Saturday, July 4, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: The Confessions of Catherine de Medici by C.W. Gortner

I spent last weekend at the Historical Novel Society’s North American Conference in Denver. I think there were over 400 people there! For anyone who loves historical fiction, I can’t recommend this society or this conference highly enough.

I didn’t come away with the enormous book haul that I usually do because I’m so far behind in my TBR pile. Still, I couldn’t resist adding a couple new ones to the pile.

One new addition that I started on the plane ride home was The Confessions of Catherine de Medici by C.W. Gortner. After enjoying Mademoiselle Chanel so much, I knew I’d have to delve into his earlier novels that deal with characters from medieval/Renaissance time periods. This novel did not disappoint.

Catherine is the last of the famous/infamous of the Medici line. Brought up to redeem their fallen fortunes, she is wed to the son of the king of France–the second son, but the first son is sickly and so...

Catherine does become dauphine. However, she has obstacles to overcome. Her husband is enamored of his longstanding mistress, Diane de Poitiers. And he is a surrounded by a cadre of friends/advisors who look upon her as an Italian of no account.

Through patience, persistence, and with the help of second sight and her own advisor, Nostradamus, she is able to slowly win over her husband’s acceptance and build a life as his wife and consort. The necessary children follow and become the center of her world.

Catherine is determined to build a strong legacy in France for her sons. Unfortunately, France is in the midst of a religious upheaval with Catholics and Huguenots at each other’s throats. Moreover, all of Europe is engulfed in the same conflict, hampering Catherine’s attempts to build political alliances with Spain and England. And, if she might have a chance to find love herself, religion and politics interfere.

The novel provides a wonderful blend of history and exploration into the psyche of a complex, fascinating woman. It’s a thoroughly enjoyable read!

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: Antigoddess by Kendare Blake

Now I seem to be bouncing back and forth between historical fiction and fantasy. I’ve gotten a bit hooked on fantasy’s adventure and escapism. Looking for what to try next, I decided on some YA fantasy. Kendare Blake’s The Goddess War series sounded particularly intriguing with its link to Greek mythology.

Book One is Antigoddess. The immortal Greek gods are dying. They have lived for thousands of years among mortals, losing contact with the other gods, letting their various powers atrophy from disuse. Although the cause for the current change in their situation is unclear, each of them is dying a slow, painful death unique to their particular character. Athena is being drowned in feathers growing in her lungs which work their way painfully to the surface. Her half-brother, Hermes, is wasting away. Athena and Hermes have some sympathy for one another, so they set off together to discover the cause. While they don’t learn what is behind their illness, they do discover that there is a war going on, rival gods banding against one another. This is not so surprising–the gods have always skirmished, wreaking havoc on the mortals along the way. Except, previously, the gods themselves did not suffer. This time, the gods are dying. One side must kill the other in order to survive. And Athena and Hermes have not been picked to join the gods who seem to be on the stronger side.

There is more to the puzzle. The gods are looking for Cassandra, once the prophetess of Troy, now a teenage girl living in small town New York, impressing the other teenagers with an uncanny ability to guess things before they happen. Athena doesn’t know why she needs to find Cassandra, only that she has to find her before Hera and Poseidon do. For Cassandra, things are going to get real ugly, real fast.

The premise of this novel really appealed to me and I think Blake did a great job of modernizing a Trojan War plot. She pulled together a number of characters from the old myths and assigned them new roles with a twist.

For the old Greek gods and the mortals mixed up with them the war isn’t over yet–and I’m going to have to read on to see what happens next.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George

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

The title of my next read explains what drew me to it: The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George. I’m a sucker for books about books, or bookstores, or writers. And this one has all three–in Paris.

Monsieur Jean Perdu is a middle-aged book-seller who sells books off a barge, the Literary Apothecary (or Lulu) which is moored on the Seine. Jean is the true "literary apothecary." He is able to judge what ails the customers who wander onto his boat/store and put the proper book into their hands to soothe their souls. But he isn’t able to heal his own heartsickness. Jean is lonely and embittered. He loved a woman once, Manon, but she left him. That was more than twenty years ago and he hasn’t cared for or trusted anyone since.

As the book opens, a woman is moving into the apartment complex where Jean lives. This woman, Catherine, has just been abandoned by her husband. Jean and Catherine meet and hit it off. But. . .Jean still has unfinished business with Manon.

In the same building, a talented very young writer named Max has attempted to strike up a friendship with Jean. Max has written one extraordinarily successful book, but he is now suffering from writer’s block. He spends time hiding out at Jean’s store.

Impulsively, spurred on by his new feelings for Catherine and re-awakened feelings for Manon, Jean pulls anchor and decides to float down to Provence in search of memories of his old love and perhaps some redemption. Max comes along for the ride.

Houseboating down lazy French rivers and drinking in the sights, smells, and flavors is a delight. Jean lets his memories wash over him as he savors the experience. Jean has a lot of regret to wash out of his system, so it’s a good thing the scenery is so lovely for the reader while he does.

Novels focusing on the emotionally stunted middle-aged man in crisis who, through some life-changing event, finds new love and reason to live on have been popping into my reading with a bit more frequency than may be necessary. (See my recent review of The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, which also had an older protagonist who was a bookseller who was mourning a lost love.) So, I may have to take a break from this type of storyline for a while. And yet, this one, with its literary theme and gorgeous French setting, was too good to pass up.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: Knight's Shadow by Sebastien de Castell

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

Time for something fast-paced and fun. After reading Traitor’s Blade by Sebastien de Castell, I was eager to get to Book Two in the Greatcoats Series: Knight’s Shadow.

I don’t want to spoil Book One, so it’s a bit tricky to move on with a summary of the plot. However, we pick up with the adventures of Falcio val Mond, First Cantor of the now disbanded and all but defunct Greatcoats of the late King Paelis of Tristia and his compatriots, Kest (best swordsman in the universe) and Brasti (best archer and rogue.) They are still determined to carry out the wishes of the king; however, the wishes remain a bit foggy and are, at any rate, impossible.

Falcio barely survived the final encounter of book one which involved poison. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem he will outlast the poison’s effects. So, the race is on. The enemy, Duchess Trin, as well as the Dukes who are rallying to her cause, are determined to stamp out any last resistence to their rapacious governance–meaning the Greatcoats. Kest and Brasti are having troubles of their own. New recruits to Falcio’s cause are of unreliable competence or dubious loyalty. And Falcio has his own demons to overcome–in addition to the fact that he’s dying.

Generally, the second book in a series serves as a bridge between the wonderful book one that draws readers in and the third book that is either the grand finale or else the book where things really heat up. But in this case, the whirlwind adventure was even more exciting than Traitor’s Blade and the solidification of the friendships and exploration of the characters’ psyches made it an even more satisfying read. It does get darker, with elements of torture, graphic rape, and sadism that were uncomfortable to read, but by that point in the story this was an integral part of the plot and the scenes were relatively short–short enough to skim over and get the gist of what was going on.

I understand this is to be a four-part series and I eagerly await the next installment. I love "buddy" stories and these three swashbucklers fit the bill with their loyalty to one another, humor, and dedication to their cause. For fans of fantasy, action/adventure, give Sebastien de Castell’s Greatcoats Series a try!

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: The Time in Between by Maria Duenas

I had to pick a book off my TBR shelf this past week, so I chose one that had been there too long: The Time in Between by Maria Duenas. This novel is set between the world wars in Spain. It’s a time period I’ve been reading more about, but a setting that’s quite new to me. The book was originally published in Spain and it’s very unusual for me to read a Spanish book in translation. So, for all these reasons, I wanted to read this novel. Plus, it sounded intriguing.

Sira Quiroga seems destined for a quiet life in Madrid. The poor daughter of a single mother, she was raised to be a seamstress. But everything changes when she meets an older, handsome, seductive charmer who sweeps her away to the Spanish Protectorate in Morocco on the eve of the Spanish Civil War. Naturally, that relationship ends badly. Sira finds herself abandoned and penniless in a foreign place where she knows no one, and she is unable to return home.

This courageous, beautiful, strong woman is able to rise from the wreckage with the help of kind strangers who become friends. She returns to what she knows, sewing clothes for the wealthy, and makes a name for herself as a designer/dressmaker. (Vague hints of Mademoiselle Chanel here, but the resemblance is only passing.)

As she settles in to her new life, new challenges arise. World War II is on the horizon. Germans have swarmed over Morocco and over Spain. Sira is well-positioned to provide services to the wealthy German wives, and to the wives of top Spanish officials as well. This makes her useful to people looking for information. Recruited to be a spy, Sira returns to Madrid to navigate the dangerous world of political and military secrets.

The Time in Between is a weighty book. It is packed full of historical detail and quite a bit of descriptive detail to make Morocco and Spain come alive. Because of the complexity of the history, there are parts that move rather slowly, but it is well plotted and other parts fly by. Sira is a well drawn character, growing from a somewhat flighty, easily duped young girl to a cynical, intelligent agent who can spy with the best of them. This is an interesting read (and a moving love story also!), well-worth the time invested.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

WAITING ON WEDNESDAY: Death Comes to Kurland Hall by Catherine Lloyd

 
Waiting on Wednesday is a weekly blogging event hosted by Breaking the Spine. Bloggers can share the soon-to-be-released books that they can't wait to read.
 
I often introduce a mystery I've read with the statement that I don't read many mysteries, but it's getting to the point where I have to give up that disclaimer because I'm starting to read a lot of mysteries. The thing is, they tend to be series and, once I begin a series, I usually stick with it. One new historical series that has me pretty well hooked is Catherine Lloyd's Kurland St. Mary Mystery Series. (See my reviews starting with Death Comes to the Village and then Death Comes to London.)


Book Three is: Death Comes to Kurland Hall.



The blurb from Goodreads is:


As wedding bells chime in Kurland St. Mary, a motley group of visitors descends on the village—and with a murderer on the prowl, some of them may not be returning home…

Lucy Harrington has returned to Kurland St. Mary to help with her friend Sophia Giffin’s wedding. But her homecoming is made disagreeable by the presence of Major Robert Kurland, whose bungled proposal has ruffled Lucy’s composure, and a meddling widow who has designs on her father, the village rector.

Wary of the cloying Mrs. Chingsford from the start, Lucy has doubts about the busybody’s intentions with her father. But everyone else seems to think they make an ideal match—until the courtship is curtailed when Mrs. Chingsford is found dead at the bottom of a staircase. It’s clear that it wasn’t an accident, and in hopes of finding the culprit, Lucy and Robert call a truce and begin scrutinizing the wedding guests.

But the widow left behind plenty of enemies, and when one of them is the next to turn up dead, Lucy and Robert discover that the truth is far more scandalous than anyone could have imagined…

Due out in November, it'll make a good Christmas present if I can hold out that long!

Saturday, June 6, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: The Truth According to Us by Annie Barrows

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

I loved The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and so I was excited to get hold of a galley for The Truth According to Us by Annie Barrows (one of the co-authors of Potato Peel Pie Society.)

Set in small town (Macedonia) West Virginia during the Great Depression, the story follows the fate of one of its "first families", the Romeyns, who are now somewhat fallen from grace. Felix Romeyn, the eldest son, has not followed in the footsteps of his late father, St. Clair, who was once the head of the local mill, the biggest employer in the town. St. Clair had been beloved by all. Felix is a rogue, but a handsome and charming one, who has caused mischief (and worse) his whole life and has never been held accountable. He’s selfish and often mean, but has a soft spot, sort-of, for his sister, Jottie, and his two daughters (the product of a hurried and short-lived marriage.) Jottie is raising his daughters, Willa and Bird.

Jottie is one of the protagonists. A calm, steady, caring character, she is nursing a deep hurt that goes back to the falling from grace of her family. In her younger days, she was deeply in love with a boy, Vause Hamilton, who was Felix’s best friend. She thought he loved her. That all ended on the day he betrayed their family, betrayed her in particular, and Felix, and died in the bargain.

Willa is another point-of-view character. Somewhere between dreamy and spunky, Willa is twelve, the awkward age where she is awakening to the world and realizes she has no idea what’s going on. She wants to understand things–most particularly she wants to understand her mysterious father. Since he tells her nothing, she decides to dig around on the sly.

And finally, there is Layla Beck, the spoiled socialite daughter of a senator. Layla doesn’t seem to belong in the picture. However, she enraged her father by refusing the proposal of a man worth a fortune. As her punishment, he cut her off and insisted she support herself. Then he arranged for her uncle (who heads up part of the WPA) to give her a job. She is sent to Macedonia to write a history of the town for its upcoming sesquicentennial. There she boards with the Romeyns, including the sympathetic Jottie and the nastily charming Felix.

As Layla uncovers the history of Macedonia—officially sanctioned and not, Willa uncovers the complicated truth about the Romeyns.

The book does have its charms (including scattered cute letters from Layla back and forth to her Washington friends and family). The extended Romeyn family are quirky and Macedonia is populated with a variety of types to entertain. However, the book goes on and on. It’s not that it isn’t enjoyable. For the most part it is. But it’s one of those books where you can be reading and reading and not feel like you’re getting anywhere. Readers will most likely figure out the truth of what happened long ago long before it all comes out in the open. So. . .I was just a bit bored. I finished the book because I’d invested so much time in it, more than because I was all that interested in seeing how it turned out.