Friday, December 21, 2012

The Raven’s Heart by Jesse Blackadder — 464 pgs

Alison Blackadder has lived in the shadows for years. Given by her father into the service of Mary Queen of Scots when she was but a child, Alison lives as Robert, a serving boy. This gender deception has gone on since Alison’s early days, for as one of the last surviving Blackadders, she is next in line to inherit a castle that has been overtaken by the Hume clan. As long as no living Hume knows of Alison’s existence she is safe; but life at the castle proves to be more inveigling than she had first thought. Powerless against Queen Mary’s charm, Alison is soon unmasked as a female. This delights the queen, who wants to learn to dress as a man and go about freely into her territory. When Alison finds love with another servant, she soon realizes just how entrapped she has become to the queen, and when eventually Lord Bothwell, a great friend of her father’s, comes to court, Alison becomes the plaything of a man more wise to ruse than she is. Soon, it seems that Alison isn’t safe anywhere, especially the castle, and when the border lords begin to clamor for war, they are aided by the queen’s new scheming husband. Though there are two people who vie for the queen’s trust, there is only one that is true to her, and in her guise of spy, servant, reveler, courtesan and young woman, Alison risks her life again and again defying the Humes to preserve her right to the stolen castle. But soon the risk becomes too great for her to shoulder alone. Will she agree to align with the enemy to protect the queen she is so enchanted with? In this dramatically tense and powerfully rendered tale, a young woman must disguise and unmask her heart over and over again to secure the fate of her captor, the unlucky Mary of Scots.

It’s been awhile since I’ve really felt invested in historical fiction as a genre. The last two were probably Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. It was with pleasure and intense enjoyment that I read Jesse Blackadder’s tale of one heroic girl tangled in the spiderweb of the Scottish court. I have to say that this was an unusual tale, and some of what I will share in my review was novel to me. I grew to be very invested in Alison’s story and the magic with which Blackadder told it.

First off, I must mention that this is the first time I have ever read a historical fiction book where the lead character was a bisexual woman. Alison, forced to grow up as a boy, grew also with the lusts of a boy. It was clear to me that she was totally besotted with the queen, and though others came into and out of her heart and bed, the queen was her enchantress again and again. Theirs was a chaste love, but it was powerful nevertheless. When Alison firsts realizes that she can never attain and possess the queen as she wishes she could, she takes another lover of the same sex, and the two embark on a tragically short lived but passionate affair. Later, Alison takes a male lover and revels in the similarities as well as the vast differences. I liked seeing that the author bent the lines when it came to the sexuality of her main character. It was different, and gave the tale a more vivid and replete feeling.

I was touched deeply by the winding wrenches of Alison’s heart. Her dilemmas were excruciating and exacting, but never did she waver in her loyalty to her kin or to her queen. This left her very open to manipulation, though she herself could never see it, or believe it. Most of the people that Alison interacted with were merciless in exploiting the boy in her, and the girl in her, never stopping to see that beyond all this, she was a person with deep feelings and a very passionate nature, be it in her hate or in her love. The agonizing tale of Mary Queen of Scots was told through Alison's love-clouded eyes, and while the queen was tormented, Alison was haunted.

The last bit of this tale that I found extraordinary was Alison’s loyalty to her father: a man who had forsaken her and repeatedly tried to hurt and disengage from her. He was on the wrong side of a losing battle, yet he too, was loyal where most men wouldn’t be. His desire to once again be the owner of Blackadder castle caused a lot of tension and reprehensible feelings to be passed from one family member to another. In my heart, I believe that all Alison wanted was her father’s love, but his blood-clouded eyes could see no further than the stone that made the castle walls. In the end, his misbegotten affections were no balm for our heroine, as she had paid so dearly to hear them aloud.

I loved this book for its bravery in placing a bisexaul character into a historical setting and for its free flowing lucidity in what was a bizarre situation. Those who aren’t familiar with the story of Mary Queen of Scots will revel in this tale for its brashness and uniqueness, and those who have heard of the fate of the queen before will see it anew from the vantage point of a character who will wring every drop of compassion from their hearts. Highly recommended.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Overseas by Beatriz Williams — Audiobook Review

Recorded by Penguin Audio
Narrated by January LaVoy
Length: 15 Hours 49 minutes

Kate Wilson is a small time player in the financial industry. Often overlooked and overworked, Kate has found some stability in her life, until the day that Wall Street tycoon Julian Lawrence sees her and begins to woo her in a most strange manner. At first Kate is flattered by the attention. Julian, a handsome Englishman, has sharp instincts, a winning and affable manner, and enough charm to melt any woman’s heart—but not Kate’s. When Julian steps in one night to rescue Kate from a dangerous situation, Kate’s walls begin to come down with creaking slowness. It seems like this was a match made in the stars to Julian, who hides a secret so deep that he may never be able to share it with Kate. With danger around every corner, Julian and Kate become the most dashing couple to have ever made it into the high society rag mags. But what Julian is not telling Kate may threaten not only what they are building, but their lives and honor as well.

Meanwhile, threaded into this tale is a dual narrative that begins on a rainy day in France during the first World War, when a woman literally falls into the arms of a celebrated poet and infantry captain, spinning a tale for him that is almost impossible to be believed. But when the lives of the future depend on a betrayal from the past, things begin to look bleak for the lovers in both narratives. If Julian dares to reveal his secret to Kate, he might lose her forever, but if the woman from the past cannot make her message mean something, all may be lost before it ever begins. In this tale of supernatural and spellbinding romance, a great and terrible responsibility rests on the fates of two lovers who are bound in more ways than one can ever dream.

I’m not normally a reader of romance, and going into this book, I hadn’t expected to find so much romantic tension in the story line. I went in expecting to find secrets and hidden agendas, fated meetings and magic. I got all that, and I even enjoyed it, but the romantic angles of this story just weren’t my cup of tea. I believe that one should at least try all genres before dismissing them, and I haven’t exactly dismissed romance on the whole, but for me this story struck me as more bland due to the heavy romantic elements. I am at odds with it. On the one hand, I can see romance lovers eating this book up, but for those out there who don’t consider themselves ripe for a novel that hinges on love might feel a bit cheated.

I also didn’t think the choice of narrator was right. At times, listening to January LaVoy reading this book became overwhelmingly saccharine. Hearing her vocalizing some of the passionate moments of the book made me feel a little dirty, because folks, she sure puts on a show. I did like the vocalization style that she used for Julian and some of his mates, but for me, the performance from the point of view of Kate turned me off. It was distracting, and I think that an older and more subdued female narrator would have been a better choice. Perhaps it was the material, but her groans of ecstasy made me cringe a little bit.

While I enjoyed the dual narratives, like many of the books that I read that feature them, I preferred the historical sections to the modern sections and was a little annoyed to find that this plotline seemed to always come second, as though it was an afterthought. I wanted more depth to the historical side and it just wasn’t there. Maybe that was the reason I couldn’t buy into the sections that were happening in the present. I’ve read some greatly constructed romantic leads, but usually the ones I prefer take a bit of a backseat to the plot. In this case, they were on full display and very passionate. To me, it just felt a bit amatuer. I like romance in the correct proportions, but when the whole book is chock-full of barely restrained libidos, things don’t quite work for me.

If you walk into this book knowing very certainly that you are reading what is a straight romance, I would have to admit that you would be fully satisfied. But, if like me, you need more meat in your stories and more structure to your tales, this book might be a bitter pill to swallow. In the end, I accepted it for what it was and was okay with it, however, the narration didn’t suit me.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Through Violet Eyes by Stephen Woodworth — 368 pgs

In this story of an alternate universe much like our own, society comes in two forms: the regular population and the Violets. It’s not only the Violet's uniquely colored eyes that set them apart, but their ability to contact the deceased through the intense power of their minds. They are groomed and educated away from the rest of society and do not mix well with the general population. But there are times when they become very useful, for the testimony of a Violet in a murder investigation or trial is irrefutable and damning, to say the least. Into this world comes the strange union between Dan Atwater, an FBI agent, and Natalie Lindstrom, a particularly reclusive Violet. When Atwater discovers that someone is brutally murdering the Violets, the government who finds them so indispensable wants answers and attaches him to Natalie to solve these puzzling crimes. Though Natalie at first objects, she finds that a stronger part of herself wants justice for the murders of her friends and agrees to work with Atwater. As the two creep closer and closer to the truth, they uncover some very strange similarities among the murders, and also find a new but cautious respect for one another. But soon the situation gets out of hand, and Natalie and agent Atwater are forced to investigate the people they are trying to protect. In this gripping and original thriller, Woodworth melds the aspects of a unique dystopia, where the hunters become the hunted.

I don't really read many of these types of books. For some reason, thrillers just don't excite me, and a lot of the time, I can see right through them. When my previous book club decided on something just a little bit creepy, I thought this might be a book worth taking a look at. It is a thriller, but it doesn't fall into the category of a procedural, and it also has some paranormal elements to it. Keeping the paranormal elements in mind, I found that I was pleasantly surprised by this book and might actually seek out more in this series.

First off, I found the Violets to be a really clever creation by Woodworth. They are not mentally like other humans, and because of the work they do, they must be physically altered as well. Most of them are shaved bald and tattooed in order to have better access to pressure points on their heads that are fit with electrodes while they are at work, and all of them have the most hypnotizing violet eyes. They are a pretty anti-social group, but really, you can't blame them for that, as the government seeks them out at birth and basically controls their education, family lives and careers. There is a lot of vague threatening on the government's behalf when it comes to the Violets. There’s no doubt that the the government considers them a form of property—an advanced set of bloodhounds, if you will. All of this makes the Violets pretty bitter people, and even when they are forced to do their jobs, they are mostly petulant and sarcastic.

The ball really gets rolling fast with this story, and the first scene is one of horror, as a young Violet girl is brutally murdered. When it comes to tracking this killer down, things get sketchy. First off, there is no evidence to collect, and when Natalie makes a connection with the murdered girl, the investigators find that the girl didn't actually see her killer. This is a problem, as a first hand account cannot be obtained. After more investigation, Atwater and Natalie realize that more than half the population of Violets have been murdered in a similar fashion, and information is scant.

One of the most interesting aspects of the Violets and their talents is the view of the afterlife that is presented to them. It seems that once your body dies, your soul goes into a black and undefined space that lacks any exit. The soul is confined there, fruitlessly trying to find release, and can only be delivered from the darkness once the Violet has made contact and has let the dead speak through them. I found this to be pretty bleak, as this seemed to be the most common fate of the people in this world. Woodworth does make mention of the fact that some souls find a way to pass on, but the majority of them are trapped. This causes problems for the Violets because they are the only ones who really know what happens after death, and creates a fear of their impending imprisonment and darkness in the void of their afterlife.

Though I saw the love story in this book coming a mile off, I still ended up enjoying aspects of it. Mainly that was because Atwater and Natalie seemed so different and it wasn't until much later on that their personalities became complimentary. I was actually surprised at how much I liked them as a couple and was a little disappointed by the direction that the story took in the later sections of the book. Natalie was really no-nonsense and Atwater pestered and cajoled her out of her ill humor most of the time, but it wasn't until later that I saw the sparks between them that could lead to something more. It was a restrained love affair, that's for sure, but one that I felt was well deserved. There wasn't a lot of sex in this story, which made it seem a little more genuine to me, and as the two lovers came together, there was a sense of shared bonding in horrific circumstances.

Though I wasn't really happy with the ending of this book, I did find the majority of it pretty interesting. There was a great sense of urgency to the plot, and aside from the flimsy dialogue and the plain writing, I ended up enjoying it a lot more than I had expected to. There were some great twists in the story that propelled things very nicely, and what the book lost in artfulness, it gained in creativity. If you are looking for a paranormal thriller that doesn't involve vampires, werewolves or fairies, this might make a good read for you!

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

A Good Man Says Goodbye

A lot of you may have noticed that I was absent from your blogs for a few days last week, and unfortunately it was not a holiday I had planned. My step-father, William “Bill” Fricke, passed away in the early morning hours on Wednesday after a long battle with cancer. He was a good man, beloved by his children, Katherine and Matthew, and the love of my mother’s life. He loved me and my brother too and treated us like his own children, always smiling and hugging, always loving each of us with intensity and pride. Bill did many things and was an expert at all of them. He was a winemaker, a winner of the chili cookoff, ( and incidentally, he taught me that real chili from Texas doesn’t have beans! Who knew?) he was an expert chef, and served in the military. He had many friends and coworkers who knew him as a genuine and humorously cantankerous comrade. He was a member of Atlanta’s Koi Club and built a beautiful pond for my mother, filled with some of the most beautiful fish in the world. But most of all, he was a proud and honorable man who always did the right thing. He fought this illness for fifteen years and was in remission for eight. He underwent a stem cell transplant two years ago, receiving the cells from Mark, his brother, who was a perfect match. His sister Connie was one of his favorite people to talk to. As we all go along our merry way for the holidays, my wish is that you send healing prayers to my mother and his family. There is no doubt that he made it to the gates of heaven, and though he said he had to polish a few stars, he one day wanted to become an archangel. Raise a glass to this amazing man tonight, for though he is now silent, his words and wisdom live on in all the people that he so graciously loved.

I leave you with this poem, which I give to all the people who have touched Bill’s life:

I Am Always With You

When I am gone, release me, let me go.
I have so many things to see and do,
You mustn't tie yourself to me with too many tears,
But be thankful we had so many good years.
I gave you my love, and you can only guess
How much you've given me in happiness.
I thank you for the love that you have shown,
But now it is time I traveled on alone.
So grieve for me a while, if grieve you must
Then let your grief be comforted by trust
That it is only for a while that we must part,
So treasure the memories within your heart.
I won't be far away for life goes on.
And if you need me, call and I will come.
Though you can't see or touch me, I will be near
And if you listen with your heart, you'll hear
All my love around you soft and clear
And then, when you come this way alone,
I'll greet you with a smile and a "Welcome Home."

I love you, Bill. May God open his arms wide for you, and give you the peace you deserve.
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