The Tournament by Matthew Reilly

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“A complete success; action fans and PBS types can share their enthusiasm” (Booklist, starred review) when a young Queen Elizabeth I is thrust into a gripping game of deception and lust at the height of the Ottoman Empire in this edge-of-your-seat historical thriller from the New York Times bestselling author of The Great Zoo of China and Temple.

The year is 1546, and Suleiman the Magnificent, the feared Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, issues an invitation to every king in Europe: You are invited to send your finest player to compete in a chess tournament to determine the champion of the known world.

Thousands converge on Constantinople, including the English court’s champion and his guide, the esteemed scholar Roger Ascham. Seeing a chance to enlighten the mind of a student, Ascham brings along Elizabeth Tudor, a brilliant young woman not yet consumed by royal duties in Henry VIII’s court.

Yet on the opening night of the tournament, a powerful guest of the Sultan is murdered. Soon, barbaric deaths, diplomatic corruption, and unimaginable depravity, sexual and otherwise, unfold before Elizabeth’s and Ascham’s eyes. The pair soon realizes that the real chess game is being played within the court itself and its most treacherous element is that a stranger in a strange land is only as safe as her host is gracious.

 

I got this book last year at NYCC.

There were many things I enjoyed about The Tournament, but I have a few criticisms.

This is very much like a fan fiction of actual historical figures.  But I like fan fiction and historical fiction so it was right up my alley. Besides Elizabeth I, Roger Aschman, and Suleiman, there are appearances from Michelangelo, Ivan the Terrible, and Ignatius of Loyola. Fictional characters are mixed in and the chess tournament and the murders are completely fictional.

I was invested in the murder(s) mystery and read through it quickly to find out the results. Sometimes I felt that Aschman was spelling things out to Elizabeth (and thus the reader) like a child, but then I remembered that she’s 13 and in 1546 a lot more innocent than than 13 year olds of today.

I liked how each part began with a brief, one page history of the history of chess pieces. I never knew the rook was once a chariot,  the bishop were elephants and the queen was the king’s minister. Besides solving the murders, the chess tournament was my favorite part.

Thank goodness for the maps printed at the beginning and for the list of the players for each match. I would have been lost without them.

One critique I have is that the language seemed a bit too modern for the time period. It’s not a huge distraction, but at times I said to myself, “That’s not how they would have phrased that.”

Another critique was the repetitive descriptions of gratuitous sex. Yes, there is a warning at the very beginning of the book.  I understand getting the point across that the horrible exploitation of women and children happened then (and sadly happen still).  So, I guess what my issue is is that Elise’s descriptions night after night were like – enough already. And that no one, except for a few voiced concerns from Elizabeth (that Elise brushed off), told her how naive she was being. (Did she learn nothing from Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard?) Also, I was fully expecting Elise or someone to start showing signs of a STD, or the Plague.

4 out of 5 chess pieces.

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The Blue Tattoo by Steven Laffoley

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From Pottersfield Press Fall 2014 Catalogue:
From award-winning author Steven Laffoley comes a compelling tale of love and loss, despair and hope, based on real people and real events, that brings to life one of the most extraordinary stories of our time — The Halifax Explosion.

1917. The Great War has given rise to unprecedented prosperity to staid, Victorian Halifax. It has also given rise to an explosive desire for change. Medical student and daughter of a prominent Halifax family, Elizabeth Beckett dreams of bringing equality to woman in an age when men alone control the world of work and politics. She fights for suffrage to give women a voice in the politics of war. At the same times, sugar refinery worker Danny Cohen dreams of leaving Halifax and a deadly war machine that he sees as only serving the wealthy. He fights to make the money he needs to help himself escape. When their lives collide, their dreams and their views of the world are challenged by the promise of love. Yet their different views on the world prove too explosive. They are torn apart by the collision of their disparate dreams. Elizabeth returns to her suffrage movement for women. Danny escapes to Boston for a better life.However, when two ships collide in Halifax Harbour on December 6, 1917, and the greatest explosion the world had ever known is unleashed on the city, their eyes are opened to new truths. Elizabeth is swept up in the chaos that follows the Explosion and works courageously at a local hospital, overrun with the horribly injured, with dwindling medical supplies and worsening conditions, only to face a once-in-a-generation snowstorm that promises to take away whatever hope remains. Without fresh medical supplies, hundreds will soon die.
Meantime, desperate to return home, Danny hears of a medical relief train leaving Boston and conducted by Christopher H. Trueman, a man with with dark past, who promises to make Halifax in record time. Danny manages to make the train, only to face a snowstorm that stops the train in its tracks. Without action and personal sacrifice, the train may never make it.

Filled with a cast of unforgettable characters — from Boston mayor James Michael Curley to Group of Seven painter Arthur Lismer — The Blue Tattoo tells the sweeping story of the lives caught up in the unbelievable horror of The Halifax Explosion.

I recently went on a cruise to New England and Canada. One of the ports of call was Halifax, Nova Scotia. There I went on an excursion to the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic. Time there was limited so I really only spent time at the Titanic exhibit. (Halifax is where they brought the bodies for identification and the museum had Titanic artifacts that survived, as well as the stories of those who perished). The tour guide of the excursion also told us of the Halifax explosion of 1917. While I was in the Maritime Museum gift shop I saw this book and I had to buy it. I wanted to know more about it but have trouble reading non-fiction books. Since this was a novel I knew I would get through it without difficulty.

Laffoley describes the devastation very well. I saw a clear picture of the destruction, the wounded and the dead. I would get choked up and would have to take breaks because the images and heartache were a lot to read. But it was important to understand the scope of the explosion.

Laffoley was also good at showing the reader the before story of each ship, the SS Mont-Blanc and the SS Imo, without being technical and boring. We saw the point of views of the men on board both ships, their feelings, and seeing what lead to the two ships colliding.

A brief history about the explosion.

I did easily lose track of some of the characters, or in this case historical people. Many appear briefly, and others continued their story as they were important to the recovery. I wish there had been a character list or that I had wrote down my own to keep track of them.

I would have loved a detailed author’s note about his research, as well as what was fact and where he took artistic liberties.

I liked that the timeline of events was manly centered around the disaster. There was a small Act to show the reader the romance between Elizabeth and Danny. I liked Danny and Elizabeth as individuals but the romance was – eh. It was clichéd and rushed, but also not the main point of the story.

Putting that subplot aside it was still a good historical novel. I would recommend this book to anyone who would like to learn about the Halifax Explosion.

3.5 out of 5 Ships.

More about the artist, who appears as a character in the book, Arthur Lismer.
Arthur Lismer’s ‘Sorrow’ painting depicts aftermath of Halifax Explosion

CBC viewers get a rare look at “Sorrow”, one of Arthur Lismer’s Halifax Explosion-era paintings that had been lost for 75 years.

Some very descriptive quotes that stood out to me:
Page 124: Duggan glance over his shoulder and saw what he swore were the eyes of Satan, two lurid spurts of flame rising skyward, chasing a monstrous cloud that rose two hundred feet or more into the air. It was at that moment, beneath the unblinking green eyes of Satan, there came a thunderous howl.

Page 279: And though I feel an unfathomable exhaustion, I feel compelled to keep at it, as though to give up working would be to concede to the chaos so cruelly visited upon us.

 

The Winter Sea by Susanna Kearsley

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In the spring of 1708, an invading Jacobite fleet of French and Scottish soldiers nearly succeeded in landing the exiled James Stewart in Scotland to reclaim his crown.

Now, Carrie McClelland hopes to turn that story into her next bestselling novel. Settling herself in the shadow of Slains Castle, she creates a heroine named for one of her own ancestors and starts to write.

But when she discovers her novel is more fact than fiction, Carrie wonders if she might be dealing with ancestral memory, making her the only living person who knows the truth—the ultimate betrayal—that happened all those years ago, and that knowledge comes very close to destroying her.

 

Picked this gem up at Book Con 2015.

I loved The Winter Sea and couldn’t put it down. I cried so hard at the “first ending”. I couldn’t see through my tears!

The past and present were interwoven flawlessly. (I loved the geneology aspect too.)
The setting was haunting. The prose was so poetic and I really felt the atmosphere of Slains Castle and Scotland.

I loved that the modern day romance was light and unproblematic. There was a slight love triangle between Carrie and two brothers, but it was not silly and immature.

I was happy to finally see a hero (Moray) actually go for the woman he loves and didn’t play the “I’m too dangerous for you” card.

I love when the authors tell you what research they did and what liberties they took for their fiction. The book I read before this one was The Freemasons’s Daughter so I can’t help compare the two. The Freemason’s Daughter takes place during the 1714 attempt, but tells little to nothing about the planning.

The Winter Sea tells the story about the failed 1708 Jacobite invasion and it tells it well. The character Sophia is not kept in the dark so we are aware of the political scheming, the betrayals, the Union, and the details about the plans to bring King James to Scotland. I learned a lot about the Jacobites.

This is why I love historical fiction. I love history but reading a non-fiction book can be so boring and bogged down with too many dates and names (especially when it’s the same name passed onto the children). But write it like a novel, show me a story, then you have my full attention.

4.5 out 5 White Sails.

Blood Rose Rebellion by Rosalyn Eves

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The thrilling first book in a YA fantasy trilogy for fans of Red Queen. In a world where social prestige derives from a trifecta of blood, money, and magic, one girl has the ability to break the spell that holds the social order in place.

Sixteen-year-old Anna Arden is barred from society by a defect of blood. Though her family is part of the Luminate, powerful users of magic, she is Barren, unable to perform the simplest spells. Anna would do anything to belong. But her fate takes another course when, after inadvertently breaking her sister’s debutante spell—an important chance for a highborn young woman to show her prowess with magic—Anna finds herself exiled to her family’s once powerful but now crumbling native Hungary.

Her life might well be over.

In Hungary, Anna discovers that nothing is quite as it seems. Not the people around her, from her aloof cousin Noémi to the fierce and handsome Romani Gábor. Not the society she’s known all her life, for discontent with the Luminate is sweeping the land. And not her lack of magic. Isolated from the only world she cares about, Anna still can’t seem to stop herself from breaking spells.

As rebellion spreads across the region, Anna’s unique ability becomes the catalyst everyone is seeking. In the company of nobles, revolutionaries, and Romanies, Anna must choose: deny her unique power and cling to the life she’s always wanted, or embrace her ability and change that world forever.

I picked up an ARC from NYCC in October.

At First In Line I showed them the email I received in exchange for the Blood Rose Rebellion. I got very excited when I read the jacket because I have a friend from Hungary named Noémi (No-amy). I messaged her about the book and asked if her name is popular in Hungary. She said:
“It’s not a very common name, actually. It was a writer who came up with it in 1872. In that book the main guy is an aristocrat and he goes on his boat and discovers an island where only a mom and the daughter lives. He falls in love with the daughter, whose name is noèmi. It means beautiful. So then he starts going back and forth between his real life and the mysterious island with his beautiful lover. And writers like to use the name in their books ever since.”

I liked the character Noémi and wish there was more of a storyline for her. Perhaps in book 2. I really appreciated the glossary and the character guide in the back. It helped immensely. I still pronounced words and names wrong. I would ask my friend Noémi if I was saying it correctly and I was embarrassingly wrong.

As the world building goes, I liked that magic was not a secret society but out in the open and controlled by the aristocracy. I think the mix with some Hungarian historical events made it an interesting historical fantasy novel. I don’t know much about Hungarian history so I learned a little bit.

I was glad I read The Bear and the Nightingale first so that I was familiar with some of the mythical creatures that make an appearance.

There were many things I did like about the story, like Anna’s struggle with her decision and how breaking the binding was not done in a simple 1,2,3 rushed plot. It took a few tries. However, towards the end of the book I lost motivation to finish. I pushed to finish and even started to skim it. I can’t say why I lost steam because I liked the story and the characters, but it took me more than a month to finish.

I can’t say I’ll go out and buy the second book of the series, but if I see an ARC at Comic Con or Book Con I’ll pick it up.

3 out of 5 Broken Spells.

The One Man, by Andrew Gross

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1944. Physics professor Alfred Mendl is separated from his family and sent to the men’s camp, where all of his belongings are tossed on a roaring fire. His books, his papers, his life’s work. The Nazis have no idea what they have just destroyed. And without that physical record, Alfred is one of only two people in the world with his particular knowledge. Knowledge that could start a war, or end it.
Nathan Blum works behind a desk at an intelligence office in Washington, DC, but he longs to contribute to the war effort in a more meaningful way, and he has a particular skill set the U.S. suddenly needs. Nathan is fluent in German and Polish, he is Semitic looking, and he proved his scrappiness at a young age when he escaped from the Polish ghetto. Now, the government wants him to take on the most dangerous assignment of his life: Nathan must sneak into Auschwitz, on a mission to find and escape with one man.

The One Man, a historical thriller from New York Times bestseller Andrew Gross, is a deeply affecting, unputdownable series of twists and turns through a landscape at times horrifyingly familiar but still completely compelling.

This novel is near to perfection. The characters were well developed and their emotions are expressed in an intense and compelling way. I certainly felt their grief, fear, guilt, and hope too. By the end I was a crying, and on public transportation.

There were moments of suspense and for the last 100 pages, or so, impossible to put down. I also loved the hope the story brought, even in such a dark story. There was a line Alfred said about “where there is hope, there is life. And where there is life… there is more to learn.”

I did get a little bit lost when Alfred was teaching Leo the formulas and other mathematical equations, and I’ll admit that I did skim those parts. But the story is not bogged down by it. There’s just enough mentioned to get the point across.

There is much more I want to say, but sometimes when I love a story so much I have trouble articulating my thoughts and feeling. Especially while trying to remain spoiler free. My sister actually won a Goodreads giveaway and after she read it gave it to me to read. We discussed some big moments in the book.

I also liked the Author’s Note at the end. Gross explained his inspirations for the book and the small historical liberties he took to tell this story. Which are very, very minute, and were interesting to learn. It may seem like breaking into and out of Auschwitz is far fetched but Gross explains that, in fact, there were two men who escaped (they appear in the story); and there was a man who wrote a memoir about how he broke into Auschwitz for a single night, then broke out. The Man Who Broke into Auschwitz, by Dennis Avery. Once I have recovered from the sadness of this book perhaps I will read the memoir.

The One Man has become one of my favorite WWII historical fiction novels and I recommend it to anyone who is also a reader of that genre.

5 out 5 rooks.

Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet, by H.P. Wood

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A hypnotic debut in turn-of-the-century Coney Island, where an abandoned girl collides with a disgruntled menage of circus freaks.

Kitty Hayward and her mother are ready to experience the spectacles of Coney Island’s newest attraction, the Dreamland amusement park. But when Kitty’s mother vanishes from their hotel, she finds herself penniless, alone, and far from her native England. The last people she expects to help are the cast of characters at Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet, a museum of oddities. From con men to strongmen, from flea wranglers to lion tamers, Kitty’s new friends quickly adopt her and vow to help find the missing Mrs. Hayward. But even these unusual inhabitants may not be a match for the insidious sickness that begins to spread through Coney Island…or the panic that turns Dreamland into a nightmare.

With shades of Water For Elephants and The Museum of Extraordinary Things, Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet sweeps readers into a mesmerizing world where nothing is as it seems, and where “normal” is the exception to the rule.”

I received this book through Net Galley.

Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet was a wonderful story. I really felt for many of the characters and their journey. I even loved the weird and mystical Curiosity Cabinet, which was a character too. The Cabinet and Timur’s inventions reminded me a bit of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Because of that magical feeling I put aside some of my reservations about the end and how quickly some characters recovered.

They say write what you know and it shows. The author is the granddaughter of a mad inventor and a sideshow magician. I also loved the author’s notes about what was historically accurate and what was historical fiction. I am interested in looking into some of her recommendations that helped her writing.

I have family in Brooklyn near Coney Island, so I have spent time there, and I loved reading the descriptions of the place. It felt like home and I became giddy as I recognized the places.

When Hoffman Island and Swinburne Island were mentioned I knew exactly where they were. In the early 1900s, the islands were used as a quarantine station, housing immigrants found to have been carrying contagious diseases when they landed at Ellis Island.

Magruder’s Curiosity Cabinet is a spectacular story and definitely worth reading, especially if you like magical and anything Unusual.

4 out 5 Boxing Kangaroos

Salt to the Sea, by Ruta Sepetys

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Winter, 1945. Four teenagers. Four secrets.

Each one born of a different homeland; each one hunted, and haunted, by tragedy, lies…and war.

As thousands of desperate refugees flock to the coast in the midst of a Soviet advance, four paths converge, vying for passage aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff, a ship that promises safety and freedom.

Yet not all promises can be kept.

Inspired by the single greatest tragedy in maritime history, bestselling and award-winning author Ruta Sepetys (Between Shades of Gray) lifts the veil on a shockingly little-known casualty of World War II. An illuminating and life-affirming tale of heart and hope.

“The sinking of the Gustloff is the largest maritime disaster, yet the world still knows nothing of it. I often wonder, will that ever change or will it remain just another secret swallowed by war?” – page 178.

I loved Salt to the Sea. The true events in this historical fiction is sadly a forgotten part of history. I am glad that Ruta wrote this novel so that people will know about the disaster and over 9,000 lives lost (5,000 were children) when the Wilhelm Gustloff sank. I love what she said in her author’s note at the end (which I encourage any reader to read before starting the story),

“When the survivors are gone we must not let the truth disappear with them. Please give them a voice.”

The multiple character POVs was well done. We got to see the war and people’s experiences through different eyes. I loved the evolution of the characters’ secrets. The introductions were brilliantly done to set the tone: Guilt/fate/shame/fear is a hunter.

The Wilhelm Gustloff sunk in under an hour and so the suspense during the sinking was fast and intense.

I am going to get into some spoilers below. You’ve been warned.

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