Friday, January 31, 2014

Review: Road to Reckoning by Robert Lautner

ARC from publisher via NetGalley. My opinions are my own.
Release date: February 4, 2014

Though set in 1837 northern Pennsylvania, this is in the spirit of a true western, during a time when much of rural Pennsylvania was still wild and lawless. Twelve year old Thomas Walker sets out from New York City with his father to sell a new Colt revolver but they hardly make it beyond Milton, PA, just shy of central Pennsylvania, before his father is murdered by a lawless and violent man. In his efforts to return home, Thomas makes his way along the road with a reluctant guide, former Indiana Ranger and War of 1812 Veteran, Henry Stands. Just as they are beginning to bond, danger threatens them.

I was surprised to discover the author is British and still lives in the UK because the American “West” really comes alive so easily with an authentic narrative. That is saying something coming from a born-and-bred Pennsylvanian with a love of local history. Although the short, adventurous plot makes this a fast paced page turner, it’s also quite literary and the character development, in particular Henry Stands, is what really makes this novel shine. Very enjoyable read and I look forward to what the author will have to offer in the future.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Review: The Forbidden Queen by Anne O'Brien

Advanced review copy from publisher via NetGalley.
US release date: January 28, 2014

This biographical novel about Katherine of Valois, queen consort to Henry V of England and later the wife of Owen Tudor, is well written but doesn't have much depth and there is a lot more "telling" than "showing".

It's primarily a romance and though I enjoy some good romance, when there seems to be little to nothing else going on, it feels flat and grows tiresome and dull. It was entirely about Katherine's romantic relationships, even though there was plenty of opportunity to develop a more multidimensional story, it never took fruit. For example, Katherine's childhood is very quickly brushed over. Growing up, her only friend in the whole world is her sister, Michelle, but when Michelle leaves the convent they are being raised in to be married off, it barely gets a mention. What should have been a huge and difficult change and loss for Katherine only gets commented on after the fact, almost as in afterthought. I also found it very convenient (i.e., unrealistic) that Michelle happened to live close enough by to make regular trips to visit Katherine. Even so, Katherine should have missed Michelle a lot more than we get to see, if not when Michelle is married than certainly when Katherine is married and leaves France for England.

There also could have been a lot more development in showing Katherine adjusting to life at the English court and trying to fit in. While she does make a few friends, we don't see much of them. I would have liked to see more of her dealings with her "damsels", especially in the beginning, because they would have been a huge part of her life, regardless of whether her relationships with them were positive or negative. But we really only see few glimpses of this because the focus was so centered on her romantic relationships. Later, we see a little more involvement but no more than is necessary to move the romantic stories forward.

According to Katherine, in her time as an English queen, she makes it a point to learn about the political affairs going on at the time but we don't really get to see that growth, we just have to take her word for it. As time goes on, she only proves just how poor her understanding of politics is and that she clearly did not learn much during her reign as consort.

Most annoying of all was how whiny, immature, and self-absorbed Katherine was. I could excuse it in the beginning because she was young and starved for attention and love. But she never seemed to grow up. While her time with Henry was short lived, I grew frustrated when she could never accept the fact that when you're married to a king, certain things will take priority over you. She could not see beyond her own little world. Her happiness seemed entirely dependent on attention from men, which made her seem shallow and vapid, in addition to immature and self-absorbed. At one point, Katherine even asks herself: "Was every woman as driven to embrace misery as I, when faced with a man who had no desire for her?" The answer, of course, is "no". No, Katherine, not every woman feels that way and the fact that you do is actually rather pathetic. I won't pretend rejection is a barrel of laughs but the degree of misery that it sunk her into was certainly pathetic.

Also annoying was when, by her own admission, she knew nothing about Owen Tudor beyond the fact that he was good at his job, and yet claimed to have fallen in love with him. How can you love someone you don't even know? Even after she professed to have grown up and been wiser, she is still resorting to an immature ideal of love.

The quality of writing is not bad and the characters, though mostly unlikable or underdeveloped, were believable, as was their dialogue. But the story was one-dimensional and Katherine in particular was not a likable main character, which was made all the more annoying by the fact that it was told from her first person point of view.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Review: The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak

This is an excellently written novel about Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia, told from the first person point of view of a palace maid, Varvara, a fictional character from Poland. After being orphaned, Varvara becomes a ward of the Empress Elizabeth of Russia where she is forgotten about within the Winter Palace until she is discovered by the Chancellor as a potentially good spy. He trains her to spy for him and the Empress, who places her in an ideal position as a maid to her nephew, the Grand Duke and heir to the Russian throne, but when Catherine (initially known as Sophie) arrives to be married to the Grand Duke, Varvara's loyalties are thrown into question.

This is as much Varvara's story as it is Catherine's and truth be told, Catherine is absent for portions of the novel and yet, that doesn't detract from the story. It's so well written and the characters are so well developed that the fictional plot lines are every bit as interesting as the historical ones and only add dimension to the story. However, for those disppointed that the focal point was not more centered on Catherine, the sequel Empress of the Night is told from Catherine's point of view.

From Varvara's point of view, Catherine seemed a little whiny and immature at times, though she would have been in her 20s by the time the scene I'm thinking of in particular would have occured. In fact, Catherine's character sort of regresses; in the beginning, she is shrewed and cautious but as the book goes on, she becomes reckless and immature. I think this was an attempt to show how unhappy she became in the situation she was in and how she reached a point when she just didn't care anymore about the things which she previously thought of the utmost importance.

For a spy novel, the politics sometimes take a back seat to the court gossip but I think it's important to remember that during this time period, court intrigue and politics were so often linked.

I was surprised to learn the author is Polish, because this is so well written in English, I can't believe that it's not the author's first language. It really brings the scenes to life and forms the characters so well, it was hard to put down and I look forward to the sequel.

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