Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The French Blue by Richard Wise

The beautiful Hope Diamond as it looks today in the Smithsonian Museum

The French Blue Book Trailer

The First Line: A tall walnut case with long slender drawers was set against a whitewashed wall in the first floor shop of the building my father shared with a sail maker.

The French Blue is a biographical novel depicting the fascinating life of Jean-Baptiste Tavernier, the man who brought the Hope Diamond to the French Court. Tavernier, the son of a modestly poor map-maker, travels the world in pursuit of the finest gems. His travels take him to Indonesia, Persia, India, Burma, and beyond. During his travels, he encounters dangerous kings and scrupulous and unscrupulous gem merchants, with whom he strikes bargains to purchase rare pearls, diamonds, sapphires, and rubies.

It truly is a tale worth telling. Tavernier travelled the world in a time when it was virtually wrought with peril, exoticness, intrigue. The reader is given a glimpse into life during this century with accurate retelling and brilliant descriptions.

Based upon the actual journals Tavernier wrote during the six voyages he completed during his life, Richard Wise has successfully brought to life the dangers, intrigues, and mystery of the world in the 17th century. Drawing on his own expertise as a gemologist, Mr. Wise is able to lend credibility and vividness to scenes where gems are bartered for and exchanged.

It is an impressive book, one that teaches as well as entertains.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Triumph of Deborah

Eva Etzioni-Halevy's novel opens with two women, each of whom scan the horizon for the return of their men from battle. Both women know that their men must be the victor – only they are on opposite sides. Asherah searches for Sisra, her new husband who has been sent to defeat the Israelites, while Deborah, watches for Barak, the warrior she has chosen to lead the army to defeat Canaan.

Barak returns in triumph with Asherah and Nogah, two daughters of the Canaanite King as his captives, though one is a princess and the other a slave. Deborah, despite her undying loyalty to the husband who rejected her, forms an affinity for Barak. However the two princesses have their own feelings towards the warrior who captured them. Asherah, Sisra’s widow, who recoils from any feelings that develop between her and the man who killed her husband. Nogah, whose mother was an Israelite slave, feels gratitude when Barak saves her mother’s life, but is still conflicted with what is expected of her.

Barak himself is more concerned with his warrior role than the feelings of women, who are a frangible and a temporary part of his life, but these three, with Deborah as a fourth element, form a web of betrayal and jealousy. His casual treatment of all his women, Deborah amongst them, was a surprising element, the way he uses the two princesses for his own pleasure and forces Asherah to marry him, and yet they all still want him.

Despite being forcibly divorced, Deborah's husband and father of her five sons expects her to keep her marriage vows. She has to balance her growing feelings for Barak and her self respect in the role as Prophetess of the Israelites and a judge revered by her people. Feminine but powerful, her independence shows through as she takes her people into war.

Written in omniscient point of view, this novel draws a colourful picture of life in ancient times, from palaces, to marriage rituals, the status of princesses and slaves alike, and how men behaved toward both. The battle scenes are of epic proportions, where Barak’s horror on the battlefield is well portrayed as the dead and dying pile up before his eyes.

Eva Etzioni-Halevy’s other biblical novels are, The Song of Hannah and The Garden of Ruth, and she is working on a fourth.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Am I Not A Man by Mark L. Shurtleff

The Back Cover:

An Illiterate slave, Dred Scott trusted in an all-white, slave-owning jury to declare him free. But after briefly experiencing the glory of freedom and manhood, a new state Supreme Court ordered the cold steel of the shackles to be closed again around his wrists and ankles. Falling to his knees, Dred cried, “Ain’t I a man?” Dred answered his own question by rising and taking his fight to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Dred ultimately lost his epic battle when the Chief Justice declared that a black man was so inferior that he had “no rights a white man was bound to respect.”
Dred died not knowing that his undying courage led directly to the election of President Abraham Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation.

Dred Scott’s inspiring and compelling true story of adventure, courage, love, hatred, and friendship parallels the history of this nation from the long night of slavery to the narrow crack in the door that would ultimately lead to freedom and equality for all men.

The First Line:

To him, the river sang.

Utah State Attorney General, Mark Shurtleff, first learned the story of Dred Scott while in law school. The heartwrenching tale of Dred Scott, an unassuming black slave, and his battle against longstanding laws of slavery to gain his freedom, and that of his family, not only captured his interest, but it ignited a passion that would take him on a journey of discovery through the annals of history.

Shurtleff's research led him to the actual locations where Dred Scott lived and breathed, toiled and suffered. He was able to breathe life and passion into his rendering of the overwhelming, near insurmountable legal struggle towards the abolition of slavery in the United States of America.

It is an incredible tale, one I knew little about as a Canadian. Through rich details and well-researched historical facts and occurrences, I was drawn into the struggles of the American slaves. Part novel and part non-fiction, this book is one that will survive for generations. It is a great tale of courage, of suffering, of faith, and of soldiering on in the face of adversity.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Cleopatra's Daughter by Michelle Moran


The marriage of Marc Antony and Cleopatra is one of the greatest love stories of all time, a tale of unbridled passion with earth-shaking political consequences. Feared and hunted by the powers in Ronme, the lovers choose to die by their own hands as the triumphant armies of Antony's vengeful rival, Octavian, sweep into Egypt. Their orphaned children - ten-year-old twins, Selene and Alexander - are taken in chains to Rome. Delivered to the household of Octavian's sister, the siblings cling to each other and to the hope that they will return one day to their rightful place on the throne of Egypt. As they come of age, they are buffeted by the personal ambitions of Octavian's family and courts, by the ever-present threat of slave rebellion, and by the longings and desires deep within their own hearts.

The fateful tale of Selene and Alexander is brought brilliantly to life in Cleopatra's Daughter. Recounted in Selene's youthful and engaging voice, it introduces a compelling cast of historical characters, Octvia, the emperor Octavian's kind and compassionate sister; abandoned by Marc Antony for Cleopatra; Livia, Octavian's bitter and jealous wife; Marcellus, Octvian's handsome, flirtatious nephew and heir apparent; Tiberius, Livia's sardonic son and Marcellus's great rival for power; and Juba, Octavian's watchful aide, whose honored position at court has far-reaching effects on the lives of the young Egyptian royals.

Selene's narrative is animated by the concerns of a young girl in any time and place - the possibility of finding love, the pull of friendship and family, and the pursuit of her unique interests and talents. While coping with the loss of both her family and her ancestral kingdom, Selene must also find a path around the dangers of a foreign land. Her accounts of life in Rome are filled with historical details that vividly capture the glories and horrors of the times. She dines with the empires' most illustrous poets and politicians, witnesses the creation of the Pantheon, and navigates the colorful crowded marketplaces of the city where Roman-style justice is meted out with merciless authority. In these chaotic streets and whispering palaces, Selene confronts the same forces that destroyed her mother and struggles to meet a different fate.

Based on meticulous research, Cleopatra's Daughter, is a fascinating portrait of imperial Rome and of the people and events of the glorious and tumultuous period in human history. Emerging from the shadows of the past, Selen, a young woman of irrestible charm and preternatural intelligence, will capture your heart.

First line: While we waited for the news to arrive, we played dice.

In this third novel by author, Michelle Moran, the reader is swept from the pyramids of Egypt into the glory of Rome. Cleopatra's daughter, Selene, is the narrative voice of the novel as she journeys into the year 30 B.C. and the decadence of the Eternal City.

The novel is geared to appeal to a wider audience, which includes young adults. Thus most readers will find this novel a smooth, comfortable read. Nevertheless, it packs a mighty punch. The strength of this novel is not only found in its intricate details of architecture, art, sport, fashions, and politics of the time, but is also rich with court intrigues and brutalities of the Roman Empire when it was at its peak.

For lovers of historical fiction, Michelle Moran's books never disappoint, and this novel is no exception. Filled with grand details and numerous emotional scenes, the reader is immersed in the times, so accurately and confidently portrayed. A hgihly recommended read.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Pope Joan by Donna Woolfolk Cross


For a thousand years her existence has been denied. She is the legend that will not die - Pope Jon, the ninth century woman who disguised herself as a man and rose to become the only female ever to sit on the throne of St. Peter. Now in this riveting novel, Donna Woolfolk Cross paints a sweeping portrait of an unforgettable heroine who struggles against restrictions her soul cannot accept.

Brilliant and talented, young Joan rebels against medieval social strictures forbidding women to learn. When her brother is brutally killed during a Viking attack, Joan takes up his cloak - and his identity - and enters the monastery of Fulda. As Brother John Angelicus, Joan distinguishes herself as a great scholar and healer. Eventually, she is drawn to Rome, where she becomes enmeshed in a dangerous web of love, passion, and politics. Triumphing over appalling odds, she finally attains the highest office in Christendom - wielding a power greater than any woman before or since. But such power always comes at a price.

In this international best seller, Cross brings the Dark Ages to life in all their brutal splendour and shares the dramatic story of a woman whose strength of vision led her to defy the social restrictions of her day.
Opening sentence - Prologue:

It was the twenty-eighth day of Wintarmanoth in the year of our Lord 814, the harshest winter in living memory.
Opening sentence - Chapter One:

Thunder sounded, very near, and the child awoke. She moved in the bed, seeing the warmth and comfort of her older brothers' sleeping forms. Then she remembered. Her brothers were gone.

Pope Joan is one of those remarkable novels that evokes images of a spectacular time and period. Pope Joan's achievements, in the face of social oppression against women punishable by death, are remarkable, even in today's world. How a impoverished child, abused, ignored, and trod upon, achieved the greatest throne in Christendom is truly a marvel. But that is not the only reason why this story is so endearing. It is the impeccable research and details into the Dark Ages that makes this novel resound with vibrancy.

The novel is rich with intrigue, murderous plots, deadly secrets, adversity, religious zealots, and power mongers. Add to this, a secondary plot of love and loss, and you have a tale that is truly riveting. It is no wonder the novel will soon be made into a major motion picture.