Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Dragon and the Pearl by Jeannie Lin

“The Dragon and the Pearl “ is a stand-alone novel by Jeannie Lin, however it picks up where “Butterfly Swords” left off. “Dragon’s” cast includes Li Tao, the antagonist of Butterfly Swords, as the hero of “Dragon,” and his backstory gives us a much wider vision of the author’s Tang Dynasty China.
Now I loved “Butterfly Swords” (click the link to see my review), but you can see Lin’s skill as an author has increased since the first book. She has sunk herself into this world, making the characters rounded, fleshed and highly sexual. More than that, her political and social structure is more solid than the Kunlun mountains.  She needed that solidity as we find out how both the court and the seedy underground culture of Tang dynasty functioned. 
Thanks to that background structure, we discover why Li Tao is the stern and unyielding man you met before, but we also find the heart beneath that exterior. That said, he never breaks character. His is one of the strongest, most well rounded characterizations I’ve ever seen. Hypnotizing, never a good man, but always a believable and desirable man.
 If you enjoyed the dainty appetizer of “Butterfly Swords,” you will love the full course spread that is “The Dragon and the Pearl.” Go out and buy a copy via Amazon, Barnes and Noble or wherever else you can find one OR you can put your name into the hat for a paperback or e-copy.  Reader's choice.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Culloden Spirit by Anita Davison

A fabulous Victorian era Paranormal Romance



Overview

Carrie Gordon's season in her native York was an unqualified success, until the young man who paid her so much attention married someone else.

When her family takes a summer trip to her father’s ancestral home in the Scottish Highlands, her handsome Scottish cousin, Duncan McRae, takes an immediate dislike to Carrie, mainly due to her father’s plans to refurbish Cair Innes castle which is in need of extensive repair beyond the means of its present owner and resident, Iain McRae.


Carrie feels the vacation will be a disaster until she discovers a strange young man while exploring the derelict castle, However, she soon learns Ruairi McRae is not what he seems, and the battle he intends to fight was lost by his clan a hundred and fifty years before.


Will Carrie be able to accept that she cannot be part of Ruairi’s world? And when the Roma arrive to camp on Bucks Meadow as they do every summer, who is the beautiful gypsy girl Duncan won't talk about?

Review

I always enjoy Anita Davison’s novels, and I was eager to read Culloden Spirit, her latest release. I love a good Scottish historical novel, and this one promised to be a good one. It certainly did not disappoint.

Culloden Spirit is a Victorian paranormal romance about a young American woman, Carrie Gordon who travels to her ancestral home in Scotland, which is in desperate need of repair. Surrounded by the highlands, Carrie encounters her dashing cousin, Duncan McRae, and an endearing young man named Ruari. These two love interests form the basis of the story. As she slowly gets to know each of these fascinating men, historical secrets about her ancestors and the castle itself are slowly and very tantalizingly revealed.

If you’ve never read one of Anita Davison’s books, I encourage you to pick one up. She is a talented writer who paints vivid pictures of landscapes, clothing, and the social norms of the era. Her scenes are sprinkled with realistic character nuances that makes them real, as if they can leap off the page. Her strong writing skills and knowledge of the Victorian era lends realism to the tale, especially with the addition of an underlying paranormal element. With her lyrical prose, she stirs a reader’s emotion. A subplot of a mysterious Roma family living in the castle’s shadows added interest and variety. Intrigue, mystery, a strong romance, and a shocking surprise ending makes this novel a must read! Two thumbs up!

Friday, November 25, 2011

Song of the Nile by Stephanie Dray

Song of the Nile - A novel of Cleopatra's daughter and interview with Stephanie Dray!


Synopsis

Sorceress. Seductress. Schemer. Cleopatra’s daughter has become the emperor’s most unlikely apprentice and the one woman who can destroy his empire...

Having survived her perilous childhood as a royal captive of Rome, Selene pledged her loyalty to Augustus and swore she would become his very own Cleopatra. Now the young queen faces an uncertain destiny in a foreign land.

Forced to marry a man of the emperor’s choosing, Selene will not allow her new husband to rule in her name. She quickly establishes herself as a capable leader in her own right and as a religious icon. Beginning the hard work of building a new nation, she wins the love of her new subjects and makes herself vital to Rome by bringing forth bountiful harvests.

But it’s the magic of Isis flowing through her veins that makes her indispensable to the emperor. Against a backdrop of imperial politics and religious persecution, Cleopatra’s daughter beguiles her way to the very precipice of power. She has never forgotten her birthright, but will the price of her mother’s throne be more than she’s willing to pay?

Review

Song of the Nile is the much-anticipated second book of a trilogy based on the life of Cleopatra’s and Mark Anthony’s daughter, Selene. This novel, however, easily stands on its own and it is not necessary to have read the first book in order to fully enjoy this one, but you’ll definitely want to collect all three books in the series.

As queen of Mauretania, Selene continues her efforts to reclaim her mother’s throne of Egypt. Like her mother before her, Selene is a shrewd young woman and must use her wits against the cunning strategies of Caesar.

Author Stephanie Dray did a splendid job of recreating Selene from vulnerable young woman to woman of great strength. The characters are complex and intriguing, at times likeable and at other times detestable. And that’s what made them so believable. Although the novel closely follows historical facts that are known about Cleopatra Selene, the author has believably filled in what was missing with vibrant detail and additional conflict that truly brings the story to life.

Delicious prose, an exotic setting, and a heroine that will impress you with her unfailing courage and determination to reclaim what was once hers, are elements that make this book worth reading. It is historical women’s fiction at its finest and I recommend you get both Lily of the Nile and Song of the Nile so you can follow the trilogy from start to finish.

An Interview with Author Stephanie Dray


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?

Thanks so much for having me here. The honor is all mine!

Song of the Nile is the story of Cleopatra’s daughter, a little girl who was orphaned and taken away from the only home she’d ever known, marched through the streets of Rome as a captive prisoner, and raised by the very people who killed her family. That she was able to carve a future for herself out of that horrific past, by endearing herself to her parents’ enemies and keeping quiet about her true feelings, is a testament to her strength. However, it also meant that she was deprived of a true voice most of her life. I try to give that voice back to her.

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

The original title for this book was Sorceress of the Nile because I wanted to get across that the Romans were so suspicious of Egyptian magic and they feared it in the hands of a woman. My heroine is as feared for her association with magic as for her actual wielding of it. The publisher thought the title was too much like fantasy, so we changed it to Song of the Nile which is just as appropriate because Egypt sings to my heroine and tries to lure her home.

3. What makes this book special to you?

This is a book that delves deep into the human heart and goes very dark places. Cleopatra Selene lost so much in her life--she suffered unimaginable tragedies by the time she became a bride at just fourteen years old. Exploring how it is that she was able to put her life back together to become one of the greatest queens in the ancient world was truly an honor for me. And an inspiration.

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

I think Selene’s story will help every woman find her own inner goddess to guide her. Moreover, Selene’s story is a lesson to us that the progress of women’s liberation has not been a straight line; there have been setbacks in the past and there may be setbacks in the future. We should be wary of them even now.

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

Reading books! I learn so much from how other writers have tackled problems that I’m always inspired. Also, meeting with other writers at conferences always leaves me ready to go.

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

This book was difficult for me to write for a couple of reasons. The first reason was that I knew it was going to be controversial; it’s darkly beautiful. I’m exploring cultural issues that would have been normal for Selene, such as slavery, rape and incest. But these things shock the modern senses. And they should shock us. But we have to know where we came from to understand where we are. I had to just swallow my fear and let some like-minded readers see the early drafts of the book so that I could have more confidence in what I was doing. Having that early feedback that this book was stronger than the first...that helped me persevere. The second reason it was difficult for me is that it is such an emotional story. To create this character, I had to channel her a little bit. I had to imagine how difficult and painful her life might be. I cried more than once writing this novel, but by the end, I was also filled with joy.

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

Oh, the crazy things I’ve done! I suppose the wackiest is that I started making Egyptian-themed jewelry to give away with my books.

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.

For starters, I create a giant timeline of known historical events. Then I stare at the timeline a lot, as if I can divine a pattern from it. I ask myself what themes suggest themselves from the historical record. Is this a time of recklessness when people are making fatal mistakes? Is there a slow and steady march to power? What’s the arc of this person’s life and can it be twisted into a story that follows any kind of journey? When I stared at the timeline of Cleopatra Selene’s life, I saw that it was inextricably wound up with Augustus. She lived at his sufferance. She ruled for his pleasure. But all the while, she did these little things to assert her independence and to memorialize her dead. She commissioned coins honoring her dead mother that could have created trouble for her with the emperor. She built temples to her forbidden goddess. She named her son after her lost dynasty. This suggested to me a woman who suffered from survivor’s guilt, so I used that to start filling in the holes in the historical record.

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?

I use two tools for historical fiction. The first is a timeline program called Aeon Timeline and I’m desperately glad for it because math has never been my strong-suit. This program helps me keep track of the ages of my characters when certain things are happening--not to mention the events themselves. The second program I use to write is called Scrivener. It allows me to keep all my notes and research in one convenient place. I’m so dependent on it, I’m not sure I could write without it anymore! As for the structure of my day, it used to be that I’d get up, get coffee, start writing and not stop until I’d hit my word count. Lately, marketing and promotional activities have started to get in the way. I wake up, take care of urgent emails, figure out if there are any outstanding obligations I might have--books to send out, people to thank, tweets to send, etc. This takes up far more time than it should and I’m recently considering whether or not simply withdrawing into hermit land would not be a better approach.

10. What is your current work in progress?

I’m in the midst of writing the third and final book in the Nile trilogy about Cleopatra Selene’s life. This will cover the meat of her career as a successful ruler, all her amazing accomplishments, not to mention her legacy as a mother and as the last Ptolemaic queen. It’s also my last chance to say goodbye to her, so it’s been fairly emotional writing it.

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

I really hope readers will subscribe to my very infrequent, but always informative newsletter. I like to include recipes from ancient history, little known facts, recent discoveries about women in history, and the occasional update about my books. Also, I give out free stuff to subscribers every time I send out the newsletter and who doesn’t want free books? If folks want to find me online, however, I tweet as stephaniehdray and I’m reachable through my website at StephanieDray.com.

I love when folks stop by and tell me their thoughts on my books.

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

My style is very allegorical. I take the historical record, then I infuse it with mythology. I do this because even though history is interesting all on its own, I want to make sense of these events for their symbolic import. This is why readers will find themes such as the divine feminine sprinkled throughout my work and why fantasy elements creep into an otherwise faithful historical narrative.

Thanks so much for having me here today!

About Stephanie…

Stephanie graduated with a degree in Government from Smith, a small women’s college in Massachusetts where–to the consternation of her devoted professors–she was unable to master Latin. However, her focus on Middle Eastern Studies gave her a deeper understanding of the consequences of Egypt’s ancient clash with Rome, both in terms of the still-extant tensions between East and West as well as the worldwide decline of female-oriented religion.

Before she wrote novels, Stephanie was a lawyer, a game designer, and a teacher. Now she uses the transformative power of magic realism to illuminate the stories of women in history and inspire the young women of today. She remains fascinated by all things Roman or Egyptian and has–to the consternation of her devoted husband–collected a house full of cats and ancient artifacts.

Berkley Trade October 2011 (Trade Paperback)
# ISBN-10: 0425243044
# ISBN-13: 9780425243046

Purchase Info

Amazon
Barnes and Noble
IndieBound
Borders
Constellation Books
Powell's




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Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Through an Icon's Eyes by Grace Conti

Brilliant from start to finish – you must read this hauntingly beautiful story!


Overview

Set in 1440s London, Italy and Greece against a turbulent political background enflamed by religious divisions, the unfolding narrative of Benedict Paston and Annie Carter's relationship encompass memories of heresy, murder, loss and betrayal.


Benedict an erstwhile sundial maker, is lost to the world. His self-imposed exile, both emotional and physical, in a remote Greek monastery is relieved only by the task of painting an icon under the monks' instruction. Their hope: to save his tortured soul. As the hours of devotion mark the progress of one day in his monastic cell, an escape from Benedict's self-destructive isolation is brokered by the image of Mary Magdalene, guiding him back to his previous life and a new understanding of the events that have led him to Greece
.
Annie, a young widow beset by visions and facing death, finds that she too has an unusual guide and confessor as the light and shadows mark the progress of an English day in a very different cell…

My Review

I get very, very excited when I discover a novel, so wonderful, so enjoyable, that I include it on my list of lifetime favourites. Set in the 15th century in an ancient abbey, Through an Icon’s Eyes by Grace Conte fits that bill exactly!

This is a beautifully written story, so engaging, so engrossing, I could not put it down. One of the main characters is a partially-completed icon of Mary Magdalene who comes alive in the painter’s mind acting almost as a conscience for him – guiding, questioning, enlightening. Bit by bit, the story spirals into spectacular events of heresy, murder, lust, and betrayal that culminate into an utterly satisfying, completely shocking ending. Extremely real, three dimensional characters that are ever evolving enchanted me from the very first page. Each page is ripe with wisdom, teases with mystery, and swirls the reader into a hurricane of emotions.

Grace Conti is extremely talented and the beauty of her prose is a joy to read. The author is donating all the proceeds to breast cancer research until Christmas 2011. That in itself makes it worth buying and I encourage everyone to do so. Better yet, the book would make a wonderful gift. Brilliant from start to finish – you must read this book.
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To Die For by Sandra Byrd

A fresh look at the life of Anne Boleyn


Overview

To Die For, is the story of Meg Wyatt, pledged forever as the best friend to Anne Boleyn since their childhoods on neighboring manors in Kent. When Anne's star begins to ascend, of course she takes her best friend Meg along for the ride. Life in the court of Henry VIII is thrilling at first, but as Anne's favor rises and falls, so does Meg's. And though she's pledged her loyalty to Anne no matter what the test, Meg just might lose her greatest love--and her own life--because of it.


Meg's childhood flirtation with a boy on a neighboring estate turns to true love early on. When he is called to follow the Lord and be a priest she turns her back on both the man and his God. Slowly, though, both woo her back through the heady times of the English reformation. In the midst of it, Meg finds her place in history, her own calling to the Lord that she must follow, too, with consequences of her own. Each character in the book is tested to figure out what love really means, and what, in this life, is worth dying for.


Though much of Meg's story is fictionalized, it is drawn from known facts. The Wyatt family and the Boleyn family were neighbors and friends, and perhaps even distant cousins. Meg's brother, Thomas Wyatt, wooed Anne Boleyn and ultimately came very close to the axe blade for it. Two Wyatt sisters attended Anne at her death, and at her death, she gave one of them her jeweled prayer book--Meg.

My Review

Although the novel To Die For by Sandra Byrd is a novel about Anne Boleyn, it is told through the first person narrative of Meg Wyatt, her friend, and true historical personage. From their early youth to Anne’s final moments, Meg tells the story of this fascinating queen’s life, from its fabulous rise to its tremendous fall.

Sandra Byrd did a wonderful job at writing a well researched story. The writing flowed seamlessly and drew me into the story from first to last page. I was impressed because she skillfully weaved political fact and Reformation details throughout with such ease, and so simply, that it was not obtrusive or confusing in the least. I especially appreciated the fact that there just enough characters for me to follow and remember as I read along.

To Die For is the first book in a new series entitled The Ladies in Waiting Series. I hope that future books in the series will branch out beyond the over-done Tudors. With plenty of intrigue and twists and turns, this is an all-around, multi-dimensional novel with plenty to keep one reading to the end.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Time Traveler's Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer

All aboard for a trip back into Medieval England to truly experience the good, the bad, and the ugly of 14th century England. Written like a travel guide, The Time Traveler’s Guide to Medieval England is a book that truly makes you feel as if you were on vacation to another place and time.

Ian Mortimer holds nothing back in his objective recreation of the fourteenth century. His impeccable research reveals numerous startling and long forgotten truths about many aspects of life.

The book is divided into 11 chapters:

The Landscape
The People
The Medieval Character
Basic Essentials
What to Wear
Traveling
Where to Stay
What to Eat and Drink
Health and Hygiene
The Law
What to Do

By using actual examples, Ian Mortimer was able to convey the simplest facts about daily living. One of my favourite chapters was the Health and Hygiene, which covered numerous topics from human waste, to bathing, to laundering clothes, and how women cleaned her home. He delved deeply into life and death especially during the plague and described how the style of dress evolved.

For historians or those who love history, this book is an invaluable source of immpecably researched facts. Simple to read, uncomplicated in format, and highly entertaining, this book will leave you surprised, shocked, and horrified at times. What a wonderful opportunity to truly experience the turbulence and charm of life more than 600 years ago.

Elizabeth and Hazel: Two Women of Little Rock by David Margolick

Review by Cori Van Housen



Elizabeth and Hazel is the true story of one moment in the lives of two young women that changed them, and history, forever. In fall of 1957, with 9 select black students enrolled, Central High School in Little Rock, AK, desegregated. Shy and bookish Elizabeth, for all her 15 years of growing up in the segregated south, had precious little idea of, and even less preparation for, the vitriol about to be unleashed as she did the unthinkable: simply walk to school. Outgoing Hazel, also 15, loved being the centre of attention. The camera’s eye caught Elizabeth walking stoically amid a jeering crowd while behind her, Hazel shouted angry epithets.

Margolick has not so much written a story as an anthology, compiling snippets from the many lives and events tangential to the photograph. In doing so, he uniquely explores desegregation, its impact on individuals, community, and country; effectively challenging any simplistic view of racism or its solutions. Moving out from the vortex surrounding Elizabeth, Margolick captures the many-faceted nature of the problem. One must sympathize with Elizabeth, ill-suited for the role of groundbreaker. She ultimately emerges from Central High shell-shocked, unable to move past her experiences. Hazel, on the other hand, garners little initial sympathy but experiences great growth in subsequent years.

The relationship which eventually forms between Hazel and Elizabeth serves to illustrate the difficulties of race relations, where good intentions aren’t always enough, trust is hard-won (and hard to maintain), and a residue of resentment and bad feelings is left on both sides of the equation. Summing up for Hazel at one point, the author writes, “Whites weren’t ready for desegregation in 1957, and blacks weren’t ready for reconciliation now.” For the most part, Margolick does not venture conclusions; he relates the facts in a tidy, journalistic staccato. He does not tell us what to think. Instead, he gives us a fascinating read, an interweaving of tensions and cross-currents of conflict: people at odds with each other, and even within themselves.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Thwarted Queen by Cynthia Haggard

An indepth historical biographical novel of Cecily Neville



Synopsis

THWARTED QUEEN is a portrait of a woman trapped by power, a marriage undone by betrayal, and a King brought down by fear.

Cecylee is the apple of her mother’s eye. The seventh daughter, she is the only one left unmarried by 1424, the year she turns nine. In her father’s eyes, however, she is merely a valuable pawn in the game of marriage. The Earl of Westmorland plans to marry his youngest daughter to 13-year-old Richard, Duke of York, who is close to the throne. He wants this splendid match to take place so badly, he locks his daughter up.

The event that fuels the narrative is Cecylee’s encounter with Blaybourne, a handsome archer, when she is twenty-six years old. This love affair produces a child (the “One Seed” of Book II), who becomes King Edward IV. But how does a public figure like Cecylee, whose position depends upon the goodwill of her husband, carry off such an affair? The duke could have locked her up, or disposed of this illegitimate son.

But Richard does neither, keeping her firmly by his side as he tries to make his voice heard in the tumultuous years that encompass the end of the Hundred Years War - during which England loses all of her possessions in France - and the opening phase of the Wars of the Roses. He inherits the political mantle of his mentor Duke Humphrey of Gloucester, and become’s the people’s champion. The rambunctious Londoners are unhappy that their country has become mired in misrule due to the ineptitude of a King prone to fits of madness. Nor are they better pleased by the attempts of the King’s French wife to maneuver herself into power, especially as she was responsible for England’s losses in France. But can Richard and Cecylee prevail? Everywhere, their enemies lurk in the shadows.

This book is filled with many voices, not least those of the Londoners, who forged their political destiny by engaging in public debate with the powerful aristocrats of the time. By their courageous acts, these fifteenth-century Londoners set the stage for American Democracy.

Review


Thwarted Queen is a young adult novel about Cecylee (Cecily) Neville, mother to kings of England. The author did an exceptional job of portraying Cecily as strong and determined woman, unafraid to speak her mind and take risks. Although fettered by the restrictions of her era, Cecily made the most of her marriage to Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York. As she and her family becomes caught in the life and death struggles between two families vying for the throne of England, she initiates her own battles. The strong, first person narrative author, immediately engages the reader. It is evident that author Cynthia Haggard did extensive research into the life of this fascinating woman and has more novels forthcoming. A wonderful novel to introdcuce Cecily Neville and historical biographical fiction to young female readers. 


Cecily Neville was at the very top of the social scale in late medieval England, and held the highest status a woman could enjoy. She was the eighteenth child of Ralph, first Earl of Westmorland and Joan Beaufort, daughter of John of Gaunt. Her marriage to Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York, was a suitable match between two families of great status.

Richard Plantagenet
Duke of York

Besides wielding considerable political power in an age when few women did so, Cecily administered a large feudal estate, with all the interlocking duties and responsibilities, which that entailed.

Given her high rank, Cecily Neville might have been constrained by the conventional medieval noblewoman's life of piety, patronage, courtly attendance and quiet support for her husband. But she certainly did not heed the advice of the author of The Goodman of Paris (1393), a treatise on household management, who advised that to satisfy their husbands young wives should behave like faithful dogs.

Cecily was a great beauty and indulged in the luxurious lifestyle that her marriage to the wealthiest peer of the realm allowed. She also supported her husband's actions in claiming the crown at the end of the 1450s, and moved beyond the expected behaviour of contemporary noblewomen when she became directly involved in political events.

This trend continued after her husband was killed during the battle of Wakefield in December 1460. Cecily's eldest son, Edward, Earl of March, became King Edward IV in 1461.


King Edward IV

Cecily soon received confirmation of her lands and rights, and as a widow with enormous personal wealth, she continued her patronage of religious houses and the college founded by her husband at Fotheringhay, in Northamptonshire. Cecily also adopted the role of Yorkist matriarch. After 1461, her main goal became the arrangement of a suitable marriage for the king. When in May 1464 he secretly married a low-born widow, Elizabeth Woodville, instead of a European princess, Cecily reacted angrily and refused to subordinate herself to the new queen, styling herself 'queen by right'.

Elizabeth Woodville

By marrying Elizabeth Woodville, Edward also alienated Cecily's powerful nephew Richard, Earl of Warwick, known as the 'Kingmaker', who had been conducting negotiations with the French king for Edward's marriage. There is evidence that by 1469 Cecily had declared Edward to be illegitimate and, with Warwick, was pushing for the crown to pass to her second son, George, Duke of Clarence.

George Plantagent
Duke of Clarence

This development permanently damaged her relationship with Edward, so from 1471 until after his death in April 1483 she avoided the royal court and concentrated on her private interests.

When Edward died, Cecily revived her kingmaking activities. By this time her sense of dynasty was even more acute. Clarence had been attainted by the king and had died in mysterious circumstances in the Tower of London in 1478. Cecily therefore now acted decisively to restore the true Yorkist line through her youngest son, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, who in 1483 became Richard III.

Richard III
Duke of Gloucester

In support of Richard's claim to the throne, Cecily held a meeting at her London home to nullify Edward's will, and supported the assertion that his sons - the 'Princes in the Tower' - were illegitimate and so could not rule if the Yorkist dynasty was to remain pure.

Subsequently, in August 1485, Richard was defeated by Henry Tudor at Bosworth Field and died during the course of the battle. With Henry firmly installed as King Henry VII, the 70-year-old duchess gave the impression of finally accepting defeat.


Henry VII

Nevertheless, there is evidence that after her death in 1495 many of her servants were involved in the conspiracy to dethrone Henry VII hatched by Perkin Warbeck (who claimed to be the younger of the two princes murdered in the Tower). Cecily's life and intrigues show that women could enjoy considerable influence in the masculine world of medieval politics, as well as in more conventional female roles.

The above article is was taken from the National Archives

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Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Lily and the Falcon by Jannine Corti-Petska

An engaging romance set in 15th century Florence


 

Bianca degli Albizzi is outraged when sworn enemy Cristiano de'Medici asks for her hand in marriage. With her father's blessing, she weds the handsome warrior to end the war between Florence's two powerful families. But headstrong Bianca vows to teach her husband that loyalty cannot be bought...not even by seduction. Cristiano, a well-known warrior with the wealth of a king, could have any woman he desires. But for the sake of peace he ends up with a defiant bride who awakens his deepest passion. Her vengeful scheming puts them both in peril, but is he prepared to sacrifice his life to safeguard the woman who has stolen his heart?

The Lily and the Falcon is the first of a four book historical romance series set in Italy. The author’s fine prose immediately drew me into the story, and the Italian setting, intriguing characters, and endearing love story definitely kept me there reading.

First and foremost, this a historical romance set in the decadence of 15th century Florence. It is a story about two lovers, Bianca degli Albizzi and Cristiano de Medici who are required to marry in order to bring an end to the long-standing feud between their two families. But things are not all that they seem and trouble soon befalls the young couple, casting doubt on their motivations and growing feelings.

I love Italian historical fiction, and this novel satisfied me very well. The author is of a strong Italian background and it is evident she has spent considerable time in Italy. Her experiences added ambience and richness to the story, making the entire novel, from start to finish, authentically Italian. I could easily visualize the palazzo and sensual descriptions that really brought this novel to life.

Suspicion, betrayal, poisonings, passion, family loyalty, and a love that surpasses all expectation fills each highly descriptive page. Well worth checking out and recommended to anyone who loves stores set in the Italian Renaissance.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Unhewn Stone by Wendy Laharnar







Synopsis:

When teenager, Stefan Gessler, answers the call to restore his family's honour, he discovers it takes more than superior education and pride to equip him for life in the Middle Ages. His dangerous adventures threaten his courage and challenge his beliefs. Immersed in the turbulent events of the Wilhelm Tell legend, Stefan pretends to be a wizard when an avaricious sibyl mistakes him for an alchemist. The shape-shifting sibyl and an evil knight have diabolical reasons to want the wizard dead. Faced with his own demons and those of medieval Switzerland, how will Stefan complete his mission and escape the fourteenth century...alive? Life in the Middle Ages is a dangerous game, even for Üserwäälti, the Chosen One.

Review:

The Unhewn Stone, a time travel novel by Wendy Laharnar, takes us into the heart of medieval Switzerland and immerses us smack in the middle of the legend of Wilhelm Tell. Although geared towards young adult readers, the novel is written with such rich detail and seamless prose that it can be enjoyed by readers all ages. Time travel, alchemy, mystery, an evil antagonist, a mysterious books, secrets, and the passion of life and death fill each luscious page of this book. There is something for everyone in this novel, one that that transcends any one particular genre – from contemporary to historical to fantasy.

This novel is suspenseful, yet humorous at times. It is a coming of age story. From its likeable protagonist to its detestable antagonist, and the plentiful adventure and suspense in between, this is a wonderful novel to savor. Luscious prose that is simple and uncomplicated, allows the reader to slip easily into the story. Can the hero alter the past to improve the future for others? That is one of the main premises in this fascinating tale.

The author travelled to Switzerland to conduct research, so it is no wonder that the descriptions of places and her knowledge of specific events enriches this tale and truly brings it to life. The author is a talented writer whose prose is lyrical and enjoyable. This is one novel it is easy to recommend. Truly a delightful, heart-warming read!

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Once A Goddess by Sheila R. Lamb

An exciting debut novel about Ancient Ireland
 


Two tribes battle for control of ancient Ireland, and Brigid must find her place among them, trapped between the will of her people and the desires of her heart.

For the sake of peace, Brigid of the supernatural Túatha dé Danann enters into an arranged marriage with Bres, the next chieftain of the enemy Fomorian tribe, whose iron weapons and brute strength challenge the Danann magic. The Danann instruct Brigid to spy for them, and to keep the source of their powers secret, dangerous tasks that complicate her goal of making the best of her forced union.

Sacrificing her own hope for love, Brigid faces the Fomorians alone. She must confront her rival, Morrigan, who competes for Bres's affections, as she begins to suspect that he is breaking the truce through lies and political manipulation. When his tyranny threatens the very existence of the Danann, Brigid must risk her life to unseat Bres from power.

Set in a time when myths were reality, Once A Goddess brings the legend of Ireland's magical Túatha dé Danann to life.

I enjoy historical fiction because a story can sweep me into foreign lands and eras in the past I know little about. Once A Goddess, by Sheila R. Lamb introduces to three sets people named the Túatha dé Danann, the Fomorians, and the Fir Bolgs in ancient, mythological Ireland.

From the moment I began reading, the rich prose set a vivid picture and endeared me to Brigid, a young woman obligated to marry Bres, the future chief of an enemy tribe, in order to keep peace between them. But she is expected to spy and report findings to her village leaders. As she adjusts to the foreign ways of her new village, Bres is a good husband. But soon, dark secrets arise to threaten their peace. Thrust into a near impossible situations, Brigid must make some hard choices, and it is this, in addition to the tantalizing way in which the author reveals the secrets, that drives the story.

Unrequited love, passionate liaisons, lies and deception, treachery and betrayal line this novels pages. It is an emotionally provocative and compelling story and I enjoyed the exotic setting and adventure this story offers. A unique book worth reading and highly recommended.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

His Last Duchess by Gabrielle Kimm

A fabulous story of love, lust, and murder in Renaissance Italy
His Last Duchess
by
Gabrielle Kimm


Synopsis:

This is a tale of love and lust. Ms. Kimm does an excellent job of weaving the strings together to create a compelling story of love gone very wrong and lust unsatisfied. At least within the confines of the marriage of Lucrezia and Alfonse. That does not mean it isn't found elsewhere.

Based on the poem by Robert Browning called, His Last Duchess, Ms. Kimm recreates the sixteenth century in its glory.

Alfonse d'Este is desperate to produce an heir so that his 900-year-old family line will continue. He is also a bit mad. He marries Lucrezia de Medici, a very young girl from a family he considers quite beneath him but she comes with a very large dowry. History shows Lucrezia dying a few short years after the marriage and poisoning was suspected.

Author Gabrielle Kimm has written a luscious and provoking tale based upon the poem by Robert Browning, My Last Duchess, which recounts the legend of Lucrezia di Medici and her husband Alfonso II, the Duke of Ferrara.

The author did a wonderful job of painting 16th Century Renaissance Italy in all its glory and richness. She has interpreted Lucrezia as an innocent sixteen year old who is thrust into marriage with Duke Alfonso, a cold, decadent man touched with madness in order to soothe the discord between their two families.

The main conflict of the story begins immediately when Alfonso is unable to consummate the marriage. He blames Lucrezia for his sexual failure. Unmanned by the beauty and innocence of his wife, he turns to his whore, Francesca, and takes his frustrations out on her through brutal sexual encounters and his fists. As time progresses, he believes Lucrezia is sharing the secret of his failure in bedding her to others and they are laughing at him behind his back. The added pressure of the Pope’s threat to repossess his lands if he does not produce an heir drives Alfonso further into madness and he comes to view Lucrezia as a threat towards his destruction.

Alone and isolated, Lucrezia falls in love with Jacomo, an assistant to Fra Pandolf, a famous Renaissance painter who Alfonso has commissioned to paint Lucrezia’s portrait. Jacomo and Lucrezia risk their lives with every meeting.

Convinced he must rid himself of Lucrezia because she is mocking his sexual inadequacies and he cannot sire an heir upon her, Alfonso’s desperation drives him to arrange Lucrezia’s poisoning.

The plot of this luscious tale intensifies with every page turn as the characters converge to an exciting climax. The tension mounts with every chapter, keeping me interested until the end. And who cannot resist a tale of love and lust sprinkled with the madness and desperation of an evil antagonist set in the luscious background of the Renaissance? I immensely enjoyed this novel and very highly recommend it – guaranteed to please.

Lucrezia de Medici
Duchess of Ferrara


Poem

My Last Duchess
by
Robert Browning

That's my last Duchess painted on the wall,

Looking as if she were alive. I call

That piece a wonder, now: Fra Pandolf's hands

Worked busily a day, and there she stands.

Will't please you sit and look at her? I said

"Fra Pandolf" by design, for never read

Strangers like you that pictured countenance,

The depth and passion of its earnest glance,

But to myself they turned (since none puts by

the curtain I have drawn for you, but I)

And seemed they would ask me, if they durst,

How such a glance came there; so not the first

Are you to turn and ask thus. Sir, 'twas not

Her husband's presence only, called that spot

Of joy into the Duchess's cheek: perhaps

Fra Pandolf chanced to say "Her mantle laps

Over my lady's wrist too much," or Paint

Must never hope to reproduce the faint

Half flush that dies along her throat": such stuff

Was courtesy, she thought, and cause enough

For calling up that spot of you. She had

A heart--how shall I say?--too soon made glad,

Too easily impressed; she liked whate'er

She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.

Sir, 'twas all one! My favor at her breast,

The dropping of the daylight in the West,

The bough of cherries some officious fool

Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule

She rode with round the terrace--all and each

Would draw from her alike the approving speech,

Or blush, at least. She thanked men--good! but thanked

Somehow--I know not how--as if she ranked

My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name

With anybody's gift. Who'd stoop to blame

This sort of trifling? Even had you skill

In speech--(which I have not)--to make your will

Quite clear to such a one, and say, "Just this

Or that in you disgusts me; here you miss

Or there exceed the mark"--and if she let

Herself be lessoned so, nor plainly set

her wits to yours, forsooth, and made excuse

--E'en then would be some stooping; and I choose

Never to stoop. Oh sir, she smiled, no doubt

Whene'er I passed her; but who passed without

Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;

Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands

As if alive. Will't please you rise? We'll meet

the company below, then. I repeat

The Count your master's known munificence

Is ample warrant that no just pretense

Of mine dowry will be disallowed

Though his fair daughter's self, as I avowed

At starting, is my object. Nay, we'll go

Together down, sir. Notice Neptune, though,

Taming a sea horse, thought a rarity,

Which claus of Innsbruck cast in bronze for me!



Alfonso d'Este
Duke of Ferrara
(Husband of Lucrezia de Medici)

Postcards From Nam by Uyen Nicole Duong

Postcards from Nam is an unusual book. It is a poem, it is a love letter, and it is a novel within the space of a novella. It is all these things and more. It tells the story of two Vietnamese children, Ma Chua (Mimi) and Nam. It speaks of how their lives intersect, of their unspoken friendship and love and reliance on one another. The story then details how these children are ripped apart by war, immigration and tragedy. It does it with a spare beauty of words lined with tension usually only seen in poetry. I read this book in a single afternoon – unable to put it down.
If you know nothing about the plight of those immigrants fleeing Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia or Burma, read this book. If ever you have any questions about the necessity for helping immigrants to leave the land of their birth, the land of their torture, read this book.  It won’t take long. It might change a life. Maybe even your own.

Monday, November 7, 2011

My Enemy's Tears by Karen Vorbeck Williams

My Enemy's Tears by Karen V. Williams is a wonderful debut novel about her ancestor, Mary Bliss Parsons who was tried for witchcraft in 17th century New England!

Possible Portrait of Mary Bliss Parsons

A description of the witchcraft trials of Mary Bliss Parsons by The University of Massachusetts states:

…soon after the Parsonses moved to Northampton, rumors of witchcraft began to circulate, implying that the family’s success came at the expense of other families, and was the result of Mary’s dealings with the devil. To head off the allegations, Joseph Parsons initiated a slander case in 1656, which he won. But eighteen years later, Mary was officially accused of and tried for witchcraft in 1674. She was eventually acquitted, but it seemed that the residents of Northampton, despite any court decrees, were convinced that Mary was a witch.

Back Cover:

My Enemy's Tears: The Witch of Northampton is based on the historical record of Mary Bliss Parsons and Sarah Lyman Bridgeman, whose lives trace the journey of English Separatists to the New World, the growth of the first settlements along the Connecticut River from Hartford to Northampton, the lives of women in 17th century New England, and the conflict of faith and reason that gave rise to American democracy.


The Puritans in Hartford, which is at first little more than a campsite, find the wilderness a terrifying place full of warring natives, pestilences and floods destroying their crops, blazing comets, earthquakes and hurricanes--all portents of God's anger or a witch's meddling curse. Mary Bliss and Sarah Lyman grow up amid Puritan superstition and piety, busy with their household chores, one imagining a life different from her mother's and the other eager to marry and bear sons.


Mary Parsons and Sarah Bridgeman spend their married lives in the villages of Springfield and Northampton, where a youthful disagreement festers into a reason to hate and then to fear. As the years pass, one accuses the other of murder by witchcraft, which prompts a trial before the Court of Assistants in Boston--17 years before the infamous Salem Witch Trials.

In 17th century New England Mary Parsons and Sarah Bridgeman grow up in the wilds of uncivilized Hartford. When their friendship is torn apart by a disagreement, Sarah’s bitterness festers. As the two women marry and begin families of their own, their lives drift father and father apart. Sarah’s life is not easy and they struggle to survive. Mary on the other hand, is married to a successful man and they raise their family in comfort in a large home. Sarah’s bitterness is feuled by jealousy over Mary’s good fortune. When opportunity presents itself, Sarah accuses Mary of witchcraft.

I very much enjoyed this story, especially the way author, Karen Vorbeck Williams, was able to capture a true sense of the times. Her portrayal of Puritan religious beliefs and societal expectations was well researched and believable. From the start, she painted a vivid portrait of the hardships that settlers faced, including the numerous dangers resulting from disputes with the native people. The novel delves deep into the motivation of its characters. They are complex, believable, and easy to identify with.

Based on a true story, an ancestor of Ms. Williams, this is a fascinating recounting of early America and the struggles of women to survive and raise families amidst religious fears, witchcraft, the savage wilderness, and complex human relationships.

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Saturday, November 5, 2011

Fair Border Bride by Jen Black

In a Northumberland market place in the year 1543, Harry Wharton, spy to King Henry travelling to Scotland first lays eyes on a beautiful, flirtatious girl named Alina Carnaby. Harry would like to linger but his mission presses, yet moments later he is presented with another opportunity to get to know the lovely girl who has enchanted him – by the fact she is about to be gored by a runaway bull.

Harry steps up to the mark and rescues the lady, but she is  betrothed, and her father happens to despise anyone by the name of Scott, the name Harry gives to hide his true identity.

Before leaving for Edinburgh and the dangers of border country, Harry takes a detour to see what Alina’s home, Ayrdon, is like, arriving just as the estate is being visited by cattle raiders, and in the ensuing pursuit, he is thrown from his horse, and is knocked out by an overhanging branch.

Cuthbert Carnaby has ridden off on what is known locally as a Hot Trod,  to catch the raiders. While he is away, Alina finds Harry, and knowing how her father feels about the Scotts, decides to hide him to recover from his injury in a barn out of sight.

However what she doesn’t bargain for is the fact Harry’s blow on the head has given him temporary amnesia and not only can he not remember seeing Alina before, but his mission to Edinburgh appears to have been wiped clean too. His memory returns over the next day or so, but he is discovered and hauled up in front of Cuthbert Carnaby, who demands he be subjected to ‘The Leap’, which turns out to be less of a feat of endurance, but execution by being thrown into a ravine.

Alina’s pleas for clemency are ignored and she is told to prepare herself for her forthcoming marriage to John Errington, a young man who has matured into a not unattractive proposition. However he isn’t Harry and heartbroken, Alina rushes to her grandfather, who is less than sympathetic.

In fact the entire family appear to have had any sentimentality rubbed off by the cruel Northumberland winds, and the only person willing to help Harry is Matho, with whose help, Harry survives the jump and meets up again with Alina,vowing to return within a week and claim her before she is forced to marry John Errington.

Perhaps as a result of being knocked out and his ordeal with 'The Leap', Harry appears have a problem with  timescales and comes back a day late, and frantic, Alina runs away. Then Cuthbert Carnaby arrives in pursuit of his errant daughter.

Will Alina have the courage of her convictions and stand by the man she loves, or will her father succeed in killing Harry this time and drag her to the altar to marry the man of his choice?

As an admirer of Jen Black’s novels, I recommend this romantic story set in a time when women were possessions, obedience was taken for granted and their lives subject to the will of a patriarch. Ms Black writes with a succinct and yet colourful style and portrays descriptions and emotions beautifully.  Alina, Matho and Harry are engaging, well rounded  characters  and I’m happy to say Fair Border Bride isn’t the end of their story as there is more to come from this author.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Island of Wings by Karin Altenberg

A profound study of the human spirit in the midst of death and isolation


Back Cover Blurb

On the ten-hour sailing west from the Hebrides to the islands of St Kilda, everything lies ahead for Lizzie and Neil MacKenzie. Neil is to become the minister to the small community of islanders and Lizzie, his new wife, is pregnant with their first child. Neil's journey is evangelical: a testing and strengthening of his own faith against the old pagan ways of the St Kildans, but it is also a passage to atonement. For Lizzie - bright, beautiful and devoted - this is an adventure, a voyage into the unknown. She is sure only of her loyalty and love for her husband, but everything that happens from now on will challenge all her certainties. As the two adjust to life on an exposed archipelago on the edge of civilization, where the natives live in squalor and subsist on a diet of seabirds, and babies perish mysteriously in their first week, their marriage - and their sanity - is threatened. Is Lizzie a willful temptress drawing him away from his faith? Is Neil's zealous Christianity unhinging into madness? And who, or what, is haunting the moors and cliff-tops? Exquisitely written and profoundly moving, Island of Wings is more than just an account of a marriage in peril - it is also a richly imagined novel about two people struggling to keep their love, and their family, alive in a place of terrible hardship and tumultuous beauty.

The Review

In the year 1830, a young, newly married couple arrive on the island/archipelago of Saint Kilda in the North Atlantic; an island at the far edges of the civilized world beyond the British Isles.

Neil Mackenzie, a minister, and his young wife, Lizzie, pregnant with her first child are there on a mission to bring Christianity to island people who live in squalor and extremely primitive conditions. One of the sole sources of food for the inhabitants are the sea birds.

Neil is deeply passionate about his faith and a man haunted by demons of the past. He fanatically dedicates to converting the pagan islanders to Christianity. Lizzie struggles to adjust to the primitive conditions where most newborn babies never survive past their second week of life and unable to communicate with neighbors because she cannot speak their native Gaelic tongue.

As her husband becomes more and more fanatical and authoritative with both Lizzie and the people he serves, Lizzie finds herself questioning her marriage and becoming more isolated.

The Island of Wings is a powerful study of the fragility of marriage, and the differences between a man and woman, past and present, Christian and paganism, and life and death.

The author’s prose evokes powerful images of the island’s landscape and delves deeply into emotions such as devotion, grief, and loneliness. With every word read of this tragic novel, I could feel the desolation and solitude, the despair and loss of hope. Hauntingly beautiful, this tale paints a vivid picture of an exotic, fascinating society that no longer exists. A beautiful, profound masterpiece!

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Confessions of Becky Sharp by David James

Review by Cori Van Hausen

The Confessions of Becky Sharp, by David James, is based on W.M. Thackeray’s classic novel, Vanity Fair. In its opening pages, Rebecca—or Becky—is found grousing about Thackeray, whose unflattering portrayal of her in his book threatens her social aspirations. Past her prime, plagued with gout, and estranged from family, Becky’s best prospect for supporting herself is selling her life story. Even, if she must, to gossipmonger publishers vying for the opportunity, among whom is a handsome young man she admires, but does not particularly trust.

From Becky’s earliest days in Versailles as a ‘child of the revolution,’ she learns well the art of survival through manipulation. The narrative follows her social ascent, from dalliances with Britain’s great and good, through to her subsequent fall from grace and prosperity. An erstwhile beau perhaps says it best: “Sometimes, Beck, you are so practical and unfeeling that I admire you tremendously.” Steering by a questionable moral compass, Becky is difficult to relate to, yet James makes her sympathetic enough that you really can’t wish her ill any more than manage indifference towards her.

James is articulate in his reconstruction of Thackeray’s story, minus the verbiage characteristic of such early works, and deserves applause for telling the story through Becky’s eyes. Her existing résumé could have made for a salacious tale indeed, but James’s writing is always restrained and intelligent. Studded with luminaries of the era, Confessions includes a sprinkling of literary quotes and allusions (even T.S. Eliot, published much later), adding depth and interest. James sets the stage very nicely in the half century following the French Revolution. Tracking with the storyline, however, can be demanding when dates are not specifically mentioned.

Becky Sharp’s (selective) retelling of her checkered past piques one’s curiosity. Is she the notorious schemer Thackeray has painted in Vanity Fair? As she comes into clearer focus, a shrewd but not always wise woman, James injects an element of mystery into the mix. Who will come to Becky’s aid to save her from penury? And what of the mysterious young man who seeks to draw out the truth of her past? Confessions is like an evening stroll through carriage-lined, gas-lit streets, occupied at times by the likes of Napoleon, Dickens, and Thackeray—a pleasant diversion for the traveler. Be sure to have your French-English dictionary at hand.

Asenath by Anna Patricio


Two Destinies...One Journey of Love. In a humble fishing village on the shores of the Nile lives Asenath, a fisherman's daughter who has everything she could want. Until her perfect world is shattered. When a warring jungle tribe ransacks the village and kidnaps her, separating her from her parents, she is forced to live as a slave. And she begins a journey that will culminate in the meeting of a handsome and kind steward named Joseph Like her, Joseph was taken away from his home, and it is in him that Asenath comes to find solace...and love. But just as they are beginning to form a bond, Joseph is betrayed by his master's wife and thrown into prison. Is Asenath doomed to a lifetime of losing everything and everyone she loves?

New author, Anna Patricio has written an engaging Biblical biographical novel of high adventure and passionate love amid the turbulent world of Ancient Egypt. Asenath is the biographical story about the life of Asenath, the wife of Joseph of the coat of many colours.

Asenath's real name was Kiya and she was born to a happy family who lived on the banks of the Nile. One day, her village is invaded, her parents killed, and she is separated from her siblings. Kiya survives but is captured and forced into slavery. When Egyptians rescue her, she is brought to the temple of Atum-Re and begins training as a priestess. It is then that she meets Joseph, a most handsome, desirable young man, but a man considered beneath her because of his status as a Hebrew slave. When she marries him, her life is pushed into turmoil and catapults the novel into wonderful scenes filled with tension and conflict. 

Written in first person narrative in Asenath’s voice, it is a compelling story, nicely researched, and well written. For a first novel, it is an impressive effort. The novel is geared toward the Young Adult market, but I recommend it for adults too. On rare occasions, the author slipped into modern vernacular, which pulled me from the story a bit – something that should have been caught and corrected by the editor. However, as I said, this didn’t happen often and it certainly did not keep me from enjoying the story.

All in all, this was a terrific debut novel and a compelling story, recommended for anyone who loves to be swept into fascinating, ancient eras. Anna Patricio has great promise and I look forward to following her career.