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The Blackstone Key: A Novel
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11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon September 28, 2008
Format: PaperbackVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
but not great either.

This is, to the best of my knowledge, Rose Melikan's first foray into fiction, and she does a good job. Mostly.

This period piece is centered around the Napoleonic war timeframe (although a bit before), and features a fair amount of intrigue. I would say a significant amount of intrigue, but the characters are all pretty transparent. The good guy is obviously the good guy and the bad guy is obviously the bad guy. There is nothing too surprising here.

Others say that it is a well-crafted period piece. I don't know how to take that, honestly. There are no obvious signs of anachronisms, like digital wristwatches, but there are a good number of times where I sat and wondered whether an eighteenth century woman (even near the turn of the century) would sit still for such language, let alone be flattered by the men who use it.

The characters are, otherwise, spot on for their time period, and it is an entertaining enough story, although it is simply amazing that the cryptography on the part of the official gendarmes is so frightfully bad that a young woman with what is described as a child's imagination can discover what trained inspectors cannot. Further, the intuition hinted at on the part of young Mary Finch is sometimes simply eye-crossing in its breaking of the fourth wall.

For the most part, entertaining, although there are certainly egregious flaws in certain places. Recommended only for period buffs. Mystery fans should stay away.

C

Harkius
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on October 4, 2008
Format: PaperbackVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
Most of the historical fiction, that I read, is related to the medieval period. This book had an interesting premise, so I thought to give it a try. I was not disappointed. I thoroughly enjoyed this book from start to finish.

The heroine, Mary Finch, is extremely likable. She is intelligent. She enjoys reading & learning about things that women of her time were not supposed to be interested in. She has an inquisitive nature & is very perceptive, which makes her a good detective. She also has an active imagination, which tends to cause problems for her. I thought her to be very well-developed.

There are two male leads: Captain Holland, of the military & a Mr. Deprez, a former sugar plantation owner from St. Lucia. One man is a little rough around the edges, not having a formal education. He and Mary get along well & have good rapport but with her education & background, they don't have much in common. The other man is a polished gentleman who, like Mary, enjoys literature & poetry. Mary needs help with the mystery surrounding her uncle's property & she puts her trust in both men...but only one is worthy of that trust.

This mystery unfolds well. The main character is, of course, Mary but the author also gives you glimpses into the lives/minds of the other characters. These glimpses tell you just enough to make you think that someone you thought was a bad guy could really be a good guy, or the other way around. Then, later in the story, you'll find yourself changing your mind again. You never really know for certain, until near the end, which is villain.

Thrown into this mystery are well placed scenes of everyday life, humor, & romance. The romance is very sweet & plays out well. My only qualm with the book is the ending, which wasn't totally satisfying. The mystery is solved & the love interests finally come together but I was left wanting more. Perhaps there will be a sequel & another mystery for Mary Finch. If there is, I will definitely be back for more.

Edit (April 22, 2009): I just finished re-reading this book & once again found it to be thoroughly enjoyable. I will definitely be reading the second book, The Counterfeit Guest, due out in August.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Format: PaperbackVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
This is a really tough book for me to review. I was very excited to read it since all the elements that I enjoy were there --- history, England, mystery and intrigue. Unfortunately, for me, it missed the mark.

The book is set in 1795 in England and the historical portions of the book were very interesting. I enjoyed reading about modes of travel, societal norms and life styles of the period. That part was very good and I would give that portion of the book a 4 star rating.

The story revolves around spying and treason related to ammunitions technology turing the period of conflict between France and England in the late 1700s. This is where the story fell short for me. If you don't already have a good understanding of the war, the entire spy storyline is fairly empty. There wasn't any background given explaining what was going on other than that the two countries were at war. It was difficult to put it in any kind of context if you don't have it going in. The entire spy/encoded documents portion seemed weak and I felt like it was there to move the characters along versus being a story that needed to be told -- it was very contrived. That part of the book is what brings it to a 3 star rating for me.

While I didn't hate it, I didn't like it either. There is a lot of potential with this author, but this whole thing was just a half step off for me. I would read things by Rose Melikan in the future based upon this book, but am not eagerly awaiting the next one.

To sum it up --If you enjoy period literature for the setting and culture, this is probably worth your time. If you enjoy a good mystery/suspense story, I'd pass and spend your time and money elsewhere.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on July 22, 2009
This is a lively debut novel brimming with fun and suspense. I liked the sprightly tone of the book, and the heroine Mary, well matched with her hero Robert, with just the right undercurrent of romance to keep us turning the pages. Mary going to visit her uncle has a journey fraught with mishaps and peril, and strange turns of events which kept me up reading long into the night.

I loved the opening scene in Cambridge amid the madness of the Newmarket races, which is very true to life. The main things I did not like were that the dialogue tended to be more explanation than conversation. The author also uses a third person omniscient narrator and so the switch to that point of view can be really jarring and reads a bit too much like bad Charles Dickens.

I also wish Captain Holland was a bit less 'stiff upper lip'. Mary is a solid character who copes well in what is mainly a tough man's world, though she takes some silly risks and tends to run around a lot unchaperoned, which any woman of quality would have tended not to do. But generally speaking, this was witty and fun if you like good historical fiction with mystery and a dash of romance.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Format: PaperbackVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
I hate to say this, but I was unable to read very much of this novel before rolling my eyes and giving up. Not just because of the story, which was so-so, or the characters, which were vaguely interesting. The lack of British essence in a story set in England, and historical essence of a story set in the 1700s definitely contributed to my lack of interest.

However, my biggest problem was with the constant lack of professional writing skill. One of the first things a writer learns is that dialogue is said. Or whispered, or shouted, or some other form of speech, but usually said, because "said" is almost invisible to the reader. It's perfectly fine to use other words on occasion, to make things interesting or to emphasize an emotion or mannerism. But when every other bit of dialogue uses a word other than "said", it gets very tiring, very quickly.

Relating to this, dialogue cannot be breathed, gasped, laughed, sighed, frowned, or smiled, because those are not ways of talking. Most especially, dialogue cannot be beamed, gaped, or nodded, as those actions have nothing whatsoever to do with the mouth, throat, or lungs! (Yes, this is a pet peeve of mine. And yes, I've taken all of these examples from the book itself.)

The average reader probably doesn't pick up on details like these, so if you're not picky, you may well enjoy the book.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Format: PaperbackVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
In this historical mystery set in 1795, Mary Finch receives a letter from her estranged uncle inviting her to come to his estate for a visit. Exhilarated to not only get to know her only living relative but also to leave her dull existence as a schoolteacher at Mrs. Bunbury's, Mary takes a coach to White Ladies, her uncle's home. But along the way she encounters an overturned coach and a man who somehow has her uncle's watch (a match for the one that belonged to her late father), as well as the helpful yet slightly mysterious Captain Holland. Upon arrival at White Ladies, she finds the home deserted, her uncle dead, and a group of smugglers using the estate as a convenient point of business. Mary's not content to sit back and let events go by; she launches into the mystery of what's been going on at White Ladies and begins to unravel the spy ring through her decoding skills and her tenacious personality.

The Blackstone Key is a pleasant historical mystery but hardly compelling. I felt the story lacked focus; while Mary is certainly an engaging young woman, the movement between the actual mystery and Captain Holland's romantic interests seemed scattered. At times I felt like I was reading a novel not unlike something Jane Austen might've written, and then abruptly I was thrust back into the mysterious spy ring and the war between France. Frankly, the Austen-ish atmosphere was way more interesting to me than the rather predictable spy story. I wanted to be kept on the edge of my seat and I wanted the story to move much more quickly than it did. And as someone else has mentioned, the way the "gentlemen" curse in front of a "lady" doesn't seem to fit in with the customs and it pulled me out of the story every time.

The Blackstone Key is not a bad book, nor is it poorly written. It just isn't precisely what I expected based on the cover summary. It's neither solely an historical mystery nor a romantic story, and it's not exactly a good blend of both. There are parts that are very good followed by long passages that seem to be confusing and almost irrelevant. I would love to give a glowing review, but the best I can say is that the main character is interesting and overall the idea behind the book is good, even if the story lacks focus.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon October 14, 2008
Format: PaperbackVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
In 1795, Mary Finch sets out from Mrs. Bunbury's school to make her way in the world and meet her wealthy uncle, a man rendered mysterious on account of his estrangement from Mary's family. On the way from Cambridge to Suffolk, Mary is waylaid by a horse race, a roadside accident in which she is called upon to render assistance to an injured man, and a series of adventures full of deception and political intrigue. When the injured man issues a stern warning and she discovers one of her uncle's items in his possession, Mary's determination to unravel the mystery suddenly makes her question the configuration of those people surrounding her on this voyage. As Mary tries to ascertain their character, she comes face to face with a world more dangerous than that of the closed society of Mrs. Bunbury's world. The violence of the recent French Revolution reverberates in the shadows of the English mind and France's declaration of war sets the stage for plots of spies, traitors and smuggling. Can Mary trust Mrs. Tipton, a woman helping her rise above her station in life but who watches her actions a little too closely? Is Captain Holland the protector he appears to be? What about the shadowy man from St. Lucia, a certain mysterious Mr. Deprez who understands her artistic nature but has a dangerous underside? Is there more to Mr. Hicks than meets the eye? Mary Finch rises to the challenge, using her intelligence, her study of character and her intuition to solve a secret code and discover a plot that could endanger her own life, the life of those around her and indeed all of England itself.

Rose Melikan's THE BLACKSTONE KEY has a delightful combination of period dialog, manners and mores as well as suspenseful action that hinges on an intriguing historical detail. Mary Finch's character draws the reader into the story. Her fanciful imaginings and moments of covertness bring a smile but Mary is also a woman who buckles down to solve the details of the mystery despite the kinks and difficulty presented before her. Somewhat innocent, generous, and full of imagination, her character is balanced with a sense of integrity and ability to question herself. Rose Melikan's historical novel brings the period to life with its language, a language reminiscent of novels written during the period. With an academic background in 18th and 19th century British political and constitutional history, Rose Melikan integrates her knowledge of the period seamlessly and directly into several cruxes in Mary's adventures while giving the reader a look into social history as well. THE BLACKSTONE KEY is a novel to be savored in every detail by enthusiasts of the period. All in all, THE BLACKSTONE KEY is just one fun read. Once the reader gets to know Mary's charismatic character, the pages just fly as the reader becomes immersed into this historical world and the emerging political intrigue.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Format: PaperbackVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
(...although, the story takes place in 1795.) It is based on historical fact concerning the making of gunpowder in the last quarter of the 18th century, and the theft of paperwork from a scientist whose interests included experiments on explosives. To be honest, a book about a gunpowder conspiracy didn't interest me, but I love to read historical fiction, and I have enjoyed other books from Touchstone, such as Philippa Gregory's books Philippa Gregory Set (The Queen's Fool, the Other Boleyn Girl, the Virgin's Lover), so I decided to expand my horizons.

I was very pleased with the amount of research the author, Rose Melikan, put into The Blackstone Key. She even includes a simple map with places of interests that are mentioned in the story, and the code system referred to is easy to understand; this helps the story flow quite smoothly.

I can't stand reviews that reveal too much about the plot, but the book is so much more than just a mystery about gunpowder. The main character, Mary, is out of her time: she wants to change her place in society; she doesn't behave like a "proper" young lady should, and yet everyone she meets appreciates the way that she thinks. Many of the other characters are also struggling with what society expects of them. The first 100 pages or so were the slowest - setting up the story, but after that I didn't want to put the book down...just when one situation is resolved, you find yourself in the middle of something more. I liked the fact that not everything was written from the viewpoint of the main character - in fact, sometimes you are taken away from Mary to see what the other characters are thinking and doing...but Mary is definitely the center of it all.

At first I was disappointed to find out that the book is part of a trilogy (The Counterfeit Guest will be published in 2009, and the author is currently working on the third installment), but after I finished reading The Blackstone Key, I realized that the novel could stand alone...there were no loose ends.

The Blackstone Key includes a Touchstone Reading Group Guide:
*Eleven discussion questions
Ex: what role does social status play in the novel?
OR what is the Blackstone key?
*"Enhance your bookclub"
- Shakespeare sonnet
- Queen dowager code game
- Commentary weblinks
*"A conversation with Rose Melikan"
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon October 16, 2008
Format: PaperbackVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
The Blackstone Key begins in 1795, a turbulent time, for England is at war with France. Mary Finch is a teacher at a school for young ladies in Cambridge, England. The story begins as Mary is on her way to visit her Uncle Edward, who owns an estate in Suffolk. She had recently received a message from him asking her to visit. Having lost both her parents a few years before, her uncle is her only living relative. Trouble is, because of a family dispute, before she was born, she's never met her uncle before.

On the way to White Ladies, her uncle's home, Mary found the coach ride mostly pleasant because she had some people to talk with. A major delay took place when they encountered an accident with an overturned coach and a dying man laying in a ditch. Mary insisted on staying behind with the injured man while her group went on to see about sending a doctor. The injured man, in his agitated state, said several mysterious things which alarmed Mary. He also pulled out an engraved watch which Mary felt surely belonged to her uncle because it had his initials on it. Mary had inherited an identical one from her father with his engraved initials. She thought that the two brothers must have received them from her grandfather. When she finally arrives at the next town, she is somewhat celebrated for her bravery in helping a roadside victim. Too many strange things had taken place and Mary feels that something very strange is going on and she doesn't know if she will find her uncle dead or alive. Over time, she's assisted by several people, but is not sure who she can really trust.

This is a well written and suspenseful book, and Mary Finch is a likeable character.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
Format: PaperbackVine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
It's hard to believe this book was written by a first-time novelist. Everything about it was just right. The story was addictive, the characters complex and appealing, and the writing superb. The author did a beautiful job of painting wonderful word pictures so I could well visualize the settings and the action.

I'm a sucker for historical fiction anyway and loved how I came away from reading this book feeling like I knew more about the time period (England in the late 1700s) and the challenges people faced. And it's hard not to love Mary Finch, the heroine of the story. Orphaned as a teen and obligated to find work as a teacher in a girls' school, she longed for adventure and excitement and then found it. It was fun to see the mystery slowly unfold, and I was happy that I wasn't able to figure out in advance what would happen at the end.

After the book finished, I turned the page to find several pages of discussion questions and topic for a book study group. I thought this was excellent, since this book would be perfect for a book club. Then there was a question and answer session with the author (don't read this until you've finished the book) that revealed that this will be the first book in a trilogy. I can hardly wait for the saga to continue!

I highly recommend this book. It's very well written and a really enjoyable read.
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