Monday, June 26, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence by Alyssa Palombo

The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence by Alyssa Palombo is a sweet and heartbreaking story of the love between Botticelli and his muse, Simonetta Cattaneo, the model for Botticelli’s masterpiece: The Birth of Venus.

Simonetta is the daughter of a minor nobleman in Genoa who captures the eye of a handsome, wealthy, politically-connected Florence noble named Marco Vespucci. By showing appreciation for her love of Dante’s poetry as well as her extraordinary beauty, (mostly the latter, though Simonetta fixates on the former), he woos and wins her. He promises she’ll be the toast of the court of the powerful Lorenzo de Medici, who is a great patron of the arts. Although she’s a little intimidated by all the wealth and power, and by the sometimes heretical-sounding conversations, Simonetta is eager to immerse herself in the intellectual and artistic company that surrounds Lorenzo.

Marco is right. The court (at least the men) fall at Simonetta’s feet. At Lorenzo’s home, Simonetta first notices Botticelli’s art and then she is introduced to the man. At once, he makes known his desire to paint her. Simonetta is thrilled, though at first it seems wishful thinking on both their parts rather than an actual possibility. Marco doesn’t take to Boticelli, a social inferior.

The marriage between Marco and Simonetta is a happy one at first. He is devoted and she wants to be in love. However, their interests diverge. Marco is a political "climber." Having a wife who is known as the most beautiful woman in Florence, perhaps all of Italy, and who is intelligent and charming as well, helps to make Marco a favorite with the Medicis. But he doesn’t share her love of art, poetry, or literature. He’s a busy man. So when Simonetta is finally allowed to sit for a portrait by Botticelli, and they fill long days with conversations about topics dear to Simonetta’s heart, it’s clear that the marriage is in trouble. Marco’s subsequent behavior makes things worse.

This novel lushly describes the beauty of Renaissance Florence by making Simonetta its emblem. Her matter-of-fact acceptance of her physical attributes and the way she accepts that advantages flow her way because of her appearance yet never seems particularly vain, and her frustration with being seen always as an object make her a sympathetic and admirable protagonist. She retains a sweet naivete even as she challenges expectations and breaks rules.

But even perfect beauty and a generous spirit provide no guarantees against heartbreak. This poignant love story is a wonderful addition to the genre showing artists and the significant others who give them inspiration.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafron

Over the years, I’ve seen a bunch of reviews for The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon. It is uniformly praised as one of the best novels about books—a literary historical fiction adventure. I finally sat down to read it.

The protagonist is Daniel Sempere, the son of a rare book seller in Barcelona in the mid-twentieth century. When Daniel is just a boy, his father takes him to "The Cemetery of Forgotten Books," a secret place, in an attempt to help ease his heartbreak over the fading memory of his deceased mother. Daniel wanders through miles of bookshelves to find just the right book to adopt and settles on The Shadow of the Wind by Julian Carax. He falls in love with the book and determines to read everything by Carax. However, he discovers that not only is Carax virtually unknown, but that to the rare bibliophiles who have heard of him, the books are secondary in importance to the mystery surrounding him.

Julian Carax was an obscure man whose works were published in limited runs by tiny presses. The books never achieved any success. Carax died in mysterious circumstances. Someone went around acquiring and destroying every copy of his work. Now it seems that Daniel has the only existing copy. The book and Daniel become targets.

Daniel devotes his young life to learning about Carax and trying to unravel the explanation for the destruction of the books. Along the way, Daniel grows up, grows apart from his devoted father, falls in love a couple of times and works in the bookshop alongside his father. He also is threatened by a mysterious figure who smells of burned paper and who tries to get the book away from him.

The plot becomes increasingly complex as Daniel meets more and more characters related in one way or another to Carax. As he comes closer to understanding, he also notices more and more disturbing parallels between himself and the author. As he inserts himself into Carax’s story, the danger increases for Daniel and for those close to him.

I have mixed feelings about the book. It has a lengthy set up and the first half reads slowly. The set up is necessary, but the book was very easy to put down and I kept considering switching to something else. Still, I was determined to finish. After about 200 pages, enough of the plot was coming together to keep me reading. Some of the secondary characters were compelling, though I never really warmed to Daniel. The prose was quite beautiful with wonderful imagery, but the unfolding of the story was sometimes clunky.

The novel does wind its way to an exciting and satisfying conclusion. Loose ends are tied up and things that seemed coincidental were shown to actually have been carefully plotted. It’s a book I’m glad to have read, but am also somewhat disappointed to find it didn’t quite live up to expectations—which may be a fault of the expectations rather than of the book.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: The Baker's Secret by Stephen P. Kiernan

My most recent read is The Baker’s Secret by Stephen P. Kiernan. It focuses on the inhabitants of a small farming and fishing village in Normandy in the time leading up to D-Day. The heroine is Emma, a young, talented baker, who learned her craft from a Jewish baker. "Uncle Ezra" was much beloved by the villagers, but they were powerless to help the day the occupying Germans shot him on a trumped-up charge.

Emma’s bread is discovered by the German commander occupying her town. He decrees she must make twelve baguettes per day for his table and he’ll give her the provisions to do so. It occurs to her to stretch the dough with ground straw so that she can make two extra loaves each day that she secretly distributes. As she gives away the bread, she learns the particular needs of her neighbors, as well as what each is able to provide in return. Slowly, she creates a network of exchange that helps undermine the German oppression and helps her neighbors to survive.

Emma is a wonderful protagonist, but she’s not perfect. She’s judgmental and holds grudges. But she’s also patient, intelligent, and good. She’s pragmatic, dealing with each day as it comes, refusing to indulge in the rather hopeless optimism of those who wait for the allies to liberate them. She also regularly confronts the village priest whose exhortations to attend mass and pray seem to her to fall short.

Other characters round out the village: Odette, the cafĂ© owner who hides her knowledge of the German language and serves both villagers and enemies with black market goods; Guilhaume, the gentle, large-hearted veterinarian; the Monkey Boy, a cross between village idiot and idiot-savant; the Goat Boy (cruelly named by Emma), a rag-tag member of the resistance; Pierre, an old farmer, veteran of the Great War. There are also collaborators, the beautiful Michelle and the embittered, petty tyrant DuFour. While they are all types, they are also well-developed. Emma has compassion even for those she doesn’t like.

The French villagers have hunkered down in survival mode. Time grinds them down. The Germans, uniformly villainous, murder for the flimsiest of reasons. In this atmosphere of terror and deprivation, they wait for deliverance, doing what they can to support one another and the resistance.

The book has a slow build but then becomes impossible to put down.

WWII fiction is always compelling, but so depressing. Even though they often have uplifting messages and brave, compassionate protagonists, the good people are surrounded by ugliness and the worst examples of humanity. It can be painful to read. Nevertheless, The Baker’s Secret is well worth it.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

I am a big fan of Ruta Sepetys’ writing. Between Shades of Gray still stays with me as one of the best examples of YA historical fiction I’ve read. Although Out of the Easy was not as memorable for me, it was still an excellent read. Just a different focus. Now Sepetys has returned to the WWII setting in Salt to the Sea. She has a talent for bringing attention to the more obscure atrocities. This time, the novel centers on the evacuation of refugees from East Prussia as the Russians advanced against Germany. The devastation and loss of life among civilians was appalling.

Salt to the Sea is told from four different viewpoints. Joana is a young Lithuanian woman who was repatriated to Germany where she worked as a nurse. Intelligent, stalwart, compassionate, and pretty, she carries a lot of guilt because she has survived where so many, including some close family members, have not. Emilia is a fifteen-year-old, pregnant Polish refugee. She speaks little German but is extraordinarily sensitive and can discern things about people that others do not. Florian is a young German man, an art restorer, who was involved with Hitler’s campaign to steal and warehouse art to put in the private collections of Nazis. Florian was not truly aware of what was going on until it became impossible to ignore. Now, he is on a mission of vengeance. And Alfred is a young Nazi. Cowardly, bullying, perverse, and verging on mentally ill, Alfred is a cog in the Nazi wheel, one of the sailors manning the evacuation boats.

The first three are thrown together in a small group of refugees making their way to Frauenberg, hoping to find a way west, away from the Russian army. There are other misfits in the group: Ingrid, who is blind but fiercely brave; Eva, a bristly older woman; a wise and kindly cobbler who they call "the shoe poet," and an orphaned, six-year-old named Klaus who stumbled upon the group and was named "the wandering boy." Joana is unofficially the leader. She holds them together and champions the weak. Florian, a late arrival, tries to stay detached–his mission pushes him onward, but he needs them even more than they need him.

Short chapters in each of the POVs propels the story onward. The characters’ concern for one another grows along with the readers’ concern as they move toward their goal. Obstacles and dangers are present every step of the way. And even when they reach Frauenberg and have safety within reach, the dangers increase.

This is a heartbreaking novel. It’s painfully realistic and re-emphasizes the horrors and cruelties of war. Sadly, although this is historical fiction, these horrors are not all in the past. Novels like this one are important. News can be numbing. Strangely enough, fiction can sometimes make the human cost more real.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: The Infidel Stain by M.J. Carter

Having so enjoyed the first of M.J. Carter’s Blake and Avery books, The Strangler Vine, I jumped right into book 2: The Infidel Stain.

Three years have passed since William Avery met Jeremiah Blake, when they were paired by officers of the East India Company to find a lost poet in India’s interior. Avery, who remained in India, is Captain Avery now. He has returned to England a war hero with a pregnant wife to settle down as a country squire. It’s not the life he particularly wants. When he is summoned to London by his long-lost partner, he goes–eagerly and warily.

Blake has been working in London as a private inquiry agent for the same men who utilized his services in India. He dislikes them, but he’s good at it and has to earn his keep. He is, if anything, even more jaded and downtrodden. But he’s as clever as ever.

Blake and Avery have been recommended to Lord Allington, a crusader for the destitute of London, for a special task. An impoverished printer was found butchered in his workplace. The police are doing nothing to find the killer. Allington wishes to show the working people that they are not forgotten and that the law works for them as well as the upper classes. He wants the murderer found.

The book starts slowly as Blake and Avery reconnect and start to look for clues. This is more of a classic whodunit than The Strangler Vine, which had more of an adventure element to it. As Blake and Avery collect clues and suspects, the bodies start to pile up. Criminals, blackmailers, printers of pornographic material, political activists, religious do-gooders, Chartists and journalists are all tangled up in the crimes and the two protagonists have to sort it all out before being killed themselves by one faction or another, or before being arrested as murderers themselves.

Avery is not quite the innocent he was in book 1, but he still has many of his illusions intact. He is even more the gentleman than he was before, and, as a member of the privileged class, has a hard time coming to grips with the poverty and desperation he encounters in London. Blake is under no illusions. Always one step ahead of Avery, Blake nevertheless relies on him, even if it means using Avery’s naive blundering as a means to his own ends.

The two make a splendid pair. Once again, the author describes the settings meticulously and does a wonderful job of incorporating political and historical context. Blake may be a little bit too clever to be entirely credible, but the book is such a page-turner that I’m willing to suspend disbelief. I want Blake to be larger than life. And now I have to read book 3.

Monday, May 22, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck

I received this book free from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.

I just finished a beautiful, melancholy World War II novel, The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck. Two of the main characters, Marianne von Lingenfels, an aristocrat, and Benita Gruber Fledermann, a peasant who married Marianne’s best friend, are introduced at a party in 1938. During the party (at the von Lingenfels country castle), they learn of the rioting and destruction of Jewish businesses and property later known as Kristallnacht. A small group of guests, anti-Hitler intelligentsia, coalesce in their determination to stand against fascism. One of these is Albrecht, Marianne’s husband, and another is Connie Fledermann, Marianne’s oldest and dearest friend, with whom she is more than a little in love. Connie assigns Marianne the task of being "commander of the wives and children." Even though she finds the designation affronting, she takes the task to heart.

The story is told in non-chronological order. The story jumps to the end of the war to find Marianne searching out the wives and children of men who had bound themselves to the resistance. Albrecht and Connie had been among the conspirators who attempted to assassinate Hitler but were caught and executed. During the war, wealth and connections helped spare Marianne the worst of Nazi punishments, but she could do nothing to help her fellow widows. As the war drew to a close, Marianne found Benita and her son Martin, and later, a woman she’d never met but whose name had been on her list: Ania Grabarek, along with her two sons. Marianne brings these families to live with her at an old family castle in the countryside.

The novel tells these women’s stories, what they experienced during and after the war. They are very different but linked through suffering and the desire to protect their children. Each is guarding secrets which are slowly revealed through the course of the narrative.

Although the time shifts in the novel make it a bit choppy, the story holds together well and is, in fact, difficult to put down. The psychological studies of the women are poignant and credible. Marianne is at the center of the book. Extraordinarily strong and full of conviction, she never strays from her sense of duty or her clear-eyed view of right and wrong. While this serves her well as far as moving forward despite aching loss, it does blind her to shades of gray that have influenced the actions of the other women, costing her friendships that might have blunted her own pain.

A varied exploration of the experiences of women inside Nazi Germany, The Women in the Castle is deeply moving, important, and sad.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: Scandal of the Season by Liana LeFey

I received this book free from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.

I was ready to change gears and read a lighthearted Regency Romance, so I pulled Scandal of the Season by Liana LeFey from my Netgalley queue. This novel had a premise that enticed me. An orphaned heiress has reached the age where she must marry, but her heart is already given—not to her guardian, but to her guardian’s best friend. This twist on the "he loves her but it’s not honorable to seduce a young ward" plot line sounded like fun.

Lady Eleanor is the heiress, living with her guardian Cousin Charles and his wife. Charles’s best friend is Sorin Latham, an earl (Lord Wincanton). Sorin practically helped raise Eleanor, and is trusted almost as a member of the family. So when he sees Eleanor at sixteen, after a brief absence, and realizes he has inappropriate feelings for her, he absents himself for 5 more years, thinking to wait until she’s safely married before returning.

Eleanor, however, has no desire to marry any of the men who’ve been presented to her. None of them come close to Sorin.

Sorin returns because his duties won’t wait forever. Naturally, he can’t avoid contact with Eleanor. As they are both in need of spouses, they go to London for the "Season," each pretending to be looking for someone else to wed. Charles specifically asks Sorin to help chaperone Eleanor to keep gold-diggers away, so the two spend a great deal of time together.

Each feels the other cares only as a sibling would. Family and friends can see the sparks flying between them, but they are both so insecure that they refuse to believe it. Instead, they embark on secretive quests to win the other over, without betraying their own feelings, lest it ruin their friendship.

While the premise is cute, they drag it out for the requisite 300 or so pages until it is so tedious I no longer cared whether they got together or not. In fact, in the final confrontation between the two, when Eleanor stares at the obvious but refuses to see it, I found myself wishing Sorin would give up and go home and the two could be miserable-ever-after.

More interesting than the relationship between the two was the rival for Eleanor’s affections, a low-class bully who was so deep in debt he would stoop to anything to entrap Eleanor. He was not an actual rival, since no one could stand him. Eventually, desperate, he sinks as low as he could go to cause a scandal that would force the issue. Eleanor is rescued in the nick of time, but here the book lost me completely. Sorin behaves in a way that is so appalling that all his previous shilly-shallying for the sake of behaving honorably appears ridiculous.

So, despite an initially interesting premise and a few entertaining scenes, this was not a Romance I particularly enjoyed.