17 October 2018

A Discovering Diamonds review of Ike and Kay by James MacManus

Biographical fiction

In 1942, Kay Summersby’s life is changed forever when she is conscripted to drive General Eisenhower on his fact-finding visit to wartime London. Despite Eisenhower’s marriage to Mamie, the pair takes an immediate liking to each other and he buys Kay a rare wartime luxury: a box of chocolates. So begins a tumultuous relationship that, against all military regulation, sees Kay traveling with Eisenhower on missions to far-flung places before the final assault on Nazi Germany. The general does dangerously little to conceal his affair with the woman widely known as “Ike’s shadow,” and in letters Mamie bemoans his new obsession with “Ireland.” That does not stop him from using his influence to grant Kay citizenship and rank in the US army, drawing her closer still when he returns to America. When officials discover Eisenhower’s plans to divorce from his wife they threaten the fragile but passionate affair, and Kay is forced to take desperate measures to hold onto the man she loves… Based on the scandalous true story of General Eisenhower’s secret World War II love affair, Ike and Kay is a compelling story of love, duty, sacrifice, and heartbreak, set against the backdrop of the most tumultuous period of the twentieth century.”

Ike and Kay is the fictionalised account of the factual war time affair between married General Dwight Eisenhower and his assistant-turned-driver Kay Summersby; an affair which started in 1942 and came to an end after the conclusion of the war.

I didn’t know this detail about Eisenhower until I read the blurb for this book and found the story particularly interesting and well-told. The background is researched and fascinating, too, although there are some historical inaccuracies. From Eisenhower’s first arrival in Britain, his rise in rank to his war involvement in North Africa and Berlin, I learned a lot of minor and major detail about the military operations and about the person himself - Eisenhower.

I have to be honest as a caution to those reading this novel for the romance aspect – the blurb states: ‘The sweeping love story at the heart of the Second World War” yet I did not feel any empathy of emotional love between the two main characters. It is a war story about two people, not a ‘romance’ tale.

That caveat aside, it is worth reading as a work of historical fiction and will please those who appreciate something a little different to the usual World War II  stories.

© Christoph Fischer

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16 October 2018

A Discovering Diamonds review of The Jacobite’s Wife by Morag Edwards


Biographical Fiction
Late 17th/early 18th centuries

Based on real people and true events, this is the story of Lady Winifred Herbert. Her parents, the Earl and Countess of Powis, are forced to leave England after supporting the Catholic King James II, being accused of treason and imprisoned in the Tower. Winifred joins them at the court of the exiles at Saint-Germain in France where she meets her future husband, William Maxwell, Earl of Nithsdale. All are fervent Jacobites except Winifred, who is less so.  The marriage is a happy one, and when they return to Scotland, Winifred cherishes dreams of settling down to a comfortable life and raising a family. William has other dreams that centre around the Jacobite movement.
I found Winifred to be a contradictory character. At times I wanted to root for her, and just as often I wanted to slap her. For example, she criticises William for his involvement in Scotland’s affairs instead of staying home and looking after his estate, and yet goes proudly with him to a gathering of the clans where the purpose is to organise a rebellion. Again, learning that her husband, an irresponsible but charming wastrel, is heavily in debt, she tells him to cut down on his spending, but when he buys a cute little pony and trap for them to tool around the estate in, she forgives him at once. For the first half of the book, she comes across as self-centred and self-absorbed, as when her mother dies, “How could she leave me?’ and the same when her sister enters a convent. However, without giving anything away, she redeems herself in the end.
The relationship between Winifred and Grace, her maid/companion/friend, is heartwarming and an enjoyable aspect of the book.
The story is well written, with natural dialogue but few descriptions. Although it’s a slow starter, I never lost interest. I recommend it for those interested in Scotland’s independence movement and Jacobite period.

© Susan Appleyard

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15 October 2018

The Mid-Month Extra with Mary Anne Yarde and the Great Arthurian Writers

In 1846 William John Thoms, a British writer, penned a letter to The Athenaeum, a British Magazine. In this letter, he talked about “popular antiquities.” But instead of calling it by its common name, he used a new term — folklore.

What did Thoms mean by this new word?

The word folk referred to the rural poor who were for the most part illiterate. Lore means instruction. So folklore means 'to instruct the poor'. But we understand it as verbal storytelling.

If folklore is just storytelling, is there any truth in the story of King Arthur and his Knights?
In this article, I going to take a look at one of the great Arthurian Writers. I will also try to answer the question I just posed.

"Wave after wave, each mightier than the last,
Till last, a ninth one, gathering half the deep
And full of voices, slowly rose and plunged
Roaring, and all the wave was in a flame:
And down the wave and in the flame was borne
A naked babe, and rode to Merlin’s feet,
Who stoopt and caught the babe, and cried "The King!
Here is an heir for Uther!"

The above quote was taken from Tennyson’s Idylls of the King and the place Tennyson was referring to was none other than Merlin’s Cave in Cornwall. The cave itself sits under Tintagel Castle, and if you have the slightest interest in Arthur, then I am sure you have heard of Tintagel. If you ever get the chance to visit therel, then do. It is a stunning location, well worth checking out.

Who was Lord Tennyson?

Alfred Tennyson, 1st Baron Tennyson, (6 August 1809 – 6 October 1892) was the Poet Laureate of Great Britain and Ireland during much of Queen Victoria’s reign. Lord Tennyson was appointed to the position of Poet Laureate in 1850, after the death of William Wordsworth, and he is mostly remembered for his great work — The Charge of the Light Brigade. But I am interested in him because he also published an Arthurian inspired epic poem between 1859 and 1885 and he called it, as I have already said, The Idylls of King.

Now anyone who writes about Arthur, myself included, draws on the work of the Great Arthurian Poets, and Tennyson was no different. But his poem was so epic that he split it into twelve parts, and each part dealt with a different aspect of the Arthurian tale — however, he gave his stories a slight Victorian twist!

Tintagel Castle and Merlin’s Cave.

Geoffrey of Monmouth had already given us Tintagel Castle as the birthplace of Arthur. Tennyson took this one step further, and I can understand why he did. There is a cave under Tintagel Castle, and this cave was begging to be included in the tale. The cave in question fills up with water at every high tide, and it is easy enough to imagine Merlin approaching the cave with a shining staff in his hand, lighting his way. If Merlin were to have a cave, then this would be it. This unknown cave became a tourist attraction that suddenly had a long association with Arthurian legend — it was just that no one knew about it until Tennyson told us!

Another Arthurian location...

I don’t know about you, but I love checking out film locations. I am lucky enough that I live very near some Poldark film locations. I have also travelled around Scotland checking out the Outlander film locations. Now I am sure you would not disagree with me when I say that neither Poldark or Outlander scream folklore. But when we put the same principles into Arthur’s story then there are some startling similarities because, let’s be honest, if you are going to visit an Arthurian location, it isn’t the same as spending the day at, I don’t know, Hampton Court. You are instead visiting book locations, folklore locations. 

However, saying that, visiting Arthurian book locations doesn’t feel the same, as visiting the locations of Poldark, Outlander or even Game of Thrones for that matter, because we recognise them as stories, but when it comes to Arthur, we don’t do that. The folklore is so ingrained into our culture that we just kind of accept it as maybe not fact, but something very close. And the reason for this is simply because Geoffrey of Monmouth’s great work in the 12th Century was a must read. A factual, must read. And that is where the problem lies with Arthurian folklore. For centuries we were told these stories were true and somewhere ingrained deep down inside us is the belief that they are. Of course, over the centuries there are plenty of people who have exploited the Arthurian story — the monks of Glastonbury Abbey being one of them. But just think on this, a thousand years ago the people of Britain were making pilgrimages — we would probably call it a holiday, or a day out — to these sites that were associated with Arthur and we are still doing it, after all this time. Isn’t that incredible? Arthur is still drawing in the crowds, and I believe that he will continue to draw in the crowds long after we have forgotten all about Poldark and Outlander and even, dare I say it, Jon Snow from Game of Thrones. And that, my friends, is the power of folklore. It is not the same as a book, it isn’t the same as factual history. It evolves, and we accept it. Suddenly Tennyson’s version of events seems as old as time. Merlin always had a cave...didn’t he? It is humbling when you think about it.

© Mary Anne Yarde

So your thoughts on the Matter of Arthur. Leave a comment below...

13 October 2018

The weekend 13th October

No reviews over the weekend but...

to commemorate the Battle of Hastings
14th October 1066
Buy from Amazon 
eleven alternative stories for the year 1066
by nine fabulous authors 

Helen is also running a series of articles about the events 
that led to the Battle Of Hastings

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12 October 2018

The Ghostly Father by Sue Barnard

Shortlisted for Book of the Month

family drama
Modern Day

Ah! Romeo and Juliet. We all know the story, don’t we? Perhaps not the whole story, it seems in Sue Barnard’s intriguing novel.

The engaging and witty modern heroine, Juliet Roberts, wants to give her grandfather a significant birthday present. After all, at 100, he has or has had most ‘stuff’ or no longer wishes to have or is no longer able to experience other pleasures. So for his birthday he asks Juliet to translate an old manuscript from Italian to English; she’s had the benefit of studying Italian at university.

She and we set off on a journey with Fra’ Lorenzo, Romeo, Giulietta and the entrancing Chiara between Venice, Verona and Mantua into an alternative, but wholly credible version of the world’s most famous love story. It seems that W. Shakespeare didn’t get the whole story…

A ‘ghostly father’ refers to a spiritual parent, but look out for the subtlety of this name. Romeo is still a bit soppy and Giulietta clever and courageous but adoring. Their love is obvious but never over-sentimental.

While firmly keeping the writing fluent and clear, Barnard uses a style that evokes a sense of the fifteenth century. She sets the story well in the social mores and restraints of the time while tempering it with the wisdom of the friars of St Francis. The research is obvious – locations, clothes, food, religious practice, transport –  but integrated without the least hint of an info dump. This is a sure sign of a good writer.

As a herb-gardener myself, I was more than interested in the herbal medicine. I can smell the mint and lavender in Fra’ Lorenzo’s garden. If I have a tiny criticism it’s that the friars are universally kind-hearted, generous and self-sacrificing. Given the compulsion some of them were under to go into holy orders, perhaps a little more resentment would be realistic. 
This is a gentle story, but intelligent with its twists that are occasionally tantalising. I released a relieved breath several times! And as a little icing, the story gives us a lovely speculative reach between then and now; is Luigi Da Porto a strong link?  Cleverly, Barnard leaves it to us to decide.

Highly recommended

© Jessica Brown

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11 October 2018

The Du Lac Prophecy by Mary Anne Yarde

Shortlisted for Book of the Month

Book #4

Fictional Saga  

Illuminating the Dark Ages with Action-Packed Historical Fiction. New readers and those returning fans of the Du Lac Chronicles will immediately be swept back into the tumultuous world of King Arthur and his warring knights in this fast-paced fourth novel in Mary Anne Yarde’s acclaimed Du Lac Chronicles Series. And, with its vivid descriptions, memorable characters and exciting action scenes, The Du Lac Prophecy lives up to its promise of being the richest and most complex of the series. In Ms Yarde’s skilled hands, though, the large cast of characters are masterfully controlled, and although this is a period of history that I am not familiar with, I was able to immediately connect with the warring families, despotic and cruel leaders, and the damaged hero and heroine.

With its interesting combination of well-researched historical detail and contemporary dialogue, I would equate the style of the Du Lac Prophecy with that of the colorization of black and white movies – not to everyone’s taste, but overall doing mainstream and new historical fiction readers a great favor in shining a light on the Dark Ages and making this fascinating time accessible to many. And, for its YA and teen audience, the swift-moving story, vivid action scenes and just enough violence to portray the brutality of the times without offending more delicate stomachs, the Du Lac Prophecy reads like a treatment for Vikings meets Games of Thrones. A compelling introduction to those interested in reading more widely about this time.

What I particularly enjoyed was the way Ms Yarde characterized the brutality of the times through the flaws in her characters. The beautiful Amandine’s emotional damage, Galahad’s excruciating physical harm, and their compelling story acknowledging the power of love to overcome even the most devastating of hurts and betrayals. Throughout the novel, each of the characters emerged from their backdrop and quickly established their own personalities, and Ms Yarde’s clever interplay of church and myth, power and submission wove their stories into an epic saga.

Definitely a novel I enjoyed, and after reading this as a stand-alone, I am eager to go back and devour the rest of the series. Ms Yarde has also convinced me that there is more to the Dark Ages than I thought, and thanks to her “colorization” a period of history I will enjoy visiting again. 

© Elizabeth St John

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10 October 2018

Medieval to Modern: An Anthology of Historical Mystery Stories by Sarah Woodbury, Anna Castle, Libi Astaire, Mary Louisa Locke, M. Ruth Myers.

Mystery / Short stories 
Various periods and locations

Seven short stories and a novella from five supremely accomplished historical fiction authors. The first story is a delightful early Gwen and Gareth mystery from Sarah Woodbury, but without Gareth; Anna Castle presents two masterful stories, the first from her Francis Bacon series, the second from her Professor Moriarty and Sherlock Holmes series; Libi Astaire’s fine story is set in the Jewish community of Regency London; Mary Louisa Locke gives us two carefully-crafted mysteries set amongst the lower orders in Victorian San Francisco, and the final two short stories are from M. Ruth Myers’ wonderful noir female gumshoe, Maggie Sullivan.

The book is a perfect taster of each author’s work. I was familiar with four of the five before I found this book. They are all fine writers. The one that was new to me was Libi Astaire, as confident and relaxed a writer as I have come across.

A good read and an excellent springboard to these authors other publications.

© JJ Toner

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9 October 2018

A Discovering Diamonds review of Against the Tide by Elizabeth Revill

Romance / Family Drama

After witnessing the brutal death of his father, at the tender age of seven, by a band of smuggling cutthroats, Nathaniel Brookes swears to find his father’s killers. As a man he initially follows a medical career, but he turns his back on his comfortable life and dons the garb of a Riding Officer to fulfil his vow. Hated in all communities, ostracised and friendless, he faces more than just his father's enemies. Little did Nathaniel expect, when taking up his duties to ride the dramatic Welsh coastline, that he would meet and fall in love with local beauty, Jenny Banwen, horrifically scarred by a sadistic young member of the gentry. But Nathaniel is betrothed to his first cousin, Hannah. A betrothal of duty. With his loyalties torn, Nathaniel knows his search for the brutes who savagely took his father’s life, his sad engagement and his family obligations will be tested. They reveal that Nathaniel has a double duty, to his oath, and to his heart's future. That is if he can stay alive long enough to have a future.”

Smugglers, villains, heroes, drama, tragedy, tears, laughter, love and murder – and that’s just the first chapter! Against The Tide is described in the publisher’s blurb as “She [the author] is definitely inheriting the mantle of writers like Catherine Cookson.” With that I wholeheartedly agree.

Cookson was (still is!) popular  because her books were about realistic people doing realistic things in realistic situations. They were curl-up-on-the-sofa or laze on the beach ‘comfort’ reads. You knew what you would be getting with a Catherine Cookson – dastardly villains, handsome heroes, pretty heroines to root for; drama, tragedy, tears, laughter, love, action, adventure and a satisfying read from cover to cover. 

Ms Revill well deserves the same accolade because she has the gift of being a wonderful story-teller and her books lift you into the world of her characters from the opening line until the last. You want to strike the villains, hug the heroes and be best friends with the heroines.

Good story, great escapism.

© Mary Turner

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8 October 2018

The Girl in the Tower by Katherine Arden

#Book Two of the Winternight Trilogy

 ('read' as Random House Audio)

Fantasy / Folklore

The second book in Arden’s Winternight Trilogy picks up right where The Bear and the Nightingale left off. Vasya is fleeing her home village, where her father is now dead and the villagers, at the urging of the nasty priest Constantine, are calling her a witch. Vasya plans to go to Moscow to her older sister Olga. On the way, though, she discovers groups of bandits raiding and burning villages, stealing children, murdering the folk who live there, and is determined to put a stop to it. She dresses as a young noble boy and begins harrying the bandits and recovering children as she can. Eventually, she encounters her brother, Sasha, who is out with their cousin Dmitrii, also hunting the bandits. Although Sasha is horrified that his sister is dressing as a boy, they have to maintain her ruse because Dmitrii is fooled and charmed by the boy he thinks Vasya is, and it would cause him to lose face to admit he had been fooled, as well as ruin Vasya’s reputation. As they continue the hunt, they are joined unexpectedly by another, unknown young nobleman, Kasyan, who offers his aid in hunting the bandits because he claims his own lands have also been raided by them.

In time, Vasya and the men return to Moscow where Olga is brought into the secret of her sister’s traipsing across the country as a boy. Olga is furious and only with great reluctance goes along with continuing the ruse, for she understands the political ramifications, but eventually, of course, Vasya is found out. She is called a witch and thrown into the women’s tower, as sure a prison for her as any dungeon cell, and is bound for a convent when she learns the truth about one of the noblemen and his plans. Vasya has to find a way to help save her family and the rest of Moscow before an evil demon can take over as Grand Prince of Moscow.

There are few things I didn’t love about this book. It’s pretty unique for the second book of a trilogy not to be mostly fluff and filler, but this one was outstanding. It had a solid plot, tons of character development, and action all the way through. Paired with Arden’s ability to craft gorgeous atmosphere and intriguing characters, this is a masterful work in its own right.

I love the lyrical style of Arden’s writing. I listened to this on audiobook, which I mostly do while driving, so I didn’t get a chance to bookmark any spots. I wish I could have done so because there were dozens of times that I thought to myself, “That’s a beautiful line” or “What a cool word” and would have included some quotes in my review. But alas. In general, though, the writing added a sense of surrealness that heightened the magic in the story.
Vasya’s development throughout was strong. She started out as a girl, but not a child, and by the end had grown into a young woman. She had some hard lessons to learn in this novel, and being who she is, had to learn them the hardest way. Everything that happened to her has served a purpose, and will help hone her into a strong woman able to face the challenges that will come in the final book of the trilogy.

The focus on gender roles throughout the novel is empowering. I love a good feminist fantasy! Vasya throws traditional roles out the window when she refuses to marry or to go to a convent, which were the only two options available to a girl of her social status at that time. She further stomps on them when she dresses as a boy and goes gallivanting around the country all by herself. Well, she has Solovey, her sentient magical horse, as her companion, but most people she knows wouldn’t count that. Her freedom when she is passing as a boy serves to underscore the stifling life that highborn women have to endure once she gets to Moscow and sees how her sister lives her entire life in the women’s tower, never leaving or going outside except to go to church. There is also the accusation of “witch” that follows Vasya from her village to Moscow. In a way, Vasya is a witch because she can, indeed, see the nature and house spirits that many others cannot, and she can speak to horses, and she is fearless and bold. She is a role model for brave girls, not meek and timid ones, and so a witch she must be. All girls should have a role model like Vasya.

Also, all girls should have a horse like Solovey.
I may not survive the wait until the third book comes out!

© Kristen McQuinn

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6 October 2018

The Weekend 6th October

No reviews over the weekend but...

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5 October 2018

A Discovering Diamonds review of Port of No Return by Michelle Saftich

Family Drama

I’m always drawn to books from the period of and after the Second World War from an area convulsed by the conflict of which little has been written, fiction or non-fiction. This sweeping story, centered on the family and closest friends of Contessa and Ettore Saforo, takes us to one such forgotten corner of the war, the city of Fiume, one of the Italian possessions along the Dalmatian coast of present-day Croatia. Occupied by Germans from 1943, much of the Italian population was forced to flee when the city taken by Tito’s partisan army at the end of the war. Split apart and shuffled from a Yugoslav prison to refugee camps in Italy and Germany, the Saforo family and their extended community of friends are reunited in Trieste, where they finally decide that their future might be secured by immigration, Australia being the only country willing to admit them all.

The author shows considerable skill incorporating a much-needed history lesson on this obscure corner of the war, weaving in her research both in secondary sources and first-hand accounts from her father and others who experienced the purge of the Italian populations from this coastal area after the war. Her facility with laying out and sticking to a complex story with several interweaving plot lines is both admirable and enviable. The reader is carried along with her extensive cast of characters, whipsawed from the wild anxiety of their breakneck flight ahead of an advancing army to cringing fear in a black dungeon to the stultifying sameness of endless days waiting in refugee camps for a future that may never come. She also has a knack for drawing quite believable, three-dimensional child characters, which is fortunate since her cast includes nearly a dozen by the last third of the novel.

Overall, the book showed great skill with lucid writing and consistent voice, the author’s years as a journalist showing through from beginning to end. Although meticulously proofread, the book would have gained from a thorough line edit. There were many examples of redundant words or phrases and repetition of information or description, sometimes within the same paragraph. This being a first novel, I’m confident this will work itself out as the author gains confidence in trusting her readers a bit more – but I strongly suggest she finds herself a good technical editor for her future writing.

Given the way in which the book ends—no spoilers here—it seems likely the author has a series in mind. This may be why she sometimes lays on the foreshadowing a little heavily, particularly with the children. Regardless of these few peripheral weaknesses, this is a ripping good story that will take you to a familiar time but into a place very few people know much about. It’s well worth a read.

© Jeffrey K. Walker

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4 October 2018

The Last Plantagenet? By Jennifer C. Wilson

Shortlisted for Book of the Month

Novella / Time Travel

What a delightful novella. A quick read - about an hour and a half - but one that certainly gives plenty and lingers long after you’ve finished. We know from the first line that Kate is going to experience time travel; it is where she goes and what she does there that awaits us as we read on. As the title suggests, we meet the last Plantagenet, King Richard III, just days before the battle of Bosworth. Kate must come to terms with knowing what she knows and being unable to warn Richard, a king she comes to know very quickly as a man.

This novella is a labour of love – it is not a book someone less passionate about Richard could write. It is rather fanciful and probably tells us a lot about the writer as much as it does Richard. Her inspiration is made very clear at the end and maybe with the passing of time the abruptness of that inspiration will be mellowed. This is one of the new wave of rehabilitation novels for Richard III showing him in a much more sympathetic light, and personally, I am all for it.

As with previous full length novels from this author, this is less accurate history and more ‘what if’ but there is nothing wrong with a dose of unashamed escapism, and this novella delivers that in spades.

© Nicky Galliers


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3 October 2018

Mist-Chi-Mas: A Novel of Captivity by J. L. Oakley

Shortlisted for Book of the Month

Romance / family drama
Northwest Territory North America –

Mist-chi-mas: A Novel of Captivity is a powerful story of two people’s lives, their joys, and their heartaches. When Jeannie Naughton Pierce leaves England and journeys to the Pacific Northwest of the 1860s, she hopes to find peace and a life free from the meddling banter of friends and family.  Jeannie turns to the one person in her life, her deceased aunt's husband, for support and a chance to start anew.  Once Jeannie arrives to the Northwest Territory with her young son, the one person Jeannie does find in her new life is Jonas Breed, her heart's true love.  Their forbidden romance spans decades and takes readers on the unexpected journeys of the two star-crossed lovers.

The author does an exceptional job weaving the events of the time period into the conflicts that create the adventures experienced by Jonas and Jeannie. Oakley opens the readers’ eyes to the struggles of the native cultures, the discord between the immigrant cultures, and the sea faring trades that are shaping the future of the territory. Not only does Oakley capture the strength of the people, but she also captures their weaknesses. Her knowledge of the 1860s generate a passion and hope in her readers that Jeannie and Jonas eventually find a way past the worldly disputes of the time to find their everlasting fairytale ending.

What everlasting means in a fairy tale is wholly different to what it means in a story mirroring characters that could have lived in a real place and time. As much as an everlasting fairytale ending would be stereotypically satisfying, Oakley stays true to her story. She respects the realities of life and stays true to the story’s theme, and the meaning of mist-chi-mas.

Mist-chi-mas: A Novel of Captivity is a story that dives deep into the human psyche.  It is the story of how a young boy rises above his fate to become the master of his destiny.  It is the story of a young woman who overcomes the ideologies of her society to free her inner soul to become the woman she was born to be.  It is, in short, a wonderful story!

© Cathy Smith

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