Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Soren Paul Petrek - 'Cold Lonely Courage' - Review & Giveaway

Believability is key in historical fiction, especially when your main character is a female assassin. The blending of real-life conditions within the framework of an imaginary narrative is a fine line to walk for a writer. Soren Paul Petrek begins Cold Lonely Courage with a quote from a flesh and blood figure:

"Women, as you must know, have a far greater capacity for cool and lonely courage than men."
- Captain Selwyn Jepson
British Special Operations
Executive Senior Recruiting Officer
World War II

His heroine emerges out of this echo from the 1940s. Her name is Madeleine Toche, and she is known throughout France as the Angel of Death. All she wants is "
a husband who loves me, some children and a little restaurant to call home." Instead, she is brutally raped by a German officer on her way back from the market. Coupled with the occupation of her native land, this act of violence leaves an indelible mark on her psyche. Fueled by hate, she exacts her revenge. She becomes a killer.

Escaping to London, Madeleine seeks to aid the French Resistance. After answering a newspaper ad, she is selected by the British Intelligence (SEO). They train her to withstand all forms of torture from water-boarding to unexpected beatings. Her devotion catches the eye of head trainer, Jack Teach. He requests permission - from none other than Winston Churchill -
to have her trained as an assassin. Her mission is to take down the leaders of the Nazi party and the most sadistic officers of the S.S. Like Angelina Jolie in Lara Croft Tomb Raider, she is designed to cut down the enemy with stealth and precision. She is transformed into a lethal killing machine.

Madeleine is introduced to the art of assassination by former German soldier, Berthold Hartmann. Recognized as a national hero for his bravery in World War I, he is now rejected by his country for being a Jew. Much like the relationship between Catherine Zeta-Jones and Sean Connery in Entrapment, the two form a student-teacher bond. With his family taken away to a concentration camp, Berthold is alone in the world. He promises to look out for Madeleine. When she wants to walk away from the job, he makes an oath to kill anyone who tries to stop her.

Often, Madeleine is described conflicting terms. She is charmingly French, much like Audrey Tautou in Amelie. Yet her beauty cannot be denied even when she is undercover. Instead she uses her physicality to gain access to her intended targets. As a femme fatale, she is a mixture of innocence and seduction. Her method is to play on the passions of men, while remaining level-headed and focused in the face of danger. It is a survival mentality. "
Her life had been an endless path of death. She had to make it through."

However, she lets down her guard to form a relationship with Jack. Petrek relates,
"It was her love for Jack that proved to her that she could enjoy physical love to the extent that she had even after her rapist's brutality." Madeleine's emotions mirror those of Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Her feelings for Jack are described in the passage: "The joy she felt filled her completely, pushing deep inside the last vestiges of her anger and her hate, its power absolute and cleansing. The same way the venom of her anger and malice had permeated her being after her rape, love burned it all away." After a brief moment of intimacy, they make a promise to find each other after the war.

"But if we make it through the war, you had better come looking for me. I will not worry if you stray as long as you come running back."

"You're joking," he blurted, lost in disbelief.

"No, I am French. And by the way, you're no schoolboy, Jack Teach," she said.

A pivotal episode in the book occurs in a small French village called Oradour sur Glane. An entire town of civilians is massacred by the S.S. for supposed ties to the Resistance. According to Petrek, "The reasons behind the actions of the Nazis and their destruction of Oradour are clouded. There is no definitive answer. I chose to incorporate the theory put forth by Robin Mackness in his nonfiction book, Massacre and Aftermath concerning a possible explanation." Petrek's heart-wrenching detail of the aftermath is riveting.

Soldiers covered the wounded men in straw and doused them with gasoline. Most of the dying men were trapped in the tangle of bodies were beyond resisting. He saw more than one child's clog that had not been completely engulfed by the flames and explosions that had ravaged the church. He saw blood cooked by the intense heat into the porous stone floor of the building.

The witness to this tragic event is a German military police officer, Horst Stenger. It is to Petrek's credit that he includes a German character who is not brainwashed by Nazi propaganda. Stenger says, "These Nazis are bad. Although we try not to speak about it, we have both always known that to be true." After Oradour sur Glane, he has a further change of heart, "Humanity drove him to pursue a life of service and to hunt down those that preyed on innocence. His eyes teared as he realized the true magnitude of the barbarity that had occurred to the people of the small town. He raised his own camera and began to take pictures, having to stop periodically to wipe tears from his eyes so that he could do his work and record the shadows that remained of an unspeakable act that demanded justice."

One part of the story doesn't quite fit - the American from the 82nd Airborne, John Trunce. He parachutes into France on D-Day only to miss his landing site when his plane takes on enemy fire. He meets Madeleine on a German-patrolled road.

They were two young people who could have just as easily stepped out of a dance hall for a quick smoke and a chat.

She found herself liking the young soldier immediately. He had a calm, easy way about him. He hadn't shown any fear and seemed to care less that she was a woman. She was sure there weren't many like him. It was the mark of being at home within one's own skin.

He knew that he'd come across someone special. Without a second thought he knew he'd die to protect her.

They shared an instant bond.

At this point in the story, Madeleine hasn't seen Jack in over three years. Feeling instantly attracted to John, it is hard to believe that she would cling to the distant memory of Jack. Petrek doesn't explore the possibility of a romance between John and Madeleine, instead he prefers to keep his heroine on course for a fairy tale ending.

Other minor drawbacks include the cover art by Michael Morgan which seems to have little to do with the book's subject matter. Also the brutality of the language can be a bit coarse at times: "She knew she would be raped until there was nothing left of her and then hung for public display." There are spelling errors and typos throughout and mid-chapter shifts in scene could use asterisks or extra spacing.
Yet the chapters are short, and the book is fast-paced.

Overall, this female assassin belongs on the big screen.

The book received the Best Fiction Award from The Writers Network's 15th Annual Screenplay and Fiction Competition.

Cold Lonely Courage by Soren Paul Petrek is available for $15.95 at Amazon.com and at BlackRoseWriting.com.

A complimentary review copy was provided by PumpUpYourBook.com.

Congratulations to our winner: Betty McBroom!

Monday, August 23, 2010

SyFy's 'Ghost Hunters' Jason Hawes & Grant Wilson - 'Ghost Hunt: Chilling Tales of the Unknown' - Review & Giveaway

The guys from T.A.P.S. are delving into the scariest territory of all - adolescence. Jason Hawes and Grant Wilson's first foray into the realm of young adult fiction is Ghost Hunt: Chilling Tales of the Unknown, a collection of imaginary stories based on real-life cases investigated by the Ghost Hunters of the SyFy Network. The familiar T.A.P.S. logo adorns hats, shirts, converted Roto Rooter vans - now it graces the cover of a book aimed at a young audience. Tweens love to shiver between the pages from R.L. Stine's Goosebumps to the writings of Christopher Pike, and this particular installment is much like the T.V. show - more technical than emotional. The focus is on electromagnetic field detectors and electronic voice phenomena rather than blood-curdling screams and heart-racing panic. By employing a female point-of-view through new team member, Lyssa Frye, the book attempts to target both genders, but with more terminology than horror it is a better fit for a boy's bookshelf.

The publisher's sampler includes two chapters. The first is "Pennies from a Ghost," where two brothers keep finding seven pennies in their room arranged in the shape of a flower. The spare change appears in different locations next to the bed, under the window, etc. Lyssa fields the distress call on her first day at The Atlantic Paranormal Society office. The reader experiences the investigation through her eyes as the new chief interviewer. She has a panic attack investigating a dark basement with Jason. This is harder than it looks! Lyssa realized suddenly. She was talking to the dark. She was asking a ghost to show itself. Most people would be running the other way. But I'm not most people. I'm a T.A.P.S. investigator. Or at least she was trying to be one. The end result has shades of the plot from Zac Efron's Charlie St. Cloud.

Chapter two entitled "The Ghost of Grandma Helen" explores an area not often addressed on the show - psychic mediums. The goal of any T.A.P.S. investigation is to debunk paranormal claims. They rarely, if ever, turn to those with the ability to converse with the dead. However, the team turns to a psychic to commune with the spirit of a deceased grandmother who is appearing to her 4-year-old granddaughter. This paranormal dialogue is not on the level of Kate Hudson's terrorizing ordeal in The Skeleton Key, but it is a departure for T.A.P.S. It concludes with a poignant ceremony at the family grave site.

The end section is a Cliff-Notes/Wikipedia introductory guide to ghost hunting. Told in the narrative voice of Jason and Grant, the appendix adheres in tone to the T.A.P.S. philosophy - "If you set out to prove a haunting, anything will seem like evidence. If you set out to disprove it, you'll end up with only those things you can't explain away." It's a junior high entry course to Ghost Hunters Academy. The seven steps of the T.A.P.S. method are explained; a test case measures ghost hunting skills with a multiple choice quiz; and a back-of-the-book glossary defines terms of the trade.

For Ghost Hunters fans, the book feels like Jason and Grant just slapped their names onto the project. Only the introductory pages to the fictional stories and ghost hunting guide are attributed to the guys from T.A.P.S. When they appear as characters, their actions ring false. A weird romantic undertone is found in the lines: Grant leaned forward. His dark eyes stared into Lyssa's. Jason appears as if he is talking to a room full of kindergarten kids when he says, "Don't be afraid to admit you're scared, Lyssa. We all are sometimes." Meanwhile, Steve and Tango are replaced by an annoying set of twins. Chris Williams is M.I.A. instead the fictional team is led by female technical manager, Jen Shorewood. The producers of the book are more interested in creating formulated drama than depicting the reality behind the series.

Overall, Ghost Hunters Jason and Grant only have a supporting role in their own book.

Ghost Hunt: Chilling Tales of the Unknown by Jason Hawes & Grant Wilson is available September 7th for $16.99 at Amazon.com and at LB-Kids.com. The new season of Ghost Hunters premieres August 25 at 9 p.m. on the SyFy Network.

A complimentary review copy was provided by LB-Kids.

Congratulations to our winner: Sebastian C.!

Monday, August 16, 2010

Philippa Gregory - The Red Queen - Review & Giveaway

A manic desire. A refusal to let things go. An unwavering belief in one's importance. Meet Philippa Gregory's The Red Queen. Margaret Beaufort is the matriarch of England's Tudor dynasty. How she got there is a story of persistence, plotting and piety. Her tale is immersed in the blood of the War of the Roses that divided Britain for generations. Civil strife revolved around two families both claiming the right to rule - the Lancasters (the red rose) and the Yorks (the white rose). Margaret is a Lancaster who during her lifetime sees power shift multiple times. In her heart, she feels with all of her soul that the Yorks are usurpers of authority, and that only the Lancaster line has the God-given authority to rule. As a woman she cannot participate on the battlefield, but behind the scenes she relentlessly campaigns for her side. Every prayer, every thought, every moment of her life is centered on cementing the rights of her family and debilitating her enemies. She is a formidable force - maybe not as famous as her descendants Henry VIII and Elizabeth I - but certainly just as driven.

The aspiration of Margaret's life is to see her son, Henry on the throne of England. Henry's father is Edmund Tudor thereby introducing the ultimate victor of the War of the Roses power struggle. Her son is the center of her world, even though she is separated from him for much of his life. This complete and potentially destructive devotion is similar to Halle Berry's portrayal of Alex Haley's Queen. Maternal love is deeply rooted in fear, both real and imagined. Protective instincts are permanently kicked into high gear - they are constantly on alert. Imminent danger is something to be expected, without exception. Their sole purpose in life is to protect their child from danger. A child whose future will fulfill all of their hopes and dreams.

Margaret sacrifices her entire life for her self-proclaimed royal destiny. She will not stop until she can sign her name with a flourish as Margaret R. - Margaret Regina. When her first husband, Edmund Tudor dies, she falls in love with his brother, Jasper. The two resist their feelings for each other by placing the needs of Henry before their own. Instead of being happy with her gentle, peaceful second husband, Lord Stafford, she sees him as weakling who runs from conflict. He is kind to her and offers her a loving home protected from the violence of civil war. But it is still not enough, she only criticizes him for compromising with the Yorks. Her relationship with her wily third husband, Lord Stanley is based solely on strategy. The two form a partnership based on establishing her son as liege. Nothing more, nothing less - the only thing is Margaret doesn't know if she can trust him. Like Jessica Lange in Hush, she does not establish any formative romantic relationships for herself, instead she focuses on potential matches for her son. She'll even have him betrothed to the daughter of her arch rival - the York queen, Elizabeth Woodville - in order to firmly establish her son's reign by uniting the families.

Margaret's role model is Joan of Arc. As a young girl, she claims to have a vision of the girl warrior. For the remainder of her life, she compares the sanctity of her life to that of the saint. She cannot fail, God is on her side. She twists religion to suit her own needs. As her self-serving spouse Lord Stanley says, "Yes, because you think God wants your son to be King of England. I don't think your God has ever advised you otherwise. You hear only what you want. He only ever commands your preferences. He always tells you to strive for power and wealth. Are you quite sure it is not your own voice that you hear, speaking through the earthquake, wind and fire?" So convinced of her cause, she likens the tactics of her rival, Elizabeth Woodville, to witchcraft. On the eve of Henry's planned invasion a storm swallows his fleet. Margaret thinks, I have no-one to talk to but my God, and I cannot always hear His voice, as if the rain is blotting out His very face, and the wind blowing away His words. This is how I know for sure that it is a witch's wind.

The Red Queen's cast of characters reaches operatic proportions. Keeping tabs on who is related to who and where they fit into history can get confusing for a reader not steeped in British royal lore. Gregory keeps dates clear by listing the month/season and year at the beginning of each chapter. Events are depicted in chronological order from 1453 through 1485. At the end, the narrative suffers from a change in point-of-view when Margaret takes a back seat during Henry's military takeover. At times, Margaret's inner thoughts get repetitive. Her intense focus on her son is admirable, but a more well-rounded personality would be more realistic.

Overall, Gregory tries to make the most out of an unlikeable queen.

The Red Queen by Philippa Gregory is available for $25.99 at Amazon.com and at WarsOfTheRosesBooks.com.

A complimentary review copy was provided by Simon & Schuster.

Congratulations to our winner: Lisa Duncan!

Win 1 of 10 SIGNED copies from Simon & Schuster UK Visit this link for more information on how to enter.

Watch Philippa Gregory read excerpts from The Red Queen

Visit this link to watch the video playlist.