Friday, December 30, 2011

The Printmaker's Daughter by Katherine Govier

A fascinating novel about a woman artist in Edo Japan


Recounting the story of her life, Oei plunges us into the colourful world of nineteenth-century Edo, in which courtesans rub shoulders with poets, warriors consort with actors, and the arts flourish in an unprecedented moment of creative upheaval. Oei and Hokusai live among writers, novelists, tattoo artists, and prostitutes, evading the spies of the repressive shogunate as they work on Hokusai’s countless paintings and prints. Wielding her brush, rejecting domesticity in favour of dedication to the arts, Oei defies all expectations of womanhood—all but one. A dutiful daughter to the last, she will obey the will of her eccentric father, the man who created her and who, ultimately, will rob her of her place in history.

Vivid, daring, and unforgettable, The Printmaker’s Daughter shines fresh light on art, loyalty, and the tender and indelible bond between a father and daughter.

Set in 19th century Japan, the Edo period, The Printmaker's Daughter is a fascinating rendering of life’s hardships for Japanese women and artists in that era. Oei is the favourite daughter of her famous master painter artist father, Hokusai. Despite Hokusai’s fame, his family was truly poor. Born to him late in life, she immediately enchanted him because of her aptitude for art and her vivid personality, unusual for Japanese women. When he leaves his family to pursue his art, he takes his favourite child with him. Despite the restrictions imposed on her, she served as a dutiful business partner to her father, keeping his accounts, helping his students, and even secretly completing some of his art projects. He struggled against strict government control and strong sentiments against artists. He took his daughter along with him in his travels, leaving her in the care of courtesans in the pleasure district so he could work. Oei struggles to find a balance between honing her talent as an artist and learning the womanly household arts expected of a young woman in such a strict culture. She also grapples with her allegiance to a father she equally resents is sometimes repulsed by – a man truly selfish in his pursuits with poor appreciation for the Oei’s own sacrifices.

In this dual biographical historical novel about Oei and Hokusai’s lives, readers will experience rich details of Japanese life. Told in first person narrative through Oei’s point of view, this is a beautifully written and well-researched story. As with most biographical historical novels, I did find the pace slow at various points in the story. This is normal and to be expected; after all, true life is not always filled with constant turmoil and conflict. Therefore, readers should understand this and enjoy the story for what it is - an accurate portrayal of two struggling artists who left an indelible mark upon history, art, and culture in Japan. The novel describes a world far removed from that which we know in the West.

Oei’s story is one of dauntless courage to overcome cultural restrictions for women of the time. Through beautiful prose, the writer evokes emotion and I could not help becoming fascinated with this exotic story, especially when given glimpses into the brothel life and prostitution.

The Printmaker's Daughter was published in Canada as The Ghost Brush.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Vestal Virgin by Suzanne Tyrpak

A priestess in Nero’s Rome discovers hidden truths about faith and herself, in Suzanne Tyrpak’s Vestal Virgin. The Emperor dictates the fate of Rome citizens, but when the priestess Elissa Rubria Honoria rejects his manipulation, a chain of events follow that endanger Elissa and everyone she cherishes. As calamities befall her, she also uncovers long-buried secrets about her past.

In Elissa’s childhood, her parents surrendered her to the care of the Vestal Virgins, honored women bound by vows of chastity to serve the Roman goddess of the family and family.  While Elissa did not willingly accept the burden, she achieves a semblance of security and comfort in later years. Her carefully scripted life begins to unravel when she learns that her brother Marcus faces an accusation of treason. Elissa knows the Emperor Nero is a capricious and dangerous man, but in her desperation, she believes she can save her brother. She rushes off to the Circus Maximus, where Nero has ordained Marcus’s death as a spectacle for Rome’s citizens. On her journey, Elissa meets a stranger whose prophetic vow will haunt her. Though Nero toys with Elissa upon her arrival, it is soon clear that he does not intend to release his victim. Afterward, Elissa begins to question the will of the gods, who have allowed Nero’s cruelty to go unchecked.

As a Vestal, Elissa has sacrificed a future with the soldier Justinus, but it seems she will have to endure much more given the loss of her brother. Her family remains subject to the Emperor’s whims, especially her younger sister Flavia, who seems to have caught Nero’s eye. It is a horrifying prospect for Elissa and the Empress, Poppaea Sabina. Where Elissa is selfless, Flavia’s selfishness threatens to embroil the family in Nero’s schemes. The Emperor, who once deemed Marcus and Justinus his friends, has grown into a paranoid monster, leaving Justinus fears for his life. Through him, Elissa makes a connection with Paul of Tarsus, one of the followers of Jesus, an act with grave consequences for everyone involved. As Elissa tries to reconcile her faith with the tenets of the new religion, Nero, Flavia and Poppaea pursue their own schemes, each of which will ruin Elissa’s former contentment, but also aid her in uncovering an unexpected connection between her and the Emperor.

The authenticity with which Ms. Tyrpak writes about ancient Rome will make readers feel as though they are walking the crowded, smelly streets or mingling with the masses in the arena.  Her character portrayals reveal flawed and misguided individuals, who are also sympathetic even at their most foolish. The author does not shy away from the reputed cruelty and vagaries that the Emperor Nero displayed during his lifetime, and she succeeds in making him a powerful antagonist, even when he seems comical. There are hints of sexual perverseness, but nothing too explicit. While I won’t give away the ending, it felt as though some of the conflicts remained unresolved. I’m pleased to hear that there is a sequel to Vestal Virgin.      

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Elijah Rising by Lyn LeJeune

Overview: The story of the Ishmael-like friendship between two young men: a wealthy white New Yorker, Michael Cooke Holt, and a black tent-fundamentalist preacher, Elijah Broom, set in that period of turmoil and crisis in American history in which scientific marvels, social unrest, economic disasters, and the First World War, created new vistas about the individual and the nation.

In Lyn LeJeune's Elijah Rising, the heir to a railroad fortune, Michael is an aimless soul struggling to find his path in life. In World War I America, patriotism prevails and pacifists are punished. A misfit in the academic world and rejected for military service, Michael lives off a generous allowance from his callous mother and passes time in between bouts of drinking by wandering the streets of New York City. There he meets the disadvantaged and downtrodden and feels the need to share about their suffering through his writing.

One of his encounters is with a young, orphaned black boy named Elijah Broom. For reasons even Michael can’t understand, he is compelled to learn more about Elijah’s life. When he later finds out that Elijah has become a revivalist preacher, traveling through America to bring God’s message to the masses, Michael decides to follow him. Their journey takes them through the dangerous territory of the Klan and further west to the dusty deserts. Elijah becomes far more than a personal interest story to Michael – he becomes the answer to everything he has sought in life. Michael, the once-tortured soul, has found a cause in Elijah, the embodiment of hope and salvation. But the charismatic Elijah is more than what he seems to be on the surface…

I relish a story where I reach the last page with a better understanding of the times in which it took place. Elijah Rising, in which the narrative alternates between Michael and Elijah, is one such book. I learned far more about the social and political workings of earlier 20th century America than I ever did from a textbook. This is by no means a light read; it is as times dark and disturbing to know of the prejudices that persisted long after Emancipation and that hate crimes existed long before they had a name. The author does not avoid close inspections of squalor, disease and crime. Michael is a humanitarian ahead of his time and through his eyes we view the complex and often ugly society that existed just a century ago in America.

Available from inGroup Press and at

The Amber Treasure by Richard Denning

In Richard Denning’s The Amber Treasure (Book One of the Northern Crown Series), a young man’s initiation into the warrior class of his society sets him on a perilous journey, pitting him against merciless enemies and exposing long-buried family secrets. Set in sixth century Saxon England, the coming of age of the hero Cerdic immerses the reader in a vivid, brutal story of revenge and warfare.

The bonds of family and kinship propel much of the action and remain a persistent theme. At the opening, the remnants of the Saxon defense, Cerdic’s uncle Cynric and his companion Grettir, stand against a host of three hundred Welsh men. Cynric valiantly gives his life and fosters a legend surrounding the strength of his sword. Cerdic, inspired by stories of his uncle’s bravery from Grettir and the famous bard Lilla, begins training as a warrior. His friends Cuthbert and Eduard join him, but also two others whose actions will determine Cerdic’s destiny, a slave named Aedann and the warrior Hussa. Both share an equal disdain for Cerdic, yet their reasons are dissimilar.

A brutal attack ravages Cerdic’s village, in which Welsh marauders steal his mother’s priceless amber jewelry, his uncle’s legendary sword and some of the villagers, including Cerdic’s sister. Cerdic’s family questions the loyalty of the salve Aedann, who has gone missing in the aftermath. The Saxons prepare to reclaim their people and property. When Cerdic finds Aedann along the Welsh border, he gives into a foolish impulse for revenge that endangers all the warriors. The enemy captures them and nearly kills their leader in the process. Cerdic soon learns that his assumptions about Aedann are wrong, and that another has betrayed his people. The Saxons escape with many losses but their fight is not over. To turn the tide against the Welsh, rescue their people, the legendary sword and the amber treasure, they risk a confrontation even though they are outnumbered. The ensuing battle is a test of Cerdic’s wits and valor.

Denning’s greatest strengths lie in his characterizations and the ability to convey a vivid portrayal of warfare in all its glory and brutality. The history of the Saxons in England is replete with tales of bravery, often against overwhelming odds.  The warrior who defends his land and people is the quintessential hero. Cerdic, who enjoys an idealized existence, is arrogant, anxious and impulsive. His experiences in brutal warfare temper his natural disposition. He suffers at the hands of a true villain, a man who will do anything to guarantee victory, even using Cerdic’s sister as a pawn. The experience shapes Cerdic. Without this challenge, he can never grow. Through it, Cerdic learns about sacrifice, honor and duty to his fellow combatants, and rises to the heroic challenge. 

Monday, December 19, 2011

Harem and Seraglio by Colin Falconer

History's most notorious woman

A gripping tale about one of the world's most wicked woman and the man who loved her.

Reprinted from Colin Falconer's Looking for Mr Goodstory Blog

Haseki Huerrem Sultan Roxelane

When  people think of bad, bad women they perhaps think of Isabella the First - the woman who commissioned Torquemada - or Bloody Queen Mary, the scourge of Protestant England. Few people have heard of Hürrem Haseki Sultan, or Roxelana, as she is better known in Europe. Yet she made Anne Boleyn, one of her contemporaries, look like a milquetoast. Anne, after all, fell out of favour with her king and ended up with her head on the block.  Roxelana married the Sultan of the Ottomans, had him throw out his entire harem, and kept him in her thrall the rest of her life.

By fair means or foul.

Roxelana was born in the Ukraine and at some time in her  teens found herself a concubine in the harem of the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman,  Lord of Lords, King of Kings, Possessor of Men's Necks. Her portraits suggest  classical features and blazing red hair. Her history reveals a woman of ruthless  ambition with the strategic intelligence of a chessmaster.

What was a harem like?  Victorian paintings depict dream-like canvases of half naked young women soaping  each other in what look like Asiatic day spas. In reality the old harem of  Suleiman's time was a grim and twilight maze of dark panelled rooms where the  sun seldom penetrated. It was a snake pit; imagine, if you will, a cross between  a Miss World contest and a reality show, where the winner becomes an Empress and  the other three finalists are drowned in a sack. Oh, and all the runners-up  never ever get to leave the house.

Which leads us to the story of Suleiman the  Magnificent and Roxelana. Her influence over him from moment she replaced his  long term favourite, Gulbehar, was pervasive. Yet she would have known that his  throne would pass to the oldest male heir, and the Osmanli Code of Laws allowed  the Sultan elect to execute all his brothers to secure it. In other words she  knew that she, and all her children, were just a heartbeat away from  catastrophe.

Then three things happened that historians cannot  rationally explain. First, the harem conveniently burned down, which meant that  Roxelana and her entire entourage had to move into Suleiman's palace, until a  new harem could be built. But it never was, and Roxelana stayed right where she  was.

The second occurrence was no coincidence; it was, quite  simply, astonishing. The Sultan married her. A Sultan had not taken a queen  since the Ottomans lived as nomads on the plains. Then, to compound the  amazement of all Stamboul, he resigned his entire harem. 

To this point it reads like a Hollywood screenplay; a  powerful and potent man giving up everything for the woman he loves. Pretty  Woman with sherbets and turbans. But Roxelana had another agenda entirely, and  it had nothing to do with love. Historians can only speculate why and how she  did what she did next. But as a novelist, it's not that hard to imagine.

It resulted in one of her  sons, Selim the Sot, a drunkard and a lecher and the least able man in  Suleiman's entire circle, inheriting the Sultanate. It happened because, like a  great Shakespearian tragedy, all the other candidates had been murdered.

But Roxelana herself never reached absolute power, though  her scheming was to affect the Ottoman empire for centuries to come. She died  before Selim's moment of glory. Suleiman himself mourned her until his own death  eight years later.

Money, power, conquests; it seems none of it guarantees  happiness in the end. What happened after Suleiman married Roxelana is one of  the most tragic stories of any prince, from east or west. They now share a tomb   in the garden of the Suleimaniye mosque in Istanbul. A  grapevine of blood-red amaranthus flowers straggles over the the tomb. The  flower is known locally as 'love lies  bleeding.'

Go there on a quiet summer's  day and I swear you'll hear him whisper the words of one of his poems:

"What men call empire is  worldwide strife and ceaseless war. 

In all the world the only joy lies in a  hermit's rest."

Photograph: Giovanni dall'Orto

There has been much written  about the Tudors and their scheming. But Roxelana made the Boleyn sisters look  like the Sisters of Charity. Henry and Suleiman were contemporaries but Henry  VIII was lucky. He only had six wives to contend with. Suleiman had three  hundred - and picked out the worst of the lot.

HAREM is available on 

Harem Overview

He had everything a man might dream of; wealth, power and the choice of hundreds of the most beautiful women in his Empire. Why then did he forsake his harem for the love of just one woman, and marry her in defiance of the centuries-old code of the Osmanlis?

This is the astonishing story of Suleiman, the one they called the Magnificent, and the woman he loved. From medieval Venice to the slave markets of Algiers, from the mountains of Persia to the forbidden seraglio of the Ottoman's greatest sultan, this is a tale of passion and intrigue in a world where nothing is really as it seems.

Suleiman controlled an empire of thirty million people, encompassing twenty different languages. As a man, he was an enigma; he conquered all who stood against him with one of the world's first full time professional armies - yet he liked to write poetry; he ravaged half of Europe but he rebuilt Istanbul in marble; he had teams of torturers and assassins ready to unleash at a whim - yet history remembers him as a great lawmaker.

''Harem' literally means 'Forbidden': Forbidden to men. Once the Sultan was the only man - the only complete man - who could pass through its iron-studded doors. But what was that world really like? For a woman living in the Harem the only way out was to somehow find her way into the Sultan's bed and bear him a son. But the young Sultan was often away at war and when he did return he neglected his harem for just one favourite wife. But one young Russian concubine inside his seraglio was not content to allow fate decide the course of her life. She was clever and she was ruthless. And she had a plan.

Into this world are drawn two unforgettable characters; a beautiful young Italian noblewoman, captured by corsairs and brought to the Harem as a concubine; and the eunuch who loved her once, long ago, in Venice.

Loved her? He still stopped loving her. Far from the imagined world of steamy baths and languorous sensuality, the real Harem was a world of intrigue and despair. This is a story of a man who has everything, striving to find a measure of happiness; it is also about a slave who had nothing, but wants only to be a better man.

Seraglio Overview

Suleiman has the world at his feet; he has an Empire to rival that of any Caesar, and now his Vizier even wants to take his armies against the great infidel, the Pope, in Rome.

But the Sultan is a man in conflict with himself; he has the soul of a poet but the responsibility for jihad; he has a dream of building a great city while his advisers want him to tear cities down; his generals urge him to war when he wants only to spend his summers with Hurrem, the love of his life.

He is the most envied man in the world, yet he can no find peace. History itself records how Suleiman resolved all these dilemmas; but what he did in the end defies rational explanation. So what really happened behind the doors of the Sublime Porte?

Suleiman is still a young man when he is forced to face the circumstances of his own death. The law of the Osmanlis says that when his eldest son, Mustapha, succeeds to the throne he has the right to execute the three boys Suleiman has fathered with the woman he adores. Mustapha says he will never invoke the law. But can he trust him?

Meanwhile his army of wardogs strains at the leash. His lifelong friend and Vizier urges him to march on Rome. He is sick of war but has a duty to God to conquer in His name. His favoured wife, Hurrem, argues for love over his faith.

Has the most powerful man in the world no power over his own life?

But there are wheels within wheels; in the Italian colony, two men and a woman inextricably enmeshed in the politics of the Harem struggle with similar questions of life and the passions of the heart; how far should we go to make someone love us?

Can they find the peace that eludes Suleiman, the man they call the Lord of Life?

This is the astonishing conclusion to the story begun in HAREM; from the shadowed cloister of the seraglio to the mountain fastnesses of Persia; from the private steam baths of pashas to the dusty battlefields of the steppe; from the Sultan's palace to the midnight docks at Galata this is a tale of vengeance and devotion, ruthlessness and compassion, as astounding as it is true. 

My Review

If you haven’t read one of Colin Falconer’s novels, then I promise you are in for a real roller-coaster ride of never ending intrigue with both these novels.

Set in the 16th century, Harem, and its sequel Seraglio, weave a spectacular, haunting tale of malice, obsession, and zeal set in the magnificent Harem of Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent, Lord of Lords of this World, Possessor of Men’s Necks, Allah’s Deputy, and absolute ruler of the mighty Ottoman Empire.

Based on the true-life story of Roxelana (called Hürrem in the novels) and Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent, Colin Falconer lends his interpretation to the machinations of a most vile villainess who strives to gain power while captive in the sultan’s harem. Ruthless, manipulative, vengeful, clever, and power hungry, Hürrem stops at nothing to gain the upper hand in a violent world where women and slaves are worth little. With one nod, the Sultan can brutally take a life and danger is rampant around every corner.

Bestselling author Colin Falconer writes with succinct prose. Each chapter ends with a gripping cliff-hanger that makes the book irresistible and unputdownable. Although both books can stand alone, I strongly recommend you read both books to enjoy the full impact of the story. He delves deep into the thoughts and motivations of his characters, truly making them seem larger than life.

As the story unfolds in both novels, the reader will immerse themselves in a world ripe with an abundance of historical details, atrocities, brutality, dissension, forbidden love, ambition, and love and hate. The plot twists are plentiful and the story draws one in. Entertaining and shocking, Harem and Seraglio are intense and truly bring to life a turbulent period in the 
Ottomon Empire.

Available at: 

Petrograd by Philip Gelatt and Tyler Crook

Petrograd is the untold tale of the conspiracy behind the murder of Grigori Rasputin. The story follows Cleary, a reluctant British spy who finds himself tasked with the most difficult assignment of his career: orchestrate the death of the mad monk. To accomplish this almost impossible mission, he’ll have to negotiate dangerous ties with the secret police, navigate the halls of power, and tangle with dangerous radicals. And, as the city explodes in the turmoil of revolution, he’ll find that it is his own life on the line.
Petrograd was billed as a tense, historical spy thriller and it delivers on the history and tension.(One moment of menace, where the Okhrana  leader casually mentions the impolitic behavior of being a Jew, made my heart stop.)  Don’t think of Cleary as James Bond, however. He’s more of an Everyman and far more interesting because of it, in my opinion. The personal tension of Cleary trying to decide who he is – S.I.S. spy, Soviet sympathizer, or Irish national without a home – is utterly compelling. Then Gelatt and Crook set it in the midst of a bungled plan to murder someone who has already survived multiple assassination attempts.
 Cleary goes throughout the story aware that he’s in an impossible situation, likely to be murdered for a cause he does not believe in and for people he doesn’t care about with only one exception. He must betray that person’s trust for the sake of his job and regain that trust for himself.
Petrograd is a graphic novel, which basically means the individual comic books that make up the story were combined into “chapters” and placed within a hardback novel cover. The art is beautifully evocative of both the era and the sensations of poverty and paranoia. However, it was a little difficult to get into the first chapter. I believe it’s because the entire novel is done in three colors, which gives it a faded, sepia toned-feel. That’s perfect for the time setting, but readers may struggle to identify individual characters without the aid of additional colors suggesting the person in that color is Cleary’s boss, etc. I urge you to read past that first chapter, because many of the additional, problematic characters disappear, then the story moves fast, and is delightful in a way that leaves you breathless and wanting to more. 

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Blood Brothers by E. Thomas Behr

In 1805 in the war-ravaged Mediterranean, Henry Doyle, a soldier of fortune and professional killer arrives at a squalid tavern in the roughest section of Malta for a meeting with a man he should hate.
His appointment: William Eaton, an American army officer, Indian fighter, and secret agent for Thomas Jefferson. Eaton is plotting a daring venture: the invasion of Tripoli to liberate three hundred Americans held hostage by the Pasha of Tripoli, place a pro-American ruler on Tripoli’s throne, and bring freedom to a Muslim country that has known only tyranny.
Eaton has money to spend for a scout to lead a rag tag invading army of Arabs, Eurpean mercenaries, and seven U.S. marines across 500 miles of merciless desert to attack an enemy force ten times their size.
Raised by the Mohawk Indians in 1770’s, Doyle’s memories of the destruction of his people by the American army during the Revolution are still painful after twenty five years and bitter. But in spite of his feelings, Doyle accepts the assignment.
Eaton’s mission throws together two unlikely allies: Doyle and the half-brother he never knew he had, Peter Kirkpatrick, the young, brashly confident captain of the U.S.S. Eagle.
When he joins Eaton’s mission, Kirkpatrick plunges into an unfamiliar, unforgiving world that will test his – and America’s character as a nation – to the breaking point. For Doyle, the question becomes: do I help my brother – or let him die? 
“Blood Brothers” is the story of Henry Doyle as much as it’s the tale of the U.S.’s actions in Tripoli. The book’s first quarter is weighted with Doyle’s history and the pace of the book suffers because of it. Also, there is a legion of characters with few identifiers to help us love or hate them. However, for the reader who sticks with the story, the military engagements are realistic and the multiple settings of America, Malta, and Turkey engage the senses.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

The Devil's Dime by Bailey Bristol

A novel of corruption, madness, and mystery set in 1890's New York!


Investigative reporter Jess Pepper made it his life’s mission to use his column to expose those who lived on the devil’s dime. With his words he could defend the innocent and bring down corruption, one evildoer at a time. But when his column forces an innocent Samaritan into the public eye, and puts a target on his back, Jess must discover not only who wants this good man dead, but how to save the man’s daughter, who has captured his heart.

Violinist Adelaide Magee came to New York City with little more than a violin tucked beneath her chin and enough determination to launch her dream. Her women’s orchestra, the Avalon Strings, was fast becoming the city’s hot new item, until reporter Jess Pepper put the one man she loved in deadly peril.
Can Addie trust Jess to save this good man? Or will she have to do it herself?

Corruption and greed set the scene for this vividly drawn tale of danger, heartbreak, unexpected love and family found in 1890’s New York.


From its beautiful cover to the engaging tale that unfolds on this book’s pages, there is much to savour in this novel of suspense and heart-wrenching love. The hero is Jess Pepper, a struggling journalist who is investigating a series of mysterious murders that occurred twenty years prior. He meets Adelaide Magee, our heroine, as she performs with her ladies musical group at a local restaurant.

Adelaide is seeking her father, Ford Magee, who abandoned her when she was a small child, but their first meeting does not go well. In an effort to mend their relationship, he pens a letter to her explaining the circumstances of his absence and how he secretly kept a watchful eye on her as she grew up. But a secret diary reveals that Ford disappeared at the same time the murders were occurring. Suspicion falls upon Ford. Jess and Adelaide team up to unravel the mystery in order to prove Ford’s innocence. Step by step they encounter corruption, treachery, and family secrets.

Beautifully presented, the story was interesting with fascinating characters. The romance between Addie and Jess unfolded tenderly, realistically, and without the melodrama one usually finds in the romance genre. The twists and turns added to the story’s unrelenting suspense as the hero and heroine face one difficulty after another. I enjoyed the unique setting of 1890’s New York where the author added wonderful descriptions of landmarks and period facts. For a nice cozy mystery, this is definitely a great read!

The Devil's Dime is Book One of the Samaritan Trilogy, so keep an eye out for Jess and Addie to return!



Monday, December 5, 2011

The Tapestry Shop by Joyce Elson Moore

Joyce Elson Moore’s The Tapestry Shop examines parts of the life of a French minstrel, the historical figure Adam de la Halle. In the French town of Arras, Adam faces a trumped up charge and endures exile in a monastery at Douai. He leaves behind a wife, Maroie, who seems impatient for his absence.  Meanwhile at Vitry, Catherine, the daughter of a tapestry shop owner prepares for a possible marriage to Guillaume de Ridaut, a man whom she despises. She conceals her true feelings from her ailing father and relies on prayer to help her escape the cruel fate. After four months in Douai, Adam has lost his gift. During his journey home, he travels through Vitry and meets Catherine.

Both feel some attraction to each other, but Adam discovers Catherine may marry Guillaume, a native of Arras and his own union with Maroie encumbers him. Later, upon his return to Arras, his wife may also have turned from him permanently. Adam finds himself drawn back to Catherine, but it seems there is no hope of a future for them when she is prepared for her marriage. While they part for a time, in which Adam pursues his studies and Catherine's enduring piety forces her to tolerate her husband, neither she nor Adam can forget the other. When Catherine unexpectedly gains her freedom from her loveless marriage, a chance reunion with Adam offers the couple an all-too brief interlude to explore their feelings. Yet, providence may still lead Adam and Catherine in different directions.   

Few dramatic moments endear the main characters or leave the reader in fear of the possibilities awaiting each. Catherine and Adam torment themselves over issues not of their own making and accepts the part that fate assigns to them, while secretly yearning for more. Oddly, the greatest risk that the couple takes in being together doesn’t invite censure. While the novel is well-researched and reflects most of the attitudes of the medieval period, the pace and style is very sedate. If you're looking for a detailed biographical account of medieval life peopled with ordinary figures, you'll find The Tapestry Shop appealing.   

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Time in Between by Maria Duenas

The inspiring international bestseller of a seemingly ordinary woman who uses her talent and courage to transform herself first into a prestigious couturier and then into an undercover agent for the Allies during World War II .

Between Youth and Adulthood . . .
At age twelve, Sira Quiroga sweeps the atelier floors where her single mother works as a seamstress. At fourteen, she quietly begins her own apprenticeship. By her early twenties she has learned the ropes of the business and is engaged to a modest government clerk. But everything changes when two charismatic men burst unexpectedly into her neatly mapped-out life: an attractive salesman and the father she never knew.

Between War and Peace . . .
With the Spanish Civil War brewing in Madrid, Sira leaves her mother and her fiancé, impetuously following her handsome lover to Morocco. However, she soon finds herself abandoned, penniless, and heartbroken in an exotic land. Among the odd collection of European expatriates trapped there by the worsening political situation back on the Continent, Sira reinvents herself by turning to the one skill that can save her: her gift for creating beautiful clothes.

Between Love and Duty . . .
As England, Germany, and the other great powers launch into the dire conflict of World War II, Sira is persuaded to return to Madrid, where she takes on a new identity to embark upon the most dangerous undertaking of her career. As the preeminent couturier for an eager clientele of Nazi officers’ wives, Sira becomes embroiled in the half-lit world of espionage and political conspiracy rife with love, intrigue, and betrayal.

Already a runaway bestseller across Europe, The Time In Between is one of those rare, richly textured novels that enthrall down to the last page. María Dueñas reminds us how it feels to be swept away by a masterful storyteller.

The Time in Between is a novel that became an international bestseller in Europe through the power of word-of-mouth. This comes as no surprise; the story unfolds with a luscious first person narrative and detail that truly creates some incredibly vivid scenes.

In 1920’s Spain, Sira Quiroga is the daughter of a poor seamstress who must work alongside her mother in order to earn a scant living. Through painstaking tutelage, she hones her skills. Although engaged to marry a well-established, kind-hearted man, she leaves him for an extremely handsome and charismatic man who sweeps her off her feet with his romantic attentions. Against her mother’s better judgement, she moves in with him, without the benefit of marriage.

One day, the father she has never known mysteriously summons her. Due to the turbulent political situation, he is fearful of his life and is prepared to flee from Spain. He hands her an incredible amount of money and jewellery to take care of her future.

Her lover convinces her to move with him to Tangier and Tetouan on a business scheme. There they live the high life until the day Sira learns she is pregnant. When she returns home to tell her lover, she discovers he has abandoned her, taking all the money and jewels, and leaving her without a penny to pay the extensive hotel bill.

Devastated, Sira struggles to pay off her debts and earn a decent living, enough so that she can bring her mother out of the dangerous political situation in Spain. She opens shop as a seamstress and soon attracts a cliental of rich German women. Soon, she is lead into a dangerous role ad risks her life spying against Hitler’s growing regime.

The appeal of this novel is definitely the human portrayal of a brave heroine who must overcome insurmountable circumstances. Add to that the politics of a volatile world on the eve of World War II, and you have a novel with a fascinating plot. Filled with peril, deception, poverty, corruption, and excessive wealth, we feel as if we are actually experiencing the heroine’s pain and troubles with each page turn.

Written with vivid prose that evokes deep emotion in its reader, The Time in Between is a timeless novel of treachery, duplicity, and bravery.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak

Catherine the Great's story told through the eyes of a spy!


From award-winning author Eva Stachniak comes this passionate novel that illuminates, as only fiction can, the early life of one of history’s boldest women. The Winter Palace tells the epic story of Catherine the Great’s improbable rise to power—as seen through the ever-watchful eyes of an all-but-invisible servant close to the throne.

Her name is Barbara—in Russian, Varvara. Nimble-witted and attentive, she’s allowed into the employ of the Empress Elizabeth, amid the glitter and cruelty of the world’s most eminent court. Under the tutelage of Count Bestuzhev, Chancellor and spymaster, Varvara will be educated in skills from lock picking to lovemaking, learning above all else to listen—and to wait for opportunity. That opportunity arrives in a slender young princess from Zerbst named Sophie, a playful teenager destined to become the indomitable Catherine the Great. Sophie’s destiny at court is to marry the Empress’s nephew, but she has other, loftier, more dangerous ambitions, and she proves to be more guileful than she first appears.

What Sophie needs is an insider at court, a loyal pair of eyes and ears who knows the traps, the conspiracies, and the treacheries that surround her. Varvara will become Sophie’s confidante—and together the two young women will rise to the pinnacle of absolute power.

With dazzling details and intense drama, Eva Stachniak depicts Varvara’s secret alliance with Catherine as the princess grows into a legend—through an enforced marriage, illicit seductions, and, at last, the shocking coup to assume the throne of all of Russia.

Impeccably researched and magnificently written, The Winter Palace is an irresistible peek through the keyhole of one of history’s grandest tales.


The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak is a novel about a young woman named Barbara (or Varvara for the Russian version). She was the daughter of a Polish bookbinder who, through fate, finds herself an orphan and is sent to work in the palace of the elderly Empress Elizabeth. Before long, a marriage is arranged between a young princess named Sophie to Elizabeth’s only heir, her nephew. Princess Sophie is then renamed as Catherine she befriends Sophie. Behind the scenes, Barbara is left with no choice but to become a spy within the palace and soon she is trapped by intrigues and divided loyalties.

Told in first person narrative voice of Barbara, the novel quickly engaged me. Catherine and Elizabeth were portrayed as difficult antagonists, which added a continual thread of conflict from start to finish. Their personalities continually evolved and kept me interested. The author wrote a beautifully researched novel about the rise of a fascinating woman of history. Readers need to be aware that this is novel is only indirectly about Catherine the Great told through the eyes of another woman.


Friday, December 2, 2011

The Vagrant King by E V Thompson

Not a newly published book, but for anyone who likes stories of Cavaliers and Roundheads in a bygone time with all its romantic overtones, this story is perfect.

Cornish farmer Joseph Moyle's loyalty to the crown goes well rewarded - his step-son Ralf is appointed page to Prince Charles, son of the martyr king. However when Ralph takes up his post, Britain is in the midst of the Civil Wars between the Royalists and the Parliamentarians.

Ralf’s first love, Brighid is an Irish Catholic  seamstress and it turns out she is unwittingly complicit in an attempt to kidnap Prince Charles - a fact that Ralf discovers when he foils the plot.  Ralf follows Charles into exile where he is promoted to personal secretary  after ten years of loyal service.

Returning at the Battle of Worcester, Ralf is about to escape with other Royalist exiles to the continent, when he discovers his step-father is dead and his beloved family farm, Trecarne has been given to a Puritan, shattering his dreams of a homecoming in the future.

This book is reminiscent of historical sagas which editors say are no longer popular, but as a reader I love them. Ralf Hunkyn is a fictitious character whose story is woven into real events of the 1640’s. Mr Thompson draws a detailed portrait of life in the exiled Court of Charles I and the privations everyone has to endure while maintaining a lifestyle destined to end. Prince Charles’ character is also sympathetically handled in the way he deals with the Covenanters who would use him for their own ends.

Ralf himself is a little too good to be true, but all one can hope for in a dashing cavalier hero, so no complaints there. He shows compassion, loyalty, and he is willing to face prison in the name of the girl he loves.  A thoroughly enjoyable, fast paced story with plenty of action and no explicit sex – Lovely.