Thursday, October 13, 2016

Guest Post: Christina Courtenay Cover and Excerpt from The Velvet Cloak of Moonlight

Since Tara, the original owner of this blog, is a huge fan of historical romance author Christina Courtenay,  I (Shomeret) agreed to this guest post promoting her most recent novel, The Velvet Cloak of Moonlight.  Christina Courtenay, welcome to Flying High Reviews.

Chapter Four from The Velvet Cloak of Moonlight by Christina Courtenay


Another exclusive extract from Christina Courtenay’s new novel, The Velvet Cloak of Moonlight today! Choc Lit is going to be sharing an excerpt every couple of days until next Tuesday so make sure you keep an eye on their Twitter feed to find out where each extract has landed. Enjoy J

You can read the Prologue, Chapter One and Chapter Two HERE (
And you can read Chapter Three HERE  (

Merrick Court, 22nd May 2016

It was still very early when Josh Owens drove across the Severn Bridge. He was suffering from jet lag, but it had turned out to be a blessing in disguise as he’d escaped the London rush hour by leaving long before the city’s inhabitants started waking up. Looking up now, he felt as though he was entering the gates of Mordor in Lord of the Rings, or some other magical country, as the bridge’s pale green structure towered over him. And maybe he was – he’d heard a lot about Wales and now he was finally here it did seem a bit unreal.
As he turned off the motorway and headed up towards Usk and Raglan, the countryside became green and undulating, with dark hills brooding in the distance. The Black Mountains, he assumed. The scent of hawthorn drifted in through his partially opened window and a strange sense of homecoming rippled through him. It was almost like he’d been here before even though he knew he hadn’t. But it was the homeland of his ancestors, so perhaps it was in his blood?
The sensation intensified when he passed the ruins of Raglan Castle, silhouetted against the bright morning sky. There was something oddly familiar about the view and his gaze was drawn to the ragged contours of its towers, which must once have been magnificent. A strange mixture of emotions assailed him: longing, apprehension, anger, fear and … attraction? He had to force himself to concentrate on the road, rather than turn and look back.
What was the matter with him? He must be more tired than he thought.
Following the satnav lady’s instructions, he continued on towards Abergavenny and the further into Wales he travelled, the stronger the sense of belonging became. He decided it had to be his grandpa’s fault – his mother’s father had hailed from somewhere near here and he’d filled Josh’s head with stories of this magical place.
‘You’ve Welsh blood in your veins, boy, don’t forget,’ Grandpa used to say every time he told him about his homeland. Josh wondered why the old man had stayed in New Zealand if he loved the country of his birth so much, but he’d never dared to ask.
Arriving at his destination at last, Josh climbed out of the rental car and stared up at the house he’d come to see. No, not house – mansion. Or castle even? Although he’d entered the stable yard and could only see the building side on, it was clear that it was a huge property. He’d have to follow the road round to the front to see the rest, but he was already impressed and not a little disconcerted.
‘Bloody hell!’ he muttered. This was not what he’d expected at all.
‘Good morning! Can I help you?’
Josh turned to find a weather-beaten old man coming towards him from the direction of the gardens. He was still so dazed by the sight of Merrick Court – what he could see of it so far anyway – that he hadn’t heard the man’s footsteps. ‘Morning. Yes, I’ve come to look at the house,’ he said, closing his door and locking the car. It seemed easier to leave it here and walk round to the front.
‘I’m sorry, but it’s not open to the public. It’s private. The gardens too.’ The old man shrugged. ‘But I can offer you a cup of tea if you like, seeing as you’ve had a wasted journey? Least I can do.’
Josh smiled. ‘That’s very kind, but I think you misunderstand. I’m not a tourist.’
‘Sure sound like one, if you don’t mind me saying.’ Deep-set blue eyes crinkled at the corners. ‘Australian?’
‘Nah, Kiwi.’ Josh swallowed a sigh. Why couldn’t the Poms tell the difference?
‘Ah, right. Well, if you’d like to come this way, please? I’ve got a kettle in the potting shed.’
‘But I … oh, all right then. Cheers.’ Josh decided some tea would be nice after the long drive from London and he wasn’t in any particular hurry. In fact, it would be great to have a bit of a breather while he recovered from the shock of seeing the property for the first time.
He followed the old guy into what looked more like a huge workshop than a shed. It was part of the stable block, next door to a greenhouse, and filled with tools of all kinds. The floor was made of old bricks laid in a herringbone pattern, swept clean, and the walls were whitewashed with implements hanging in orderly rows. Several workbenches lined the room and pieces of wood were stacked in one corner.
‘Take a seat, please. I’m Bryn Jones, gardener yere.’
The old man’s melodic Welsh accent put Josh in mind of his grandfather again. Bryn looked to be in his mid- to late-seventies and age was beginning to take its toll, but there was still a twinkle in the man’s eyes and his complexion was a healthy colour. As it should be in a man who’d presumably worked outdoors for most of his life.
‘Josh Owens.’ He waited for Bryn’s reaction to his name, but nothing happened, so he added, ‘I’m the new owner of the estate.’
‘Eh?’ Bryn swivelled round so fast he almost dropped the mug he was holding. ‘You’re the new Lord Merrick?’
‘Seems like it.’
‘Well, I never! You should’ve said right off.’ Bryn was still standing with the mug in his hand, as if shocked into immobility.
Josh smiled. ‘You didn’t really give me a chance. I did say I’d come to look at the house. I need to see what state it’s in before I sell it.’
‘S-sell it?’ Bryn scowled. ‘But … there’ve always been Merrick lords yere, ever since the Conquest, like!’
Josh shrugged. He had no idea what conquest that might be and didn’t really care. ‘I wouldn’t know. I only just found out I was related to them. Came as a bit of a surprise, actually.’
Bryn had recovered enough to continue with the tea making, but he was still frowning. ‘You had no idea you was the heir?’
‘No. My father never mentioned it so the letter from the solicitor arrived out of the blue. I didn’t even know what an entail was.’ He’d had to look it up – the whole concept of something being inherited only by males seemed outdated to him. Crazy. Only the Poms would cling to such an old-fashioned rule. Not that he should be complaining since he was profiting from it, but still … He’d bet there had to be a female somewhere who was seriously pissed off.
‘It was a bit of a shock to the people yere too, I can tell you,’ Bryn muttered. ‘And it took them lawyers ages to find you.’
‘Ah, yeah well, that was my fault. I’ve been travelling non-stop for the last six months. I wanted to see the world before I got too old. I hadn’t left a forwarding address so didn’t get the letters until I came back.’
‘Oh, right. So will you be going back to New Zealand then?’ Bryn handed Josh his tea and offered him a biscuit from a well-worn tin. They looked home-made so Josh didn’t hesitate to take one.
‘Cheers. As for going back, I wouldn’t have a clue. Nothing to go back to, really.’ Josh had lived there his whole life, but it didn’t feel like home any more. There were various, complicated, reasons for that which Bryn didn’t need to know. ‘I might travel some more first.’
Bryn looked as though he wanted to ask further questions, but either didn’t dare or was too polite – probably the latter. For some reason that made Josh relent and tell the old man part of the story even though it was a painful subject.
‘I inherited a sheep station from my father when he died recently, but I didn’t want it because … well, we didn’t get on.’ That was the understatement of the year – he’d hated his father with a vengeance.
‘A sheep station?’
‘Yeah, kind of like a big farm or ranch just for rearing sheep and cattle. Fifteen thousand square kilometres of grazing land south-west of Christchurch, on the South Island.’ It sounded like a lot, but there were bigger ones.
Bryn stared at him. ‘Goodness! Not that I know how much a kilometre is, mind, but … you said no to that? Even though it was your da’s?’
‘Well, not exactly – I’m not that stupid.’ Josh smiled. ‘I accepted the inheritance but I didn’t want to keep anything that had belonged to him so I sold it to a cousin on my grandmother’s side – my father’s mother, that is. Made me feel slightly less guilty for letting the family down.’
Not that there was anyone left to chastise him – they were all dead – but he’d sensed the disapproval of the spirits roaming the old farmstead and knew they weren’t happy about his decision. His family had owned the land for over a hundred years. Fields, hills, valleys and streams, with brooding snow-capped mountains in the distance – it was a beautiful place, typical of New Zealand. But he couldn’t keep it. Despite the blood ties, he didn’t belong there.
True, he was the only son and heir, it was his responsibility to continue the line, but he didn’t care. That was just old-school bollocks. He’d tried to settle there, he really had, but the memories of a childhood filled with violence and rows wouldn’t leave him. And the hatred for his father, the man he’d inherited the property from, obliterated any feelings he might have had for the land.
‘I see,’ Bryn said, and Josh had the feeling the old gardener really did understand. His keen eyes saw more than most people’s. He didn’t voice the obvious – that it was ironic Josh had now inherited something even bigger because of his father. But Josh much preferred to think of this as coming from other ancestors further back.
He changed the subject. ‘So do you have the keys to the house? The solicitor said they’d be here.’
‘Er, no. Lady Merrick keeps them but I should think she’s still asleep.’
It was Josh’s turn to stare. ‘Come again? The … what do you call her? Dowager? She’s still here? The lawyer didn’t say anything about that. Only told me she’d inherited the contents of the house and I get the rest.’ He hadn’t been bothered about that as he wasn’t planning on living here anyway and it seemed only fair the poor woman should have something.
Bryn shook his head. ‘No, she’s living at the Court. Hasn’t been asked to move out, so far as I know.’
‘Bugger.’ This was a complication he could do without. And why hadn’t the lawyer told him? Although to be fair, Josh had been in a bit of a hurry and hadn’t given the man much chance to speak. He’d more or less just signed the documents and left with the directions on how to find Merrick Court.
‘Uhm, I should perhaps tell you …’ Bryn looked away. ‘The thing is, her ladyship is a bit fragile at the moment. She took it hard, you know, losing her husband so suddenly, like. Maybe you could … go easy on her?’
‘She’s still grieving, eh? Of course, I understand. But she can’t stay here forever.’ Josh wasn’t unfeeling, but he needed to sell the house. Surely the woman would appreciate that? He had no idea how old she was, but maybe she could go into a home for the elderly or something, unless she owned property elsewhere. Either way, it wasn’t his problem.
‘No, no, but if you could give her a little more time? And I’ll need to find somewhere else to live too. My cottage comes with the job and I don’t suppose any new owner would want to take on an old relic like myself.’
‘Oh. Yeah. Right.’ Josh was taken aback. He hadn’t thought about the fact that he’d be doing the old man out of a job and a home. Not that Bryn ought to be working at his age … Something else occurred to him. ‘Is there anyone else employed here?’ Was he turfing out a whole load of staff by selling up? It was becoming clear he hadn’t thought this through.
‘No, just me.’
‘You look after this whole garden all by yourself?’ From what Josh had seen, it was massive.
‘I do what I can. There’s no money for extra help. Hasn’t been for years.’ Bryn gave a small smile. ‘And there’s a fair bit to do, as you can imagine. In fact, I’d best be getting on with it.’
‘So you reckon I should wait a while before going to see the house?’
Bryn checked his watch. ‘Like I said, Lady M has been a bit delicate and I hardly ever see her until after lunch, but she’s got visitors at the moment so she may be up earlier …’
The thought of disturbing a grieving widow and a bunch of strangers dampened Josh’s desire to see his inheritance. Besides, it was a beautiful spring day and here was an old man who very obviously needed some help. He made up his mind. ‘Maybe I can lend a hand for a bit then? It’ll be good to do some work for a change. I’ve been travelling for so long I’ve forgotten what that’s like. I could do with some fresh air and a workout.’
‘I can’t let you do that!’ Confusion flitted across Bryn’s face. ‘Although …’
Josh grinned. ‘Yeah – I can do what I want in my own garden and right now I feel like a bit of digging. Give me a spade and point me in the right direction.’ He guessed tasks like that were getting to be too much for the old gardener.
An answering smile lit up Bryn’s features. ‘Well, if you insist. This way, my lord.’
‘Josh, please! We don’t do titles where I come from.’
‘You might have to get used to it,’ Bryn murmured.
‘No way.’ But Josh was starting to realise there were quite a few things he hadn’t reckoned with and being called a lord was only one of them.
Raglan Castle, 22nd May 1646
‘My lord, I regret to inform you that apart from Oxford there are only a handful of strongholds still loyal to the king at this time – Pendennis Castle down in Cornwall, Harlech up in north-west Wales and your own domain here at Raglan, plus Goodrich Castle. Unless help arrives from foreign shores, the king’s cause seems rather hopeless right now.’ Rhys tried not to sound too downhearted at the news he brought, but it was difficult to desist. As far as he was concerned, things weren’t just hopeless – all was lost. It was only a matter of time.
It was just after midnight and he had finally been granted a meeting with Lord Worcester, after kicking his heels all evening in the Long Gallery. Beautiful though this chamber was, with its huge windows and intricately carved fireplace supported by sculptures at either end, he would have preferred to get the interview over with. The information he had was definitely not what the marquis would want to hear. Everyone was despondent and the best course for any Royalist would be to gather what riches he could and flee the country while it was still possible. Somehow he doubted Lord Worcester would agree though. From what he’d heard, the old man was as stubborn as they came and stuck to his family’s motto – ‘Mutare vel timere sperno’ meaning ‘I scorn to change or to fear’.
As he’d gazed out the windows at the back of the Gallery while waiting, Rhys had seen the Black Mountains looming in the distance, a mere shadowy outline in the hazy light of the evening. A longing for his own home, in a valley on the other side of those hills, tore through him at the familiar sight but he suppressed it. He was never going back. His brother owned everything now and he’d made it clear Rhys wasn’t welcome.
‘Anyone who goes off to fight for that useless king is a fool,’ Gwilum had shouted four years ago. ‘What’s he ever done for us Welshmen? He’s never been interested in this part of the country. No, anyone with any sense will stay put yere.’
‘That’s not what Father would have said,’ Rhys had pointed out. Their father had been an ardent Royalist and had brought up his sons to honour their sovereign.
‘The old man was misguided, as are you,’ was Gwilum’s reply. ‘So go if you want to, but don’t expect to be given houseroom here when you return with your tail between your legs.’
Rhys had ignored his brother and followed a path his father would have approved of, though much good it had done him so far. All he had to show for it was a knighthood. There were no lands to go with it, no riches. Hell, he could barely feed himself and his horse. Suppressing a sigh, he steered his thoughts back to the matter at hand now.
‘Hopeless, you say? Nothing is ever hopeless until the end,’ Lord Worcester was saying as he winced and moved one foot slightly. Rhys had been told the old man suffered from gout, which wasn’t to be wondered at. He was nearly three score and ten apparently, a great age. And if age wasn’t the cause, then it was probably good living – his lordship was definitely a bit too stout for his own good.
Rhys bowed to acknowledge that the marquis was entitled to his opinion and he wasn’t going to argue with him. ‘You don’t think perhaps the ladies of the castle ought to be sent away at this time? For their safety, I mean.’ For some reason a particular lady’s face came into his mind, as it had done at regular intervals ever since he’d first met her that afternoon.
Mistress Dauncey – Arabella – was a rare beauty, with big blue eyes and long brown lashes under fine brows, rich honey-coloured hair and a tempting figure. It wasn’t just her outward attributes that had attracted him though, but the intelligence he’d seen lurking in those forget-me-not eyes. He’d enjoyed conversing with her; she caught on quickly and didn’t simper or flirt. Very refreshing. Although he’d felt she was holding something back, a secret concerning her background perhaps, but this only intrigued him further. He wanted to find out what it was. Wanted to know everything about her … He became aware that the marquis was speaking to him again and tried to concentrate.
‘… and where would I send them? I can’t spare any men for escort duty, they’re all needed here. No, the ladies will be safe with us. I’ll make sure of it.’
Again Rhys didn’t protest. What could he say? It wasn’t for him to point out that he doubted the marquis would have much choice in the matter if the Parliamentarians had their way, which seemed all too likely.
‘Will you permit me to stay here and give what assistance I can then?’ Rhys found himself saying. When he’d arrived earlier, he hadn’t made up his mind whether to remain or not. Reason told him to cut his losses and try his luck in France or Holland as a mercenary, but somehow he couldn’t bring himself to leave now. It seemed cowardly, even though the odds were definitely against them.
‘Of course, we’d be happy to have you, young man.’ Lord Worcester smiled for the first time. ‘Make yourself at home. I’m sure the garrison could do with another officer. You’ve been fighting with the Prince Palatine’s troops, you said?’
‘Yes, I’ve been with Prince Rupert’s cavalry since ’42. He’s still at Oxford, or he was the last I heard.’ Rhys knew the prince had given up hope too so it was possible he’d already left the country. It made no difference now and Rhys wasn’t going back. They’d said their goodbyes, parting as friends since they’d got on very well throughout their time fighting together.
‘Good, good. We need all the experienced men we can find. Report to my son, Lord Charles, in the morning. He’s in charge.’
‘Very well. Thank you, my lord.’
‘No, thank you. I appreciate you bringing me news.’
Rhys believed him and he couldn’t help but like the irascible old man. There was spirit in him and a sincere trust that what he was doing was right. Rhys only wished he could be as certain, but he’d made his choice. Now all he had to do was see it through to the end.
That might be sooner than the marquis thought.

The Velvet Cloak of Moonlight is by Christina Courtenay and published by Choc Lit. It is available to purchase in paperback and eBook format from all good suppliers. Please click here for buying options:

For more information on the author, you can follow her on Twitter @PiaCCourtenay

Follow @ChocLitUK on Twitter to make sure you catch the next extract, which will be out on Saturday 15th October.


Saturday, September 24, 2016

This Above All---A Girl Portrays Shakespeare's Romeo

This Above All by Lindsey Roth Culli is a  contemporary YA novel which is a potent stew of Shakespeare, gender, sexuality, religion and growing up in the American Midwest.   I received a free copy from the indie publisher, Curiosity Quills, in return for this honest review.

I have previously reviewed two other Curiosity Quills releases Alice Takes Back Wonderland, a rather wonderful fairy tale mashup and The Heartless City , an alternate history dystopia based on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde which I found compelling and enjoyable.  I expected This Above All to be more conventional compared to those previous outings.  In some ways, it was very much like a standard YA novel, but in others it very definitely wasn't.


The conventional aspect of this book was high school.   I tend to avoid YA novels that take place in high school.   Most of these have predictable character types, dynamics and plots.   This Above All contained those elements.  There were false rumors, bullying and relationships plagued by miscommunication.  Juliet was played by a stereotypical popular mean girl.  It seems that the director of this Romeo and Juliet didn't prioritize chemistry between the leads.

Sexuality was a theme, but This Above All didn't really focus on sexual relationships as is appropriate in a YA novel. While the specter of lesbianism fueled controversy, there was no actual lesbianism. Heterosexual romance played a role in the plot of this novel, but it wasn't predominant.   There was a gay character named Tony, but his life wasn't front and center either.  I read a review on Goodreads that was disappointed that we didn't find out more about Tony's family interactions.   Tony played Mercutio.  If it's true that Shakespeare needed to kill off Mercutio to prevent him from taking over the play, as is stated in this book, it's probably also true that Culli wanted to make certain that Tony didn't upstage Piper, her protagonist.

I felt that the way Piper deals with her real female identity while portraying a male role is the most interesting aspect of this book.  She initially had her doubts about whether she could or should be Romeo.  Yet once she became accustomed to the idea, she threw herself into her fictive male identity.   I wouldn't say that Piper is a transgender character.   It seemed to me that Culli wanted to show that it's possible for a girl to play with masculine gender traits in a theatrical context while still retaining a core self-concept of being female.  Piper has more in common with historical women who dressed as men to achieve career goals than with individuals who seek to transition to another gender.

Piper's fundamentalist Christian family brings religion into the mix of themes.  It is they who stir the cauldron of outrage over Piper playing a male role.  Her pastor father is shown as being sincerely concerned about Piper's spiritual well being.   As I am not a Christian myself, I wouldn't presume to make statements about the true nature of Christianity.   Over the course of the narrative, Piper changes her own views about religion.  She ponders how she can maintain a relationship with God, and comes to her own independent conclusions.   It seems to me that for Piper developing a personal approach to religion is part of the process of becoming an adult.

This Above All is a book that will cause readers to reflect on a number of topics, but I think they will also be moved by the courage of Piper and Tony, and the  chosen family they found in the cast of Romeo and Juliet.   As we have seen in the TV series, Glee, communities of performers can be powerful support systems for teens who feel like outsiders in a hostile world.  Anyone who has felt at odds with their families, or with society in general will be able to relate to Piper.


Sunday, September 11, 2016

Renting Silence: A Roaring Twenties Mystery

Renting Silence by Mary MileyI read the first book in this series and loved it. Due to the high price, I never did get around to book two. However, I didn't feel as if I'd missed a beat as I happily engrossed myself in book three.

Our heroine, former vaudeville star, is now working for Mary Pickford and husband. When Mary asks her to investigate a possible false arrest and prove a fellow actress's innocence, this gal is on the case, funded by the suspect's lover.

Everything points to the suspect having done it, despite what gut instinct says. The heroine hits vaudeville again to find some answers, therefore the story gives us a view of life on the road as the circuit tours town to town, even having a run-in with the KKK in Indiana. The author very skillfully brought real-life historical problems into the tale.

I became somewhat bored with the vaudeville. It got a tad repetitive. The train incident felt out of place and somewhat frustrating too. It didn't tie in enough with the rest of the tale. Those are my only quibbles. I enjoyed the heroine, her humor, the mystery and trying to guess whodunit as clues slowly unfolded.

All in all, a good addition to the series. I'm sorry I missed book two.

I received a digital ARC of this via Netgalley. Thank you.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Madame Presidentess by Nicole Evalina--The First Woman To Run For U.S. President

Feminist Victoria Woodhull is one of the irresistible historical personages for me.  She was the first woman to run a brokerage on Wall Street as well as being the first woman to run for President. Tara and I joint reviewed Seance in Sepia, a book that contained Woodhull as a side character, on this blog here.  I admit to not having been enthusiastic about the last book I reviewed by Nicole Evalina, Daughter of Destiny . Yet all the aspects of Victoria Woodhull's life that got short shrift in Seance in Sepia  are fully realized in Madame Presidentess by Nicole Evalina.  I obtained this book for free from the author in return for this honest review.


We find out about Victoria's childhood as the daughter of Buck Claflin, an abusive and self-destructive con man.  Earlier this year, I read a mystery called The Saints of the Lost and Found in which the central character came from a family very much like Victoria's.   I wouldn't be surprised if the author loosely  based her protagonist's childhood on Victoria's because her parents were so outrageous that they'd be more believable as fictional characters.
In  Madame Presidentess we get the full story about Victoria's spiritualism including her visions and how they impacted her life.  For Evalina's Victoria, spiritualism was not the widely promoted fakery of her day.  It was a deeply felt religious practice. She was absolutely convinced that the ancient Greek historical personage Demosthenes  was guiding her life.   I am not so convinced.  There is no indication that Demosthenes ever advocated for women's rights during his lifetime.  The playwright Euripides would have been a more believable spirit ally from the ancient Greek world.  Euripides wrote powerful plays that centered on women.  He might conceivably have encouraged Victoria in her feminist political activity.   I am willing to believe that Victoria was a sincere practitioner who was duped by a spirit pretending to be Demosthenes for unknown purposes.

Yet Victoria wasn't always above pretending to receive messages from the spirits.  I suspect that she was deceiving herself about having escaped completely from her family's influence.  Evalina  depicted Victoria as capable of being a grifter like her father, and a blackmailer like her mother.   These tendencies eventually wrecked her Wall Street career, and her campaign for President.  In Madame Presidentess Victoria thought that her family betrayed her, but she also made some poor choices from an ethical perspective.  My conclusion is that Victoria was largely responsible for her own downfall.  Like many male Wall Streeters and the overwhelming majority of politicians, she probably felt that the ends justified the means.   Her more idealistic allies in the suffrage and labor movements probably felt that she had used them.

Victoria Woodhull is shown to be a complex individual in Madame Presidentess.  Whether Victoria inspired me or disappointed me, she always engaged me as a character even when I didn't agree with her choices.  I liked the thoroughness of this biographical novel and particularly appreciated the spiritualist content.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Troublesome Fun Suspense Abounds in Lady Kop Makes Trouble @Amy_Stewart

Lady Cop Makes Trouble (Kopp Sisters, #2)"Last year I threw a man against a wall when he made me angry. I'd been trying not to do that anymore."

This is a terrific, fun historical mystery novel. I regret that I missed out on reading the first one. I'd had a digital ARC on a Kindle that was unfortunately stolen.

We have a really spunky heroine here, not without her flaws, as she does let a criminal get away. She's one of the New Jersey's first lady deputies--only there's a hold up with her actual badge. She's a jail matron when she's not chasing down sham German doctors in the subway station.

Her sisters are entertaining as well though not as prominent.

There's more than one case going on here--not just the escaped convict. There's a situation with a woman who shot her boarder. There's a look at life in the jail and different criminals' situations. There's a problem with the sheriff's wife and this shows us the attitudes at the time and how difficult it was for women to break career barriers.

Perhaps the thing I enjoyed second to the heroine herself and her determination is the secondary characters. They are memorable and each one is unique. The reporter in the ladies' hotel. The mother in her sick bed. The jailed woman afraid of her husband. Each has her own story showing something dealt with during this time.

Only a few things bothered me. Why was Rathbone paying for Von What'sHisFaces escape if Von owed him money? Seems like throwing good money after bad. And why did Constance show up for her reporter portrait attired as she was if she'd had time to go home and talk to her sisters? I'd think she'd have cleaned up while there.

But I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and plan to read the third installment. This is going on my list of favorite historical mystery series.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

The Book of Esther by Emily Barton: A Jewish Joan of Arc In An Alternate WWII

The best excuse for an alternate history is that it makes a good story.  There are two types of alternate histories that I enjoy.  One type is an improvement on history.   I really wish that history had gone the way the author describes in the novel.   Some alternate histories that I've come across are dystopias.   These are good stories if they provide a meaningful conflict with some insight into problems that we are wrestling with in our own timeline.   I've reviewed a number of alternate history dystopias recently on Shomeret: Masked Reviewer.  

The Book of Esther by Emily Barton is an alternate history of the first type.   It would be wonderful if history had gone this way.   Once upon a time there was a Jewish kingdom on the steppes bordering with Russia.  It was called Khazaria.  This kingdom actually existed, but in our universe it was overrun and destroyed during the medieval period.   Its inhabitants scattered throughout Eastern Europe.  Occasionally, you see Jews born with red hair.  They probably have Khazar genes, but the culture of the Khazars has vanished.  Now imagine that the Kingdom of the Khazars was still in existence during WWII and that Jewish refugees fled there.  I was intrigued by this concept and received a digital galley for free from Edelweiss.


The Germans are poised to invade Khazaria.  Esther, the protagonist, doesn't want to stand on the sidelines.  She wants to help save Khazaria from the Nazis. The problem is that the Khazars are Orthodox Jews who expect women to aspire only to marriage and motherhood.   She has an arranged engagement to a childhood friend.  She would be happy to marry him under normal circumstances, but the situation for Khazars is far from normal.  So Esther sets out for the legendary village of the Kabalists ,who are Jewish mystics and magicians.  She hopes to ask them  to change her into a man.   Nothing happens as Esther expects, but she does discover that she can play an important role in saving Khazaria.    This is definitely the sort of female central character that fans of this blog want to hear about.  

Since I am one of the ideal readers for The Book of Esther, I loved it.  It's obviously intended for readers who are very well-educated in Judaism.   Jewish customs and religious terminology aren't explained.   Neither is the structure of Khazar society.   So if you've read about the Khazars, as I have, you will also have a leg up in understanding who is who in this novel.   A glossary and recommended bibliography would have been very useful for many readers who have professed themselves mystified in their Goodreads reviews of this novel.  I'm not sure why Barton would have purposely narrowed her audience.

If you're inclined to research the books you read,  I think that Barton's book will reward you for this effort.   Esther is a courageous and intelligent heroine, and there is one rather surprising character that she encounters among the Kabalists. I highly recommend this book.


Saturday, July 23, 2016

Mata Hari's Last Dance by Michelle Moran

I have been reading everything about Mata Hari that I could get my hands on for years.   So I actually know quite a bit about her life, but that didn't prevent me from leaping at the chance to get a review copy of Mata Hari's Last Dance by Michelle Moran.  I requested it on both Net Galley and Edelweiss in an excess of enthusiasm.  Both came through.  So I would like to thank the publisher for approving me twice for this book in return for this honest review.

I had recently read and reviewed The Rebel Queen at Shomeret: Masked Reviewer  here.  I appreciated the fact that Michelle Moran had written about such an unexpected subject as the Rani of Jhansi.  I liked a number of the characters in that book very much.   This increased my anticipation for Mata Hari's  Last Dance which has a very lovely cover.   


I wish I could say that I loved the book.  I certainly wanted to love it.  I have to say that it's Mata Hari's life in Java that most interests me.   This is where she learned to dance in the tradition of  Hindu temple dancers.  This is also where her marriage nearly destroyed her.  It's a very dramatic time in her life, but Michelle Moran doesn't show us very much of it.  There are a few flashbacks that are very powerful, but I wanted to see more.

I feel that this is a serious structural problem.  It seems to me that without seeing Mata Hari's life in Java as she experienced it many readers will find her so unsympathetic that they will abandon Mata Hari's Last Dance without finishing it.   It was knowing what had come before Paris that allowed me to understand why she came to Paris, and why she behaved the way she did.  She may have no credibility for some readers.  They may believe that she is being as dishonest in her narrative as she was toward most of the people in her life,  or they may stop caring about her.  The strongest flashbacks to Java come far too late in her story.    Mata Hari cultivated an air of mystery to increase her audience as a dancer, but the readers of a biographical novel expect to be rewarded by being told the truth about the protagonist from the beginning,  or at least the truth as interpreted by the writer.   I wonder if Michelle Moran was too ambivalent about Mata Hari to allow her readers to like her.

I should say that I was reading Marlene by C. W. Gortner at the same time as I was reading Mata Hari's Last Dance.   I reviewed Marlene on this blog here.  Mata Hari and Marlene Dietrich had some similarities.  They both built careers on pushing beyond the boundaries of what was considered acceptable.  The main difference between these books is that Gortner told Marlene's tale chronologically.  I felt drawn into the narrative, and that Marlene was sharing confidences with readers.   Like every other human being, Marlene could deceive herself, but I felt that made her realistic not untrustworthy.  I wanted to believe in Moran's Mata Hari the same way, but I felt shut out by the withholding of crucial background information.  I think that others may also have that reaction.

In the opening of the novel when Mata Hari was establishing herself as a dancer, I enjoyed reading the descriptions of her performances and her interaction with the audience.   Yet the book's focus wandered away from Mata Hari as a dancer into a long series of relationships where she behaved herself very badly.  I found this tiresome and unengaging.  As a result, I can't recommend Mata Hari's Last Dance.