31 May 2013

'Choices of the Heart' By Laurie Alice Eakes

Choices of the Heart- The Midwives Book 3
  Revell, January 2013
384 Pages

Choices of the Heart was another first with a new author for me. Once again, I read this title the third in a trilogy without having read the other two. Perhaps I really ought to start reading series at the beginning as intended!

The story itself was good enough, with a fairly original concept and some interesting characters. It was not hard to sympathize with poor Esther, whose sweet and honest nature made it seemed really unlikely that she could have done anything that bad, yet was effectively driven out of her hometown by the hatred of neighbours. The device of the feuding families also added tension and danger .

Esther, though hurting and in many ways still afraid was a strong and bold enough character, as were the two male leads Zach and Griff, both of whom were manly men with a soft side who seemed to genuinely care for the city girl thrown into their midst.
Some of the minor characters were also likeable for their unique characteristics or personalities, like Zach’s sister, with her desire to like the well-bred uptown ladies, and the mischievous younger children. The elements of faith, and meaningful messages also seemed to be woven well into the story, with some passages that really spoke to me. Some of the descriptions of Medical practices and herbal or ‘folk’ remedies were  interesting.

Yet Choices of the Heart is not a story I would list among my favourites. It was pleasant and enjoyable but probably not a book I liked enough to want to keep and read over and over. Like another book I read this year, it seems to be that this novel it about standard fare for this genre. There were some elements that could make it stand out, like the heroine being a member of a profession that doesn’t seem to get much coverage.
Yet it also seemed to be something of a (if readers can forgive the term) ‘fluffy’ romance. The hurting protagonist having to overcome their personal demons, emotional angst and painful past or risk losing the opportunity to embrace true love is a formula that may have been used before.

Really also, Esther’s behaviour did at times seem a little inconsistent, with her being afraid of getting close to any man one minute, then letting him kiss her the next.
Some things seemed a little too quick and easy, such as Esther’s overcoming of her religious doubts. As I recall in one place she was convinced God had abandoned her entirely, then not long afterwards realizing this was not the case and getting reconciled with Griff.
A little bit of a too easily and quickly wrapped up resolution perhaps, after all the tension and high emotion? This tension itself could be argued to be a little too dependent on overly dramatic events, with one stabbing and one shooting, a fight, an assault and a fire in about 100 pages.

Also, though I understand the importance of forgiveness to the story, it did seem perhaps a little implausible that some of the characters were a little so willing to love and forgive and forgive another character because she was ‘kin’ considering how her actions resulted in so much heartache, pain and death.

Overall Choices of the Heart was a good read, but it is still not a period setting that I find myself too enamoured by, and the story did always seem to really stand out from a lot of others in the genre.

I received a copy of this book free from the publisher on request for review. All opinions expressed in it are my own.

25 May 2013

'The Tainted Coin' by Melvin Starr

The Tainted Coin: Chronicles of Hugh de Singleton  Book 5
Monarch Books (UK), Kregel Publishers (USA)
 2012  240 Pages
"It is the autumn of 1367. Master Hugh is enjoying the peaceful life of Bampton, when a badly beaten man is found under the porch of St. Andrew's Chapel. The dying man is a chapman -- a traveling merchant.
Before he is buried in the chapel grounds an ancient, corroded coin is found in the man's mouth. Master Hugh's quest for the chapman's assailants, and his search for the origin of the coin, makes steady progress – but there are men of wealth and power who wish to halt his search, and an old nemesis, Sir Simon Trillowe, is in league with them. But Master Hugh, and his assistant, the groom Arthur, are determined to uncover the thieves and murderers, and the source of the chapman's coin.
They do, but not before they become involved with a kidnapped maiden, a tyrannical abbot, and a suffering monk – who needs Master Hugh's surgical skills and in return provides clues which assist Hugh in solving the mystery of the tainted coin."

The Tainted Coin is the fifth and latest book in the series so far (the next due out in September). My opinion of this book was somewhat mixed. 
The initial mystery was fascinating and unusual regarding a hidden horde of Roman treasure uncovered by a poor merchant. I’m a historian rather than an archaeologist, but hordes of historical treasure are something I like! The unfortunate merchant was murdered to but would not reveal the location of his hidden treasure, and as Hugh investigates the trial seems to point to his inexorable foe, Sir Simon Trillowe and a band of squires. 
Trouble as usual ensues and the mystery involves a moral dilemma which threatens to cost Hugh dear. 

On the positive side, there were more colourful characters, interesting medical procedures and tidbits of information which may help to challenge widely held notions about medieval people having been small and weak and The Tainted Coin was another good, clean and cozy mystery with some exploration of moral or ethical themes. It was also pleasing to see some of the characters I like return again, and come into their own like Arthur the Groom, with his beefy physical strength proving a valuable asset for Hugh, and Hugh as the family man with his little daughter. 

It was enjoyable, and I will certainly want to read the next book in the series Rest Not in Peace when it comes out, but this particular installment just wasn’t one of my favourites. 
The novel had a couple of weakness in common with some of the others, the main being that some elements of the story seem be getting repetitive and a little predicable. In the process of detection Hugh seems to encounter some very similar situations over and over again, and his manner of dealing with some challenges can be questionable. 

Why he cannot use his authority as sheriff to prevent roguish knights from abusing people, or performing illegal acts rather than going in with his (proverbial rather than literal) guns blazing and getting hurt or into trouble in the process is an open question. 
And Hugh just does seem to keep getting into scrapes so much so that the formula is perhaps getting a little bit worn and perhaps a little implausible. 

Overall a good read, but not the best in the series in my opinion. It does have an unusual twist at the end, and I hope the stories will continue to develop and not become overly formulaic. The next novel does look promising so hopefully there may be some improvement.

17 May 2013

'Fortress of Mist' by Sigmund Brouwer

 Fortress of Mist: Merlin's Immortals 2
Waterbrook Multnomah, February 2013

Following Thomas' conquest of Magnus, the young ruler must now lead his people into a new era - one which is sure to reveal dark forces at work behind the evil undercurrent that controlled Thomas' kingdom for so long. 
Who will stand with Thomas to fight against the mysterious Druids? After being abandoned by Sir William, of his remaining "adopted family," who can he trust? Can he trust either Katherine or Isabelle with his secrets-or his heart?

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - 
This is my first review of a book from Waterbrook Multmonah, so thanks to them for giving me a free copy. 

To start with the positives Fortress of Mist did seem to be well-written and engaging. For a work of YA fiction the style did not seem amateurish or over-simplistic, and with some great use of description and language (and a beautiful cover!) The concept and storyline seemed original, and there were some well-drawn and interesting characters. Thomas of course the hero I liked, but also to some extent his shady comrade the Earl of York. For a children’s book it handled some of the subject matter, such as the power politics quite well, in a way that younger readers could understand.
Not all of the characters seemed well developed however; some were perhaps a little one -dimensional or simplistic. Some of the plot devices too seemed a little over-used or predicable. Lots of special potions slipped into food over and over again, or characters disguising themselves as older people.
However I had a couple of major issues with this book. 

I have not read the first book, and so don’t know much about the back story but it combines a real historical setting with various fantastical elements such as druids, and a group of supposedly immortal human beings who seem to be followers of Merlin. I know druids really existed- but not in 14th century England as they were all wiped out by the Romans in the 1st century (who did not try to convert them as the novel claims). 

Both seem to be possessed of supernatural powers of some description (or at least are clever at making people think they are). One of the ‘good’ immortals is described as going into a trance-like state to gain knowledge. The resemblance of this to certain practices in the occult should not, I think, be overlooked.

Another was that it contained a lot of misconceptions about the medieval period, such as the claim that most people were illiterate, and associated science with magic. As a student of Medieval History, these irked me, not least because they are just plain wring (at least for the specific setting of 14th century England anyway), but also because of the way that Medieval people were depicted as superstitious fools supposedly almost entirely ignorant of science, medicine, and even military strategy.

Thomas for instance derives most of his strategic (as well as scientific and practical) knowledge from his secret books of ancient ‘wisdom’ because supposedly his Medieval English fellows were so ignorant and narrow minded that they hardly knew anything. I felt that the depiction of the supposed backwardness, unpleasantness and 'darkness' of this period seemed to be exaggerated. 14th century people certainly knew more than this book gave them credit for, including certain things which supposedly only the druids and Immortals knew about like astronomy.
There were a couple of plain old errors too- like the ‘Scottish’ warrior from Carlisle which is in England or the claim that nobles just allowed peasants to do most of the fighting in battle from their position of safety. 

There were references to the church and clergy, which are to be expected. Generally the former was depicted as a corrupt and morally bankrupt institution, which was in many respects, true. A good Christian was a friend and mentor of Thomas the hero, and wanted to teach him about Christ and true Biblical Christianity- not the false version the church represented.
A character called Katherine also makes a comeback who supposedly taught Thomas about God in the last book. Yet perhaps she and her fellow immortal Hawkwood depended too much on cunning, their ‘secret wisdom’ and dubious special powers?

Overall Fortress of Mist is not a book I would feel comfortable about recommending because of the inaccurate things about history it might cause people to believe, and some of the spiritual implications.

4 May 2013

What makes a Lady- In the Victorian Times?

‘Every Lady is a woman, but not every woman is a Lady’- so a wise man said.

Author Michelle J Hoppe has a website with a vast array of tantalising links and facts including some interesting insights into the appropriate manners, conduct and etiquette of a respectable Lady in the Victorian and Regency era. Derived from contemporary sources and books, the section entitled ‘Manners for Women’ includes some useful advice (but also certain actions that seem to be taken as a given- perhaps assuming that people do not have to be advised to do these things). 

Amongst them it is said that “Proper young ladies do not indulge in cosmetics, hair-dyes or other forms of insincerity in personal appearance.”[1] Perhaps this one could be summed up by saying ‘Be yourself’ or ‘If you have natural beauty, why try to use artificial means to enhance it’? Sadly not all of us are, but there seems to be some sense in this advice. 

Following on “An unmarried young woman, up to the age of thirty, must always accompanied by a chaperone when she goes out.  This is to ensure that she is innocent, and to compel others to respect her innocence…. An unmarried woman could not be alone in a room with a male visitor, even in her own home. Nor could she go anywhere with a man to whom she was not related unless a married gentlewoman or servant accompanied her.”[2] Kissing almost certainly seems to have been out of the question unless “among near relations and dear friends.  It is given on the cheeks or forehead, and rarely in the public eye.”[3]
There were also certain conventions regarding conversation a lady “never uses vulgarisms, flippancy, coarseness, triviality or provocation in her speech.”[4] Such as this might be regarded as uncouth even now, but there was more as “Scandal is the least excusable of all conversational vulgarities.”[5]  
This is not to say that women were expected to be quiet, on the contrary “A good talker should be possessed of much general information, acquired by keen observation, attentive listening, a good memory, and logical habits of thought.”[6] Of course, some expressions were not acceptable, for instance “A lady avoids all exhibitions of temper before others.  Whether grief or joy, emotions should be subdued in public and only allowed full play in private apartments.”[7]
When out and about, there were also other expectations, “A lady never forms an acquaintance upon the street, or seeks to attract the attention or admiration of persons of the opposite sex.”[8] 

A lady never looks back after anyone in the street, or turns to stare in a public place.  She should never walk alone in the street after dark.”[9] The last one definitely seems very sensible. Finally if a Lady was not walking,a lady rode side saddle, alternating sides each day so as not to develop an overly enhanced buttock on one side.  Riding astride was looked on as risque.[10]

The manners and social conventions of past societies can indeed shed an interesting light upon them, but also on the way they are depicted in literature today. The Regency period is a popular setting for Christian Historical Novels today, but does the behaviour of Upper Class protagonists in such novels adhere to such customs and conventions as those outlined above? 
I for one know of one series in which one of the female leads flouted pretty much all of these conventions, behaving in a manner that was downright shameless, yet was still considered a ‘Lady’ by the other characters. Then again, is was not set in the Regency period. 

What about your experience? Are the female characters in Regency novels you have read proper ladies, or do they defy convention? How would other characters respond to this, and what do you think about it? Do you prefer the manners, behaviour, and sensitivities of characters to be true to their time, or more modern? What do you think about the conventions above?

[1] Michelle J Hoppe, ‘Manners for Women: Part One as a Single Woman’ , literaryliasons.com, accessed 4th May 2013, http://www.literary-liaisons.com/article031.html.

[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid .
[4] Ibid .
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Ibid.

Image URL. 1 http://englishhistoryauthors.blogspot.co.uk/2011/11/regemcy-era-ladys-prodigious-layers-of.html
2. http://christianregency.com/blog/regencyauthors/

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