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REVIEW:  The Vacant Chair by Kaylea Cross

REVIEW: The Vacant Chair by Kaylea Cross

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The Civil War has torn Brianna Taylor’s family apart and made her a widow. Determined to ease the suffering of the wounded crowding the Union hospitals and honor the memory of the man she loved, she embarks on a career as a nurse. But then he arrives—a patient who makes her feel alive again in spite of her resolve to stay detached.
Captain Justin Thompson understands the cost of war all too well, yet he felt compelled to fight for the Union his father died defending. Wounded at Cold Harbor and left to die at a military hospital, he owes his life to Brianna, who seems determined to guard her professional boundaries despite his best efforts to breach them. Just as he’s winning the battle for her heart, he’s forced to return to the front of a cruel war that could very well separate them forever.

Dear Ms. Cross,

I can’t recall where I first heard of your historical book, “The Vacant Chair,” but what got me interested in trying it is the fact that both lead characters are Union sympathizers. Usually it’s Union x Confederate, and I’ll admit that I’ve read my fair share of those books, but I thought it would be nice to see what could be done with both hero and heroine pulling and working for the same side.

One thing I definitely like about the book is that it uses some battles not generally seen in most Civil War books I’ve read. Yeah, Sherman in Georgia gets a mention and at the end Justin worries about General Johnston still on the loose in North Carolina but though most of the fighting is done in Virginia it’s the Battle of the Wilderness, Cold Harbor, Cedar Creek and the siege of Richmond that take center place.

Since parts of the book actually take place during battle,s and don’t just mention afterwards that characters were there, I wasn’t surprised that descriptions were blunt as to the level of violence occurring. The action that Justin and his men take part in to hunt down Mosby’s men in Virginia is equally chilling when they finally capture and execute them. War is awful and you portray both the emotional as well as the physically damaging effects. I was surprised when one secondary character dies but given the number of people the characters know who are in arms, it would probably have been unrealistic for them all to make it through.

Brianna is a nurse and Justin is an officer and I was glad to see both of them at work. Brianna doesn’t merely wipe fevered brows, give men sips of water and write letters home – she actually does nursing work and hard, dirty, exhausting and heartbreaking work it is. Like all good nurses I know, she cares passionately for her patients, toils tirelessly at her job and tries to learn all she can to be even better at it tomorrow. Justin is not only admired by the men he leads into combat but is just as determined to lead them all out again. He’s steady under fire and obeys orders to either hold his ground or charge straight at the Rebs. He’s also sickened by war and the wasted lives it’s left behind.

I appreciate that both Brianna and Justin have suffered during the war both in what they’ve seen and dealt with and from the loss of those they love. Nightmares, haunted eyes and alcohol all come into play and thank you for not having love conquer all PTSD. The book also shows how horribly the war losses resonated on the home front and one of the debilitating ways 19th women coped via laudanum. There were also two points in the book where I braced myself for some good, old fashioned yet despised romance tropes which thankfully didn’t occur. My sigh of relief when expected paths were not trodden down was enormous.

I did wonder at how easily Brianna seems to traipse back and forth across Union and Confederate lines as she’s going into and out of Richmond. Some of the language seemed too modern to me as Brianna talks about giving Justin “space” to grieve and how she thinks being around his desolate mother is “toxic” for him. It’s not so much that the rest of the dialog or writing is especially period so perhaps you were going for use of understandable modern vernacular.

Since Justin and Brianna admit their mutual admiration followed by love fairly early in the book, the tension is generally maintained by their separation and fear for each other – Brianna for Justin at the front lines and he for her in Richmond surrounded by Union troops and lacking food and medicine. While the war was raging, there was enough drama that my attention was caught and held. But I’ll be honest and say that at the unfortunate post-war posting for the 5th Michigan, my interest began to lag.

I appreciate all that you did include about the more unpleasant and difficult aspects of war and separation. Your research appears to be thorough and period feel good. I just wish the final bits of the story had maintained the dramatic intensity the book started with. B-

~Jayne

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REVIEW:  The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

REVIEW: The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker

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In The Golem and the Jinni, a chance meeting between mythical beings takes readers on a dazzling journey through cultures in turn-of-the-century New York.

Chava is a golem, a creature made of clay, brought to life to by a disgraced rabbi who dabbles in dark Kabbalistic magic and dies at sea on the voyage from Poland. Chava is unmoored and adrift as the ship arrives in New York harbor in 1899.

Ahmad is a jinni, a being of fire born in the ancient Syrian desert, trapped in an old copper flask, and released in New York City, though still not entirely free

Ahmad and Chava become unlikely friends and soul mates with a mystical connection. Marvelous and compulsively readable, Helene Wecker’s debut novel The Golem and the Jinni weaves strands of Yiddish and Middle Eastern literature, historical fiction and magical fable, into a wondrously inventive and unforgettable tale.

Dear Ms. Wecker,

The decision to try this book came about in a way that often catches me. It just seemed “different.” When faced with such a book, I’m often like a child who sees a something unknown and just has to pick it up and look at it closer. Sometimes it pays off with a wonderful discovery and other times it won’t. Here the payoff is thoughtful, mesmerizing book with intriguing characters, situations and a hopeful but by no means certain happiness for some.

I first saw the book at Amazon from their “people who…”. The cover – oh yes, I’m fickle for cover art too – made me look twice, the title made me click on it to discover more and the blurb, well that was the “different” that made me decide to buy it. While I don’t often read fantasy novels, I do like them and this one promised not only a jinni but a golem as well. Not your ordinary vampire, shifter or zombie fantasy novel here. And along with the unusual characters there’s turn of the twentieth century NYC for the same admission price. How could I resist?

The setting is a trip back in time and makes me glad to I had just finished watching the early episodes of Ric Burn’s documentary about New York City as that allowed me to much more easily “see” the places and things described, especially the angel fountain and the crowded tenements of the immigrant lower east side. I love it when things come together that way. The story is a lovely view of two immigrant communities. While it’s not always complimentary, it’s always sympathetic. I also agree with the view point that many of the issues covered here are relevant today – the clash of cultures, languages and traditions still being brought to this country 110 years later.

The Golem and the Jinni are fascinating creations. They’re opposites and yet the same. They have so many similarities but also differences. She is earth – solid, dependable and more comfortable being told what to do. He’s fire – fickle, fleeting, free spirited and damn the consequences. He’s appalled at being confined while she’s horrified at being rootless. On the other hand, they’re both “not human” and can see the truth of the other allowing each the luxury of being exactly who and what they are. They manage to understand each other as no human could ever know them. They are beings bound to another’s will who find freedom. Born of the old world, they come to the new and reinvent themselves. And yes to all the comparisons to immigrants.

The plot is one that kept me guessing and believe me, this is a good thing. Its intricacies take quite a while to unfold and take shape. At first I wasn’t sure who all these secondary characters were and how on earth their backstories would be relevant for the Golem or the Jinni. But in the end, everything is knit together and the tapestry of the story is completed. Oh dear, that’s a mixed metaphor.

The pathway to the denouement is a twisty one which must have taken a good deal of time to imagine and then wrestle under control. I do love when a plot leaves me guessing and interested.

But is there a romance?, I can hear readers asking. Well, in a way. Each is the one the other thinks of when times get tough. She gets him to see and accept his responsibility for his actions while he gets her to loosen up, find some joy in life and be willing to take a few chances. In the end, as the Golem thinks, they’ll have to work at a relationship, carve one out that will fit and suit only them. Can they do it? I think yes. They’re both strong but still flexible and as they continue to make and remake their lives, I think they will find a place just for them. B

~Jayne

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