Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Borgia Betrayal by Sarah Poole

As befits the story of a poisoner for the infamous Borgia Pope Alexander VI, Sarah Poole’s The Borgia Betrayal begins with murder, as the protagonist forces one of the Pope’s enemies to end his own life quickly. What may be unusual about this novel is that the poisoner who deals in death so easily is a woman, Francesco Giordano.  She is an interesting heroine, operating in the male-dominated world of the Catholic Church with a reckless bravado and cunning that matches that of the Borgias.

In this sequel to Poole’s Poison, Francesca serves the Pope’s interests as well as her own. She is part of a secret society called Lux, whose purpose contravenes the Church’s dogma and takes great risks to keep Lux and its members safe. Her activities do not escape the Pope, who uses her as a pawn to draw out one of their mutual enemies, Bernando Morozzi. He threatens the Pope’s hold over Rome, but more importantly, he is responsible for the death of Francesca’s father. Francesca devises a bold plan to draw out her father’s killer, placing her own life in the balance.

Francesca’s daring earned my admiration for Ms. Poole’s talents as a writer, but there were times where I questioned the wisdom of certain actions. It seemed almost as if the heroine had a death wish, yet she fought so valiantly at the end of the story. While I had difficulty reconciling some of the extremes of her personality, Francesca is a memorable character and I hope to read more of her adventures in Ms. Poole’s novels.     

Friday, October 28, 2011

The Road From the West by Rosanne Lortz

Road From the West
Book 1 of the Chronicles of Tacred
By Rosanne E. Lortz

You’ve heard of the Knights Templar, you’ve heard of Richard the Lionheart – now learn the story that started it all with the adventures of the First Crusade.

Haunted by guilt from the past and nightmares of the future, a young Norman named Tancred rakes the cross and vows to be the first to free Jerusalem from the infidels.  As he journeys to the Holy Land, he braves vast deserts, mortal famine, and the ever-present ambushes of the enemy Turks – but the greatest danger of all is deciding which of the Crusader lords to trust. A mysterious seer prophesies that Tancred will find great love and great sorrow on his journey, but the second seems intent on claiming him before he can find the first. Intrigues and passions grow as every battle brings the Crusaders one step closer to Jerusalem. Not all are destined to survive the perilous road from the West.

In Road From the West, the history of the First Crusade is laid out in concise, accurate details. If I had a complaint about the book, it’s that the tedium of traveling with a slow-moving army that rarely engaged in hand-to-hand combat is dealt with more than I might have wished. The Crusade’s history prevails, while I would have liked more of Tancred’s story.  

However, if you enjoy an historically accurate book that’s light on characterization or twists, you’ll probably enjoy Road From the West, Book 1.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Silk Road by Colin Falconer

A breath-taking adventure on an epic scale.

Back Cover Blurb

1260 AD: Josseran Sarrazini is a man divided in his soul. A Christian Knight Templar haunted by a shameful past, he hopes to find redemption in a dangerous crusade: a journey from Palestine to Xanadu, to form a crucial allegiance against the Saracens at the legendary court of Kubilai Khan – the seat of the Mongol Empire.

Instead he finds the solace he seeks in a warrior-princess from a heathen tribe. Beautiful and ferocious, Khutelun is a Tartar, a nomadic rider of the Mongolian steppe. Although their union is utterly impossible, she will find in Josseran what she cannot find in one of her own.

Parched by desert winds, pursued by Saracen hordes, and now tormented by a passion he cannot control, Josseran must abandon Khutelun if he is to complete his journey and save his soul. Worse, he must travel with William, a Dominican friar of fearsome zeal who longs for matyrdom, but whose life Josseran is sworn to protect. And worse yet, he will arrive in Xanadu just as the greatest empire in human history plunges into civil war.

Winding through the plains of Palestine and over the high mountains of the Hindu Kush, from the empty wastes of the Taklimakan desert to the golden palaces of China, Silk Road weaves a spellbinding story of sin, desire, conflict and human frailty onto the vast tapestry of the medieval orient.


For those readers who love history and immersing themselves into an accurately written novel of a long ago era, The Silk Road by Colin Falconer is sure to please. In this epic tale, Colin Falconer brings to life the Crusades of the 13th century with both realism and impact. A map at the front of the novel shows the ancient route of the Silk Road.

The story opens in the year A.D.1260 in the Mongolian empire. Three main characters dominate the tale. Khutelun is the wilful, intelligent, and free-spirited daughter of Qaidu, the Khan of the Tartars. Josseran Sarrazini, a coarse Templar knight with a dark and secret past who has been assigned the onerous task of negotiating a union with the Tatars against the Saracens. And lastly there is William, a fanatical, self-righteous Dominican friar excessively obsessed with converting the pagans to Christianity even if it costs him his life, and even if it puts Josseran, who is tasked with protecting him, into the path of danger.  

Each of the three characters come together to colour each page with their vibrant, but very believable personalities. Falconer writes with vivid detail, never holding back when depicting the brutal realities of the era while also creating scenes that bring humour and light into the story. Callous executions, one-eyed camel drivers, corruption, sin, a heart-wrenching love story, dark secrets, and life and death circumstances are revealed at a fast pace in each brief chapter. The plot is rich and complicated and sure to keep the reader focused on turning the page to learn what happens next – and always to some shocking circumstance or pleasant surprise. That’s what I loved most about this book – plenty of the odd and unusual to keep me fascinated throughout.

It is the richness of the prose itself that truly made this historical era come alive. Stocked with exquisite details, each chapter paints a mural for the senses, describing in detail articles, scenery, characters, and architecture so that one truly feels as if they are experiencing the story instead of merely reading it. Clashes, politics, characters ever at odds with each other, good and evil, love and hate, sin and goodness, and much, much more all culminate into a very satisfying ending. A profound story of great depth that will please both genders and one I strongly recommend. Utterly absorbing and captivating!

Armor of Light by Ellen Ekstrom

George Ascalon, earl of Grasmere, returns from the Fourth Crusade to learn that his father, a man who has forsaken his family and noble title to take up Holy Orders, has assigned him one last battle. There is an evil permeating a neighboring lord's lands and George is called upon to vanquish it. With a band of followers that includes his sister, a knight, a fletcher's wife and a mysterious noblewoman, George sets out to honor the pledge and in doing so discovers that he indeed has dragons to fight, and the person most in need of saving is himself.

Armor of Light is essentially an attempt to retell the story of St. George and the Dragon with an historical fantasy twist. As you can tell from the list of individuals traveling with George, there’s also a certain air of Canterbury Tales. The book excels at placing the reader inside a medieval setting, however the story lacks segues. (The reader is in one location and tossed into a different place with no warning.)  I was also frequently confused by George's personal history and how it related to the plot.  However, if you place a high value on setting and less importance on plot and character development, the book's shortfalls won't detract from your enjoyment.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Painted Lady by Maeve Haran

‘This is my tale and I will leave you to tell whether it be high romance or tragedy.’ 

Frances Stuart has few memories of her life in England, having spent most of her young life in exile at the court of the dowager Queen Henrietta Maria. When Charles II is restored to his throne, Frances is sent to England to become Lady in Waiting to the new Queen, Catherine of Braganza.

At sixteen, Frances innocence and beauty are highly-prized amongst the decadent Restoration Court, but when King Charles falls passionately in love with her, she discovers to refuse a king leaves her open to suspicion as well as ridicule and false modesty, becoming a target for nefarious seduction plans by those with ambition to win favour with the king.

Frances is also inconveniently in love with Charles, Duke of Richmond, and when his wife dies in childbirth, she harbours the faint hope that he might turn to her to be his next duchess. However Frances is penniless and with the eye of the king on her, no man dare pay court to Mistress Stuart, and The Duke of Richmond looks elsewhere for his next wife.

Set against the drama of the Great Plague and the Fire of London, The Painted Lady is a wonderfully colourful portrait of  the 17th century Restoration court with some well known names given new life by Ms Haran. I especially loved the passion of Barbara Castlemaine as the King’s long-term mistress, who when Frances holds out against her Royal lover, Barbara accuses her with scathing cruelty of causing him untold misery.

Frances’ relationship with Catherine of Braganza is especially moving, in that the queen is aware of and deeply hurt by her husband’s passion for Frances, and although she never speaks of it openly, Catherine is unfailingly kind to her rival and mindful of Frances’ restraint. Bound by their mutual resentment of Barbara Castlemaine, the scenes between the two women are very touching.

The historical research is exemplary and I learned some interesting facts about an era I thought I was familiar with. The character of Frances is beautifully portrayed with her own determination to hold out for a home and husband of her own and not become the king’s mistress when everyone around her intimates she should succumb. Frances’ strength and character shines through and with few on her side, she struggles to keep the virtue that has become a subject for ridicule.

Some of the scenarios where Castlemaine and the King contrive to seduce Frances are well known, and I suspect Ms Haran has fabricated others, but the story is no less compelling for that. If you love the 17th century with all its corruption, filth, betrayal and luxury, you will enjoy this book.

Monday, October 24, 2011

The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman

A majestic novel of four women facing life and death

Back Cover:

Over five years in the writing, The Dovekeepers is Alice Hoffman's most ambitious and mesmerizing novel, a tour de force of imagination and research, set in ancient Israel.

In 70 C.E., nine hundred Jews held out for months against armies of Romans on Masada, a mountain in the Judean desert. According to the ancient historian Josephus, two women and five children survived. Based on this tragic and iconic event, Hoffman's novel is a spellbinding tale of four extraordinarily bold, resourceful, and sensuous women, each of whom has come to Masada by a different path. Yael's mother died in childbirth, and her father, an expert assassin, never forgave her for that death. Revka, a village baker's wife, watched the horrifically brutal murder of her daughter by Roman soldiers; she brings to Masada her young grandsons, rendered mute by what they have witnessed. Aziza is a warrior's daughter, raised as a boy, a fearless rider and an expert marksman who finds passion with a fellow soldier. Shirah, born in Alexandria, is wise in the ways of ancient magic and medicine, a woman with uncanny insight and power.

The lives of these four complex and fiercely independent women intersect in the desperate days of the siege. All are dovekeepers, and all are also keeping secrets-about who they are, where they come from, who fathered them, and whom they love. The Dovekeepers is Alice Hoffman's masterpiece.

The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman is women’s literary and historical fiction at its very best. From first page to last, I loved this novel.

In A.D. 70, the story depicts the struggles of four very wise, very resilient women whose lives are interwoven when they arrive in Masada and are assigned the task of taking care of the doves in King Herod’s palace. 

After years of intense research, Ms. Hoffman weaves historical fact into fiction as she tries to recreate a tragic event where 900 people chose to commit suicide rather than submit to Roman rule.

The novel is divided into four sections – one for each of the women – and unfolds through their eyes. Each woman has suffered some form of turmoil or tragedy. Although the plot is intricate and complex, the story is easy to follow and quickly draws you in. It is Ms. Hoffman’s talent as a writer that lifts the novel into vividness and passion.

A tale full of mystery and secrets, mothers and daughters, love and hate, and complex human relationships. This is one novel to read slowly and enjoy every word. It would be an ideal novel for book clubs or an exchange of gifts between mothers and daughters. A profound statement on the power and resilience and honour! Highly recommended.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Shadows by Jen Black

A contemporary paranormal romance that will keep you turning the page!

Back Cover Blurb:

Melissa thinks she’s taking a huge risk in going on holiday with Rory Hepburn. He may be gorgeous, but she only met him three days ago. But when she sees the old watermill in rural France, she is delighted. Within ten minutes of her arrival, she sees the man in black, but thinks nothing of it.
Concentrating more on keeping her secrets and sleeping alone, she is shocked when ghosts disturb her first night at the mill. Not just one ghost, but two. When Christophe arrives at the mill, the chic Frenchman regards Melissa as his soul mate, and Melissa knows she’s in real trouble.

A chilling tale, written with humour and drenched in the sights and perfumes of the rural Dordogne, this is a must-read tale for those who like a romance with a ghostly twist.

An avid follower of Jen Black’s novels, I could not resist reading Shadows, her newest book and first venture into contemporary paranormal romance.

When Melissa meets the handsome Rory at a party, she is instantly drawn to him, but is hesitant and a bit mistrustful due to past romantic failures she has been painfully trying to put behind her. Rory invites her for a three week holiday in France at an ancient mill. Unexplainably drawn to him, Melissa agrees, and is determined to enjoy herself despite the fact she remains wary and does not easily trust him.

Shadowed by the secrets of their past, and surrounded by the spectacular beauty of the old mill, Rory and Melissa’s holiday soon turns perplexing and secrets begin to emerge. Not only do they encounter ghosts, but secrets of their past begin to emerge. Mysterious and explosive emotions develop between them, threatening to shatter her trust in Rory.

I love a great ghost story and this novel definitely does not disappoint. Shadows is an exciting read, filled with plenty of secrets and mystery. As with her other novels, Jen’s writing is powerful and fast paced, offering wonderful descriptions and plenty of details that not only make you feel as if you were in France with the couple, but that build endearing and memorable characters. An extremely compelling book!

Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Lady of the Rivers, Philippa Gregory

Jacquetta has heard that her family is descended from the water goddess Melusina. She has heard that this genealogy is what has given the women in her family the ability to see the future. But, she’s also heard that using this “sight”, and even merely possessing it, is a crime punishable by death.

Nevertheless, one surprising day Jacquetta receives an explanation of and training in how to use the sight. Not everyone has it, and her family knows that honing it is the most important thing for those who do. After all, only by honing it can the owner hope to survive.

Not everyone is unfamiliar with Jacquetta’s gift, however. One fateful evening, the Duke of Bedford and Jacquetta meet, and that encounter serves as the turning point in Jacquetta’s life. After marrying the Duke and becoming the Duchess of Bedford, Jacquetta is surprised to find that her new role in life is less focused on being a wife than on using her sight to predict the future of England’s war with France.

When her husband dies unexpectedly, Jacquetta is surprised to find that her life at the English court affords her freedom as well as the ability – nay, need - to avoid using her sight. She is put to service in the young queen, Margret of Anjou’s, household. She soon finds, however, that her life is not destined to consist solely of work. Before she knows it, she is married to Richard Woodville and the mother of several children.

For readers familiar with Tudor history, Jacquetta is none other than the mother of the woman who would become Richard IV’s so-called “commoner queen”: Elizabeth Woodville. In her most recent work, Philippa Gregory focuses on the mother of one of the most controversial queens, wife of one of the most revered warriors of his time and also the woman who followed her heart and created a home filled with the love and laughter of which she always dreamed.

Jacquetta is the perfect subject for Gregory’s extremely accurate and engaging intellect and writing skill, and Gregory shines in all 435 pages of The Lady of the Rivers. The novel itself flows with descriptions of the multiple lives the heroine led as well as the knowledge, instinct and keen interest to understand the world around her that made her one of the most revered, and sometimes feared, women of her time. The wording, tense plot and portrayal of other characters of the period evoke images of the novel that first catapulted her to our world, The Other Boleyn Girl. With its delicious twist and turns, The Lady of the Rivers is a must-read for all historical fiction aficionados.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Lady of the River by Philippa Gregory

The fascinating story of Jacquetta, Duchess of Bedford.
The woman who navigated a treacherous path through the battle lines in the Wars of the Roses.

Back Cover Blurb:

Descended from Melusina, the river goddess, Jacquetta always has had the gift of second sight. As a child visiting her uncle, she met his prisoner, Joan of Arc, and saw her own power reflected in the young woman accused of witchcraft. They share the mystery of the tarot card of the wheel of fortune before Joan is taken to a horrific death at the hands of the English rulers of France. Jacquetta understands the danger for a woman who dares to dream.

Jacquetta is married to the Duke of Bedford, English regent of France, and he introduces her to a mysterious world of learning and alchemy. Her only friend in the great household is the duke’s squire Richard Woodville, who is at her side when the duke’s death leaves her a wealthy young widow. The two become lovers and marry in secret, returning to England to serve at the court of the young King Henry VI, where Jacquetta becomes a close and loyal friend to his new queen.

The Woodvilles soon achieve a place at the very heart of the Lancaster court, though Jacquetta can sense the growing threat from the people of England and the danger of royal rivals. Not even their courage and loyalty can keep the House of Lancaster on the throne. Henry the king slides into a mysterious sleep; Margaret the queen turns to untrustworthy favorites for help; and Richard, Duke of York, threatens to overturn the whole kingdom for his rival dynasty.

Jacquetta fights for her king, her queen, and for her daughter Elizabeth for whom Jacquetta can sense an extraordinary and unexpected future: a change of fortune, the throne of England, and the white rose of York.

A sweeping, powerful story rich in passion and legend and drawing on years of research, The Lady of the Rivers tells the story of the real-life mother of the white queen.

Jacquetta of Luxembourg was distantly related to the Kings of England. When she was 17 years old, she was married to John of Lancaster, the Duke of Bedford. Their arranged marriage was to strengthen ties between England and the Holy Roman Empire. Unfortunately, their marriage was childless and her husband died a few years later.

King Henry VI of England sent Sir Richard Woodville to bring the young widow, Jacquetta, back to England, but along the way, they fell in love. Without waiting for the king’s permission, they secretly married before they arrived, risking the dower lands Jacquetta had been granted upon her first husband’s death as long as she did not marry without the king’s approval. The King was incensed and refused to see them. Wisely, the couple paid a £1000 fine to appease him. Their marriage was a happy one and over the years, Jacquetta bore Richard sixteen children, one of which, Elizabeth Woodville, would become the future Queen consort Elizabeth Woodville.


Read an Excerpt at Scribd
Philippa’s website
Simon and Schuster Book Page

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Blue Suitcase by Marianne Wheelaghan

A poignant story of a German family's struggles during the Nazi reign

Back Cover:

It is 1932, Silesia, Germany, and the eve of Antonia's 12th birthday. Hitler's Brownshirts and Red Front Marxists are fighting each other in the streets. Antonia doesn't care about the political unrest but it's all her family argue about. Then Hitler is made Chancellor and order is restored across the country, but not in Antonia's family. The longer the National Socialists stay in power, the more divided the family becomes with devastating consequences. Unpleasant truths are revealed and terrible lies uncovered. Antonia thinks life can't get much worse - and then it does. Partly based on a true-life story, Antonia's gripping diary takes the reader inside the head of an ordinary teenage girl growing up. Her journey into adulthood, however, is anything but ordinary.

It was with great pleasure that I read this World War II Nazi Germany story told through the eyes of a young German girl. The Blue Suitcase opens in 1932 Silesia, Germany. Antonia Nasiski is twelve years old. The political upheaval in her country slowly infiltrates her family, tearing them apart bit by bit as they each face horrific struggles.

It is a poignant coming-of-age story that tugs at the reader’s heartstrings. The easy, simplistic style transcends age restrictions and is appropriate for young adults as well as adults. What makes this novel so important is that it gives readers a point of view rarely shared – that of the suffering of the common German people.

The novel is a compelling read, unique, and one that will definitely shock. It is a portrayal of the resilience of the human spirit. An excellent depiction of a lesser know point of view.