22 September 2018

The Weekend 22nd September

No reviews over the weekend but...

... did you miss

where you will find all sorts of interesting things
 to amuse, entertain and inform!

21 September 2018

A Discovering Diamonds review of Pit of Vipers by Millie Thom

(Sons of Kings Book 2)

Fictional Saga
Anglo Saxon 9th Century

In Pit of Vipers, the second book in the Sons of Kings trilogy, the lives of Alfred of Wessex and Eadwulf of Mercia continue to unfold against the ever increasing threat of Danish raids. Now back in his homeland, Eadwulf sets out on his determined quest for revenge, whilst Alfred’s leadership skills develop at the courts of his successive brothers. Before long, those skills will be put to the test . . . The Danish invasion of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in 865 is merciless and relentless. Every year more Norse ships come to join their comrades in a quest to plunder for wealth and gain domination over the people. The Wessex king is now Aethelred, Alfred’s last surviving brother, and Alfred becomes his trusted second-in-command. Whilst the Danes take kingdom after kingdom, the brothers wait with bated breath for them to set their sights on Wessex. By 869 their worst fear is realised.
In the meantime, Eadwulf pursues the objects of his revenge.”

As with most trilogies, it is best to start at the beginning, although I admit I have not (yet) read Book One but plunged straight in at this second part of the saga.

We have the young Alfred, the brother of the King, hordes of rampaging Vikings and Eadwulf, who was a slave to the Danish Vikings but is now a free man. Alfred is a young man, desperate to learn how to lead and rule, Eadwulf, living in Mercia with his wife and family, is determined to seek revenge for wrongs done to him in the past, and the Vikings do what Vikings do best where looting, fighting and pillaging is concerned.

I liked the way that Ms Thom has blended real characters from the past with her made-up ones – the blend is seamless so the reader, unless familiar with this period, does not know who is real or who is invented, which is excellent for a historical novel. The author also knows her subject for she has written a fascinating narrative that encapsulates the way of life in this turbulent period of the ninth century, a period dominated by the conflict of Christian against heathen, of hardship, battles, triumphs and tragedy.

But this is where the ‘but’ comes in: I did feel there was a little too much history, especially during the first part of the book which did read a tad slow, but to be fair this might be because I did not know the characters or background story, perhaps had I been more familiar with book one I would have been immersed right from the beginning. That said, for readers who enjoy delving into the facts that create the background to fiction, exploring the narrative of writers like Ms Thom is probably one of the best ways of discovering history.

No spoilers but book three will be looked-forward to by Ms Thom’s readers who have become engrossed with these intriguing characters who are striving to survive the upheaval of the Viking invasion of England. Meanwhile, I'm going back to Book One...

© Ellen Hill

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20 September 2018

A Discovering Diamonds review of Pachinko by Min Jin Lee

Family drama
19th/20th century

Pachinko is a multigenerational saga about a family of Koreans in the early 20th century who have to move to Japan because Korea is occupied, the economy is tanking, and the best way to make a living is to emigrate to the land of their occupiers.

Initially, Sunja, the beloved daughter of two older parents (older in that they were early 20s when she was born in the early 20th century), gets pregnant out of wedlock. Her lover, she discovers after it’s too late, already has a wife in Japan. Sunja, who has her pride, has zero intention of being his mistress and sends him on his way. One of the boarders at her parents’ boardinghouse, a preacher with tuberculosis and who is traveling to his new church, offers to marry her and raise her child as his own. She accepts and goes with him to make a new life in Japan.  Together, they raise their sons in Japan and the story follows four generations of their family, navigating through wars, cultural upheaval, and constantly being viewed as outsiders. Throughout, they are haunted by shadows of their past that they cannot outrun, for better or worse.

It’s been a really interesting read, though I am discovering that I’m apparently not generally a fan of multigenerational narratives. Not in a single book, anyway. This started out strong and then got rushed near the end, as though there are too many stories, too many characters, and too much to say to give attention to any one of them. I think doing multigenerational sagas over several books is a better way to go.

That said, this was an excellent read, especially the first half, and I learned a ton about Korean culture that I had no idea about before. I didn’t know so many Koreans had moved to Japan, nor that Japan had occupied Korea. My education failed me! The way some of the people felt like they had to “pass” as Japanese just to be allowed to live in peace and make a life for themselves was so sad.

Overall, I had my quibbles with it, but I thoroughly enjoyed Pachinko and would recommend it as an excellent and eye-opening read.

© Kristen McQuinn

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19 September 2018

Dodging and Burning by John Copenhaver

London and Virginia

John Copenhaver’s debut novel gives readers a gorgeous, critical look at the LGBTQ community in post-WWII society, revolving around a murder. In Royal Oak, VA, three friends - Jay Greenwood, Bunny Prescott, and Ceola Bliss - spend the summer of 1945 trying to solve the apparent murder of a young woman whom Jay had photographed. As they investigate, it becomes clear that there are multiple layers of deceit involving Jay, the woman in the photo, and Ceola’s brother, who had gone missing in action in the Pacific theater two years earlier. As events unfold, Jay’s wartime traumas surface, causing distress and confusion to all around him, including Ceola. She also struggles to understand and incorporate what she learns about the beloved brother she thought she knew, fighting against social and parental pressure and judging those against what she feels is right. Finally, Bunny sets into motion a chain of reactions that will have decades-long ramifications for them all.

Dodging and Burning has some truly lovely writing, filled with deep imagery and complex, living characters. The society is richly depicted, from the salt of the earth working poor to the upper middle class people of the town to the gay and lesbian people in the DC underground. The novel mirrors social mores of the time regarding the way the LGBTQ community was portrayed, so that made for some really intense and upsetting scenes in some places. People were, and still are, awful to each other. There is a lot of excellent, much-needed social commentary woven throughout. One character speaks for the LGBTQ community when he says, “If you’re afraid for long enough, you grow numb to it” (289). That really struck me on a number of levels, because I can’t imagine living my whole life being afraid - literally mortally afraid - every moment of the day, and yet that is how it as for many people. Another character later on summed up much of mainstream society when he said, “You’ve been blind from the beginning. When you look at Cee or me or anyone, all you see is what you want” (312). So true, for so many people even today. The final few pages were an absolute gutpunch, one which was vital. This is a book that must be read and discussed with as many people as possible.

Very highly recommended.

© Kristen McQuinn

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18 September 2018

The Hawkman: A Fairy Tale of the Great War by Jane Rosenberg LaForge

Early 20th century/WWI

The Hawkman is set just after WWI in the fictional British village of Bridgetonne, where American Eva Williams takes a position as teacher of mythology at the local girls’ college. There, she learns of a man known only as The Hawkman, a vagrant who sleeps in the hedgerows and scavenges for food. When she meets him in the flesh, she realizes there is much more to him than the closed-minded villagers are willing to see and convinces him to let her help him. She learns his name is Michael Sheehan, that he served in the infantry during the war, he is Irish, and he hasn’t been back home since he shipped out to the trenches. Eva knows what it feels like to be an outsider and untrusted, and she works hard to earn Sheehan’s trust.

Eventually, the two learn to navigate the treacherous village politics created by Lord Thornton (imagine if Bridgetonne was run by Downton Abbey’s Lord Grantham, only he is deliberately cruel) and Thornton’s mostly useless son as they slowly build up trust and a relationship deeper than any could have expected or understood. Over time, they create their own insular world, filled with silence and fragile light and broken pieces of themselves in this quiet, exquisitely rendered narrative of love and friendship, intolerance and fear. Liberally woven throughout are Sheehan’s flashbacks from the war and fairy tales from Eva’s childhood, which lend the novel a dark, otherworldly tone.

LaForge’s writing is ethereal, and her elements of magical realism are beautifully interspersed throughout the novel. This story draws heavily from the tale of “The Bearskin” by the Brothers Grimm, which is perhaps less well known than others of their canon. I found that to be a refreshing change from the more familiar stories of “Cinderella” or “Sleeping Beauty.” It also references documented experiences of English prisoners from German POW camps. The intersection of these two realms is intriguing and grounds for some fabulously surreal scenes. 
The novel is replete with hidden commentary about soldiers, mental health, and PTSD that is still highly relevant and worthy of continual discussion. However, the novel’s slow pacing may be off-putting to some readers despite the beauty of the prose. I, on the other hand, loved it and recommend it without reservation.

© Kristen McQuinn

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17 September 2018

On The Lee Shore by Philip K Allan

Shortlisted for Book of the Month

On The Lee Shore (Alexander Clay Book 3)

Alexander Clay series #3

Nautical / Fictional Saga
18th Century
English Channel

Alexander Clay is now a Post Captain following his exploits in the first two volumes and his first command is a tough one: the crew of the Titan have mutinied and deposed their ruthless captain. Unable to identify the ring leaders, Clay restores certain activities – such as music on deck – and wins round the majority of the crew. But he still needs the help of some of his former shipmates.

Also in his camp is Sir Edward Pellew, a nod to Forester here, but Pellew was a real person, active at this time.  Pellew orders the Titan to take part in the blockade of a French port and here Clay proves his worth once again, as do the majority of his crew, but mutiny is still brewing and when the fleet rebels en masse, things don't look promising for Clay. Despite all this, love could still be in the air for our intrepid Captain ...

Mr Allan follows a a tried and tested formula; other captains are either tyrants or weak and they all look to support the 'gentlemen' rather than the talented. Pursers are sly and penny-pinching, everybody on board has a secret, whether good or bad and there are a lot of 'buddy' relationships covering all decks. What, for me, elevates the author to the heights of Forester, Kent and O' Brian, is the magnificence of the descriptions of life at sea, the hazards of sailing and the really authentic-sounding dialogue incorporating the odd-sounding nuances of the times.

There were a few typos in my file and, as with all series, it is always best for  readers to acquaint themselves with the earlier volumes. There are, however, enough references to previous activities to make this perfectly readable as an independent story. I would have liked to have seen a date at least at the beginning if not as part of some chapter headings and perhaps a map, but that was no great omission as most of the action takes place in one place.

I can heartily recommend this book in its own right, but especially to followers of the other authors in this genre mentioned above.

© Richard Tearle

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15 September 2018

The Mid-Month Extra - A Pox On You: A history of the smallpox vaccination by Julia Brannan

please welcome our guest

Julia Brannan
A while ago, in a rare moment of idleness, I decided to look through the reviews of my books. I leafed through them, delighted by the numbers of 5-star reviews from readers and the kind words of praise. But of a sudden I came upon a 3-star review that struck horror into my soul. What? I hear you say, a 3-star review? That’s not bad!

No, normally it wouldn’t be, but the reader went on to state that she would have given my book Mask of Duplicity five stars, were it not for my historical error. “One of the main characters refers to the death of his family and the wish that they would have received the smallpox vaccine” the reviewer stated. “The vaccine would not be administered until forty years after this book takes place.”  

I was horrified.

How could I have made such a mistake? It’s so long since I wrote Mask of Duplicity that I confess I couldn’t remember exactly when the vaccination came into use. But as I now have something of a reputation amongst my readers for historical accuracy, I resolved to find out, and address this terrible error if necessary.

A cursory search of the more common information websites seemed to reveal that my critic was right: it seemed that the smallpox vaccination was first introduced in 1796 by one Dr. Jenner. It took me all of thirty seconds to ascertain this, which made me even more puzzled as to why I would have made such a glaring error in my book.

Dredging the sludge of my long-term memory I had a vague recollection that the children of George II, including the Duke of Cumberland, were vaccinated as infants in the 1720s. Armed with this possible fact I dug deeper, and it was with great relief that I discovered I was in fact right. The smallpox vaccine, it seems, had been brought back to England by Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, who had had her own children inoculated in Turkey, and the Duke of Cumberland and two of his sisters were in fact inoculated in the 1720s.

Phew! Vindicated! (although I do use the word ‘vaccinate’ in my book, instead of the more accurate ‘variolate’ or ‘inoculate’. But in my defence, although the term vaccinate originates from the word for cow, in reference to the cowpox which was used in Dr Jenner’s vaccinations, the term is now used to describe all inoculations).

However, whilst digging, I found out some interesting things, (well, I think they’re interesting, at any rate!) which I would like to share.

A Bangladeshi child with smallpox
Smallpox is a very ancient disease. Egyptian mummies have been found to contain the marks of smallpox infection, and although it no longer concerns us, for centuries it was justifiably feared. It is difficult now to imagine the horror on finding that yourself or a loved one had become infected. There was no cure. In the 18th century Voltaire claimed that 60% of British people contracted smallpox, with some 20% dying as a result. Those who did not die were often left blind or with hideous scarring as a result of the rash, which on healing left deep pits in the skin.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu is now best known for her letters when travelling in the Ottoman Empire as the wife of the British Ambassador to Turkey. Whilst there she discovered the practice of variolation, a form of inoculation using a small amount of the smallpox virus. Incisions were made in the legs, wrists and forehead of the patient, and then a live pock was placed under the skin and bound there for some days. This induced a mild version of the disease. Once recovered the patient was immune. This process of inoculation seems to have been in use in the East since at least the 15th century, and Lady Mary, having suffered from smallpox herself which had left her disfigured, was impressed enough to bring the process back to England with her. There she had her two children, aged 4 and 5, inoculated. They recovered quickly. After this she fought for trials to be made, and in 1721, when an epidemic of smallpox hit London a royal licence was granted for trials on prisoners to be undertaken. They were offered a free pardon if they survived. They did, and as a result of this members of the British Royal family received the inoculation.

However, variolation wasn’t free of risk – variolated patients could pass the disease on to others causing an epidemic, and in addition some patients did die as a result of the inoculation (although far fewer than died of the full form of the disease), and it wasn’t a particularly pleasant procedure.

Enter the Sutton family. Robert Sutton improved the inoculation technique so that only a small stab in the skin with a lancet was needed, while his son Daniel set up a chain of businesses across Britain, Europe and North America, which inoculated over 22,000 people between 1763 and 1766 – only 3 people died as a result, and he made his fortune.

Although he had no formal medical education, Daniel refuted the commonly held belief that it was when smallpox infected the organs that death occurred. He proved by experiments that it was a disease of the skin. He also discovered that it could only be contracted by contact with the skin, not by inhalation or any other method. In this he was a pioneer, setting up hypotheses, then using experiments to prove or disprove them.

Unfortunately he delayed publishing his findings until 1796, by which time a new method of inoculation had been invented, and which means that in spite of his huge body of research, he is all but forgotten.

A cartoon of Dr Jenner and his cowpox vaccinations
In 1757 at the age of eight, Edward Jenner had been inoculated against smallpox, and on being apprenticed at thirteen to a country surgeon, heard the common tale that dairymaids who had had cowpox were immune to smallpox. He concluded that cowpox could be transmitted from person to person, and would protect the sufferer from smallpox. As the Latin word for cowpox is vaccinia Jenner decided to call his new method vaccination. He made many experiments and published his findings, which eventually led to vaccination being scientifically recognised.

Although he is often credited with discovering the cowpox vaccination, in fact it was already in use, and one Benjamin Jesty was possibly the first person to use the vaccination. However, it was due to Jenner’s extensive research and promotions that vaccination became widely used and respected in the medical community.

In the 19th century, although deaths from smallpox had massively reduced it was discovered that vaccination did not confer lifelong immunity and that it was necessary to revaccinate people.

In 1967 a global campaign began to vaccinate every country in the world, and as a result of this, in 1980 smallpox was declared to be officially eradicated.

A disease that had killed probably millions of people over thousands of years, and disfigured or blinded many more, had finally been wiped off the planet, and for that we must give thanks to the many men and women devoted to scientific discovery and spreading the news of ways to prevent smallpox, of whom Lady Mary, the Suttons, Mr Jesty and Dr Venner are but a few.

Mask of Duplicity reviewed by Discovering Diamonds
Awarded Cover of the Month in February 2017
About Julia
Julia has been a voracious reader since childhood, using books to escape the miseries of a turbulent adolescence. After leaving university with a degree in English Language and Literature, she spent her twenties trying to be a sensible and responsible person, even going so far as to work for the Civil Service. The book escape came in very useful there too.

And then she gave up trying to conform and resolved to spend the rest of her life living as she wanted to, not as others would like her to. She has since had a variety of jobs, including telesales, teaching and gilding and is currently a transcriber, copy editor and proofreader. In her spare time she is still a voracious reader, and enjoys keeping fit and travelling the world. Life hasn’t always been good, but it has rarely been boring. She lives in rural Wales with her cat Constantine, and her wonderful partner sensibly lives four miles away in the next village.

In 2014 she decided that rather than just escape into other people’s books, she would actually like to create some of her own, in the hopes that people would enjoy reading them as much as she does writing them. It seems that they do, and she has now published several historical novels, and has also branched out into contemporary fiction too.

Twitter is @BrannanJulia
Amazon author page:  Author.to/JuliaBrannanAmazonPage

14 September 2018

A Discovering Diamonds review of Fortune’s Lament by John D. Cressler

Fictional Saga/ Romance
15th century
Al-Andalus, Spain

This is the third book in the Anthems of Al-Andalus series. The narrative is detailed, nuanced and sensual and some of the descriptive passages are beautiful. The author has done a marvellous job of researching such difficult subjects as medicine and surgery, cannon and warfare in the period. It’s both a love story and a war story set in the era of Isabella and Fernando’s (Ferdinand) war to win the Moorish sultanate for Spain and the rise of the Inquisition. There is plenty of palace intrigue, bedroom antics and battlefield drama in this well told tale.

The protagonists are Danah, and the ‘Falcon Brothers’, Yusef and Umar. Danah is a budding yet talented physician. Not altogether approving of her vocation, her parents want her to marry if she is to continue her studies. Their choice is perfect: a young and handsome surgeon whom she likes well enough. The problem is she has already briefly met Yusef and each has fallen in love with the other, though neither knows it.

Meanwhile at the palace, the Sultan has fallen madly in love with a concubine who has him in the palm of her hand, wrapped around her little finger and dancing to her tune. Upon becoming pregnant, she persuades him to banish his first wife and heir and marry her, setting the scene for a factional war in Granada itself.

I personally found  some of the love story a little slow in places. To begin with it is portrayed as love at first sight, and – call me unromantic – I just don’t find that credible. When Yusef is wounded he comes under Danah’s care and that’s when the tedium sets in – the looks, the stolen touches, the agonising because she is now betrothed to another man went on too long before the consummation. It is a long book and could have been better with some of this repetitive element cut. Danah has a temper and Yusef spends a period feeling sorry for himself and the other characters who populate this part of the story line gush over them a little too much. They all would have benefited from a few flaws.

We also meet the man we know as Christopher Columbus, although it’s hard to know why since he had no part to play in any plot.

The other story lines, which have a grand sweep, were far more compelling and moved along at a much better pace. The characters were more interesting than Danah and Yusef because they were flawed – actually some were downright wicked.

On the whole I enjoyed the book, and to be fair many readers will thoroughly enjoy the ‘romance’ element.

© Susan Appleyard

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13 September 2018

Olympus Nights on the Square: by Vanda

Book 2 (Juliana Series)

Fictional Saga / LGBT
New York

The second in the Juliana Series begins with the end of World War II and follows our group of gay and lesbian characters through the eyes of Alice, or Al, a woman in love with the elusive Juliana.

In this volume the main location is a musical theatre in New York that attracts a largely gay audience. We get a chance to watch the skilful tightrope act of convicted ‘sexual psychopath’ Max and his female ‘assistant/manager’ Al running a club and surviving in a society which discriminates against their kind in more than just legal terms.

Having read the first book in the series I’ve already become invested in the characters, all of whom illustrate and personalise a different facet and experience of the times. The plot, the writing and character development are excellent. I enjoyed following the saga and I learned a lot of the subtle ways of discrimination and perseverance.

This is a great series of historical and literary value.

© Christoph Fischer

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12 September 2018

The Possible World by Liese O'Halloran Schwarz

Shortlisted for Book of the Month
Canadian Cover


Family Drama
20th Century
Rhode Island

I’m not sure what I expected when I started this novel. It sounded interesting from the synopsis but that told so little of what I was to find here.

It is three separate stories that intertwine, that of Ben (who also calls himself Leo), Lucy and Clare, and only Lucy and Ben appear to have any connection. Ben, a six-year-old, comes across Lucy in her professional capacity as a trauma doctor at the local hospital in Providence, Rhode Island. Clare, meanwhile, is in very advanced years in a care home and there seems no way she can possibly share anything with or have any connection to either of the others. And yet it gradually becomes clear how these three people of different ages and backgrounds have a common thread. Sweeping through the twentieth century from the Great Depression through the Vietnam war, this novel strikes beyond the narrow lives of a town in America's smallest state.

These three stories are each in their own way tragic but they cover different levels of tragedy, from the more mundane, more everyday tragedy of divorce, to acts of God and war which are no more in the open or revealed than the internal pain of being separated from a loved one.

Through tragedy there is acknowledgement of loss, and telling the story of those who can no longer speak for themselves are all at the heart of this novel. If no one knows your name, do you still exist? is a central theme. If no one knows of the tragedy, did it occur?

A more positive and happier message comes through these tales, and that is that families are not always those that we are born to, that a family can be close and loving and yet the parent and the child do not belong by blood, but by choice. Traditional families in this novel don't work, and yet those that form through accident or circumstance fare far better and are a confirmation of love.

Few books of any kind make me cry these days, I read too much, too analytically, but by the end of this novel I was weeping. From the opening touching scene of a shy boy at a kid’s party, to the end, the detail of the description makes these characters so very vivid that you care enough for each of them that it brings you to tears when it ends.

© Nicky Galliers


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11 September 2018

A Discovering Diamonds review of Misfortune of Time by Christy Nicholas

Fictional saga / Fantasy
11th century

In this sixth installment of Christy Nicholas’s Druid’s Brooch series, Etain, a 12th-century Irish woman, has the ability not to age thanks to the magic she draws from her Druid’s brooch. The brooch is an heirloom inherited from her mother, passed down the family line, first given to her family by a Druid in thanks for saving his life. Etain is able to change her appearance at will, so she can age herself appropriately over the years, but her natural appearance is of a woman around 30 years old. In truth, she is around 150. She has had many husbands, many children, and has had to leave them all behind in her long life to avoid being discovered and killed as a witch or Fae. Her current husband, Airtre, is a mentally and physically abusive putrescence of a man, a Christian priest whose primary goal is to move up in the Church to a bishopric. Etain stays only to protect her young grandson, Maelan, from Airtre. When events explode, Etain is forced to flee, getting help from some unexpected allies, including other priests and monks, as well as a few kindly Fae.

I have read several books by Christy Nicholas, including some in the Druid’s Brooch series, and I must say I think this is my favorite one so far. The characters were all multidimensional and interesting, for the most part, and I enjoyed seeing a variety of people mingling together in the villages Etain traveled to, even if life wasn’t really like that in 12th-century Ireland. I think the author captured the fear and ambivalence of an abused woman well, though I hope I never truly understand that personally. Etain had a horrific life and it speaks to the strength of her spirit that she kept going and trying to survive rather than just giving up and letting some mad horde kill her as a witch, for the brooch can’t protect her from death.

I loved the theme of tolerance woven throughout, as well as the Gaelic hospitality. There were many instances of travelers or even old friends being offered food, drink, and washing water the moment they set foot indoors. I loved that because that’s how I was raised and it felt like home to see it reflected on the page. As well, the tolerance was a thread throughout. Etain has lived long enough to know that belief isn’t what is important, it is people who are important. She tells Maelan that “a little kindness can have unexpected rewards,” and often she herself has to remember her own lesson and take the kindness of others. Later, Maelan’s wife, Liadan, tells her, “Before I met [Aes], I didn’t realize pagans were just normal people like you and me.” Learning that people have more similarities than differences is a vital life lesson that many people today still need to learn.

The one thing I wish was different was that some of the narrative felt rushed. When Etain left Faerieland and settled in the ringfort, working in the kitchens, for example, little time was spent there, little real detail. The same happened before she entered Faerieland, when she was in the village and traded all her herbs for a cow. I wanted more detail and time spent in those places. Doing so, I feel, would give more of a sense of loss, of fatigue, because Etain was happy in both of those places and then was forced to go again. But these are minor quibbles in my overall enjoyment of this very engaging historical fantasy.

© Kristen McQuinn

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