Saturday, July 20, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: A Voyage from Ireland in 1849 by Clare Pastore

Weary of witches and warlocks and muggles, oh my? Me, too. Don't get me wrong; I'm pleased that the Potter Phenomenon encourages more children to trade their video games for books, thereby earning lifelong benefits. But parents looking for spiritually uplifting—and educational—stories for young readers will find a refreshing alternative in Clare Pastore's description of Fiona McGilray's journey from Ireland to America.
For me, the year 1849 conjures visions of excited folks flocking to California to try their luck with pick and pan. Half a world away, in Ireland, hordes of despondent people mine only their blighted potato crop. Typhus and other famine-fed diseases reach epidemic proportions. And yet food sent from America rots in locked warehouses as greedy English landowners strive to keep market prices high.

Book: Clare Pastore, A Voyage from Ireland in 1849Fiona McGilray, middle child of five, struggles valiantly to help her family scrape a meager existence from the recalcitrant soil of the Emerald Isle. After her oldest sister dies of typhus, her parents suggest that she and her older brother, Patrick, cross the sea to live with rich cousins in America and carve out better lives for themselves. Initially, Fiona rejects the idea because she places more importance upon being with her family than life itself.

Faith and love glue the McGilray family together, but temptation rips it asunder. One night, Fiona discovers she can wriggle through an open warehouse window. She emerges with a sack heavy with grain and a conscience heavy with guilt, until her parents justify the act as merely helping to distribute what had been meant for the community all along. Her father, Patrick and their neighbors join her in nightly expeditions. The village prospers—until the raiders get caught.

With their father languishing in jail, Fiona and Patrick must flee for America, pawning several family heirlooms to book passage. During the voyage, Fiona's understandably naive internal monologue brings to mind the refrain from a number in the animated Don Bluth musical, An American Tail: "There are no cats in America." As Fievel Mouskiewitz learned to his horror that America teems with cats, so Fiona McGilray discovers that the Land of Opportunity in 1849 teems with people harboring spiteful prejudice toward the Irish. With the inexplicable disappearance of their rich cousins, Fiona and Patrick require every morsel of wits, courage, faith and luck simply to survive. The dream of reuniting their family looms large in their hopes and prayers.

In our era, the media lauds smart-mouthed, rebellious teens, and parents often come across as idiotic boors. While the considerate-to-a-fault Patrick seems a bit too good to be true, the flawed yet determined Fiona presents a realistic portrait of a young lady willing to risk all to help her family. Brava, Clare Pastore, for giving young readers an informative and sensitive glimpse of the plight of 19th century immigrants through the Irish eyes of Fiona McGilray.

(Originally published in Crescent Blues. Reprinted with permission.)

Friday, July 19, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: Voice of the Goddess by Judith Hand

What's black and white and red all over? Remember, this is a family site; no sick answers, please.
An embarrassed zebra, you say? BZZZT, wrong -- thank you for playing!
Book: Judith Hand, Voice 
        of the GoddessIn this case, the colors describe the remains of the Minoan civilization on Crete after being obliterated by a neighboring island-volcano, Kalliste.

No, I didn't give away the ending of Voice of the Goddess. After reading the back-cover copy and author's preface, wherein Judith Hand documents the theorized link between the Minoans and the legend of Atlantis, the astute reader will expect this violent geological event from page one. And Hand portrays it in imaginatively graphic detail.

To get there, however, one must put up with a female protagonist first introduced as a bratty preteen who, alas, doesn't grow up during the ensuing decade covered in the novel's chronology.

Fate blessed Leesandra -- or perhaps cursed her -- with a direct line of communication to a deity her people worship as the Mother of All. Leesandra must choose between her spiritual destiny and her emotional one as the virile warrior Alektrion lays claim to her heart. External conflict abounds, at times keeping the lovers apart, as worshippers of a rival male deity, Poseidon, seek to spread their religion through bloody conquest.

Can you spell "Crusades?" I thought so.

Obviously, the author spent much energy incorporating her prodigious research and spiritual agenda into this book. The setting comes alive as in few historical works I've ever read, and feminist readers of a New Age bent may appreciate its goddess emphasis.

The element that elevates any story beyond mediocre, however, lies not in its setting or theme but its characters. In Voice of the Goddess, the characters too often seem unsympathetic and illogically motivated. Some key characters, such as best-friend-turned-enemy Galatea, disappear without a follow-up regarding their fates -- and without much of a response from the protagonist herself. Even the "consummation" scene between Leesandra and Alektrion comes across as emotionally uninspired. The platonic relationship between Leesandra and her Nubian mentor, Zuliya, gets my vote as the most believable. In the final pages, Zuliya deals Leesandra a long-overdue comeuppance. I doubtless surprised everyone in the commuter train car with my cheer.

What else is black and white and red all over? Sometimes people answer "a book." But at 26 bucks for a hardcover, you can bet that Voice of the Goddess won't be read all over.

(Originally published in Crescent Blues. Reprinted with permission.)

Thursday, July 18, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: Chocolate for a Woman's Blessings by Kay Allenbaugh

What's made of chocolate but contains neither sugar nor fat, and doesn't engender guilt by its consumption? Chocolate for a Woman's Blessings, the latest tasty offering in the series of "Chocolate" anthologies confected by Kay Allenbaugh.
Book: Chocolate for a Woman's BlessingsReminiscent of the "Chicken Soup" series, Chocolate for a Woman's Blessings presents 77 real-life snapshots with a twist: every contributing author is female, and their stories illuminate issues vital to women's lives. Relationships with parents, men and children; coping with illness, rejection, grief and loss; honoring traditions and cultivating new ones -- these represent but a smattering of themes.

Organized into categories such as "Turning Up Your Light," "Our Favorite Furry Ones" and "Dancing With Angels," the anecdotes present an array as diverse as a Whitman's Sampler. Some made me laugh until my sides ached. Others sent me dashing for the tissues. A few left me feeling ambivalent, though I suspect that happened because I never experienced those situations (divorce, for example), rather than any perceived lack of merit in the stories themselves.

Therein lies the power of the "Chocolate" series or, for that matter, any written work that evokes intimate kinship with the reader. Through depictions of the most devastating tragedies and soaring triumphs -- and events at many levels in between -- Chocolate for a Woman's Blessings reinforces the message that we are not alone. Other women bearing similar burdens survived, perhaps suffering bruised bodies, frayed emotions and tattered spirits in the process. In Chocolate for a Woman's Blessings, they emerge to share their hard-won lessons. Only one word describes the level of encouragement this book offers: priceless.

Daughter, wife, mother or sister -- you cannot err by indulging yourself in this type of "chocolate." And, men, trust me when I tell you it makes the perfect gift for the special woman in your life. It provides emotional satisfaction, it won't cause her to bewail her post-holiday figure -- and I guarantee you'll earn major sensitivity points.

"Chocolate" doesn't get any better than this.

(Originally published in Crescent Blues. Reprinted with permission.)

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: The Unexpected Guest by Agatha Christie

The Mistress of Mystery has done it again! Raise your hand if you're surprised.
I thought not.

Book: Agatha Christie, The Unexpected GuestOn a deserted, foggy stretch of road one night in southern Wales, a man runs his car into a ditch. Fortunately, a nearby manor house offers the prospect of assistance. The driver traverses the grounds to the French doors of a ground-floor study. After knocking fails to rouse a response from within, he tries the doors. Finding them unlocked, he cautiously lets himself in -- and comes face-to-face with an invalid man slumped in his wheelchair, sporting a bullet hole in his head. The corpse's attractive young widow stands in a corner holding a revolver and readily confesses to the deed.

End of story? Not by a long shot (pun intended). The unexpected guest, moved by the woman's tale of emotional abuse at her husband's hands, decides to manufacture evidence to point the police to a different suspect. But even that doesn't play out in an expected manner as other members of the household take the stage. Several harbor their own reasons to see their cruel master dead.

Who is this unexpected guest and how did he happen to strand himself near that particular house shortly after the murder? Why did he knock at the study rather than the front door? And why, against all logic, did he choose to help the widow, risking implication as an accessory after the fact?

The answers to those questions and many more, dear reader, I leave for you to discover.

The Unexpected Guest began life as an original play at the Duchess Theatre in London, where it opened in August 1958 and enjoyed a respectable 18-month run. This novelization, the second by world-renowned theatre and opera critic Charles Osborne, continues the series he began in 1998 with Black Coffee. With 19 original plays to Christie's credit, ample opportunity exists for extending the series beyond Osborne's third installment (Spider's Web).

At first the book's artless prose, curious dearth of descriptive passages and detached viewpoint annoyed me. However, I came to realize this is the best approach for adapting a stage play. It allows a reader who saw a live dramatization to relive the experience. For those like myself who missed the show, it allows us to cast our own actors and mentally supply the props. Most importantly, the style allows Ms. Christie's brilliance -- especially with respect to dialogue -- to shine through.

I knock off half a point because, in spite of a couple of twists as unexpected as the guest himself, the plot unfolds in a simplistic manner. The book's 258 pages of relatively large type hardly provide a meaty read. Unless I were a collector, I wouldn't bother purchasing the hardcover edition.

However, if you seek a quick diversion into Christie's fascinating world of murder and mayhem, where appearances are guaranteed to deceive, this paperback well rewards the investment of your pence.

(Originally published in Crescent Blues. Reprinted with permission.)

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: Race the Wind! by Chris Platt

If Chris Platt had been publishing when I was a kid, I never would have let my parents talk me out of taking jumping lessons, the next step I yearned to pursue in my equestrian training. Adolescents can use all the encouragement and inspiration they can get, and Race the Wind! provides plenty.
Book: Chris Platt, Race the WindThanks to the faith and hard work of Katie Durham, the racehorse named Willow King no longer suffers badly twisted legs. After painstaking training, mostly depicted in the award-winning prequel (Willow King), the Thoroughbred from an unknown Oregon stable finally gains the strength and heart he needs to compete in major races. Katie determinedly sets out to prove to the world that Willow King possesses the stuff of champions.

Katie, too, wants to prove herself. Born with one leg shorter than the other, she always felt as if people doubted her physical abilities. Already granted permission to gallop Thoroughbreds in workouts, she seeks to become a licensed jockey in time for the Kentucky Derby. She knows the dangers of the profession but believes she can master the tricks of the trade. But can she master her own doubts and fears, and guide her beloved Willow King into the winner's circle?

The answer may surprise you.

Solid storytelling, a clean prose style and well-rounded characters make Race the Wind! enjoyable for adults and youths alike. Even Katie's nemesis, the stable owner's bratty daughter, demonstrates a heart in the latter half of the book. I knocked off a quarter-point because I wanted to see a tad more development in their relationship at the end. Another quarter-point came off because some of the jargon, such as "hotwalker," did not come with sufficient explanation for the non-insider. If Platt covered this turf in the prequel, then it constitutes the only point at which my reading experience suffered for not reading Willow King first.

I wish my daughter were old enough to read Race the Wind! for herself, and I definitely plan to keep it for her. Platt touches upon many teen issues with deft sensitivity, including self-image, boy-girl and parent-child relations, and helping others to overcome their own handicaps -- emotional as well as physical. I dub this book a prime candidate for mother-daughter book clubs for, whether we realize it or not, we all live with some form of handicap.

The author, who pursued her passion for horses to become one of the first female jockeys, counts among her literary heroes Marguerite Henry and Walter Farley. As a horse- and book-loving young girl, I shared her idols -- and consider Platt worthy to join their ranks.

(Originally published in Crescent Blues. Reprinted with permission.)

Monday, July 15, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: Last Seen in Massilia by Steven Saylor

Hemmed inside the walls of ancient, Greek-controlled Marseilles, Pompey's sympathizers besieging your loyalties even as Julius Caesar's legions blockade all access by land or sea, what would you expect to find? Starvation and hysteria, certainly, as well as suspicion and political intrigue in abundance. But if you happen to be Gordianus the Finder, renowned sleuth of the Roman Empire, murder finds you.
Book: Steven Saylor, Last Seen in MassilliaIn 49 B.C., civil war embroiled Rome's vast empire. Caesar crossed the Rubicon to assert his regal claim upon Rome only to find himself bitterly opposed by his former ally, Magnus Pompey. No one in the Mediterranean world could remain neutral in the face of the ensuing conflict. The merchant Greeks of the fiercely independent city-state of Massillia unwisely chose to side with Pompey, prompting Caesar to lay siege to this strategic port.

Gordianus, upon receiving anonymous word of his son Meto's ignominious death as a spy and traitor to Caesar, travels to Meto's last-known location, Massillia, to seek the truth. As a father and a Finder, Gordianus refuses to believe the charges. One of Caesar's closest officers, Meto would seem the last person to double-cross the great warlord. Gordianus braves capture by both sides, a flooded siege tunnel, insane city residents and other perils in his quest. But his investigation soon takes a sinister turn when from afar he witnesses a woman plunge to her death from atop Massillia's Sacrifice Rock.

I found several engaging features in Last Seen in Massillia, beginning with the vividly accurate historical and military details. Some of the military descriptions wax technical, particularly those cropping up before the plot hits full stride. But if you're into that aspect of ancient history, you'll find those sections as fascinating as I did.

I seldom read a murder mystery wherein the investigator witnesses the crime. An even more refreshing twist occurs at the development of a dispute about whether the woman jumped or was pushed by a man. This dispute flourishes chiefly between Gordianus's companion and their colorful Massillian host, and quickly turns into a macabre running gag providing welcome comic relief.

Then there's Gordianus himself, a 61-year-old hero who possesses intelligence, pragmatism and fatherly devotion in generous measures. I enjoyed riding his emotional ups and downs in his pursuit of the truth behind what happened to the woman and his son. Near the end, however, Gordianus makes a decision that, as a parent, I could neither relate to nor agree with. And as a reader, I felt deliberately strung along by this plot element's stark lack of closure. Hence, I knocked a point off the score.

But, considering everything Gordianus endured up to that point in this otherwise superbly detailed novel, I do look forward to seeing how the consequences play out in Saylor's next installment of the Roma Sub Rosa series.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: Ransom at the Opera by Fred Hunter

I love being proven right as much as the next person. While reading a murder mystery, however, much of the fun for me lies in harboring doubts about my guesses as to the killer's method, motive and opportunity. I simply couldn't believe how quickly I nailed two of the elements in Fred Hunter's latest Jeremy Ransom mystery -- before the murder occurred. Hoping I guessed wrong became my only impetus to finish Ransom at the Opera, thus leeching the pleasure from my reading experience.
Book: Fred Hunter, Ransom at the OperaElderly Emily Charters attends the opening night of a highly hyped production of Carmen at Chicago's new performing arts center only to watch the actor playing Don José die onstage. When Detective Jeremy Ransom takes over the case, he quickly surmises Riccardo Nuevo was murdered. Ransom must ferret out the murderer from the dozens of suspects in the cast, crew and other offices involved in the production.

Detective Ransom follows a tortured path to unravel the internal relationships of the fledgling opera company to determine whether Nuevo was even the intended victim. Nuevo's colleagues' over-the-top off-stage "performances" make Ransom's job that much harder. The clunky prose, inundation of sight and sound details to the exclusion of all other senses, and lack of character identification sap the reader's enjoyment.

Successful series mysteries devote as much attention to the sleuth and his or her partner as to the murder plot itself. Who can recall a Sherlock Holmes plot without fondly bringing to mind his legendary banter with Dr. Watson? And yet, memorable character interaction seems curiously absent from Ransom at the Opera. Miss Emily appears in only three or four scenes, hardly enough for a reader unfamiliar with the series to become properly acquainted with her. And of Ransom's badgered partner, Detective Gerald White, only his copious note-taking made a lasting impression upon me. Even Ransom himself, who doesn't come upon the scene until halfway into the book, eludes reader identification.

"I was a fool," Ransom laments to Miss Emily at the end of the novel. He feels personally responsible for what happened in the aftermath of the denouement. The motive "was right in front of me." Yes, it was. And since Detective Ransom's performance scarcely brought the house down, I won't be sleuthing out any more of his adventures.

(Originally published in Crescent Blues. Reprinted with permission.)

Saturday, July 13, 2013

MOVIE REVIEW: The Little Mermaid II: Return to the Sea

Disney reunites Jodi "Ariel" Benson, Samuel E. "Sebastian" Wright, Buddy "Scuttle" Hackett, Rene "Chef Louis" Auberjonois and other vocal talents from the 1989 classic, The Little Mermaid, to again explore why the seaweed always looks greener on the other side of the reef.
The happily-ever-after for Prince Eric and his newly bipedal mermaid bride, Ariel, includes the birth of a daughter, Melody. But the happiness fades when Morganna, evil sister of the vanquished Ursula, tries to kidnap the infant as barter for King Triton's magic trident and dominion of the oceans. Thwarting Morganna comes with a heavy price: Melody must be raised in ignorance of her mer-heritage.

While the 12-year-old Melody favors her father in dark good looks, she definitely takes after her mother in the self-centered yearning to be something she isn't. She confesses to Sebastian the hermit crab (again reluctantly pressed into service as a nanny) that she often imagines her legs as fins. When Melody accidentally finds a locket that raises questions about her ancestry, her actions allow Morganna to again go after Triton's trident, using a mermaid-ified Melody as the patsy.

Continuing a tradition begun in 1999's award-winning Tarzan, The Little Mermaid II: Return to the Sea provides an insightful porthole into parent-child dynamics. In trying to be a conscientious and protective mother, Ariel unwittingly fuels Melody's frustration about being denied access to the sea. Through her trials, Melody must learn whom she should really trust. And Ariel, transformed back into mermaid form, must not only find her swum-away daughter but determine how to repair the damage wrought by her own well-intentioned but ill-considered decisions.
From a technical standpoint, Return to the Sea improves upon its direct-to-video predecessors in its attention to detail and scripting. Parallels and anti-parallels to The Little Mermaid abound, which I'll leave to the viewer to discover, since they provide half the fun. Plenty of not-so-childish humor also helps to hold adult interest. Children should be fascinated by Melody's misadventures, though the youngest ones might find the wicked Morganna a bit unsettling.

I knocked off a half-point because most of the songs had a "filler" feel, and another half-point because I prefer protagonists, such as Beauty and the Beast's Belle, whose troubles arise from self-sacrificial decisions rather than self-centered ones. But anything that can hold my flibbertygibbet five-year-old enraptured through multiple repeat viewings gets a hearty thumbs-up from me!

(Originally published in Crescent Blues. Reprinted with permission.)

Friday, July 12, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: The Hallowed Isle books I & II by Diana Paxson

The Hallowed Isle: The Book Of The Sword And The Book Of The Spear (Hallowed Isle, #1-2)The Hallowed Isle: The Book Of The Sword And The Book Of The Spear by Diana L. Paxson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

With subject matter as popular as the Arthurian Legends -- a body of literature 25,000 works strong -- developing a fresh angle presents a monumental challenge. Sometimes the attempt falls flat, as in the vulgar Merlin by Robert Nye. Other works stray into the realm of whimsical fantasy, such as Sharan Newman's Guinevere trilogy. Regardless of the chosen slant, the vast majority of authors describe the rise and fall of Camelot from the perspective of Arthur or members of his court.

Diana Paxson stands alone. The Hallowed Isle cleverly reinvents the legend from the perspective of the distinct tribal cultures fighting for dominion of Britain during the turbulent 6th century.

The first volume, The Book of the Sword, introduces the Romanized British through the Lady of the Lake, Artoria Argantel. Wanting to end the conflict sparked by the withdrawal of the legions, the Druid priestess calls upon the Spirit of War and Justice to deliver a champion to unite the broken land. This champion, from Artoria's own royal lineage, must prove he can free the magically forged sword from its stone prison and wield it with courage and wisdom. This champion, naturally, is the hitherto unknown fosterling, Artor.

Paxson's close association with the late Marion Zimmer Bradley exudes from volume one in the pagan-priestess element. Fortunately, this aspect doesn't detract from the story. While post-modern neo-pagans and feminists might enjoy the fantasy of a female-controlled ancient Celtic religion, the fact remains that it is a fantasy, and Paxson does well to tone down her depiction of it.

In The Book of the Spear, Paxson mines the rich Germanic mythology and culture to deliver a fascinating look at the struggle from the Saxons' perspective. Oesc, a Saxon prince, fled the doomed country to which he is heir in order to claim rich lands in Britain. He serves the dark sorcery of the power of the Spear. But the Spear's magic clashes with that of the Sword of Rome -- the sword, wielded by Uthir, that killed Oesc's father. With Uthir gone, lust for vengeance burns in Oesc's heart against Uthir's son, the young King Artor. The fate of Britain lies in the hands of these warring sons.

As you might guess from names like "Artor" and "Uthir," don't expect to see the usual spellings in this series. In fact, those with a familiarity of the Arthurian Legends based only upon medieval works such as Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur may find themselves at a disadvantage, though the appendix helps dispel the confusion. Although Paxson employs multiple viewpoints, curiously, she stays away from Artor's. This doesn't present a problem until the end of the second book, when I wish I could have observed Artor process the aftermath of the final battle against Oesc. I'll leave the reader to discover why I think this was a crucial omission.

But whether you seek a unique but historically plausible take on the Arthurian Legends, or simply a few hours' escape into a well-written and engaging story, you'll find both in The Hallowed Isle.

(Originally published in Crescent Blues. Reprinted with permission.)

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Thursday, July 11, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: Carthage Ascendant by Mary Gentle

Carthage Ascendant (The Book of Ash #2)Carthage Ascendant by Mary Gentle
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Charlie Brown of "Peanuts" (tm) fame will never get to kick Lucy's football, but for pithy profundity he remains unsurpassed by his pen-and-ink peers. Charlie Brown once lamented that there's no heavier burden than having great potential, an astute observation that proves too often true. Carthage Ascendant all but collapses under the weight of unrealized potential.

In a brutal age of bloodshed and miracles, in which sorcery extinguished the sun, the fate of Europe, Africa and perhaps the entire world rests in the hands of a female mercenary captain named Ash. The undefeated army of Carthage rampages across the kingdoms of Europe. Burgundy alone defies the Visigoth horde and their legendary slave general, the Faris. In the center of enemy territory lies a living stone idol that whispers in Ash's soul to guide her through every military campaign, a being of frightening power that must be destroyed if the world hopes to survive.

But an even greater evil lurks at Carthage, one that created the idol and shaped Ash's existence. It plots the final annihilation that will feed its own lust for power and wipe Burgundy from the face of the earth. For Burgundy lies at the heart of it all, the richest prize in Europe and the key to the world, the jewel of the Carthaginian campaign.

So much for the book's back-cover teaser.

Don't look for the defeat of this "greater evil" in Carthage Ascendant. I suspect it won't even be resolved in the forthcoming Ash novel, The Wild Machines, since Avon advertises the series as a tetrology. Oh, Ash gives it the old college try, so to speak, as she slashes and cusses her way into the enemy's lair and back out again, but the plot follows a predictable if brutally realistic parabolic curve.

The literary device of presenting the story within the framework of a newly discovered historical document, which I admired in its predecessor, A Secret History, fails to reach its potential in Carthage Ascendant, too. The second installment of Ash's story ends like so many mega-fantasies, with nothing resolved, as if printed on a wad of bathroom tissue and torn off to a convenient length for packaging purposes.

But, hey, if you want something to pass the time while sitting on your throne, then go for this novel. If I were you, I wouldn't waste time reading it anywhere else.

(Originally published in Crescent Blues. Reprinted with permission.)

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Wednesday, July 10, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: The Sun and the Moon by Patricia Ryan

The Sun and the Moon (Wexford Family, #2)The Sun and the Moon by Patricia Ryan
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Patricia Ryan must be a fan of the musical "Camelot." The number "The Lusty Month of May" contains a line exhorting everyone "to do a wicked thing or two and try to make each precious day one you'll always rue." Many of the characters in The Sun and the Moon do more than their share of "wicked things" -- including female-dominant S & M -- causing me to rue the precious day I spent reading this book.

The "Sun" is King Henry's soldier-cum-spy, Hugh of Wexford, scarred by a brutal upbringing compounded by 15 years as a warrior into eschewing all ties, especially those of love. Petite, scholarly yet innocent Phillipa de Paris shines as the "Moon," recruited by Hugh under the king's orders to uncover evidence of Queen Eleanor's rumored rebellion by becoming the paramour of a corrupt cleric, Aldous Ewing. More than half the book centers on Phillipa's attempts to siphon information from Aldous without succumbing to his lust, because she wants to keep herself untainted for Hugh as they reluctantly fall in love with each other.

These machinations grind on against the backdrop of "courtly love" as purportedly invented by Eleanor of Acquitaine and further twisted by Ryan into practices that seem more apropos to a 20th century mindset than a 12th century one. Adultery and other sexual behavior typically ascribed to the practice of "courtly love" is a myth perpetuated by literary scholars mistaking jest for fact.

Alas, the characters' actions do not constitute the only anachronisms in this novel. Twentieth-century words, phrases and concepts run rampant through the dialogue and internal monologue. And when the word choices didn't catapult me out of the story, the plot's predictability did. The plot did take a somewhat unexpected turn near the end, but the development brought to mind Marion Zimmer Bradley's quip to aspiring writers, "Suspension of disbelief does not mean hanging by the neck until dead."

Not to mention the prevalent sin of telling the reader information rather than revealing it through the characters' actions, as in the following sample:

'She shouldn't do that,' Father Nicholas told Hugh when Phillipa took hold of the [corpse's] sheet to pull it back. It was telling, Hugh thought, that the priest directed the comment to him rather than to Phillipa, as if his disdain for women ran so deep that he couldn't lower himself to censure one directly.

Hello, Ms. Ryan! Your audience is smart enough to figure out that sort of thing on our own without being bludgeoned!

Save yourself from a mental beating, gentle reader, and avoid this novel at any cost.

(Originally published in Crescent Blues. Reprinted with permission.)

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Tuesday, July 9, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: Mother's Day Miracle by Lois Richer

Mother's Day MiracleMother's Day Miracle by Lois Richer
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The inspirational romance Mother's Day Miracle centers on a contemporary marriage of convenience between a lonely, thirty-something spinster and a Cree Indian with legal guardianship of his late sister's school-age children. But in spite of the characters' intriguing situation, I consider the true miracle to be the fact that I managed to finish the book.

Left at the altar years before, mild-mannered librarian Clarissa Cartwright finds her emotional scars re-opened by a friend's wedding. Back at the library, Clarissa prays for a husband and children to love. No sooner does the prayer leave her mouth than in strides the dashing Wade Featherhawk, looking for a book for his bird-loving "son."

Seeking to make a new start, Wade and his four rambunctious charges moved into town in Clarissa's absence. But that didn't stop the well-intentioned busybodies of their tiny Michigan town from matchmaking. Predictably, Wade wants no part in the process. But rather than clamming up or avoiding Clarissa once she introduces herself, he broadsides her with a verbal barrage designed to convince her he doesn't need a wife.

Wade's behavior in the opening scene seemed so contrary to my understanding of the Male Animal that I bounced it off my live-in expert. He concurred. Most men in similar circumstances wouldn't behave this way no matter how much pent-up frustration and anger they harbor. Realizing that it sometimes takes an author a few scenes to hit stride with a character, I kept reading, hoping to see improvement. I never did. Clarissa's friends and her internal monologue paint Wade as "the strong, silent type," but he never acts the part. Richer also fails to provide any description of his Cree heritage other than vague references to "the reservation." Richer could've just as easily labeled him a Sioux or Cherokee, for all the difference it would have made to the story.

Clarissa's portrayal doesn't fare much better. Aside from a nice scene where she "stands by her man," her actions and reactions feel less like a real person's than a puppet's. Clarissa and Wade intrepidly cross the threshold of matrimony to prevent the town's Chief Busybody from filing a petition to put Wade's nieces and nephews into foster care. But the couple's subsequent attempts to heal their wounded pasts and make the marriage work never quite ring true. Usually, it takes years to develop the depth of mutual trust necessary for a strong marriage, but Wade and Clarissa accomplish this feat in mere weeks. Maybe that's the miracle, but I didn't find it too believable.

I give Richer a point for her depiction of the children as unique and endearing individuals without having them steal the show, as sometimes happens with blended-family romances. Another half-point goes for technical skill in handling the characters' viewpoints, even though I didn't agree with their psychological makeup. All things considered, I've endured far worse tortures in recent weeks. Just check the archives.

(Originally published in Crescent Blues. Reprinted with permission.)

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Monday, July 8, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: A Secret History by Mary Gentle

A Secret History (The Book of Ash #1)A Secret History by Mary Gentle
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When it comes to depicting violence and sex in 20th century fiction, two modes dominate. The first -- and my preference as both a reader and a writer -- involves dropping intelligent hints to stimulate the imagination. The second reveals every grunt and thrust, every leakage of every bodily fluid. To say that A Secret History employs the latter technique would be a gross understatement. This book should sport a warning sign: "Do Not Read If You Are Pregnant Or Have A Heart Condition."

Suffering neither physical limitation, I kept reading. Halfway through, I started asking myself why. I like to savor the words and lose myself in the story. My aversion to the extreme violence and profanity on every page of A Secret History robbed me of that sort of reading experience. But, intrigued by the female mercenary captain at the story's center, I kept turning those pages.

In a time when empires and alliances shift like sand, the Visigoths with their mighty army and magic-powered machines arise out of Africa to darken the sun. Literally, and for weeks at a stretch, not unlike the ninth plague of Moses' day. Setting their sights on Burgundy, opulent and powerful 15th-century jewel of Europe, the Visigoths begin devouring every nation in their path, spreading the darkness in their wake.

Until they encounter Ash.

Born in the mud and dung of a mercenary camp, of unknown parentage, she slew her first man at age eight. While most young women occupy themselves attracting men to their beds, Ash attracts men to her banner. They follow her because she wins, and she wins because of the unerring guidance of a sacred voice wise in the ways of war. And because she genuinely cares about the eight hundred men and women of her mercenary band. This concern shines through her vulgar and masculine demeanor.

Though religious, Ash is no virginal Jeanne d'Arc. Money alone motivates her, not some Higher Cause. That begins to change when she realizes she may be the only obstacle between the Visigoths and their conquest of Europe.

A Secret History features a literary device that at first I dismissed as a gimmick. Ash's story unfolds as though it were a hitherto undiscovered medieval manuscript suffering translation by a late 20th century historian, complete with footnotes. Transcripts of email correspondence between the historian and his editor appear at intervals throughout the text. Don't give into the temptation to skip these sections. Rather than detracting from the flow, the email transcripts form rungs of a ladder to propel the novel onward, containing information that aids the suspension of disbelief.

Not a book for the fainthearted -- consider yourself warned! But if you crave a unique fantasy that eschews the object-oriented quest cliché, then refill your digitalis prescription and buckle yourself in for the ride.

(Originally published in Crescent Blues. Reprinted with permission.)

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Sunday, July 7, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: Fortune Like the Moon by Alys Clare

Fortune Like the Moon (Hawkenlye Mysteries, #1)Fortune Like the Moon by Alys Clare
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"Fortune Like the Moon is proof that a writer of medieval crime fiction can deliver something fresh," trumpets The Times of London on this novel's cover. Bless their biscuits, they're absolutely right.

In 1189, on the eve of her son Richard's coronation, Queen Eleanor -- think Katharine Hepburn in The Lion in Winter -- opens England's jails and releases hundreds of prisoners as an act of Christian charity in the king-elect's name. But her canny public relations gambit threatens to backfire when a young nun is found dead amidst abundant evidence of rape, robbery and murder a bare day's ride from London.

Richard, suffocating in the details of preparing for his coronation, can scarcely remember his courtiers' names. Nevertheless, he immediately perceives the danger to his reputation. Public opinion already points an accusing finger at the released prisoners. Richard dispatches Josse d'Acquin, knight bachelor, to Hawkenlye Abbey to investigate the nun's death and, with luck, scour this stain from the king-elect's name.

For Sir Josse, the royal appointment owes more to being in the right place at the right time than to any special investigative gifts. Acutely aware of his own shortcomings in this area, Sir Josse remains determined not to let his king down. Fortunately for him, for Richard and for the entire Hawkenlye community, Sir Josse finds an unlikely ally and partner in Hawkenlye's abbess, the intelligent and world-wise Helewise. Like cogs on a well-aligned pair of gears, their talents and abilities mesh to discover the truth.

Part of the freshness of this novel lies in the deft portrayal of life in late 12th-century England. Clare opens an unglazed window into the era without lapsing into the grotesque. Only once or twice did I question the veracity of research details, and those instances did not catapult me out of the story to any significant degree. Sometimes the monologues and dialogues seemed a shade too 20th-century-oriented. But, having traversed that particular Sword Bridge between historical accuracy and reader association myself, I could hardly hold Clare's choices against her. Even the chronic misuse of gerunds to indicate sequential rather than simultaneous actions (a far too common grammatical error in fiction today) didn't detract from my overall enjoyment.

However, I found the well-rounded depiction of the characters themselves the most refreshing aspect of Fortune Like the Moon. Abbess Helewise and Sir Josse possess a healthy awareness of their individual strengths and weaknesses, which makes them believably human without appearing pretentious. The realistic, non-preachy, integration of religion into the characters' lives proved similarly refreshing at a time when so many authors have an axe to grind against Christianity in general and Roman Catholicism in particular.

I raise a frothy flagon to the debut of medieval sleuths Helewise and Josse and look forward to toasting their many future successes.

(Originally published in Crescent Blues. Reprinted with permission.)

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Saturday, July 6, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: My True Love by Karen Ranney

My True LoveMy True Love by Karen Ranney
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

To most women, meeting the man of their dreams occurs only figuratively. Not so with Anne Sinclair, daughter of the Laird of Dunniwerth.

As a child of eight, Anne caught her first glimpse of a boy she knew only as Stephen, hailing from some unknown place called Langlinais. No mere dream, her vision came as a glimmering, fishbowl-like window into his world. For the next 15 years, Anne glimpses through this weird portal Stephen's anguish and joy, his triumphs and defeats, his interests and a few of his secrets as he grows to manhood.

With each new vision, Anne's heart grows inexorably closer to his. Never once does Stephen seem aware of her presence, but Anne knows that she must one day embark upon a quest to find this mysterious man. Their predestined meeting would forever change the course of both their lives, as well as the lives of those around them.

Stephen Harrington, 17th earl of Langlinais and commander of the "Blessed Regiment" cavalry squad, has grown weary of supporting his king, Charles I, in what he secretly considered a losing cause. Defying the king's command, Stephen returns home after a battle to bury his dead and nurse a festering wound.

Stephen doesn't count upon meeting the woman of his dreams -- in the figurative sense -- as Anne flees across his own lands from an enemy patrol. Rescuing her proves far easier than divining her secrets, such as why Anne traveled onto English soil to seek him out. Falling in love with her seems only natural at first, until the king's Parliamentarian enemies threaten to drive a wedge between them that even love cannot hope to surmount.

The first 90 percent of My True Love tells an engrossing tale of forbidden love amidst the uncertainty of war. Then, inexplicably, the dramatic tension slackens for a while, only to be artificially heightened by the inadequately explained actions of Anne's father -- almost as if to pad out the novel to the requisite length. A couple of other plot elements, such as the fate of a secondary character, suffer from similar mishandling. Otherwise, Ms. Ranney delivers an enjoyable read.

Just be careful the hot spots don't singe your fingertips.

(Originally published in Crescent Blues. Reprinted with permission.)

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Friday, July 5, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: Blue Mist on the Danube by Doris Elaine Fell

Blue Mist on the DanubeBlue Mist on the Danube by Doris Elaine Fell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Vienna, Bosnia, Los Angeles.
The past, the present, the future.
Alabama, Prague, London.
One-two-three, one-two-three. The author waltzes between the glamorous and the mundane and the uplifting like the cadence of a favorite Strauss piece, and most of the time just as quickly.

Hardly a straightforward "boy meets girl" type of romance, halfway through the book I found myself wondering why the publisher labeled it a romance at all, let alone an inspirational one. The central plot concerns two middle-aged women, one a world-renowned Czeckoslovakian concert violinist and the other the American wife of a successful pastor, united by the gifted young man they both call "son."

Through a quirk of fate, the young man isn't the only thing they share. Both women harbor devastating secrets. In fact, everyone involved with this unlikely threesome hides something. Clandestine affairs, aborted babies, terminal illness, stolen art masterpieces, undisclosed occupations, unrequited love, guilt, shame, despair -- a veritable transcontinental Peyton Place.

The very human tendency to refuse to come to grips with past mistakes serves as the villain of Blue Mist on the Danube. We tend to be our own worst critics, and forgiveness -- of others as well as self -- comprises this unusual novel's orchestrated refrain. The unique way in which each character vanquishes this intangible villain I leave you to discover.

True to the tradition of 20th century romantic fiction, the final stanza features a happy, if bittersweet ending. But don't forget a comfortable pair of dancing shoes. As Fell whirls you from the present to the past, and flashbacks within flashbacks, to spin back out to the present and beyond, it makes for a blistering read without them.

(Originally published in Crescent Blues. Reprinted with permission.)

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Thursday, July 4, 2013

MOVIE REVIEW: The Patriot (Mel Gibson, Heath Ledger, 2000)

From turn-of-the-13th century Braveheart, Mel Gibson advances more than five centuries to examine another hero reluctantly drawn into a fight for independence from England, America's favorite national villain.
Retired French and Indian War hero Benjamin Martin, widower and father of seven children, found a measure of peace as a South Carolina plantation owner. Then the Revolutionary War comes to call. Benjamin's oldest, 17-year-old Gabriel, enlists in the fight for independence against his father's wishes. The war hits even closer to home when a battle erupts on Martin's land, leaving Gabriel wounded and turning the plantation house into a field hospital.

Enter the inhumane villain, Colonel Tavington (Jason Isaacs), a British cavalry commander of colossal arrogance obsessed with advancing his career, even at the expense of non-combatant civilians. When Tavington shoots Gabriel's 15-year-old brother for trying to rescue Gabriel from hanging, the war becomes personal for the anguished Benjamin.

Will Benjamin and Tavington duke it out during the final battle of the film? You bet. Three guesses as to who wins, and the first two don't count.

However, Benjamin Martin's journey to that final confrontation proves emotionally fascinating as he battles not only the British but himself. Benjamin's previous combat experiences against the French and Cherokee pushed him beyond the brink of humanity. The love of Benjamin's wife redeemed him then, but who will save Benjamin now that she's dead? Will Benjamin's faith in God be enough to restore his humanity a second time? Can "The Cause" -- the great fight for independence -- serve as turning point and salvation for Benjamin as well as England's American colonies?

Other characters face their own issues. The personal story of each man, woman and child poignantly intertwines with Benjamin's. Rene Auberjoinois (Odo of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) deserves particular praise for his portrayal of a minister-cum-militiaman ("Someone has to tend the flock--and fight off the wolves.")

Naturally, some stories receive more attention than others. For instance, I would have preferred to see Benjamin do more "processing" with his youngest sons, who early in the film witness Benjamin's grief-induced battle frenzy against the unit detailed to transport Gabriel to the gallows.

The failure to provide an on-screen closure for Benjamin's youngest sons, plus Tavington's one-dimensional character and some minor logic disconnects make me wish I could knock a quarter-point from my rating. I give The Patriot full marks, however, because its excellence far outweighs its flaws. Amazingly accurate details abound, including Benjamin's guerilla exploits, based upon those of Sir Francis "Swamp Fox" Marion and other renowned freedom fighters. Mel Gibson also deserves a hearty "bravo" for delivering the first non-animated film I've seen in decades that doesn't rely on profanity and sexuality to titillate the audience. Nevertheless, I strongly caution parents to preview The Patriot to decide whether they wish to expose underage children to its extreme violence.

As a viewer I look askance at anything labeled a "must-see." Therefore, as a reviewer I rarely dole out such distinctions. But if you consider yourself a history or warfare buff, a parent or a patriot you must see this film.

(Originally published in Crescent Blues. Reprinted with permission.)

Stephen Hawking: "Quiet people have the loudest minds."

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Wednesday, July 3, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: Brides and Blessings by Molly Noble Bull

Brides and BlessingsBrides and Blessings by Molly Bull
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sometimes opposites attract and sometimes they don't. Author Molly Noble Bull treats us to a glimpse of both realities in the inspirational romance Brides and Blessings. Identical twin sisters, separated since birth, discover life to be anything but a Patty Duke episode when they reunite and decide to switch places for six months in this engaging romp through Hollywood and a rural Texas town.

Mild-mannered, born-again Holly Harmon only has her sister's spiritual welfare in mind when she proposes the madcap switch. Holly senses the notoriously worldly Suzann Condry will benefit from time spent away from unforgiving cameras and sundry Tinsel Town temptations. Although understandably nervous about stepping into the designer shoes of a world-renowned actress, Holly finds an unlikely ally in Suzann's agent's brother, Dr. Shawn McDowell. And Holly discovers to her delight that not every Hollywood denizen is a callous phony who considers the concept of love as transient as a movie set. Shawn's love becomes Holly's lifeline in opening galas, hospital rooms, commercial shoots, and everywhere else those expensive borrowed shoes take her.

For sophisticated, glamorous Suzann, her role as the mousy church librarian promises to be her greatest challenge ever. However, little does Suzann realize the "script" also includes a devastatingly handsome "co-star" in the form of the church's newly hired youth pastor, Josh Gallagher.

Suzann struggles with her burgeoning feelings for this man, fighting deep-seated beliefs that God does not exist and that no one can possibly be as authentic as they appear. Besides, how can the wholesome, gentlemanly Josh continue to love her after Suzann confesses her deception? The process of coming to terms with this turmoil, further fueled by anxiety over a close escape from a mugger, propels Suzann closer to developing trust in Josh and other church members and, ultimately, in God.

Even though the ending for both sisters feels somewhat rushed, it proves a happy one on all accounts: physically, emotionally, and spiritually. I only regret the book didn't afford a longer escape from the pressures of daily life.

(Originally published in Crescent Blues. Reprinted with permission.)

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Tuesday, July 2, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: Daddy's Home by Deb Kastner

Daddy's HomeDaddy's Home by Deb Kastner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What do you get when you cross a lady doctor with her dying sister, sister's newborn infant and estranged husband (to whom the doctor had been engaged) and subject the result to the merciless scrutiny of Smalltown, USA? You get the inspirational romance Daddy's Home, an exercise in the adage that appearances certainly can deceive.

Dr. Jasmine Enderlin once loved Christopher Jordan wholeheartedly. But he betrayed her by marrying her sister, then abandoning his pregnant bride. Nevertheless, Jasmine forgives her sister's role in the betrayal, and when her sister dies, Jasmine embraces the opportunity to act as her nephew's guardian.

However, Christopher's actions, past as well as present, force Jasmine to question her faith and emotions when the prodigal daddy returns to claim his three-month-old son. Christopher wants to explain his actions, but Jasmine's grief-fueled anger erects a wall that only love can destroy. As discoveries about Christopher's and his late wife's pasts chip away at Jasmine's emotional prison, she learns that the truth can, indeed, set one free.

As with most romances, the characters and their relationships prove the long suit of Daddy's Home. Jasmine, the virginal but tough heroine, struggles to balance the escalating demands of career and motherhood against her crises of grief, faith, and the startling revelation that her love for Christopher never died. Christopher plays the gallant but misunderstood hero who does the wrong things for the right reasons. And, like most romances, this novel is all but devoid of plot. Yet Daddy's Home doesn't require a world-saving plot to be engaging, thought provoking and entertaining.

Sometimes the world needs a gentle reminder that it can indeed be saved one infant -- and one family -- at a time.

(Originally published in Crescent Blues. Reprinted with permission.)

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Monday, July 1, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: Valley of the Shadow by Peter Tremayne

Valley of the Shadow (Sister Fidelma, #6)Valley of the Shadow by Peter Tremayne
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Quick, ladies, name three male authors who can write convincingly from a woman's viewpoint. Gentlemen, feel free to vote all you wish, but your votes won't be counted for this unofficial poll.

Stumped? Me, too. And Peter Tremayne with his emotionless, sexless Sister Fidelma certainly doesn't deserve a place on the list. In fact, the viewpoint in Valley of the Shadow wanders erratically between the Irish nun, her besotted Saxon priest sidekick, secondary characters and even the random goat on the hillside, making it nigh unto impossible to develop a bond with any of them. Except, maybe, the goat.

In A.D. 666 -- pun intended, no doubt -- Fidelma travels to the secluded Gleann Geis at her brother the king's bequest to negotiate the establishment of a Christian church in this notorious Druidic and vigorously anti-Christian stronghold. Near the end of the journey, she and her companion discover the grisly remains of 33 monks, slaughtered identically and arranged in a circle like points on a sundial. The whys and wherefores of this ritualistic murder, interpreted as a particularly nasty "Christian, go home" statement, consume Fidelma's energies for the remainder of the book.

Never mind the fact that the deeply spiritual Celts embraced Christianity because its evangelists, like Patrick and Columba, cleverly assimilated the tenets of older religions rather than coming into conflict with them. Never mind the fact that, by the 7th century, Druidic philosophy lived only in folk memory, as in the phrase "knock on wood" and the practice of kissing under mistletoe. Despite heavy reliance upon these common misconceptions, Valley of the Shadow promises an exciting setup but delivers a frightfully boring resolution.

Sorry, Fidelma fans, but any novel wherein the major plot point in the first half of the book is the sidekick's hangover holds no interest for me. By the time anything serious befalls Our Heroes (about two-thirds of the way into the story) I ceased to care about their fates. I do give Tremayne a point for not falling into the "all Christians are evil, all non-Christians are good" trap, or its converse -- although this book does contain a few irritating religious caricatures.

In case you simply must rush out and buy this one to complete your set, I won't divulge any spoilers. But I do strongly advise that you save your hard-won cash and wait for the inevitable paperback release.

(Originally published in Crescent Blues. Reprinted with permission.)

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