Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Signora da Vinci by Robin Maxwell

Leonardo da Vinci was a man of many secrets.  Much is known of his work and his art, but little is known of his private life other than the fact he was born the illegitimate son of a wealthy nobleman and the daughter of an apothecaryin the town of Vinci.  Of his mother, even less is known.  Her name was Caterina and Leonardo was ripped from loving arms as an infant to live with his father's family. After that, nothing else is known. 

Robin Maxwell takes the reader on an incredible journey exploring Leonardo's life through the eyes of his loving mother, a remarkable woman in her own right.  She takes us to Renaissance Italy; to Florence, Rome, Milan, and Pavia.  Along the way, she breathes life into a 15th century world fraught with danger and famous personages. 

Through impeccable research, she introduces the reader to Lorenzo Medici, Sandro Botticelli, Rodrigo Borgio, the evil zealot Savonarola, and the rich Sforza family.  There is little she does not leave unexplored.  In great detail, she explains Leonardo's flying machines and the painting of the Mona Lisa.  She provides readers with a means of understanding how the Lirey Shroud could possibly be a forgery by Leonardo da Vinci himself.

For those who adore the history of Italy in the mysterious and exciting era of the Renaissance, this book will greatly satisfy.  Rich with detail, the novel moves the reader from tears to laughter as this poignant story unfolds.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Children of the Sun by Elizabeth Manson Bahr

In Children of the Sun by Elizabeth Manson Bahr, the Emperor Montezuma of the Aztec nation receives his messengers from the eastern coast, bearing news of strange, pale-skinned men from "houses that traveled on water.” His greatest fear is that their leader, the ruthless Hernan Cortes, might be the Plumed Serpent god Quetzalcoatl, whose return has been foretold in Aztec prophecy. Presented with two options, destroying the strangers or worshipping them unconditionally, his choice will influence the fate of an empire.

Montezuma sends his trusted advisors to investigate the arrivals. Though they suspect the Spanish are no more than mortal men, the emperor is unsure. It is the year One Reed when the god’s return had been expected. With their strange ships, guns that spew smoke and death, and the aid of the Mexica girl who translates for them, the Spanish leader convinces Montezuma that he should be feared as the god Quetzalcoatl. By the time Montezuma realizes the truth, it is already too late for his people, especially his young daughter Jewel, who finds herself at the mercy of Hernan Cortes.

In the midst of luxury and splendor, death and decay have embroiled the Aztec Empire in Children of the Sun and permeates the scenes. At the start of the novel, the corpses of enemy warriors, sacrificed to secure the favor of the gods, litter the temple grounds. Nearing its conclusion, their have been so many deaths that it seems impossible for the Aztec people to rise again. The author offers rich details throughout the work, which will appeal to readers who are fascinated by the Aztec Empire. Although many of the scenes are narrated from the perspective of Montezuma and his advisors, his daughter Jewel stands out and provides a thread of continuity for the reader. As she inherits the mantle of his failed legacy, it would have been interesting to view all the events that unfolded from just her perspective.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

The Highest Stakes by Emery Lee

Book Reviewed by Cori Van Housen

Set in mid-eighteenth century England, the Highest Stakes is a love story. Or, to be more precise, a story of love constantly foiled and frustrated. At its core is Charlotte Wallace, an orphan taken in by unscrupulous relatives, and Robert Devington, a young groom in her uncle’s employ. From the start, Robert tries to win Charlotte’s uncle’s approval to wed her, but the older man’s social ambitions will not countenance such a union. Later enlisted in the King’s Army, Robert befriends cavalry officer Major Phillip Drake. A self-confessed scoundrel, Drake’s more altruistic side comes dangerously close to surfacing time and again, until he is forced to choose between his friendship with Robert Devington and his own selfish objectives.

There is much ado about horses. Charlotte and Robert’s love blossoms as he teaches her about riding, and only their passion for each other eclipses their mutual love of all things equine. But realizing their dreams of romance seems ever beyond their reach. With each twist and turn of fate and the machinations of wily antagonists, Emery Lee ratchets up the suspense: will Charlotte and Robert end up together? Will Major Drake fade away in his chosen life of dissipation or step up to ancestral duties? The beauty of the book is that you cannot anticipate how it will go; you can only hang on for the ride.

England at this time was obsessed with horseracing, a sport set apart for nobility. And class consciousness abounds, from Charlotte’s relations who are eager to sacrifice her happiness to elevate their social standing, to Drake’s father, who demands his son marry for monetary gain to restore a crumbling earldom. The hypocrisy and artifice of class creates a sort of reign of terror over its subjects, and the social fabric is rife with people operating out of bad motives, from misguided honor to outright villainy. Even Robert Devington, a man of low birth but high honor, reveals layers of pettiness as the story progresses, while Drake, who starts off a bounder, becomes a more sympathetic figure.

The Highest Stakes is a rich and rewarding read, with the history of the times neatly sewn in. The real meat of the book, though, is its relationships: not only between Charlotte and Robert, but between Robert and Phillip Drake, and a handful of lesser players. Emery Lee lays it out cleverly, sometimes humorously, with period sensibility and restrained sensuality. She does the details well, from the meticulous to the sumptuous. I read the last quarter of the book in a single sitting, and would have wished for yet a little more such detail in the book’s closing to tie up loose ends. Even so, it is a remarkable journey which, like most journeys, is less about the destination than how you get there.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Contest winner - The Secret of the Glass by Donna Russo Morin

All week, we've been honored to have Donna Russo Morin as our special guest. We've very much enjoyed spending the week with her and learning all about Venice and her other work as an author. The Secret of the Glass is a fabulous book from start to finish and I highly recommend it to anyone who loves historical fiction.

Thanks to everyone who took the time to stop by for a visit during Donna's week with us.  I'm pleased to announce the winner.  

Soft Fuzzy Sweater
Worcester, MA, USA

Congratulations!  An email has been sent off to the lucky winner and the book will be mailed off shortly.

Thanks very much to everyone who took the time to enter and win.  If you haven't got a copy of Donna Russo Morin's book, The Secret of the Glass, yet, I urge you to get one.  It's one of the finest novels about Venice I've read! 

Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Secret of the Glass Favourite Excerpt



For the love of God, what are you doing?

The frantic thought flashed through her mind, but she gave it little consideration, she couldn’t. If she did, the fear would paralyze her completely.

Waiting impatiently for a scant few seconds, she stole a furtive glance inside and saw only a narrow brick walled opening—barely wide enough for two averaged sized men to walk abreast—and light gray, uneven stone stairs leading to a narrow landing. The first flight of stairs was empty; the group had ascended the landing and turned the corner.

With a deep fortifying inhalation, Sophia entered the small foyer and began the almost inconceivable climb to the top. She paced herself, not moving too quickly, making sure never to catch up with the men ahead of her. Their grunts of exertion echoed down to Sophia, their intensifying body odors lingered behind and mingled with the stone dust released into the air, disturbed by their footsteps. So many in the group were slow with age, trudging up stair after stair, stopping often to inhale deep draughts of air with rattling breaths and to wipe the perspiration off their brows and hairless heads.

Higher and higher they climbed, slower and slower they moved. The sun rose in the morning sky and the meager light from the small rounded windows at each landing filtered into the staircase, the dust dancing in its glow. Sophia crested another flight, turned another corner, her own young and healthy heart thudding against her chest. An unobstructed beam of sunlight found her, and she crouched low, back into the shaded pit.

The group arrived at the top. Sophia slunk up the last flight of stairs on her hands and knees, keeping close against the cold stone, covering the front of her gown with the gray, sooty dirt. Peeking above the upper most step, she peered furtively into the square landing above. The last of the men to reach the pinnacle clustered together, leaning upon one another in an exhausted group, holding each other up as they caught their breath.

Sophia lunged, using their huddling, groaning mass as a cover, sneaking passed them to hide behind the farthest and largest bell. Within the safety of its unlit silhouette, as her own ragged breath slowed through quivering nostrils, Sophia looked around. Her full bottom lip lowered in unfettered astonishment. Though she had lived in this land, passed by the tall base of this obelisk all her life, she had never hurdled its stairs, had never seen this magnificent architecture waiting upon its zenith.

The rounded peaks of the belfry’s white stone arches created symmetrical shaped shadows upon the large dado supporting the spire and the five, intricately wrought bells of varying sizes. Sophia had heard their mellifluous tones all her life, they were the music of her life. She hid behind La Marangona in the northwest corner, the largest bell of them all. Named for the carpenters of the land, the marangoni, its deep clang began and ended the workday. La Trottiera called magistrates to meetings and the Pregadi the senators to their chamber, while La Nona announced mid-day. The smallest--called Renghiera by some, Maleficio by others--whose high haunting tones made the cittadini cringe, announced executions.

“Over here, if you please, Your Honor.”

Sophia heard Galileo’s call and stole a stealthy peep around the curved edge of the bell. Diagonally opposite from Sophia’s position, he stood in the southeast corner of the tower, beckoning the Doge to join him, and extracting a strangely shaped device—long and circular—from his bag.
The other men swarmed around them against the parapet, their hair dancing in the buffeting, powerful wind of the lofty altitude, their low murmurs and questions tripping over one another. Galileo held one end of the lengthy, round cylinder up to his left eye and pointed the other end out toward the lagoon.

“My God!” His cutting whisper, like a fervent prayer, silenced the quizzical, conjecturing voices around him. Without another word, he offered the instrument to the Doge. Galileo sparkled as a dumbstruck, enraptured smile spread upon his face, like a man who had seen his newly born child for the first time.

Donato took the device and held it up to his eye, mimicking Galileo’s posture, pointing it out to the glittering ocean. The large man jerked back his head as if struck, and thrust the tube away from his face. The attentive men gathered around him came on guard, heads spinning about searching for the threat, hands drawn to hilts. The Doge’s large, horse-like stare spun to Galileo, probing the scientist’s face with his questioning glare.

“Yes, yes, it is real.” Galileo’s long beard quivered from his chin. He smiled with childish joy at Sagredo and the priest who stood close beside him.

The Doge shook his head as if to deny the man’s words, but put the instrument back to his eye.

“Holy Mother of God.” Donato’s breathy whisper ripped the expectant silence to shreds. “It is a miracolo!”

Sophia forced herself not to crow aloud, forced back the joyous laughter that bubbled within before it could forsake her hiding place behind the large bell. She knew what this device was, why this group had gathered upon this tall summit. Galileo had finished his creation, and from the shock upon his face and that of the Doge, it worked stupendously.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

An Interview with Donna Russo Morin

I'm so pleased to introduce Donna Russo Morin as your featured author this week. I very much enjoyed interviewing her and I know you'll find her interview fascinating.

1. Welcome, I’m so glad to have this opportunity to chat with you. Can you share with my readers the essence of the story you’ve penned?

It is my genuine pleasure to be here; thank you so much for the opportunity.

THE SECRET OF THE GLASS is set at the dawn of the 17th Century. At time when the world-reknown Murano glass-makers are celebrated, revered, and imprisoned by the Venetian government. Sophia Fiolario, the daughter of a glass making maestro, has no desire for marriage, finding her serenity in the love of her family and the beauty of the glass. She learns of its secrets at her father’s side, where a woman has no right to be. But the life Sophia loves is threatened and she’s thrust into the opulent world of the Venice court, becoming embroiled in the scheming machinations of the courtiers’ lives. The beauty of Venice, the magnificence of the Doge’s Palace, can only be rivaled by the intrigue and danger that festers behind their splendid facades. As she searches for an escape, she finds the arms of another, a man whose own desperate situation is yet another obstacle in their path.

Amidst political and religious intrigue, the scientific furor ignited by Galileo, and even murder, Sophia must do anything to protect herself, her family…and the secret of the glass.

2. You’ve chosen a very interesting title. What inspired the title? What inspired the book?

Like so much of life, the story and the title really came to me in the most unexpected of ways. When Katie Couric became anchor of the CBS Evening News I decided to watch to support her, even though I’m not a great fan of television news programs. Within that broadcast was a two-minute feature story on the glassmakers of Murano. One point in particular caught and captured my imagination: for hundreds of years the glassmakers of Venice were virtual prisonors in their own land, captives of a government determined to keep the prestige and profit produced by the glass for themselves. Within a half hour of viewing that story, I had a two page synopsis written, a plot that mapped out a story about a young Murano woman who must somehow save herself while protecting ‘the secret of the glass.’

3. What makes this book special to you?

As a second generation Italian American and a writer of European historicals, I really wanted to set a book in a the land I consider my second country. Then, when I started my research, I found Galileo. I was unaware of how much time he had spent in the magical city of Venice. I knew nothing of the symbiotic relationship between him and this wonderful land. But I was astounded when I learned that, like myself, the professor suffered from a chronic illness. The more I read, the more convinced I became that, had the astronomer been privy to modern day medicine, his diagnosis would have been auto-immune, like my own. I found kinship in his tale of determination, one echoed in the story of the land itself and the people that had made it so unique.

4. What makes this a book that people MUST read and WHY?

I think I’ve blended unique and highly intriguing characters, both real and imagined, in a setting that has always incited great curiousity. Venice is a magical, mythical place, one of the most distinctive on our planet. Add to that a history rich in culture, conflict, and complexity, and you’ve got a story that gives a reader everything they could hope for.

5. What sparks your creativity? Any tips to help others spark their own creativity?

I’ve often said the old adage ‘write what you know’ would better serve the aspiring writing if it read ‘write what you love.’ Don’t try to write a book that you yourself wouldn’t love to read. At the beginning of my career, I floundered a bit with genre and, not surprisingly, found little success. Once it clicked for me, once I accepted my love for historical fiction and started to write it, success came. Don’t try to develop a story just because you think it will sell or you think it’s the ‘in’ genre of the moment; trends in literature change faster than the seasons. Find a story that makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand up with excitement and write it.

6. What has been the biggest stumbling block in your writing? Can you share some tips to help others get past similar problems?

Self-confidence and the ability to take criticism without allowing it to affect the ego. For too many years, I didn’t believe that I could actually be a writer though I had been writing since I was a young child. Once I convinced myself, it became much easier to convince others.

Tied to that is the ability to be rejected. As writers we have to know unequivocally that everywhere along the line people are going to tell us what is wrong with our work. It is in the submission process, it is in the editing process, and it is in the release process, when our ‘babies’ go out into the world. You have to be able to separate the rejection of your work from rejection of your self. See it for what it is, and get as much from it as you can (even the nastiest review can give the writer something useful if they’re open to it).

7. Tell me about the most unusual things you have done to promote your book?

I’m very fortunate to have two sons (young men now at 19 and 16) who are my greatest supporters. For my first book, my oldest dressed as a Musketeer and accompanied me to all my book signings. For THE SECRET OF THE GLASS, the youngest will be dressed as a gondolier. It’s really been helpful in reaching out to people. I can be a little shy with people I don’t know, but my ‘characters’ give me a great ice breaker.

8. Each author is different in the way they create a work of fiction. Please describe for us how you plan or plot a story.

I like to say I write the way I do because its historical fiction and by its very nature—the inclusion of so many historical facts and the need to stay true to those facts—I need to be very analytical with the process, but I think its just an excuse. I am a ferocious plotter.

During the research process I develop a binder (usually 3” thick) of historical data, broken down by subject matter. Then I create a scene by scene breakdown of the entire story by merging that data with my synopsis. Then I begin to write.

Of course, nothing is set in stone. On every book I’ve written, there always comes a point when a character take over and does something unexpected, and I run with it when it happens.

9. Authors are very unique in the way they write, the tools they use, when they write, etc. Please describe a typical writing day for you? How do you organize your day?

So much depends on what my kids are up to. Because my office is actually our old dining room, I’m smack dab in the middle of the house. Their comings and goings, and the subsequent noise and distractions, dictate what I do and when. If I can get four to five hours of quiet writing work in a day, I take it, no matter what time it comes (sometimes starting at 8:00 in morning, or working until 10:00 or 11:00 at night). I can usually get two to three thousand words done in that time frame. During the not so quiet hours I get my research work and plotting work done, or take that opportunity to do some promotion work.

I’m not really big on tools, or any kind of writing programs or devices. I’ve seen a lot of organizational programs and character development programs and it always seems to me that in the time it takes to set these up and plug in the material, you could be writing.

10. What is your current work in progress?

My next release, tentatively titled TO SERVE A KING, is scheduled as an April 2010 release. Here’s the blurb:

They told her that her parents were dead, perished in a fire she barely remembered, a fire set by a king they taught her to hate. ‘They’ were her aunt and the jolly king, and she had believed them. From that day forward, Genevieve Gravois swore her allegiance to Henry VIII and no other. Raised by her cold and heartless aunt, she learned things no woman should know: how to write and decipher codes, how to use a dagger and a bow…how to kill.

When the time is ripe, Genevieve is thrust into the court of Fran├žois I, a dangerous and magnificent place, as replete with intrigue and conflict as it is with the world’s finest artists and musicians. Here, two mistresses, Anne d’Heilly and Diane de Poitiers, struggle for ultimate power. Here, the likes of Catherine de Medici and Nostradamus explore the realm of the unknown. And here, Genevieve carries out her duties for the king she loved, spying on Fran├žois, doing whatever Henry demanded of her. But the French king is not what she thought him to be, his truth at odds with all she had learned. Her life tangles with lives of others, both worthy and disgraceful, in circumstances none of her training had prepared her for. Genevieve’s life spins out of control and she is forced to make deadly decisions about her true and ultimate loyalties.

11. Can you tell us where to find more information about you and your books and how readers can reach you?

You can visit me at my website, www.donnarussomorin.com, where you’ll find excerpts from all my books and information on my appearances. You can contact me through the site via email or my guestbook (I love receiving comments on my guestbook; it’s been one of the surprising joys of becoming a published author). People can also friend me on Facebook at www.facebook.com/Donna.Russo.Morin.

12. What would you like our readers to know about you and your writing?

There’s a little piece of me in every one of my stories and I’m always hopeful that readers find a piece of themselves there as well. There are human struggles that we all share, but it often feels like we’re going through them alone. I like to think that as readers empathize and identify with one of my characters, they find a partner in whatever they’re own struggle may be. And, in an odd way, I connect with them when they do.

Most of all, I sincerely want to entertain while informing. I’m always so immensely pleased when I reader tells me how astounded they were by a certain fact in my book, that they were so intrigued by it they sought out other books on the topic. That’s simply marvellous. I’m committed to providing an intellectual escape…leave the challenges of this life behind and jump into another time, another place, one filled with adventure and romance, but one that stimulates at the same time.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Secret of the Glass by Donna Russo Morin

Come and visit Italy this us this week and see 17th century Venice through the eyes of author, Donna Russo Morin and her novel, The Secret of the Glass.

To win a free copy of The Secret of the Glass, leave a comment with the name of her two published books and the one which is in progress and tell us why you love Venice.

Back Cover

At the dawn of the 17th Century, the glassmakers of Murano are revered as master artisans, enjoying privileges far beyond their station, but they are forced to live in virtual imprisonment, contained by the greedy Venetian government who fears other countries will learn the intricacies of the craft…and reap the rewards.

Sophia Fiolario, the comely daughter of a glass making maestro, has no desire for marriage, finding her serenity in the love of her family and the beauty of the glass. She learns of its secrets at her father’s side, where a woman is forbidden to be. The life Sophia loves is threatened by the poor health of her father and the determined attentions of a nobleman who could and would never love her but seeks to possess her wealth and the privilege it affords. Thrust into the opulent world of the Venetian court, Sophia becomes embroiled in the scheming machinations of the courtiers’ lives. The beauty of Venice, the magnificence of the Doge’s Palace, are rivaled only by the intrigue and danger that festers behind their splendid facades. As she searches for an escape, she finds the arms of another, a man whose own desperate situation is yet another obstacle in their path.

Amidst political and religious intrigue, the scientific furor ignited by Galileo, and even murder, Sophia must do anything to protect herself, her family…and the secret of the glass.

Visit Venice Today!

The Secret of the Glass Book Review

First Line:  The scalding heat rose up before her, reaching deep insider her like a selfish lover grasping for her soul. 

For centuries, the talented Murano glassmakers of Venice have been distinguished and honoured. Their secrets to glassmaking closely guarded, their prized products highly sought after. Now, author Donna Russo Morin, has penned a novel that sweeps the reader into the 17th century world and lives of these secretive, revered artisans.

The Venetian government highly protects its glassmakers, their factories, and their families, for this is what brings wealth and fame to La Serenissima. Venetian law forces them to live on the island of Murano, their movements closely guarded. When three glassmakers secretly try to flee their restrictive life, they are found murdered. No one can escape these restrictions.

Sophia Fiolario is the eldest daughter of a wealthy glassmaker who has no sons to inherit his highly successful factory. Sophia has a special bond with her father and is passionate about the art of glassmaking. But women are prohibited from learning the mysteries of this highly classified art. It is considered a crime and the penalties are severe and destructive. It can ruin their family and the carefully cultivated reputation of their factory. Sophia has learned the art covertly from her father, the truth of which they must keep highly guarded, even from their own family.

A marriage is arranged between Sophia and an elder impoverished nobleman who will inherit the glass factory upon Sophia’s father’s death. The family cannot refuse even though the nobleman is cruel and uncaring. Sophia knows it will mean an end to the idyllic life she knows and the end to her furtive glassmaking ventures. While in the throes of the loveless betrothal, Sophia encounters one man who opens her heart and holds the key to her future happiness.

Donna Russo Morin has written a majestic novel, breathtaking in its prose, and sweeping in its scope, about 17th century Venice at the height of its glory. What left me most in awe about this novel, was the highly detailed descriptions of the scenery, streets, architecture and famous people like Galileo himself. It literally transports you to Venice with all its beautiful sights.

The characters had depth and realism with scores of emotions. I literally fell into the story as if I lived and breathed the same air as Sophia and her family and friends. From its festivals and government, life in Venice is masterfully rendered. Ms. Morin is a master storyteller and this is one of best written novels of Venice I have ever read. For lovers of Venetian history, or aficionados of the 17th century, this is one novel worth reading. But you’ll have to wait a little. The novel is scheduled for release early in 2010.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Sentence of Marriage by Shayne Parkinson

Sentence of Marriage is the first of three books of the saga Promises to Keep by Shayne Parkinson, which takes us to New Zealand, 1880.

Twelve-year-old Amy lives on a farm and dreams of becoming a teacher and work in a big city. However, her dreams are thwarted when her father brings a new wife to be stepmother to Amy and her two brothers.

Amy, who has lost her mother far too soon, lives on a farm in New Zealand. She has big dreams which are nurtured by the village’s teacher. Although her father is not pleased, she aims to become a teacher, too. When she loses her grandmother, she cannot pursue her dreams any further, but must run the household. She manages well until one day, her father returns with Susannah, his new wife, from a trip to Auckland. Susannah loathes the hard farm life and especially Amy. When Susannah’s brother James comes to spent the summer, love spins Amy’s life out of control.

Shayne Parkinson allows us to acquaint ourselves with Amy and her world gradually. ‘Sentence of Marriage’ takes us back in time and introduces us to the realities of a young girl, growing up on a farm. There are friends and fiends, laughter and tears, injustice and hope. The plot is a bit predictable, but the characters are painted with love – and this shines through the work.

Contest Details - Secrets of the Glass

I'm excited to announce that all week the Historical Novel Review will feature the Venetian Historical Fiction Novel, The Secret of the Glass by Donna Russo Morin.

To mark this exciting week, Donna Russo Morin has offered to send an autographed copy to the person who leaves a comment to the following questions: 

1.  On her website, http://www.donnarussomorin.com/, what does Donna list as her greatest works in progress?

2.  In the excerpt from The Secret of the Glass on Donna’s website, http://www.donnarussomorin.com/
what technique does Sophia Fiolario perform?

3.  Tell Donna why you love historical novels about Venice. 

Please ensure you provide your email address so that we can get back to the winner.

The winner will be announced on Friday, March 5th!
Thanks and Buona Fortuna to all!