Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Spiritualist by Megan Chance

On a cold night in January of 1957, at her husband Peter’s request, a highly sceptical Evelyn Atherton reluctantly attends a séance with him. Peter’s interest in spirit circles was born from the need to reach out to his dead mother. Evie wanted no part of the new craze where society’s elite paid great sums of money to commune with the dead through self-proclaimed mediums, or swindlers. Having been married for only three years, Evelyn had become unsettled over her husband’s apathy towards her. Was it because he married her even though she was far below his station?

During the séance, a gunshot resounds which barely missed Peter. Afterwards, Peter, departs in search of answers. Several days pass. Evie does not hear from Peter and she begins to worry. When Peter is found murdered, she learns that not only society, but her in-laws turn on her.

Her world takes on a nightmarish quality. Because she is of the lower classes, and because her marriage catapults her into the highest echelons of society, she becomes the primary suspect in his murder.

At the reading of the will, Evie learns Peter has left everything to her and has excluded his entire family. This, coupled with the knowledge of her estranged and dwindling relationship with her husband, convinces the police and his family she is responsible for his murder and is arrested.

Shunned by society, no one comes to her aid. To make matters worse, her entire inheritance is frozen pending trial. With no means, Evie struggles to find an attorney who will take her case. Peter’s law partner, Ben, comes to her aid and readily accepts the case. Dorothy Bennett, the wealthy socialite who arranged the ill-fated spirit circle posts bail and invites Evie to reside with her in the belief that the spiritualist who lives with her, Michael Jourdain, can contact Peter's spirit and learn the identity of the true murderer.

Convinced Michael is a fake, Evie comes to believe he is responsible for her husband’s demise. Only by living under the same roof with can she find her husband’s true murderer and prove her innocence. Soon after her arrival, Peter begins to appear in her nightmares and in visions. Each time, he warns her not to trust a man close to her. Evelyn is soon troubled by Michael Jourdain, whom she finds both intriguing and abhorrent. Confused by her burgeoning feelings, matters go from bad to worse when other members of the spiritualist community realize she is a true medium herself.

As time runs out and the time for trial nears, Evie finds herself trapped amidst duplicity, suspicion, charlatans, murderers, and lies. She must unravel the web of mystery and deceit soon, lest her own sanity be at risk and she succumbs to madness like her mother before her.

Megan Chance has successfully recreated the time and feel of old New York. In this delicious novel, she serves up a tale of desperation and despair while maintaining historical accuracy to accurately depict societal norms and beliefs and the desperation of the living to maintain contact with loved ones who have passed. This mystery novel has many twists and turns to keep readers enthralled to the very shocking, but satisfying end.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Last Queen by Christopher W. Gortner

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In 15th century Spain, Juana 1 of Castile is born the second daughter of Queen Isabella of Castile and King Ferdinand of Aragon whose marriage united the two kingdoms, but it was her mother who possessed the most power and greatest influence.
Beneath the intensity of her politically shrewd mother, the serious, introverted Juana grew into adolescence, well educated in Latin and music. At the age of 16, her parents betrothed her Juan to Philip of Flanders, the heir of Emperor Maximilian I. With a magnificent entourage in tow, Juana crossed the vast waters to Flanders, arriving sick and in a weakened state.

At first sight of her betrothed, Juana is bewitched by his handsomeness and succumbs to his attentive charms. Philip is also intrigued with his new wife. Soon, however, intertwined with the birth of their children, Philip’s infidelity tarnishes their marriage. His strong political ambitions clash powerfully with those of her parents and Spain. All her attempts to influence Philip otherwise are thwarted by Philip’s power-hungry advisors.

Juana is caught between the dreadful clashes of her mother and husband. Matters deteriorate when Philip enters into an alliance with France, historical enemies of Spain. Philip grows progressively more menacing towards Juana and her parents in his quest to rule Spain. His terrible conspiracies result in continual betrayals as Juana struggles to maintain a stance amidst a world of powerful, ruthless men. When a series of deaths strikes the royal heirs of Spain, Juana is forced to become queen with Philip as her royal consort. Before long, she is betrayed on all sides by callous, authoritative men, and Juana finds herself imprisoned for madness.

Christopher Gortner spins a grand tale of opulence and deception, privilege and destruction, madness and fragile love. His riveting prose grabs the reader’s emotions from the very start and twists and wrenches them until the very poignant ending. Inspired by his love for his Spanish heritage, Christopher Gortner paints a vivid picture of life in 15th century Europe. He writes in an evocative prose, rich in quality and simplicity.

Books like this happen rarely. The author is a skilful writer who artfully relays a rich story peppered with unpredictable twists and turns that keeps the reader enthralled upon every word to the very end.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Mozart's Sister by Rita Charbonnier

Maria Anna Mozart, beloved nicknamed Nannerl, was the elder and only sister of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. As children, both were considered gifted musical prodigies and their father, Leopold, arranged tours to display their talents to the masses in the grandest capitals of Europe. Both children could play the most challenging pieces and could compose into notes any song they heard.

They enjoyed a pleasant childhood, indulging their musical creativity and creating their own childish kingdom. As Nannerl and Wolfgang’s musical genius progressed into composition, her adoring younger brother greatly praised and encouraged her work. At a concert, when he announces that the piece he has just played was written by his sister, Leopold is incensed. He orders Nannerl to never compose music again because in the 18th century, women did not become composers.

Thereafter, Leopold focused all his attentions on Mozart, not Nannerl. He refused to allow her to study the violin and composition. Leopold announces Nannerl must remain at home when he takes Wolfgang on tour and obliges her to give piano lessons to wealthy students to finance her brother’s Italian tour. Her dreams shattered, Nannerl complies, but falls into a deep depression.

Victoria, one of her students, becomes her protégé. Through Victoria, Nannerl’s passion for music is re-awakened. When Victoria’s father becomes interested in her, he rekindles her spirit. Her relationship with Mozart, however, is plagued by years of separation and the preference of their father for his son and not his daughter. Nannerl struggles not only with the loss of her hopes and dreams, but also with the ever-growing estrangement with her brother and her father who refuses to recognize her talents because of the laws of society which will not allow a woman to enter the wold of musical composition.

Even her choice of suiters were one-by-one turned away by Leopold. In 1784, she married the magistrate Johann Baptist Franz von Berchtold zu Sonnenburg (1736-1801) and moved to St. Gilgen. Nannerl returned to Salzburg to give birth to her first son and left the newborn there in Leopold's care.

Nannerl grew ever more distant from Wolfgang, especially after his marriage to Constanze Weber. They resumed corresponding briefly after the death of their father, but by then, their affection for each other had all but disappeared and Mozart's brief letters to her dealt almost exclusively with the disposition of their father's estate.

When Wolfgang dies, Nannerl re-awakens to life and makes it her purpose to honor her brother by collecting and assembling all his compositions and erecting monuments to honor his life.

After her huband’s death, Maria Anna returned to Salzburg and supported herself once again by giving piano lessons. She died on October 29, 1829, and was buried in St. Peter’s cemetary.

Mozart’s Sister by Rita Charbonnier is a heartwrenching tale of great genius denied. It tells of great triumph and equally great descent and the strength of one woman, Nannerl, to overcome the pain of living her life in the shadow of her brother.

Rita Charbonnier brings to life the brilliance of the 18th century with its tight social expectations, sex scandals, and brilliant personages. Her well honed theatrical and musical background is evident in the spectacular descriptions of the music and composition characteristic of Wolfgang Mozart. It is a compelling read, not only for those who love classical music, but for those who love sweeping historical tales of strong women. Brava Rita! Encore! Encore!

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Nefertiti by Michelle Moran

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In the eighteenth dynasty of ancient Egypt (1351 to 1331 B.C.) one woman, Nefertiti, rises to power and infamy in the annals of history. The story of Nefertiti’s life unfolds through the voice of her younger sister, Mutnodjmet.

Nefertiti is beautiful, ruthless and narcissistic who seeks affluence and supremacy. Mutnodjmet, the younger sister, is pretty, level-headed, and pragmatic and she has no desire other than to live a simple life surrounded by a loving family.

At an early age, Nefertiti marries Prince Akhenaten who becomes heir to the throne after the mysterious death of his more capable older brother. Mutnodjmet is assigned to be Nefertiti’s companion, eyes and ears, and voice of reason. Akhenaten is a youth bent on forcing his own religious views onto the people. It is his mother’s hope that Nefertiti be the sound of reason and restrain his impulsive, reckless actions and thoughts. Instead, his ego, and that of his new wife, Nefertiti, knows no bounds as together, they raise their status, create a new god named Aten for all to worship, and build an entire city to glorify.

Nefertiti’s obsessive dependence on Mutnodjmet is so extreme, that it threatens her own future happiness. While Nefertiti becomes more and more involved in building her and her husband’s fame, Mutnodjmet seeks to escape her sister’s clutches. Conspiracy and treachery abound throughout this novel.

Michelle Moran brings to life multi-dimensional characters through rich dialogue and intricate historical detail. Highly credible, the story captivated from start to finish. The level of research into this period and Nefertiti’s life is impressive. For all aficionados of ancient Egypt, this is a must have book that will not disappoint. It has my highest rating and I will be eagerly anticipating future books by Michelle Moran.