansion’s stone walls, she harbors a secret of her own. Now, the only question that remains is whether she will disappear as mysteriously as Irene...


REVIEW: 
Marlene Bateman’s Searching for Irene caught my eye a while back, but the reality of the novel failed to satisfy my tastes and I have to admit I’d have great difficulty recommending it forward.

I hate sounding so blasé, but I have this crazy idea that a whodunit should leave the audience wondering ‘who done it?’ for at least some portion of the narrative. The reader shouldn’t be able to peg the culprit the moment the character enters the story and they shouldn’t catch themselves yawning as the cast slowly pieces things together.

I kept reading in hope that Bateman would throw me a curveball or at least create a motive or twist I didn’t anticipate, but neither materialized and I finished the novel feeling cheated of the time I spent with it. The story wasn’t bad, but it never took off.

The novel is light on historic detail and the characterizations lack the depth and complexity I crave. The story isn’t bad, but it’s more of a beach read than it is a suspenseful page-turner.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: August 23, 2017

His words kindles a fire that glinted in Anna's eyes. How dare he make such an assumption? It was difficult to hang on to her temper, but there was too much at stake to let his boorishness sidetrack her.
RECOMMENDATIONS: LDS FICTION




#BookReview: The Hamilton Affair by Elizabeth Cobbs

Genre
Biographic Fiction

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DESCRIPTION: 
Set against the dramatic backdrop of the American Revolution, and featuring a cast of iconic characters such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and the Marquis de Lafayette, The Hamilton Affair tells the sweeping, tumultuous, true love story of Alexander Hamilton and Elizabeth Schuyler, from tremulous beginning to bittersweet ending—his at a dueling ground on the shores of the Hudson River, hers more than half a century later after a brave, successful life.

Hamilton was a bastard son, raised on the Caribbean island of St. Croix. He went to America to pursue his education. Along the way he became one of the American Revolution’s most dashing—and unlikely—heroes. Adored by Washington, hated by Jefferson, Hamilton was a lightning rod: the most controversial leader of the American Revolution.

She was the well-to-do daughter of one of New York’s most exalted families—feisty, adventurous, and loyal to a fault. When she met Alexander, she fell head over heels. She pursued him despite his illegitimacy, and loved him despite his infidelity. In 1816 (two centuries ago), she shamed Congress into supporting his seven orphaned children. Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton started New York’s first orphanage. The only “founding mother” to truly embrace public service, she raised 160 children in addition to her own.

With its flawless writing, brilliantly drawn characters, and epic scope, The Hamilton Affair will take its place among the greatest novels of American history.


REVIEW: 
I understand trends and the rush to capitalize on Hamilton’s popularity, but I am not amused by Arcade Publishing’s decision to drape Elizabeth Cobbs’ The Hamilton Affair in artwork that was so obviously inspired by the musical’s playbill. I might be alone in this, but I get a ‘we don’t believe this book can succeed on its own merit’ vibe when looking at the jacket and I don’t think that’s quite the angle marketing was going for.

For the record, I live under a rock. I have not seen the show and I have never listened to the soundtrack which means my views are not colored by any sort of admiration for Lin-Manuel Miranda. I picked up Cobbs’ book because I appreciate revolution era fiction, but the reality of my experience with the novel proved so disenchanting that I can’t rouse much additional enthusiasm for the bandwagon’s worth of Hamilton titles that have magically appeared in bookstores across the country.

Cobbs’ passion for the material is obvious, but her approach struck me as rough and unpolished. I can only speculate, but I got the impression that she was so consumed with her own research that she forgot the basic mechanics of storytelling and neglected to realize how starting the story in 1768 hindered the development of the central relationship between Alexander and Elizabeth. You probably don’t have a copy to reference, but Cobbs’ leads don’t actually meet until Chapter 18 which seems a little late for a book meant to chronicle their love affair. Don’t get me wrong, the childhood anecdotes were interesting historically, but they felt unnecessary to the story at hand and left me somewhat annoyed with the first third of the narrative.

I should also note that Alexander and Elizabeth didn’t read as equals. Call me crazy, but Cobbs seems to have had more fun writing Elizabeth than she did Alexander. I can once again only speculate, but I think Cobbs’ creativity was stifled by the depth of her own research and that she was so focused on faithfully recreating the historic record, that she ignored the importance of character development. Little is known about Elizabeth so Cobbs was afforded more freedom, but Alexander is a different animal altogether. To be clear, the issue is not about likability or interpretation, I’d simply have preferred it if he’d read less like an automaton.

I will admit that I liked Ajax Manly, but I found myself at odds with Cobbs’ rationalization of the character and what he was meant to represent in the larger context of the narrative. In the Author’s Note, Cobbs states that Ajax “… is wholly fictional, though conjured out of Hamilton’s past to illuminate his lifelong opposition to slavery.” It’s an admirable statement, but I am disappointed that as a historian, Cobbs neglected to mention that Hamilton’s views are a subject of some debate. Cobbs stands with Michael D. Chan, David O. Stewart, Jerome Braun, and Ron Chernow, but there are those like Michelle DuRoss, Phillip W. Magness, Thomas J. DiLorenzo, and Ishmael Reed, who feel Hamilton’s abolitionist sentiments overstated. Reed went so far as to say that “Establishment historians write best sellers in which some of the cruel actions of the Founding Fathers are smudged over if not ignored altogether.” It’s an interesting idea and while I fully respect Cobbs’ decision to write a fictional story through whatever lens she likes, I can’t help being disappointed at her decision to paint the issue as an established and universally accepted fact in the footnotes of her work.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: May 11, 2016

It comforted Eliza that Alexander had atoned for his own mistakes years before, even though it flayed her pride at the time. She knew she would find her husband in Heaven. His sacrifices and generosity—his mercy even toward Burr—far outweighed his sins.
RECOMMENDATIONS: HAMILTON FICTION




#BookReview: I Was Anastasia by Ariel Lawhon

Genre
Biographic Fiction

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DESCRIPTION: 
Ariel Lawhon, a rising star in historical suspense, has set her sights on one of history's most beguiling mysteries: Did Anastasia Romanov survive the Russian Revolution, or was Anna Anderson, the woman who notoriously claimed her identity, an impostor?

Russia, July 17, 1918 Under direct orders from Vladimir Lenin, Bolshevik secret police force Anastasia Romanov, along with the entire imperial family, into a damp basement in Siberia where they face a merciless firing squad. None survive. At least that is what the executioners have always claimed.

Germany, February 17, 1920 A young woman bearing an uncanny resemblance to Anastasia Romanov is pulled shivering and senseless from a canal. Refusing to explain her presence in the freezing water or even acknowledge her rescuers, she is taken to the hospital where an examination reveals that her body is riddled with countless, horrific scars. When she finally does speak, this frightened, mysterious young woman claims to be the Russian Grand Duchess.

As rumors begin to circulate through European society that the youngest Romanov daughter has survived the massacre at Ekaterinburg, old enemies and new threats are awakened. The question of who this woman is and what actually happened to Anastasia creates a saga that spans fifty years and three continents. This thrilling page-turner is every bit as moving and momentous as it is harrowing and twisted.


REVIEW: 
I Was Anastasia marks my first experience with author Ariel Lawhon. I was familiar with the history behind the novel, but I didn’t have any real expectations when I picked it up and was more than a little surprised when the book proved almost impossible to put aside.

Lawhon’s style and tone captured my attention from the first line and refused to release its hold until the very end of the narrative. I hate to gush, but Lawhon’s ability to convey genuine tension is nothing short of brilliant. I knew where this story was going, but I still felt real fear and desperation in the musings and movements of both her leads and loved how their emotions emanated so distinctly from the page.

The drama of the story is enhanced by Lawhon's brazenly ambitious structuring of the narrative. Anastasia’s chapters progress chronologically, but Anna’s are inverted. The end result leaves the reader questioning if the two voices run parallel to one another or if they are in fact two parts of a singular whole. The finale itself is wonderful, but it should be understood that Lawhon was not writing about the answer so much as the question. The ambiguity of Anna’s origin and inability to definitely identify her during her lifetime immortalized Anastasia and I adore how Lawhon’s narrative plays on that reality.

The novel incorporates great historic details, but I will admit to struggling with a handful of scenes. As much as I loved the story, I was keenly aware that certain moments were based more on rumor rather than verifiable fact and while I appreciate what those passages brought in terms of storytelling, the history buff in me couldn’t help wrinkling her nose. Lawhon’s characterization of Anastasia was also more mature and worldly than I envision her, but at the end of the day, my only real comment on Lawhon’s interpretation is that it’s clear she favored Anna. I can’t presume to know why, but reading between the lines, the author seemed to have more fun with Anna’s chapters than she did Anastasia’s.

Imaginatively tenacious and creatively composed, I Was Anastasia brings life to a mystery that captivated the world for much of the twentieth century. Highly recommended. An absolute must-read.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Obtained from: Edelweiss
Read: September 21, 2017

If I tell you what happened that night in Ekaterinburg I will have to unwind my memory - all the twisted coils - and lay it in your palm. It will be the gift and curse I bestow upon you. A confession for which you may never forgive me.
RECOMMENDATIONS: ROMANOV FICTION




#BookReview: The Way to London: A Novel of World War II by Alix Rickloff

Genre
War Era Historical

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DESCRIPTION: 
From the author of Secrets of Nanreath Hall comes this gripping, beautifully written historical fiction novel set during World War II—the unforgettable story of a young woman who must leave Singapore and forge a new life in England.

On the eve of Pearl Harbor, impetuous and overindulged, Lucy Stanhope, the granddaughter of an earl, is living a life of pampered luxury in Singapore until one reckless act will change her life forever.

Exiled to England to stay with an aunt she barely remembers, Lucy never dreamed that she would be one of the last people to escape Singapore before war engulfs the entire island, and that her parents would disappear in the devastating aftermath. Now grief stricken and all alone, she must cope with the realities of a grim, battle-weary England.

Then she meets Bill, a young evacuee sent to the country to escape the Blitz, and in a moment of weakness, Lucy agrees to help him find his mother in London. The unlikely runaways take off on a seemingly simple journey across the country, but her world becomes even more complicated when she is reunited with an invalided soldier she knew in Singapore.

Now Lucy will be forced to finally confront the choices she has made if she ever hopes to have the future she yearns for. 


REVIEW: 
Alix Rickloff’s Secrets of Nanreath Hall made a fabulous impression on several of my friends, but The Way to London: A Novel of World War II marks my first experience with her work. I’m not entirely sure what I expected going in, but I was generally optimistic and am pleased to report my confidence was not entirely misplaced.

Spoiled socialite, Lucy Stanhope, reminded me quite strongly of Naomi Watts’ Kitty Fane, but that’s not entirely surprising when one considers the nature and scope of the story. There is an oft ridiculous immaturity in her makeup and while I respect the opinions of those who struggled to appreciate her personality, I’d like to point out how difficult it’d be to recognize her emotional transformation if the author had centered the novel on a universally likable protagonist.

The story itself is chock-full of wit, but the novel is character driven and those looking for a hard-hitting historical are destined for disappointment. Rickloff’s is a human story that wastes little time on the politics or cultural impact of the war which is where I struggled to appreciate the narrative. It’s fun and engaging, but it was light and leaves little for the reader to sink their teeth into.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Edelweiss
Read: September 21, 2017

She was sweating. Please be there. Please want him back. Please love him.
RECOMMENDATIONS: WAR ERA FICTION




#BookReview: Daughters of the Night Sky by Aimie K. Runyan

Genre
War Era Historical

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DESCRIPTION: 
A novel—inspired by the most celebrated regiment in the Red Army—about a woman’s sacrifice, courage, and love in a time of war.

Russia, 1941. Katya Ivanova is a young pilot in a far-flung military academy in the Ural Mountains. From childhood, she’s dreamed of taking to the skies to escape her bleak mountain life. With the Nazis on the march across Europe, she is called on to use her wings to serve her country in its darkest hour. Not even the entreaties of her new husband—a sensitive artist who fears for her safety—can dissuade her from doing her part as a proud daughter of Russia.

After years of arduous training, Katya is assigned to the 588th Night Bomber Regiment—one of the only Soviet air units comprised entirely of women. The Germans quickly learn to fear nocturnal raids by the daring fliers they call “Night Witches.” But the brutal campaign will exact a bitter toll on Katya and her sisters-in-arms. When the smoke of war clears, nothing will ever be the same—and one of Russia’s most decorated military heroines will face the most agonizing choice of all.


REVIEW: 
Daughters of the Night Sky marks my third experience with author Aimie K.Runyan and represents a significant shift in the scope of her storytelling. Inspired by the real-life exploits of the female aviators of the Soviet Air Forces, the novel explores the experience of the Night Witches through the eyes of a young woman facing the dramatic realities of a world at war.

Before I get too far ahead of myself, I want to note my admiration for Runyan’s gentle handling of the material. It’d have been easy to stereotype the Night Witches as a group of gung-ho feminists hell-bent on defying the patriarchy, but Runyan took obvious care to illustrate diversity within the ranks. Her characters are passionate, patriotic, and driven, but they are also emotional and exhibit a variety of traditionally feminine attributes and I loved the context and authenticity that lent her fiction.

Katya enjoys a romantic relationship with Vanya over the course of the story and while the plot line is a central component of the narrative, I was pleased to see that Runyan never allowed it to define her heroine. This actually became quite important to me as the novel progressed as I feared the love story would eventually overshadow Katya’s personal ambition, but my concern was ultimately unwarranted and I found great appreciation for how Runyan used Katya’s love life to round-out and balance her character. 

Personally, I’d have loved to see more technical details in the fabric of the narrative, but that’s just me. Politically speaking, the novel is easy to follow which makes it ideal for those unfamiliar with the history and I felt the story itself a lovely compliment to the spirit of the women who inspired it. 

Recommended to fans of war-era fiction, particularly those who enjoyed The Beauty Shop.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: September 20, 2017

"Only madmen and sadists want war. We wanted to fly, and when the war came, we wanted to do our duty. It's not foolish. It's brave."
RECOMMENDATIONS: WAR ERA FICTION




Friday, June 29, 2018

#BookReview: A Sea of Sorrow: A Novel of Odysseus by David Blixt, Amalia Carosella, Libbie Hawker, Scott Oden, Vicky Alvear Shecter & Russell Whitfield

Genre
Historical Retelling
Ancient History
Collaboration
Mythology

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DESCRIPTION: 
Odysseus, infamous trickster of Troy, vaunted hero of the Greeks, left behind a wake of chaos and despair during his decade long journey home to Ithaca. Lovers and enemies, witches and monsters—no one who tangled with Odysseus emerged unscathed. Some prayed for his return, others, for his destruction. These are their stories…

A beleaguered queen’s gambit for maintaining power unravels as a son plots vengeance.

A tormented siren battles a goddess’s curse and the forces of nature to survive.

An exiled sorceress defies a lustful captain and his greedy crew.

A blinded shepherd swears revenge on the pirate-king who mutilated him.

A beautiful empress binds a shipwrecked sailor to servitude, only to wonder who is serving whom.

A young suitor dreams of love while a returned king conceives a savage retribution.

Six authors bring to life the epic tale of The Odyssey seen through the eyes of its shattered victims—the monsters, witches, lovers, and warriors whose lives were upended by the antics of the “man of many faces.” You may never look upon this timeless epic—and its iconic ancient hero—in quite the same way again.


REVIEW: 
Homer claimed it tedious to tell again tales already plainly told, but I’d argue his perspective shortsighted as there is nothing tedious about A Sea of Sorrow. Though essentially a retelling of The Odyssey, the collaborative brings fresh perspective to Odysseus’ journey and presents thought-provoking ideas about the ancient world.

Song of Survival and Epilogue by Vicky Alvear Shecter

I grinned when I realized Vicky Alvear Shecter wrote the first story in A Sea of Sorrow. Her interpretation of Odysseus in A Song of War blew me away and I was immediately comforted by the knowledge that I was in the hands of an author I trusted with the material.

Having said that, I want to note that neither “Song of Survival” nor the “Epilogue” are relayed from Odysseus’s point of view. Shecter’s stories center on the family he left behind and the impact of his extended absence. Telemachus, as a boy in a matriarchal home, is at a great disadvantage and I liked how Shecter’s narrative captured the social and developmental repercussion of his circumstances. I was equally impressed with the substance she gifted Penelope. Odysseus’ queen is often portrayed as a woman with her eyes fixed longingly on the horizon and I appreciated how dynamic and capable she came to be in Shecter’s hands.

* Best Moment in A Sea of Sorrow – Fell out of my chair laughing over the whore on Whore Island.*

Xenia in the Court of the Winds by Scott Oden

Scott Oden was a new author for me and I’d honestly no idea what to expect going into “Xenia in the Court of the Winds.” Looking back, however, I want to caution readers from taking this piece for granted. The story is exceptional in both tone and composition and proves one of most thought-provoking submissions in all of The H Team collaborations.

Homer’s Polyphemus is a monster, but the depth Oden gifted his Kyklops turns the original source material on its head while exploring the cultural diversity that characterized ancient Greece. The idea sent chills of excitement down my spine and I thrilled at how Oden used history to authenticate his fiction and challenge his audience with the grim realities of culture clash and intolerance.

* Best Character in A Sea of Sorrow – Writing a hero is easy, reinventing a villain is an art. *

Hekate’s Daughter by Libbie Hawker

I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Libbie Hawker in person, but I’m familiar with her through social media and I love how “Hekate’s Daughter” illustrates both her personality and artistic strengths. 

The story fearlessly dives into feminist ideology, but Hawker is careful to keep the content appropriate to the historic lens of her narrative. It’s a balance few are able to effectively pull off, but the end result is a story that invites the reader to interact with the narrative and take something very relevant from their experience of the material.

* Best Individual Theme in a Sea of Sorrow – Great ideas make thought-provoking fiction. *

The Siren’s Song by Amalia Carosella

According to Greek mythology, a siren is a creature that is half bird and half woman. They’re known for luring sailors to their doom through the seductive tone of their song and though their appearance in The Odyssey is brief, it is without a doubt my favorite scene of the epic poem. Needless to say, the pressure was on as I began reading Amalia Carosella’s “The Siren’s Song.”

This story, more than any of the others, pays tribute to Greek mythology and its influence on ancient society. The collection intentionally avoids the supernatural, but that doesn’t mean its characters don’t believe in the Gods and I loved how Carosella used that to her advantage in "The Siren's Song." There is a tragic symmetry to the piece, but it plays out beautifully and provides some of the most poignant moments in A Sea of Sorrow.

* Best Ironic Moment in A Sea of Sorrow – True to the source material, yet wholly original *

Calypso’s Vow by David Blixt

David Blixt’s “Calypso’s Vow” caught me off guard. Homer paints Calypso as an unconscionable temptress and the idea of jumping into her shoes didn’t strike me as an appealing means of passing the time. I was both hesitant and skeptical which is amusing to admit as it took all of a few paragraphs for the story to knock me clean off my feet.

“Calypso’s Vow” marks a turning point for Odysseus as he comes to acknowledge the wreckage he’s wrought on the world. It’s a story redemption, but it was his lover’s grace and emotional sacrifice that captured my imagination. Blixt effectively redefined Calypso and in so doing, crafted a story that cuts straight to the heart.

* Best Submission in A Sea of Sorrow – Absolute perfection. *

The King in Waiting by Russell Whitfield

Until now, The H Team collaboratives have featured a cast that wanders in and out of multiple stories, but the nature of The Odyssey isolated most of the narrators and placed unusual pressure on the author tasked with anchoring the collection. Shecter penned the "Epilogue," but it is Russell Whitfield who gave voice to the phantom who casts his shadow over each of these stories and ultimately brings Odysseus home.

“The King in Waiting” sees Odysseus facing the realities of his legacy, accepting his role in Ithaca’s misfortune, and setting his kingdom to rights. It is an interesting emotional journey and I quite liked how it played out, but I was surprised at how Whitfield used Amphinomus to temper Odysseus’ triumph. Whitfield’s fleshing out of the younger man creates a bittersweet note in the fabric of the narrative, but I couldn’t help appreciating how he used Amph’s fate to bring Odysseus the direction he so desperately lacked.

* Best Surprise in A Sea of Sorrow – It ain’t over till it’s over. *


Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Obtained from: Author Submitted ARC
Read: October 15, 2017

It was a balm to my heart, listening to his devotion to his men. That mention of a wife had murdered me where I sat. Penelope. Had I been a substitute for her, I do not think I could have bourne it. But no. I was a substitute for those he had failed. Those he had broken with. Those he had deserted, or abandoned, or simply been helpless to save. I was his redemption. But not his love.
RECOMMENDATIONS: H TEAM COLLABORATIONS