Book Review: Triumph of a Tsar

Triumph of a Tsar by Tamar Anolic

While alternative historical fiction is not an entirely new genre for me, it is true I don’t have a ton of experience with it. Elements such as pacing or character development can be tricky, but going into Tamar Anolic’s Triumph of a Tsar lent an anticipatory rather than nervous sensation as to how her treatment might affect history, so to speak. This is largely thanks to the cover, the title itself and Anolic’s chosen historical figures. The last Russian tsar and his family, after all, have been the object of great curiosity and scrutiny in the century since the Russian Revolution that ended the monarchy and murdered the entire Romanov family, and asking the great what ifs likely shall continue for as long as humans are alive to present them.

Parsing out details of the Romanovs’ lives offers prospects, chances that nevertheless peter out when we are forced to accept that none of history happened the way we wanted it to have: if Alexandra had been more popular, if the Bolsheviks hadn’t gained the upper hand, if Nicholas II was a stronger leader—and much more. Anolic’s title, however, offers great possibility, as does the inset image of Nicholas and the tsarevich surrounded by palatial majesty, particularly the rising columns above them. While royal opulence can easily alienate people, here there is a soaring sort of potential that beckons us in.

Triumph and mass slaughter do not match, at least not in this context, so we know going in there is to be no Ekaterinburg. The question of which tsar bears the title’s triumph is answered early with the (more natural) death of Nicholas, and it makes utter sense for Anolic to choose the sixteen-year-old heir, Alexei: an unknown quantity to us, he also represents the future, a better match to the new post-Great War world history is passing into. The author tends to utilize expository speech fairly often, which in this story works quite well as it functions simultaneously to provide alternate details and accustom us to characters we know to have been frozen in history, never making it to the ages at which they are now being portrayed. She also remains faithful to major personality traits family members were each reported as possessing, embedding these characteristics in their older selves.

It is entirely in character, for example, for Alexandra to insist upon acting as regent for her son, and fitting for him to refuse. Said to have been intelligent and compassionate, the real Alexei might very well have enacted many of the changes Anolic’s Alexei does. The passage in which mother and son debate the heir’s ascendancy reveals a great deal about individuals—historical and alternate—and concludes with the new tsar’s victory without him having to demean his mother, whose habit of indulging her youngest child leads to her submission in the face of his pushback.

While this is not an historical moment, Anolic is nevertheless on target: Alexei, largely as a result of the hemophilia he inherited from his mother (which could be traced back to his great-grandmother, Queen Victoria), was quite spoiled, though also aware he might not live to adulthood. Anolic reflects his doubts, and the great care with which he conducts his physical movements, with an authentic sensitivity while avoiding any sort of outward show.

For an individual whose mobility is fraught with peril, Alexei gets around quite well, having developed his own technique for doing, and we see him move through the years holding his own physically, emotionally and politically. There are a few spots in which relationships—between Alexei and a foreign leader, Alexandra and Marie Feodorovna are two—come off as a bit too bright, and even an awareness of required diplomacy doesn’t entirely explain the feel of the passages. Also, I questioned whether a nation of people equipped with a train that could carry its monarch across a continent to England yet is underfunded in its railroads is entirely reflective of the adoration Alexei is granted in the book.

Still, these are small portions within a story of strong and developed dialogue, and it has to be stated that in these same passages and others, Alexei also displays solid intuition—“It’s much easier to be isolationist when you have two oceans separating you from everyone else”—and ability to turn lesser positions into strength, such as his view to his nation’s status as underdeveloped. He is also unafraid to state his case as he aims to bring his homeland into the new world that arose following the Industrial Revolution and Great War.

Once the review was over, Alexei took a microphone from his new police chief, Feodor Mikhailovich Ivanov. “Gentlemen,” he began, and his voice soared. “I am proud of you and each of the Russian soldiers who will be marching out to defend our country. But I did not make the decision to declare war lightly. It was only because of the threat to Russia, and to each of us personally, that Nazi Germany and Adolph Hitler represent. We mean to live our lives as free Russians, worshipping God in the Orthodox tradition. They mean to dominate us and incorporate us into a German empire where God does not exist.”

The only true beef I have with the book is its listing of characters. Personally speaking, it would have been better positioned at the start rather than end, and Anolic’s presentation of the family might have been organized more efficiently, with added notes for patronymics and nicknames. While I know Alix of Hesse (Alexandra) and her family fairly confidently, I have to focus a bit harder for the Russian side. An early conversation including Pavel and Elizabeth proved confusing until I finally figured out the pair were brother and sister, and not husband and wife.

At 267 pages, Triumph of a Tsar doesn’t overburden its audience with mass. Yet the experience of reading it leaves one with the rich sensation of having traveled a great distance through the lives of many other people whose stories themselves are filled with much captivating detail, amazing as well as ordinary (the latter of which can be just as gratifying to read about in the lives of historical figures). Indeed, it really is Alexei’s story, so the focus remains with him, yet still we are privy to paths that weave through the histories of other European relatives and houses, often with the joy of recognizing the real-life counterparts of people or events.

There is a bit of sadness there as well, for we know what happened to many of these people in real life. But Anolic has a great ability to steer us away from that without having to rely on unrealistic cheer. Happiness does exist in the novel, of course, along with fear, anxiety, excitement, anticipation—in short, her narrative reflects the many varied paths Alexei, his mother, sisters, relatives and others take, focusing on who they were and possibly might have been, and not centering their entire identities on their victim status. It is the first book on the Romanovs I recall ever  reading without having to brace myself for heartbreak at the end.

In this way the novel might be said to have a revenge fantasy element, though I’m not inclined to label it as such. While certain historical figures make their appearances, vengeance isn’t exactly how interaction plays out, and that might be what Anolic gifts us: a scenario in which the Romanovs move forward to a greater day without having to mimic the barbarism of their enemies. We see them closer to who they wanted to be, a gift to them, and to us.

Signature of Alexei Nikolaevich from Wikimedia Commons

About the author…

Tamar Anolic is a writer and lawyer who practices in the Washington, D.C. area. Her other passion is traveling. She has been to such far-flung places as Antarctica, Russia, Romania and Bulgaria, and some of these places have been the settings for her writing. She has a long history of being published in various magazines and newspapers, and now has several books to her credit. Follow her website or see her at September’s end at the Fredericksburg (Virginia) Independent Book Festival.

Triumph of a Tsar may be purchased at Amazon.

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The author provided a free copy of Triumph of a Tsar

in order to facilitate an honest review.

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Book Spotlight: The Secret Life of Mrs. London

The Secret Life of Mrs. London
by Rebecca Rosenberg

Rebecca Rosenberg is author of the new historical novel, The Secret Life of Mrs. London, revealing the love triangle between Houdini, Charmian and Jack London.

Only one woman could beguile two legends!

Join Rebecca in a visual romp back to San Francisco, 1915, when famed author Jack London and his wife, Charmian London, attend the Great Houdini’s Chinese Water Torture Escape in San Francisco. What happened next was almost lost to history!

About the Book: 

San Francisco, 1915. As America teeters on the brink of world war, Charmian and her husband, famed novelist Jack London, wrestle with genius and desire, politics and marital competitiveness. Charmian longs to be viewed as an equal partner who put her own career on hold to support her husband, but Jack doesn’t see it that way…until Charmian is pulled from the audience during a magic show by escape artist Harry Houdini, a man enmeshed in his own complicated marriage. Suddenly, charmed by the attention Houdini pays her and entranced by his sexual magnetism, Charmian’s eyes open to a world of possibilities that could be her escape.

As Charmian grapples with her urge to explore the forbidden, Jack’s increasingly reckless behavior threatens her dedication. Now torn between two of history’s most mysterious and charismatic figures, she must find the courage to forge her own path, even as she fears the loss of everything she holds dear.

Excerpt:

Orpheum Theatre, San Francisco, California November 1915

Love cannot in its very nature be peaceful or content. It is a restlessness, an unsatisfaction. I can grant a lasting love just as I can grant a lasting satisfaction; but the lasting love cannot be coupled with possession, for love is pain and desire, and possession is easement and fulfilment.

—Jack London, The Kempton-Wace Letters

I know how magic works—all smoke and mirrors, suffocating doves, and defecating rabbits. Of course, Jack knows these things, too. He rails against the cruelty of using trained animals in vaudeville. But his adoring Crowd from Carmel (that whole arty, hashish-smoking Bohemian clan) insists Jack join them for the Great Houdini show. Front-row seats, they say. The most famous magician in the world, they say.

“We need a little magic in our lives,” Jack says, and I can’t argue with that.

The Orpheum is morbidly gaudy with flocked velvet walls, tooled woodwork, and gilt, lots of gilt. Jack sports his rumpled khakis du jour, while he asked me to dress like a heroine from Martin Eden: chartreuse taffeta suit shimmering with purple undertones in the theater lights.

But this confounded waistline cuts into my expanding middle like a butcher pinching off sausage casing. I don’t know why I haven’t told Jack my good news when I’ve known for a while. That’s a lie. I hold back because he’ll count the months and wonder, like I do.

The Crowd blow kisses to each other in a cloud of pheromones and cigar smoke. They pass the silver flask of gin under my nose, and the odor stretches my brain like the taffy puller in the lobby.

George Sterling slides his lanky frame into the seat next to mine, reeking of patchouli and cannabis. “Looks like this is just what Jack needed to forget about Wolf House burning down.”

“Nothing will make him forget that night.” My head reels around to see Jack deep in conversation with Anna Strunsky. They only talk deep. That young actress Blanche hangs on his arm, pretending she understands. She doesn’t.

“Wolf says Lawrence burned it down and ran off.”

“You’re such a liar,” I say, but maybe it’s true. I haven’t seen or heard from Lawrence since I left him by Wolf House.

“You and Wolf should pick your friends more wisely.” Sterling grins like Satan.

“Funny, I was thinking the very same thing. But unfortunately, Jack likes you.” I make a face.

Thankfully, the sixteen-piece orchestra fires up below us in the pit, and Sterling slinks back to his seat. Brass trumpets glint in the crossing spotlights and raise my spirits with their triumphant sound.

Jack sits next to me, puffing his Imperial. I can’t break his mood no matter how many times I tell him nothing happened with Lawrence.

Nothing I care to share, that is.

The Great Houdini appears in a spotlight and high-steps onto the stage, keeping time with the music, striking in his immaculate tuxedo and gleaming black hair. When the song ends, he marches right in front of the footlights and welcomes the audience, impossibly white teeth flashing, announcing his opening trick.

Women’s mouths drop open. Men scoot to the edges of their seats. His voice, harmonic and commanding, vibrates through the charged air and holds them awestruck. Houdini’s powerful arm points at Jack. Heavens.

“Mr. Jack London, ladies and gentlemen.” Spotlights flood our faces.

How does he recognize Jack?

“Won’t you join us on the stage, Mr. London?” Houdini calls, and the Crowd starts chanting: “Wolf, Wolf, Wolf…” Jack holds up his palms in protest.

The magician persists. “If not you, how about your lovely wife? I promise to take great care of her.”

The Crowd jeers for me to go up, already too much gin passed between them.

Jack leans over and whispers, “My feet are killing me. Take this one, will you?”

I see my redemption in his pleading eyes. But I feel like a bratwurst. I can’t go up there.

“Buck up your courage, Mate.” Jack pushes me to a stand. “The Crowd will get a kick out of it.”

My heart sinks as I make my way to the stairs. He wants to entertain his worshipping Crowd at my expense. Blanche swoops into my vacant seat, snuggling his arm. I yank the pearl buttons choking my neck and one pops off, rolling into the orchestra pit. Lifting my stiff taffeta skirt and crinoline petticoat, I step up, but my foot slips off.

Two strong hands circle my waist and sweep me onto the stage with the grace of a waltz. Black eyelashes rim his eyes with mystery, but kindness crinkles at the edges.

“Trust me,” Houdini whispers, smelling of wood-spice cologne. Then his voice booms out to the audience, “Let’s give the brave Mrs. London a round of applause, shall we?”

A child enters from backstage dressed in tights and velvet knickers, a fluffy beret mushrooming over his jet-black pageboy.

Houdini smiles and holds out his arm. “And another hand for my beautiful wife and assistant, Bess Houdini.”

My stomach hitches, and I look again. The elf bows with a flourish and lifts her face with a wide grin, dimples circled with rouge, throwing kisses to the audience. The miniature woman steals the show with her boyish figure in sequined tights, round eyes that flash and roll and wink and hold us spellbound no matter what Houdini is doing. I would have bought the ticket to watch her.

The magician steps into the spotlight, and the audience hushes. “And now, on this very stage, we will perform our most renowned illusion, the one and original, Metamorphosis! Pay close attention to catch any sleight of hand or cheat, for you will see none. With your very own eyes, you will witness myself, bound, handcuffed, and locked in a trunk, only to be magically transformed into my beautiful assistant, Bess.”

The audience buzzes with excitement while Bess Houdini rolls a steamer trunk to center stage. “Mrs. London, tell the people in the crematorium, have we ever met before?” she asks in falsetto.

“Auditorium?” Confused and tongue-tied looking out from the stage to three hundred San Francisco elite…“No, we haven’t met.”

“And have you ever laid your eyes on this trunk before?” Jack would say something witty, but my mind draws a blank. “No.” The burning footlights blind me mercifully from seeing his disappointment in the front row.

“Will you examine the trunk for any tomfoolery?” She waves her birdlike limbs theatrically, reeking of gardenias.

I unbuckle the leather straps and peer inside the trunk. Feeling along the edges, banging the sides. “No trick doors, if that’s what you mean.”

“I understand you’re an excellent sailor, Mrs. London.” Houdini cocks an eyebrow. “And quite an expert with knots.”

“How would you know that?” I shade my eyes to see Jack and damn if Blanche isn’t canoodling his ear. “I won first place at the yacht club for my knots.”

“Impressive, but can you tie a knot from which the Great Houdini cannot escape?”

“Absolutely.” Jack says it’s over with Blanche yet dangles my dalliance over my head like a noose.

Houdini takes off his jacket and rolls up his shirtsleeves, crossing his muscular wrists together.

Mrs. Houdini hands me the rope and whispers, “Tie a slipknot.” She winks a blue eyelid. So that’s their game.

Mutiny tingles in my fingers. Like hell, slipknot. I tie an anchor hitch that would secure a yacht in a typhoon.

Pulling the sack up over him, Mrs. Houdini leans to kiss him. My God, their mouths open and move like the French. His sensuous lips suck hers like she’s a juicy plum. My belly clenches. How long has it been since Jack kissed me like that?

Mrs. Houdini pulls the feed sack over her husband’s head and winks at me again. But I tie my strongest knot on the bag, a double bowline, tight and secure.

Bess Houdini’s chirp pierces my eardrums. “Now, ladies and gentlemen, we’ll place the Great Houdini in the steamer trunk for all intensive purposes and lock it up.”

We padlock the trunk and wrap it profusely with rope. Feeling smug now, I tie yet another sailing knot: double square knot this time. No way can this trickster get out.

Mrs. Houdini closes heavy velvet curtains in front of the trunk. She smiles at the audience, and her theatrical makeup cracks around her eyes; she’s no child herself. “Mrs. London, do you feel very certain the Great Houdini cannot excape your knots?”

Jack punches his fist in the air and calls out, “Her knots have secured sailing ships from here to Borneo!”

A pang riddles my gut. What if I truly bring down the Great Houdini? The kettle drum rumbles and spectators choose sides, placing bets, laughing nervously.

Mrs. Houdini lifts her arms over her head and claps her hands together three times, accentuated by a clash of cymbals that echoes through the cavernous theater. Spotlights crisscross the frescoed ceiling. The timpani stops abruptly and pandemonium ceases. The audience leans forward.

Spotlights swing to center stage, revealing the Great Houdini stepping through the velvet curtain, fists held high in triumph. The orchestra blares.

My every nerve ending is burning, screaming. No, no, no, no. It’s impossible.

The magic man takes my hand and holds it high, a current charging from his grasp down my arm. The audience explodes with enthusiasm. He smiles intimately at me as his confidant. But I feel betrayed. He’d said, “Trust me,” yet I haven’t an inkling what just happened.

“You’re a natural.” Houdini bows and bows to the relentless applause. When it finally dies down, he looks around the stage.

“Mrs. London, where is my dear wife?”

I turn to where Mrs. Houdini was standing, but she’s gone. “She was right here.”

He taps his index finger on his cheek. “Oh, Mrs. Houdini? Are you back here?” He draws open the velvet curtain, which reveals only the steamer trunk with all my knots intact. How is that possible when Houdini stands beside me?

“Mrs. London, can you untie your knots?”

My chest crackles with curiosity as my fingers struggle with the rope, every knot as secure as I tied it. The oboe plays a sinister tune, which twists my insides.

When all the knots are finally undone, Houdini opens the trunk. Inside, the burlap sack bumps and moves.

“What have we here?” Houdini cuts the bag open with a shining saber, which appears from nowhere.

Bess Houdini pops out, all five feet of her, hands tied behind her back. She cackles like a maniac, then curtsies to the stunned audience.

The orchestra strikes up a rousing number, and the audience cheers and whistles.

The Houdinis take my trembling hands, and we bow together. They step aside, presenting me. My cheeks grow hopelessly hot as I force myself to raise my eyes to the frenzied theater and let the applause wash over me.

The Crowd chants my name from the front row. But Jack scribbles in his ever-present notebook, oblivious to their revelry.

Oblivious to my moment in the spotlight.

Yet I’m gratified. I’ve given him a fresh topic to write about.

About the Author:

California native Rebecca Rosenberg lives on a lavender farm with her family in Sonoma, the Valley of the Moon, where she and her husband founded the largest lavender product company in America, Sonoma Lavender. A long-time student of Jack London’s work and an avid fan of his daring wife, Charmian, Rosenberg is a graduate of the Stanford Writing Certificate Program. The Secret Life of Mrs. London is her first novel, following her non-fiction Lavender Fields of America.

Rebecca Rosenberg’s next historical novel is Gold Digger, the story of Baby Doe Tabor. Find the author at her website and Facebook. The Secret Life of Mrs. London is available for purchase at AmazonAmazon UK and Amazon AU.

Blog Tour Schedule:

July 9th– Book ReviewKate Braithwaite

July 10th– Book ExcerptJust One More Chapter

July 11th-Book Spotlight and ExcerptBefore the Second Sleep

July 12th– Book ReviewBook Babble

July 13th– Book ReviewStrange & Random Happenstance

July 14th– Book SpotlightFictionophile

July 15th– Book SpotlightLayered Pages

July 16th– Book Spotlight & Book ReviewSvetabooks

July 17th– Book SpotlightA Bookish Affair

July 18th– Guest PostA Bookaholic Swede

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It has been a pleasure to co-ordinate with Novel Expressions Blog Tours

and I look forward to more great reading and recommendations!

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Book Review: Midshipman Graham and the Battle of Abukir

Midshipman Graham and the Battle of Abukir
by James Boschert

James Boschert possesses a genius for utilizing great yarns to draw readers into historical and other events and circumstances we previously knew little to nothing about. In this most recent Boschert read, Midshipman Graham and the Battle of Abukir, the author sets his titular character’s adventures within and shortly following the 1799 battle between Revolutionary France and the Ottoman Empire, along with their British allies.

Napoleon has designs on Egypt that stretch all the way to Constantinople and India, even after his catastrophic loss at the Siege of Acre not long before. Commodore Sir Sidney Smith lands his ships at Abukir, on Egypt’s northern coast, with the goal of further demoralizing and defeating French troops, though he underestimates their resolve as well as the Turkish commander’s leadership style, and the battle is every bit as dramatic and horrific as the novel’s cover image hints.

Midshipman Duncan Graham himself, though introduced early on, takes on a greater role only later in the story when the Scot finds himself trapped behind enemy lines. Having reflected on the events that led him not only to this moment, but also this era in his life and lack of money to buy his way to advancement, his path forward is tested sorely as he and a British spy attempt to make their way back to the sea and their squadron.

The point at which Graham finds himself in dire straits marks a turning, whereby Boschert transitions us from backstory and development to the meat of the tale. It takes on a somewhat lighter tone, which is brilliant given the battle we’d just witnessed, one with a grim outcome and lasting visual reminders. He balances Graham’s fears and abilities deftly, and does something similar with his circumstances, which are certainly frightful, but also at times comical.

Boschert has previously established his dexterity with word choice, and in Midshipman Grahamhe utilizes it to forge the continuity of the balance he addresses. For instance, his omnipotent storyteller doesn’t choose sides, commenting frankly on the skills and shortcomings of French, British and Turks alike. Moving into greater nuance, the author also pairs deadly settings with simply lovely descriptive passages, at times signaling the necessity but also fruitlessness of war. We happen upon a “velvety silence” within a city in which the rats are so bold that they take the time to “amble,” rather than, say, scurry, even in the presence of man and canine.

At other moments the natural surroundings personified even act as his enemy, such as when Graham continually blunders into “low bushes, which tried to trip him up or raked his face with their spiteful thorns.” The tall ruins of a cityscape “jutted up over the other buildings looking like rotten teeth.” Boschert has demonstrated the prowess of his word choice before, and we see these are more than merely pleasant-sounding or clever word combinations: they perform a function within his story that do more than set the stage as Graham walks amongst what they represent, how they grow him and the trajectory in which history moves.

To that end Boschert engages in a bit of historical foreshadowing as well, at least in terms familiar to us. A literal bloodbath, following the Battle of Abukir, prompts a British major to cry, “The water is like a sea of poppies all around; I have never seen the like!” When the same officer continues to express his dismay as he sips on wine, Boschert illustrates to us the dual capacity of forgetfulness as well as mental self-preservation.

While this particular battle is unfamiliar to many, especially those not especially schooled in the Napoleonic wars, Boschert remains true to his standard by skillfully engaging us in a narrative, and even when we think we know the outcome, the lead to that moment is the story. Moreover, with him creating a fictional character, rather than simply re-telling the story from a historical figure’s point of view, apart from escaping the multitude of such narrations, sets up the ability to embed commentary on Georgian society and the mores of the time, including character representation of countries within the British union and the changes each were undergoing.

We would add that the novel requires an additional proofreading to benefit its presentation, though as a tale it still is able to convey a marvelous sense of adventure, growth, compassion, daring and drive. Boschert writes that, “We may not be done with this young scamp as yet,” and given Duncan’s affability, enterprise and eagerness to cultivate who and what he is, we certainly hope we aren’t done, as we part ways with his character in a manner that speaks perhaps the most to the potential of what he has before him and the empire of which he is a part.

Bataille d’Aboukir, 25 Juillet 1799, by Louis-François Lejeune (1775-1848) (Collections du Château de Versailles) via Wikimedia Commons

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The author supplied a free copy of

Midshipman Graham and the Battle of Abukir

to facilitate an honest review. 

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Book Review: Blue Gemini

Blue Gemini
by Mike Jenne

Set during the height of the Cold War raging between its superpower players, the United States and the Soviet Union, Blue Gemini is a techno-thriller that takes readers through the early space age and behind the scenes in the rivalry many know today as the Space Race. Seen by both nations as key to national security, the quest for space dominance got its start with the Soviet Sputnik I, the first artificial satellite set into orbit, and continued with Yuri Gagarin’s journey in 1961, making the Russian cosmonaut the first human in outer space.

The road to 1969, when the Americans landed the first man on the moon, however, is paved with intrigue and action of the real-life variety, within which author Mike Jenne sets the tale of Lieutenant Scott Ourecky, a fictional USAF officer who dreams of flight school. He repeatedly falls short, but we do witness the beginnings of Ourecky’s romance with Bea, as a secret Air Force program simultaneously woos him into their mission of destroying suspect Soviet satellites. Recruited only as a fill-in, Ourecky attempts to keep his professional and private lives separate, until greater involvement and danger begins to merge his two worlds, and perhaps Bea’s as well.

One of the great draws to Blue Gemini is not only that many facets of the story are true, but also that the author reveals absolutely no classified information to achieve it. Jenne’s very striking author’s note stresses the “necessity and difficulties of keeping secrets that are larger than ourselves,” a challenge Ourecky faces as we, watching his saga unfold, can sense as we peer through time and space to witness a world we’ve only read about in school. Many readers will have personal recall of this time, still very much in living memory, and the mystique may very well have an even larger impact, given how much closer they were to it all.

Wherever readers are on the time continuum, Jenne’s style touches them as he shifts within several different perspectives, individual and group, American and Soviet, the latter achieved in a manner laid out in the narrative quite cleverly. As the novel progresses, Jenne slowly reveals layers of detail with an eye that misses nothing as it points out to us the unimaginable efforts it took to even conceive of such a program, let alone keep it up and running. While there are some technical bits here and there, it is gorgeously accessible with passages descriptive and intelligent, and ranging from “The room smelled of pine oil cleaner, cigarettes, and chalk dust” to

Henson enjoyed the sounds of nature awakening: swaying trees rustling in the wind, tree frogs chirping in the swamps, and birds rehearsing the opening notes of their morning songs[,]

and much in between and beyond. Jenne is also skilled at merging the institutional with a humanity that continuously illustrates the individuals behind the programs, while at the same time acknowledging their own very small role in the world they inhabit, a nod to the greatness of the space they are attempting to own.

The two men strolled out of the hangar as the C-130’s engines coughed to life. They walked along the grassy strip adjacent to a taxiway. By now, the sun had all but retired from the sky; the buildings and trees were bathed in the red-hued light of near dusk.

 His repertoire, however, is much larger than that, while also being notable for its almost humorous straightforward nature. “[D]o I have to remind you[,” an official asks one of the flight crew, who has just equated a romantic decision to living dangerously,] “that you’re travelling over seventeen thousand miles per hour in a flimsy metal can built by the lowest bidder?”

That, dear readers, is what we call a dose of reality, and we feel it in the indrawn breaths that accompany the uneasy chuckle. This is one of the many ways Jenne brings us closer to characters and the real-life figures some of them were inspired by.

Readers also meet up with other key players Ourecky comes into contact with, which hints at the nature of the novel as it becomes apparent it is a series story, a wise choice on Jenne’s part, as trimming away enough to contain it to one volume would lose too many events. As it turns out, the author doesn’t tie up all the loose ends in this installment, and readers will find themselves wanting to know more about the mysterious Matt Henson, for example. Resourceful, intelligent, down-to-earth, practical, funny and friendly, Henson is a character we don’t get enough of, though the novel packs so much story into itself we look forward to moving onto the sequel.

At times self-aware, Blue Gemini is part our history, part airman’s journey, blended with intense research and fascinating imagination that leaves readers pulling for Ourecky while also wondering where exactly the lines are blurred and eager to progress beyond just before the moon landing, where the book ends. Tantalizingly detailed without the weight of bogging down readers unfamiliar with space stories, this is a techno-thriller that grew this reader as did the tale itself.

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Spacefest is the event for space enthusiasts of any stripe, and author Mike Jenne will be there, signing books and appearing on a panel on space stations. Spacefest IX happens this week (July 5-8) in Tuscon, Arizona, and tickets are available at the door after midnight on July 2 (that’s tomorrow!). Click here for schedule and above links for more information about the event and what it entails.

The author provided a copy of Blue Gemini
in order to facilitate an honest review

Click here to see a series of amazing technical drawings!

 

Movies by the Minute: A Quiet Place

An ongoing series with rapid reviews about great movies

 See end of review for assessment:

A must see on the big screen,
Good show, but matinee would suffice OR
Watch movie, but wait for DVD

Get ready not for just another movie—A Quiet Place is an experience, and one you won’t soon forget. This has to do with the fright factor, of course: a family’s survival is threatened by alien invaders who hunt by tracking sound, requiring everyone to stay absolutely silent in everything they do. The film also underscores the consequences of removing important elements of communication from the familial equation. In the world of A Quiet Place the alien monsters generate the conditions under which the family must live, but one of the film’s strengths is how it explores the themes of family and communication as they exist in our own societies with and without dangerous outside perils. Moreover, it renders the necessity of post-film retreat to discuss and decompress.

Director John Krasinski, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Bryan Woods and Scott Beck, opens the film as the family are 89 days into their new existence and many people worldwide are, we come to presume, dead. There were enough survivors, however, at least initially, to keep newspapers and other outlets running, and father Lee Abbott (played by Krasinski) has been doing research, evidenced to audiences by notes on his “war room” whiteboard, headlines and other informational tidbits. In this way Krasinski not only tells the audience some of what we need to know, but also sets the level of dramatic irony, increasing later as significant details emerge. By this time, audiences have bonded considerably with the family, and we root for them as they face their unique concerns and pain, together and alone.

The characters have some experience in how to survive this post-invasion era, and we learn by bits and pieces some of the techniques they have adapted, such as sand paths for quieter walking to town, or painted patches on non-squeaky floorboards. These are especially important to the Abbotts’ teenage daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds), who happens to be deaf, an individual disadvantage, but one which also benefits the family as a whole because they can talk to each other more than most families, who lack knowledge of American Sign Language. Still, the Abbotts experience personality and perspective clashes like millions of others, and we witness them unable to reconcile their differences, one in particular that creates a terrible distance between two of the characters. The family’s stress and trauma are also compounded by the reality that the mother, Evelyn (Emily Blunt), is pregnant. Of everything babies do, of course, crying is most notable, and it will endanger all their lives.

Krasinski shows us how the Abbotts strategize and make their way through each day, revealing in the process each character’s nature, especially following a horrific experience at the movie’s opening. What also draws us to our bonding with film and family is how fluidly he does this, in the process tying elements together, simultaneously utilizing them to show us how situations function. There is a small amount of telling, though by necessity, and through dialogue, sparingly, when Lee explains to a frightened Marcus (Noah Jupe) that the river’s roar isn’t dangerous to them because it is a constant sort of sound, or at least something the aliens have grown used to. We, too, realize the sense in the understanding: there’d be ongoing mass, fruitless attacks on the river otherwise.

What is perhaps central to enjoyment of the film is, as mentioned, the sheer experience of it: the director brings audiences into it as we unconsciously quieten ourselves. Naturally the dark cinema brings us to a state of greater stillness, but A Quiet Place amplifies the silence, this itself a statement of the movie’s content, and we find ourselves devoted to how quiet we are, as if our candy packages rustling put us in peril, or popcorn chewing will draw danger. At one point someone in our cinema dropped a plastic cup in surprise, following an especially tense moment, and cried out at the sound of it hitting the floor. That was followed by a collective intake of breath and then nervous laughter at the audience’s self-awareness of its own investment into the story. This for a movie that has, actually, very little dialogue.

This brings us to a point in which Krasinski’s talent perhaps shines through the most. The story is very tightly written and there is only one tiny little detail we felt was extraneous (“due date” written on the calendar); apart from that nothing is wasted or without meaning. Everything reveals something about the family or aliens, or gives us insight into the story and how it is progressing, perhaps one of the finest examples of economy in film today. All these elements themselves are brought to bear on the idea of communication, the characters’ own investment in survival and hope, Evelyn’s loving nature, Lee’s methodical dedication to his family, and the children’s confusion and adaptability.

A Quiet Place may very well bring mise-en-scène out of its abode as a “grand, undefined term,” given its intensely, sensitively artful utilization throughout the film. Soft knit Monopoly game pieces and rolling of dice on a blanket instead of the board spread on it; the camera movement within a frame showing Marcus only from the eyes up (and how expressive those eyes are!); composition in the very next shot showing Regan rising up into the frame from a sitting position; the authentic expression of confusion, fear and curiosity on Regan’s face and the choreography of her head turning to see an alien right behind her—all of these and more are so beautifully achieved, and merged so masterfully with the technical perfection of the script, that it is difficult even for casual movie-goers to miss.

The visuals and non-dialogue sounds play into the storyteller role as well, which is true in most movies, though here Krasinski—as if the rest discussed above weren’t enough to prove his genius—takes it to another level. For example the director, also very aware of the value of “less is more,” crafts one scene portraying Lee standing at a higher point as he witnesses the alien run through the corn field. We see and hear only the rapid rustling of corn stalks creating a pathway through the area, but we know very well what it is. Another incredibly tense scene shows a human and monster within sight of one another, though neither realizes it, an especially well-constructed scene for its dramatic irony, prior setup, utilization of strength and weakness, and crucial angle that we are only learning about within that scene. There is another moment: simultaneously icky and terrible, we squirm in our seats, perhaps even draw our feet up off the ground as the scene progresses, both for the potential multiple disasters that could occur as well as the steps needed to prevent them. Krasinski channels Hitchcock, the master of suspense, when he puts into practice the legendary director’s principle that “there is no terror in the bang, only in the anticipation of it.” Others have done anticipation; this up-and-coming director utilizes it better and more creatively than we have seen in years.

While Krasinski does utilize a jump scare here and there, it is refreshing to see he doesn’t rely on the technique, instead keeping suspense real and open ended, and the audience focused on larger matters, such as narrative continuity, individual relationships and how each one affects the others. He also completely bypasses need for any given character doing something stupid in order to keep the story going. It has to be said: this review makes no pretense at being an exhaustive one. There is simply way too much greatness within A Quiet Place, from the writing, directing, the extremely talented cast and all around execution, for it to be a typical creature feature. Krasinski shows his understanding of the fine line between horror and thriller, and presents us with a story he himself describes as “a love letter to my kids.” It is a tale worth telling, not merely for its entertainment value, although there is that. It prompts in us a desire to communicate the meaningful, a follow-up response to one of the themes of the movie itself, as its thought-provoking messages—and what those might be—continue the conversation for a long time to come.

We cannot recommend A Quiet Place highly enough. Watch it at the cinema if you can get there before it stops showing, as this movie is a major reason people say there’s nothing like the big screen. Once you have, don’t be shy about purchasing the Blu Ray, because this is a film that not only bears but also wants watching repeatedly. Simply said A Quiet Place is too well-crafted to watch only once.

Assessment: A must-see on the big screen

(Also a must-own Blu Ray)

Click the title to see our previous

“Movies by the Minute” review for Molly’s Game

Book Review: Britannia’s Gamble

Britannia’s Gamble
The Dawlish Chronicles: March 1884—February 1885
by Antoine Vanner

A Discovered Diamond Review and Book of the Month

Following my previous read of Britannia’s Spartan, Nicholas Darwish returns in Antoine Vanner’s Britannia’s Gamble, sixth in his series chronicling the life and adventures of the Victorian era Royal Navy officer. This time we see him recruited for a mission placing him within grasp of a savage Islamist revolt across the Sudan, his key objective being to reach and rescue General Charles Gordon, who maintains a weakening defensive position within the lone holdout, the city of Khartoum. Plagued by one catastrophe after another, time runs short as Dawlish contemplates and questions his own motives and role in the operation, and their position becomes ever more desperate.

My “discovery” of Antoine Vanner’s novels came quite by chance in that I’d won a copy of Britannia’s Spartan in a contest, and it set me happily back onto the course of nautical adventures. I found Dawlish to be a likeable character who poses authentic questions of ethics and morality to himself and, while he has high expectations of others, is no less demanding of his own conduct. In the pages of Gamble, too, he is courageous, though not without fear.

The felucca edged across, the oars still, now only the current carrying it forward in absolute silence. Dawlish crouched like Shand and the Sussexes in cramped discomfort. He tugged at the lanyard of his holstered pistol—an action that was by now an unconscious habit—and pushed the safety catch forward on his Winchester. The same fear was on him now as he had first experienced as a mud-plastered boy in a ditch in China and he prayed that, as then, it would not master him. Each man around him would be feeling no less. Courage was conquest of fear, not its absence.

 One of the best elements of Vanner’s tales is that they take readers to locales many of us don’t know much about, or recognize in a broader view or modern context. As we progress through the story, the author utilizes documented historical figures or actions—such as Gordon or the Siege of Khartoum—within his plot, its population increasing with fictional characters whose roles are so smoothly matched with history we sometimes think we might look them up to discern who is real and not. All the while their experiences tell us even more of the place at this time: its geography, conditions, influence, challenges, allies and workable military strategy.

I also thoroughly enjoy the manner in which Vanner truly takes readers on board his vessels, immersing us in the naval and shipboard terminology without drowning our senses—a perfect combination of trusting readers without making unreasonable demands on their previous knowledge. Feeling a part of the crew, readers rejoice in their victories and feel their hearts sink when things go wrong.

In Britannia’s Gamble, there are plenty of things that can go south, and they do. Vanner’s expertise in storytelling is such that we follow his narrative and sometimes recognize on oncoming crisis, pulling in our breath along with his characters, in whose journey and mission we have invested. Maps are sprinkled through the novel, so we get a sense and better idea of where the group is as they travel overland or upriver, with even more suspense at such moments as when we know we are close to Khartoum, or dangerous passages, when that internal uh oh occurs.

Another great characteristic of the author’s presentation is that he makes plenty of room for readers to bond with characters apart from Dawlish. He most definitely maintains the spotlight, but true to his character, he gladly gives due recognition. A talented and accomplished naval officer, Dawlish also cares about the dignity of humanity, and this stirs childhood and professional memories as well as gnaws at his ideas of the future, particularly following one incident that will undoubtedly alter the course of his life, and even the nature of his concern for others.

Dawlish himself contemplates his own perspectives by way of his journal, an activity that sets up the possibility that the chronicles are drawn from the diaries as the captain looks back upon his life. We see his immediate musings, which of course reflect upon the kind of person he is. “Night fell, not darkness absolute, but the same vast unfeeling dome of stars that had mocked the pettiness of their aspirations ever since Kurgel.” He often thinks of his wife, Florence, back home, perhaps dreading her response to something he’s done, or feels delight in her presence in his life. The variety and breadth of his meditations even develop the character of the absent Florence, additionally bringing to the novel a female influence other than that of the standard lovable prostitute or sought-after heiress.

These and other angles are what tend to make Dawlish himself more fully developed than many other nautical or historical fiction characters, and Vanner placing him in the various locales, following plotlines drawn from history with plenty of his own life events depicted within, are surely what bring us back time and again. Of course, so far I’ve only read two of The Dawlish Chronicles, but the officer hasn’t seen the last of me, nor I of him.

A smooth and addicting read, Britannia’s Gamble is fully capable as a standalone or installment in a series one simply cannot get enough of. Realistic action scenes—in which victory is not always assured—and a well-developed plot combine with the strength of the author’s imagination and impressive research to bring a story of great quality and years of re-visitation and the seeking of Dawlish in other volumes in which we will follow him time and again around the world.

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Learn more about and follow Antoine Vanner and his work at his fascinating website, The Dawlish Chronicles, including more about Britannia’s Amazon, also a Discovered Diamond, with Florence Dawlish as protagonist and narrated from a female point of view. Additionally, subscribers to Vanner’s mailing list at intervals receive free short stories that fill in some gaps in Darwish’s life not covered in the novels.

The author provided the blogger with a copy of
Britannia’s Gamble in order to facilitate an honest review.

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This review previously appeared at The Review

 

Book Review: Shopaholic Takes Manhattan

Shopaholic Takes Manhattan
(aka Shopaholic Abroad)
by Sophie Kinsella

About the book: With her shopping excesses (somewhat) in check and her career as a TV financial guru thriving, Becky Bloomwood’s biggest problem seems to be tearing her entrepreneur boyfriend, Luke, away from work for a romantic country weekend. That is, until Luke announces he’s moving to New York for business—and he asks Becky to go with him! Before you can say “Prada sample sale,” Becky has landed in the Big Apple, home of Park Avenue penthouses and luxury department stores.
 
Surely it’s only a matter of time until Becky becomes an American celebrity. She and Luke will be the toast of Gotham society. Nothing can stand in their way, especially with Becky’s bills an ocean away in London. But then an unexpected disaster threatens her career prospects, her relationship with Luke, and her available credit line. Becky may have taken Manhattan—but will she have to return it?

I’m currently binging Shopaholic books, which extends to anything by author Sophie Kinsella—and to be honest intended just to read and enjoy Shopaholic Takes Manhattan, not write any review. Part of Kinsella’s brilliance, however, is that her creation Becky Bloomwood’s world makes you want  to write about the book, telling everybody who will listen what a fun and smashing story it is.

I’d actually also read this second in Kinsella’s Shopaholic series yonks ago and indeed remembered some of the scenes, such as when Bloomwood, the financial journalist, confesses to us readers that she has a bit of an overdraft. I also recall thinking way back when how funny yet poignant—plus addicting—these books are, each one truly a new creation.

The author also has a gift for observing and reporting on human nature—we recognize ourselves in Bloomwood’s excesses, which include not only shopping but also her loveable and occasionally infuriating insecurity, or desire to help others achieve their goals without accurate measure of impracticality. Her dreams are as large as her heart, even if she at times fails to identify the impact she has on others—becoming a shop assistant, for example, and hiding clothes from customers in her on-the-clock shopping quest, even when the situation’s absurdity is evident to all but herself.

But Becky’s at-times inability to single out what she could be saying or reporting to others in a jam, while it can also transform itself into something much larger than it really is, might just have an upside…maybe?

Opening with a return letter from Becky’s bank manager, Kinsella offers us a taste of her protagonist’s personality and foibles:

It is true that we have known each other a long time, and I am pleased that you consider me “more than just a bank manager.” I agree that friendship is important and was glad to hear that you would always lend me money should I need it.

 However, I cannot reciprocate, as you suggest, by wiping £1,000 off your overdraft “accidentally on purpose.” I can assure you, the money would be missed.

 Instead, I am prepared to extend your overdraft limit by another £500, taking it up to £4,000, and suggest that we meet before too long to discuss your ongoing financial needs.

In this way Kinsella introduces Becky’s unselfconscious nature with perfect balance, continually utilizing letters, conversations, character introspection, budgets, situations and more: we as readers recognize her circumstances for what they are while she doesn’t, though the author never overplays her hand. Sure, Becky always has some reason why her casually over-the-top spending is justified—”it’s an investment, really”—but we want to keep reading, as exasperated as we may become with her behavior.

Along the way Becky articulates herself in a manner that resonates, such as by admitting to “a slight dentisty feeling of dread” on the morning of her appointment with important American television reps. Kinsella continues to build Becky’s world and its opportunities without relying on repetition, and as the book progresses we begin to realize she’s tossed in a bit of mystery amidst the already grand humiliation Becky experiences when her world not only is shattered, but done so as well with what seems like the entire world focused on her alone.


“Bex, why did he think you were in the artificial limb unit?”

“I don’t know,” I say evasively. “Maybe he heard something. Or … I may possibly have written him the odd letter…”

“Bex,” interrupts Suze, and her voice is quivering slightly. “You told me you’d taken care of all those bills. You promised!”

“I have taken care of them!” I reach for my hairbrush and begin to brush my hair.

“By telling them your parachute didn’t open in time?” cries Suze. “I mean, honestly, Bex—”

“Look, don’t stress. I’ll sort it all out as soon as I come home.”


Like its predecessor, Confessions of a Shopaholic, Shopaholic Takes Manhattan is told from Becky’s point of view—the only way, really—and in present tense. I mention this because this can be a tricky way to story tell, and many readers are turned off by or completely avoid it. Kinsella, however, is a master of fluidity, with authentic language, perceptions, mannerisms, character observations and descents into the wrong directions, and her narrative transitions from place to place and time to time so naturally it’s next to impossible to put down. Shopaholic Takes Manhattan doesn’t just flow and neither does it merely grip audiences to its tale as they observe Becky’s efforts to reconcile her own mismanagement. With a whole series ahead, readers will want to explore every one of its installments—and its re-readability factor is an easy sale!

Don’t miss my review for Sophie Kinsella’s Can You Keep a Secret?

Book Review: The Freedman (Tales From a Revolution: North-Carolina) (Brand Spanking New Release)

The Freedman (Tales from a Revolution: North-Carolina)
by Lars D.H. Hedbor

Release Date: May 31, 2018

Mark your calendars! Book signing with Lars Hedbor:
June 9, 2018 at Jan’s Paperbacks!

Author Lars D.H. Hedbor has asked himself countless times, “What made the American colonists turn their backs on their king and fight for independence? How were they different from us–and how were their hopes and fears familiar to our own hearts?” Naturally there is no single answer, though he probes history in his series, Tales From a Revolution, searching for the ones that are perhaps most identifiable, common, relatable, recognizable—answers that come from the lives of ordinary people and not just as historically and intellectually written out in the annals of our time as a colony and a nation.

Tales From a Revolution moves through and settles within various regions during an assortment of periods, observing individuals and families as their lives play out within the ebb and flow of fortunes, history, and revolution. In his latest installment, The Freedman, Hedbor takes us to North Carolina, where the slave Calabar is suddenly granted liberty after years of toiling on his late master’s indigo plantation. The man’s son and heir, indifferent to this particular product, turns Calabar off his land, and the formerly bonded man unexpectedly faces the question of what to do with his own freedom.

Grieving at the sudden separation from his wife and baby girl and plunged into a society that struggles within its own bonds, Calabar endeavors to find a balance within the surprising variety of responses to his appearance amongst the townspeople—and his to them. As he repels enemies close to home and a new one appears when revolution draws nearer, the freedman takes steps and makes decisions to determine his own life and the paths he will walk. While his hopes and fears are both recognizable and foreign to those around him, Calabar’s choices will play into the rise or fall of a nation in the making.

With The Freedman, Hedbor not only continues his pattern of producing a quality tale, but also demonstrates his wide imagination with the plots and people he brings to life. Calabar is not the first character to appear outside the bounds of ordinary colonist, but does strike a unique note in the author writing from the point of view of a former slave. It is a daring choice, and Hedbor gives us a win: Calabar is unfamiliar with the ways of the larger society he has until now regarded as a free one, and his intelligence is not naturally paired to its patterns. However, his determination and willingness to admit to himself he doesn’t know something, aid him in making his way, and he begins to understand on a deeper level how alike and different he and the others are, often in ways they do not. Through Calabar’s eyes, we perform a study of our hearts and his, further bringing to bear on our understanding of our own history the questions Hedbor initially asked himself about our ancestors.

This chapter in the Tales is perhaps one of the most subtle Hedbor has yet produced. Woven through the narrative as deeply as Calabar’s indigo on material are passages that often speak to more in the larger picture.

The captain’s face registered a moment of surprise, and then he turned his full attention to Calabar. Under the man’s piercing gaze, Calabar felt as though he were laid bare in both body and soul, the captain’s eyes a physical force as they roved over his face and limbs. He felt acutely self-conscious of the contrast between the rough clothing he still wore while they awaited the tailor’s work, and the hat perched on his head like a shield against the judgement of the world.

 In this, one of Calabar’s transitional moments between his old life and new, we see more than the freeman’s assessment of a former slave: it is a microcosm of the colony itself as it determines its path and the people’s own preparation for it. In this manner the colony is silent partner to Calabar’s more open statement of who he is becoming as both take stock of themselves, both still imprisoned by the measurement of others, both echoing the words once spoken by Calabar’s Affey: “Our hearts are still our own.”

It is nothing short of magnificent that Hedbor writes these characters, with their fantastically diverse backgrounds, as convincingly as he does. It should be noted that the author also distinguishes Calabar’s speech in two ways: one to portray a good faith representation of the English he would have spoken, having begun to speak it at about age ten. Within that, he distinguishes the freedman’s speech between insider and outsider listeners, and the aim is precise, for we “hear” Calabar with the likely accent without it making a negative statement about his intelligence.

While perhaps also one of Hedbor’s most sentimental novels in content, The Freedman avoids falling into the maudlin in practice. It can be both difficult and harrowing to engage in introspection, to recognize how others see us, even if some of those judgements view ways not entirely of our making. The story’s plot in itself conveys that realization, while the author’s dialogue, narrative, imagery and representations carry it out, with a raw sort of beauty whose naked utility leads us all the way to present day. As we look back upon the lovely picked up along the way, sprouting from the hearts of those with hopes and fears, those we know and that we don’t, we begin to recognize why they did it, what they knew of their hearts and ours, despite the differences of circumstance and centuries.

Highly recommended for anyone familiar or not with Hedbor’s previous work, The Freedman is a more than worthy successor with much more to say each time we revisit.

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To see information on each book, click here.

You may also wish to have a peek at my previous reviews for
Tales From a Revolution—

The Prize (Tales From a Revolution: Vermont)

The Light (Tales From a Revolution: New-Jersey)

The Smoke (Tales From a Revolution: New York)

The Break (Tales From a Revolution: Nova-Scotia) 

The Wind (Tales From a Revolution: West-Florida)

The Darkness (Tales From a Revolution: Maine)

The Path (Tales From a Revolution: Rhode-Island)

Get your free e-copy of The Declaration!

About the author ….

What made the American Colonists turn their back on their King, and fight for independence? How were they different from us–and how were their hopes and fears familiar to our own hearts?

These are the sorts of questions that I think are important to ask in examining the American Revolution, and in the pages of my novels, I suggest some possible answers.

My first novel, The Prize, was published in 2011, followed by The Light in 2013, and The Smoke, The Declaration, and The Break in 2014; The Wind was published in 2015, and The Darkness in 2016.

I’ve also written extensively about this era for the Journal of the American Revolution, and have appeared as a featured guest on an Emmy-nominated Discovery Network program, The American Revolution, which premiered nationally on the American Heroes Channel in late 2014. I am also a series expert on America: Fact vs. Fiction for Discovery Networks, and was a panelist at the Historical Novel Society’s 2017 North American Conference.

I am an amateur historian, linguist, brewer, fiddler, astronomer and baker. Professionally, I am a technologist, marketer, writer and father. My love of history drives me to share the excitement of understanding the events of long ago, and how those events touch us still today.

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You can follow and learn more about Lars D.H. Hedbor and his books at his website and blog, Twitter and Facebook. The Freedman may be purchased in paperback* (signed copies available upon request), at Kindle, Nook, iBooks, or Kobo.(Paperbacks also available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble links.)

*soon to be added

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Author photo courtesy Lars D.H. Hedbor

The blogger received an advance reader copy of
The Freedman to facilitate an honest review

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Book Review: Four Nails

Four Nails by G.J. Berger

Four Nails is a recipient of the San Diego Book Award for Best Published Historical Fiction (2016-2017) and an indieBRAG Medallion Honoree.

From its striking cover to opening passages beckoning readers into the camp of an elephant trainer in ancient India and the paths that lead him to the battles of the Second Punic War, Four Nails entices readers to an age commonly identified by one name – Hannibal Barca–though nearly as often shrouded in mystery. Author G.J. Berger lifts the veil a bit, bringing us closer to events of the era and the “[e]veryday ordinary people made to survive, to endure, to nurture their children, and love those close to them in times of great hardship[.]” Relating the tale of one man’s odyssey, the storyteller opens to readers a world many of us have had precious little opportunity to explore.

As this prequel to Berger’s first novel, South of Burnt Rocks West of the Moon, opens in 227 B.C., we meet Ashoka and his family’s elephant camp from which he is sold into slavery by his desperate father. After long and weary travel, he is tasked with training elephants for war, then sold into Hannibal’s service, where he once again meets up with Four Nails, the elephant he’d previously forged a special bond with.

As Hannibal leads his army through the Alps in his aim to reach and defeat Rome, Ashoka pours his entire existence into the care and consideration of his team, as his memories and other experiences also provide us with glimpses into his love for another and determination to speak truth, even to a power that could easily crush him. We come to understand his view of the differences and similarities between the two armies he has experienced as Ashoka endeavors to survive this war he never asked to serve in and make his way back to India. Simultaneously a love story unwinds, serving to contrast the ravaging of the Italian peninsula and showcasing acts of bravery that won’t make it to the history books.

Having previously experienced this author’s narrative style in the course of another telling of war and defense of one’s personal interests, I was looking forward to Four Nails, especially given the amazing exploits of a military commander bringing an army and trained elephants across a mountain range stretching through the territories of hostile weather, tribes, natural conditions and even one’s own turmoil and conflicts with confederates. Result: lush, descriptive passages and protagonist’s voice not only does not disappoint; it gripped me from start to finish.

A marble bust, reputedly of Hannibal, originally found at the ancient city-state of Capua in Italy, by © 1932 by Phaidon Verlag (Wien-Leipzig) (“Römische Geschichte”, gekürzte Ausgabe (1932)), via Wikimedia Commons

Before reading any of Berger’s works, I was aware of only very basic information about Hannibal, Carthage or the era, and was impressed to find that historical information I researched matched the true events played out in Four Nails. Once engrossed in the tale, it was easy to be drawn in and mesmerized by the author’s ability to wind together several layers and even stories, threads from one Indian boy’s life that meet with those of others, how they inform and affect one another and the places—geographical as well as emotional—to where they lead.

It would seem that in a story of this scope, the narrative details can’t be rushed, and Berger understands this well. Ashoka’s experiences unwind at a pace natural to events and its flow allows Ashoka, and not the war, to be the center. In this manner the novelist doesn’t allow his story to fall into the trap of mere rehashing or history lesson. He does a magnificent job of portraying ancient Indian and Carthaginian cultures: their habits, elements, sensibilities, ethics, worship and more. Immersed in the story as readers become, the characters do not seem so distant as the dates might insinuate. Living, breathing people with affections and fears populate this time and this tale, and the author lets them expand. We truly do get to see them in their moments of great hardship and what they do to endure and to love.

It is some time before we are given to recognize the significance of the beloved elephant’s name; once we reach this point, Berger gifts us with an even larger understanding of Ashoka’s character, which renews the continued reality of the world he holds dear, no matter where fate places him. We urge him on, even as the boy seems to resist our persuasions to make an escape in a way that makes sense to us; he will do it on his own terms. The author’s ability to portray an authentic voice for each of the larger characters is brilliant, and we can feel the angry power, modest timidity, quiet determination, for example, as distinct personalities hold their own.

Hannibal´s route of invasion given by the Department of History, United States Military Academy. There is a mistake in the scale. By Frank Martini, Cartographer, Department of History, United States Military Academy, via Wikimedia Commons

Four Nails speaks to friendship, loyalty, truth and heroism in a time of destruction, cruel conquest and shifting of powers, when all has been lost and the impending new order wants to extract yet more. Insightfully probing into the recesses of history, the author captures the voices of those seemingly lost to their time and those that follow. This is historical fiction that causes us to us reconsider all our previous notions about Carthaginian civilization—and ours.

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Thank you so much to G.J. Berger, who so kindly gifted me a copy of Four Nails with no expectation of a review. I am honored as well as humbled to promote this poignant and fascinating tale, a study and a story that I highly recommend. You can purchase Four Nails at Amazon or Amazon UK. It is the prequel to award-winning South of Burnt Rocks West of the Moon (reviewed here), which can also be purchased at Amazon or Amazon UK

Learn more about G.J. Berger at his website, and
check out my interview with this fantastic writer.

South of Burnt Rocks West of the Moon is also a two-time award winner: This marvelous read has taken home prizes from indieBRAG as well as the San Diego Book Awards.
G.J. Berger has been featured in the San Diego Reader‘s Writers to Watch series and The Huffington Post has called Four Nails a Pack Your Suitcase Read. Definitely an author to keep your eye out for, as we’re sure there will be much more to come!

Book Review: Can You Keep a Secret?

Can You Keep a Secret?
by Sophie Kinsella

Well, can you? OK, here’s my confession: I read chick lit. Sure, it’s considered “fluffy” by some, unthinking, shallow, blah blah blah. I’ve heard it all and—wait, rewind! No, no, I’m not going to say I don’t read in this genre. The reality is that it’s not a secret!

Here’s what many people don’t really know about me (this is not a secret, either): finishing a great book is an accomplishment. I don’t carry on for days about it, or often bring it up, but once I close the back cover, there’s a positive sensation of completion as I think back about the world I’ve just inhabited for a while. I feel like I’ve achieved an understanding, perhaps a valuable observation that takes weight off my mind, rather than adds to everything else I have to carry in there.

As I finished Sophie Kinsella’s Can You Keep a Secret? I was still smiling, thinking about how funny we humans can be, and Kinsella’s skill at tapping into that. There’s the klutzy heroine with her ditzy moments, hunky male, challenging (read: mean) colleagues and sticky situations. But we also see Emma Corrigan’s humanity shine through as her embarrassment peaks, her explanations stumble and she goes home utterly humiliated. Also visible are her intelligence and justified resentment, the determined dignity she insists upon when others’ actions—intended or not—threaten to strip it from her. Within all that, we also see ourselves.

The novel opens to Emma’s daydreaming about her secrets during a Glasgow business meeting she’s flown from London to attend—attendance she’d achieved through a mixture of persuasion and dumb luck—and its grand and devastating conclusion as she inadvertently sprays a Panther Cola spinoff drink all over the client representative her marketing firm has just lost. On the way home her devastation is paired with abject terror as the plane encounters some clear-air turbulence, resulting in minor injuries to some passengers. Already not a fan of flying, she begins to spill all her secrets to an American sitting nearby, who later turns out to be the elusive CEO of the company she works for, Panther Corporation. As her two worlds begin to collide hilarity ensues, as does some serious reckoning.

About midway through the novel I realized Emma was telling her story in present tense, which I don’t have any hard and fast rule against, as do some; my surprise came from the length of time it took to recognize. About a month or two ago I read a work of historical fiction whose clunky present tense contributed to slowdown of an otherwise well-woven tale. Here, however, I found myself practically speeding through the pages as I could barely wait to find out what would happen next.

Kinsella’s main characters are well developed—with the exception of the handsome stranger and one of Emma’s flatmates, both for very distinctive reasons—and there’s a poignancy within that adds rather than takes away from the plot because the author’s management style knows not only when to restrain an angle or move it into another direction. She also captures nuance with some exclamation point usage that indicates Emma’s own self-awareness, and enough introspection that keeps her persona authentic.

Anyone who has ever experienced any of this author’s other novels will recognize a formula, but what is discussed above is only part of what makes it work—and Kinsella engages that magic repeatedly. She knows how to create charming characters whose actions are believable and relatable, never recycling phrases or mishaps, and brings us back to her themes with subtly and brilliantly woven scenarios.

Though the book is fourteen years old, the angles of aiming for honesty and genuine communication, along with a repeat evaluation of how often any of us fall into a mob-mentality of mean-spirited piling on remain timely— perhaps more so than ever. The author also presents them without lecturing and really gets it right with hilarious blow ups and serious letdowns alike. Her characters are likeable (well, except that horrible Jemima!) and it’s a fun, relaxing and rewarding yarn, and not just as a break in between serious reading. Kinsella scores again with Can You Keep a Secret? and when it comes to great tales, this is one readers should most definitely not keep close to the vest.

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Also recently read and recommend by Sophie Kinsella: My Not So Perfect Life