historical

Review: Shadow of Night, Deborah Harkness

Shadow of NightShadow of Night (Goodreads)
Author: flag_usa Deborah Harkness (website)

Rating: ★★★½☆

Historian Diana Bishop, descended from a line of powerful witches, and long-lived vampire Matthew Clairmont have broken the laws dividing creatures. When Diana discovered a significant alchemical manuscript in the Bodleian Library,she sparked a struggle in which she became bound to Matthew. Now the fragile coexistence of witches, daemons, vampires and humans is dangerously threatened.

Seeking safety, Diana and Matthew travel back in time to London, 1590. But they soon realise that the past may not provide a haven. Reclaiming his former identity as poet and spy for Queen Elizabeth, the vampire falls back in with a group of radicals known as the School of Night. Many are unruly daemons, the creative minds of the age, including playwright Christopher Marlowe and mathematician Thomas Harriot.

Together Matthew and Diana scour Tudor London for the elusive manuscript Ashmole 782, and search for the witch who will teach Diana how to control her remarkable powers…

Details

Series: All Souls Trilogy #2
Genre: Historical paranormal romance
Published: Viking, July 2012
Pages: 584
My copy: the publisher via Netgalley

Paper copies: Amazon.com • Amazon.co.uk • Book Depository
E-copies:  Amazon.com • Amazon.co.uk • Barnes & Noble • Bookworld (epub)

Please note: This is my review for the second book in this series, and so contains spoilers for the first, A Discovery of Witches. You may wish to read my review for that book instead!


Review

The story of Shadow of Night begins as soon as A Discovery of Witches ended. It has been quite a while since I read the first book and there’s not much in the way of re-setting the scene, so it took a while to get back into Diana and Matthew’s story.

Diana Bishop is a scholar and historian, and is also from a long line of witches. Her magic is different to that of other witches, however – spellbound by her parents as a child before their murder, she has only recently released her power but cannot control it. On top of this dangerous inability to control her powers, she has angered the ruling Congregation by falling in love with a vampire, Matthew Clairmont – a relationship which is forbidden under the covenant binding witches, vampires and demons.

Fearing they are in danger, Diana and Matthew use Diana’s timewalking ability to travel back to 1590, where they are fortunate enough to encounter members of Matthew’s household and family who accept them as time travellers and help them to fit into society. They must find a witch willing to help Diana discover and control her powers, as well as try to locate the mysterious manuscript “Ashmole 782”, which must be kept from falling into the wrong hands.

As with A Discovery of Witches, there was soooo much detail. The detail in the first book was overwhelming at times, but in Shadow of Night, it actually works really well. Diana is discovering the strange new world of the 1590s and even though she has studied that period for a long time, actually being there totally overwhelms her. The detail with which this new world is described is amazing, and the characters of the School of Night, the gathering of witches in London and the individuals like Queen Elizabeth herself are colourful and make the story very enjoyable to read. We don’t quite get to meet Will Shakespeare but there are plenty of other personalities to mingle with.

It took me a long time to read this book for some reason, and I suspect it may be the level of detail that made it a slow read – having to take in every scene and determine what was going on. I wanted so much to love Shadow of Night, and I did love the portrayal of Elizabethan England and Prague, but there were a few things about the story itself that really bothered me and made me enjoy the story less than it probably deserves.

I still love Matthew, even with his melodramatics and brooding rages – such a romantic! I still rather dislike Diana as having a shallow emotional range. There are some quite heart-wrenching events through this story, and she comes through them with a brief mention of being upset but recovers very quickly and gets on with things. I know, some people are really like that, but I thought the story could have been a lot more emotional, both in happy and tragic times.

Apart from the problems I had with Diana’s character there were a few things in the story itself that I found slightly annoyed me. Diana and Matthew are told not to try to change anything in the past, as it could seriously affect the future, but as soon as they arrive they start trying to save witches under trial and affecting other decisions and events. Matthew also seems sure that Diana is keeping secrets from him, for no good reason that I could see. I was slightly confused with the whole time travel mechanics – the Matthew of the past just mysteriously ceased to exist for a year while the “future” Matthew is there, and then after they leave he just pops back into place into a world where quite a lot has happened. It felt like a slightly clumsy way of dealing with being in a time he was in previously.

The story itself moves at quite a pedestrian pace, at least until close to the end when everything comes to a head and it was difficult to put the book down. I just wasn’t as gripped by the story as I wanted to be, especially since I was enjoying reading about life in London and Prague as well as the magic that Diana was learning about.

If you enjoyed A Discovery of Witches, you’ll also enjoy this next instalment in the series. Just be ready for a truckload of details!

Warnings: Sexual situations, torture and some violence

The All Souls Trilogy

Viking cover Shadow of Night Book 3 to be released later in 2013

 

 

What did others think of Shadow of Night?

  • “Anybody else ready to hop a plane to Oxford? I really want to see if there are any more Matthews prowling between the library stacks.” – Sue @ Bookish Temptations
  • “(The All Souls Trilogy) has elements that will appeal to a large audience; history, witchcraft, vampires, daemons, time-travel and romance.” – The Caffienated Book Reviewer
  • “Shadow of Night is a stunning follow-up to ‘Discovery’ – an intelligent and enchanting romp through a world that is inherently supernatural and alien, and yet recognisably factual in its construction of authentic historical figures operating in a tangibly real Tudor setting.” – Lancashire Evening Post

Review: The River of No Return, Bee Ridgway

The River of No Return, Bee RidgwayThe River of No Return (Goodreads)
Author: flag_usa Bee Ridgway (website)

Rating: ★★★★★

1812: On a lonely battlefield in Spain, Lord Nicholas Falcott, Marquess of Blackdown, is about to die… But, the next moment, he inexplicably jumps forward in time, nearly two hundred years – very much alive. Taken under the wing of a mysterious organisation, The Guild, he receives everything he could ever need under the following conditions:

He can’t go back.

He can’t go home.

He must tell no one.

Accepting his fate, Nicholas begins a life of luxury as a twenty-first century New York socialite, living happily thus for the next ten years. But, when an exquisite wax sealed envelope brings a summons from the Alderwoman of The Guild, Nicholas is forced to confront his nineteenth century past.

Details

Series: The River of No Return #1
Genre: Historical science fiction (time travel!) and romance
Published: Penguin, April 23, 2013
Pages: 464
My copy: the publisher via Netgalley

Paper copies: Amazon.com • Amazon.co.uk • Book Depository
E-copies:  Amazon.com • Amazon.co.uk • Barnes & Noble • Bookworld (epub)

Review

The River of No Return is a period romantic drama with a modern sci-fi twist – with the glamour of Regency London life combined with time travellers, anything is possible!

Nicholas Falcott, Marquess of Blackdown, is about to be run down and killed in battle in Spain, 1812. Instead of death, he is met with a strange rushing sensation and wakes up in 2003 – almost two hundred years in the future. He is looked after by the mysterious organisation known as the Guild, taught how to live in modern times over one intensive year and released in the United States as Nick Davenant, with the assurance that there is no going back. He settles himself into a comfortable life in modern New York City, and for ten years he enjoys all that the modern era has to offer. That is, until he receives a summons from the Guild and is charged with a special task. As it turns out, it is possible to go back in time as well as forward – one only has to draw on powerful emotions. He learns about the Ofan – a rival organisation that the Guild is concerned may disrupt the flow of Time itself.

Meanwhile, back in 1815, Nick’s young neighbour Julia Percy is dealing with the death of her grandfather. Her cousin Eamon has come to take over the manor and he is convinced that Julia’s grandfather was hiding a secret artefact that allowed him to control time. Julia is sure that it was just her grandfather’s natural ability that allowed him, and now her as well, to freeze and manipulate time. But how can she escape from Eamon without damaging her reputation, and where would she go?

There are quite a few intertwined stories here that span multiple time periods, but they tie together very well. The “science” behind time travel is rather magical – no-one is quite sure how it’s done, just that some people have a natural ability to do it. At one point the Guild members say that you can’t go back to a time you have already been in – that must make it difficult for time travellers to keep track of a list of when they’ve visited where! The concept and the details of the time travel itself feels quite realistic though – the fact that the air in Devon in 1815 would have been much fresher and cleaner, but the buildings of London in 2013 were sparkling clean compared to their 19th century counterparts.

The romance in this story is very swoon-worthy. It feels slightly instant at first, but the two of them have known each other since they were children, they just hadn’t seen each other for many years. Each encounter has that delightful kind of romance, you know, the type that sends shivers up your spine? Just great!

The pacing is a little slow at times – a mixture of learning about Nick’s ability to time travel, and mysterious goings in with the Guild and the Ofan, but there are action scenes to keep it all flowing. The fact that the story involves people who have lived in modern times allows Bee Ridgway to include random modern pop-culture references and mannerisms, often rather out-of-place but quite funny. I’m not sure that Nick would have learned all these things so well as to slip up in his “home time”, since he was only in modern New York for ten years.

I loved reading The River of No Return and I’m glad this isn’t the end of the story – the ending has been left open for plenty more to come. A fantastic debut from Bee Ridgway that both period drama enthusiasts and sci-fi readers should enjoy!

Warnings: Sexual situations, some mild violence

What did others think of The River of No Return?

  • “In case you haven’t guessed, I highly recommend it! Is there a recommendation higher than highly?” – Popcorn Reads
  • “The whole time travel concept Bee Ridgway introduces us to is fascinating, but I still have so many unanswered questions. I really hope there’ll be a sequel!” – Between the Pages
  • “The characters are likeable and the dialogue sparkling and witty in a rom-com- period-drama kind of way.” – Natasha at Tea, Daydreams and Fairytales

Review: The Golem and the Jinni, Helene Wecker

The Golem and the Jinni, Helene WeckerThe Golem and the Jinni (Goodreads)
Author: flag_usa Helene Wecker (website)

Rating: ★★★★★

Chava is a golem, a creature made of clay, brought to life to by a disgraced rabbi who dabbles in dark Kabbalistic magic. When her master-the husband who commissioned her-dies at sea on the voyage from Poland, she is unmoored and adrift as the ship arrives in New York harbor in 1899.

Ahmad is a jinni, a being of fire, born in the ancient Syrian desert. Trapped in an old copper flask by a Bedouin wizard centuries ago, he is released accidentally by a tinsmith in a Lower Manhattan shop. Though he is no longer imprisoned, Ahmad is not entirely free-an unbreakable band of iron around his wrist binds him to the physical world.

Overwhelmed by the incessant longing and fears of the humans around her, the cautious and tentative Chava-imbued with extraordinary physical strength-fears losing control and inflicting harm. Baptized by the tinsmith who makes him his apprentice, the handsome and capricious Ahmad-an entity of inquisitive intelligence and carefree pleasure-chafes at monotony and human dullness. Like their immigrant neighbors, the Golem and the Jinni struggle to make their way in this strange new place while masking the supernatural origins that could destroy them.

Details

Series: Stand alone
Genre: Historical and Paranormal Fantasy
Published: HarperCollins, April 23 2013
Pages: 496
My copy: the publisher via Edelweiss

Paper copies: Amazon.com • Amazon.co.uk • Book Depository
E-copies: Not available on kindle • Barnes & Noble

Review

I was first attracted to The Golem and the Jinni because of the cover (see my recent Cover Lover post), but the blurb further intrigued me. It combines two genres that I love to read – historical fiction and mythological creatures.

The Golem and the Jinni is the story of two creatures of myth – a Golem created out of clay and animated with dark Kabbalist magic, and a Jinni of the Syrian desert, trapped for a thousand years in a metal oil flask. Each of them comes to America with migrants, and must try to find their way while keeping their natures secret. Luckily for them, each has a confidante in their respective ex-pat communities who helps them to integrate into society as best they can. They meet in New York at the turn of the twentieth century and each instantly recognise the otherworldliness of the other. This story is not just about their relationship, but also about the lives of those in the Jewish and Syrian ex-pat communities as well as others who call New York City home. Each has their own story of heartbreak and hope and their story threads are woven into the picture of immigrant life. It was a hard life for those who chose to leave their countries, families and all that was familiar and make a new start in a strange country, but the community banded together to help newcomers, and as long as you brought with you a willingness to work hard, things worked out just fine.

These are characters that stay with you after you’ve finished reading – the doctor who was possessed by a demon and cannot look at faces anymore, the coffee shop owner who knows all the business of her customers and oils the cogs of community life, the young heiress who cannot face the life of boredom that awaits her once she is married.

As the characters travel through the city of New York, it almost feels like the city is a character in itself. I’ve only been to NYC once for a couple of days, but I could feel the spirit of the city as I read about the Jinni walking the streets and visiting the different neighbourhoods.

Throughout the story the subject of religion is brought up at different points – from the Jinni trying to understand why these strange humans would bother believing in a ghost in the sky who grants wishes, to the agnostic Michael re-discovering the soothing sounds of his childhood in the Synagogue. This is by no means a religious story, but the different ways that religion manifests in people’s lives is explored in quite a profound way. The main feeling I took away from the story is that for many people, their faith is a constant – a comforting way to deal with everyday pressures, joys and tragedies. Thankfully, the different religious groups in NYC keep to themselves and there’s no actual religious conflict during this story.

The Golem and the Jinni has been compared to quite a few books, such as A Discovery of WitchesThe Night CircusJonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, but I really didn’t think it was similar to any of those. The pacing is spot on – quite comfortable for much of the story but gradually building with the tension. The romance element is very subtle, almost non-existent in fact, but still quite lovely.

Helene Wecker has created a beautiful story full of loneliness, self-discovery and magic. It is a perfect combination of folklore set in a historical setting. I found it very enjoyable and I’ll be looking out for Wecker’s future works for sure.

Warnings: Sexual situations (not graphic) but on the whole, quite squeaky clean.

What did others think of The Golem and the Jinni?

  • “It’s a magical tale, but the magic is not overt. It’s subtle, and lies more in the sense of wonder and creation than the fantastical.” – Let Them Read Books
  • “Absolutely stunning and captivating I cannot recommend the Golem and the Jinni enough.” – Kimba the Caffeinated Reviewer
  • “Both subtly magical, and mythical, The Golem and the Jinni excels at crafting a wide array of characters, as well as showcasing 19th century New York.” – Ageless Page Reviews

Review: The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett

The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson BurnettTitle: The Secret Garden (Goodreads)
Author:  Frances Hodgson Burnett

Rating: ★★★★★

What secrets lie behind the doors at Misselthwaite Manor? Recently arrived at her uncle’s estate, orphaned Mary Lennox is spoiled, sickly, and certain she won’t enjoy living there. Then she discovers the arched doorway into an overgrown garden, shut up since the death of her aunt ten years earlier. Mary soon begins transforming it into a thing of beauty–unaware that she is changing too.

But Misselthwaite hides another secret, as Mary discovers one night. High in a dark room, away from the rest of the house, lies her young cousin, Colin, who believes he is an incurable invalid, destined to die young. His tantrums are so frightful, no one can reason with him. If only, Mary hopes, she can get Colin to love the secret garden as much as she does, its magic will work wonders on him.

Details

Series: Stand alone
Genre: Childrens historical classic
Published: First published 1911
Pages: 331

Paper copies:  Amazon.com • Amazon.co.uk • Book Depository
E-copies: Available for free at Project Gutenberg

Review

I always remembered The Secret Garden as a book I particularly enjoyed as a child, so I picked it up recently for a re-read. I was delighted to find that while the story itself is very sweet and simple, the writing is just gorgeous, especially the descriptions of the garden and the moors.

Mistress Mary (“quite contrary”) is a spoiled brat of a child, cared for by the servants at her parents’ house in India. One day, she wakes to find she is alone in the house – everyone else has died of cholera. Sent to live with her uncle in Yorkshire, England, she discovers that Misselthwaite Manor is full of strange secrets, including a secret walled garden that no-one has been inside for ten years.

It is quite obvious that Burnett loved the Yorkshire Moors and was a firm believer in children getting outdoors and taking fresh air at every opportunity. She must have also loved gardening, as her descriptions of the gardens coming to life in the spring are just beautiful. There’s just such a feeling of joy about this book that really made me enjoy reading it again.

There are religious overtones present, but only gently shown – Frances Hodgson Burnett herself was an adherent to the Christian Science movement (not the same thing as Scientology), which sees God not as a person or individual being, but as a manifestation of life force itself. They believe that state of mind is very important – that any ailment can be cured or removed with the “correction of mental error” (from the wikipedia article). These beliefs show through in this story as the “magic” the children find in the garden, from the actual physical healing of Colin, to the more gradual awakening of love and empathy in Mary. I have to admit after reading a little bit about the movement, the idea of “thinking yourself healthy” has quite an attractive sound to it!

This is a beautifully written book and although it might be a little slow in pace for the middle-grade readers of today, I hope they find as much joy in it as I did as a child.

Perhaps you northern hemisphere types might appreciate this excerpt – it describes the coming of Spring to Misselthwaite. Enjoy!

Excerpt – Chapter XV

On that first morning when the sky was blue again Mary wakened very early. The sun was pouring in slanting rays through the blinds and there was something so joyous in the sight of it that she jumped out of bed and ran to the window. She drew up the blinds and opened the window itself and a great waft of fresh, scented air blew in upon her. The moor was blue and the whole world looked as if something Magic had happened to it. There were tender little fluting sounds here and there and everywhere, as if scores of birds were beginning to tune up for a concert. Mary put her hand out of the widow and held it in the sun.

“It’s warm – warm!” she said. “It will make the green points push up and up and up, and it will make the bulbs and roots work and struggle with all their might under the earth.”

She kneeled down and leaned out of the window as far as she could, breathing big breaths and snuffing the air until she laughed because she remembered what Dickon’s mother had said about the end of his nose quivering like a rabbit’s. “It must be very early,” she said. “The little clouds are all pink and I’ve never seen the sky look like this. No one is up. I don’t even hear the stable boys.”

A sudden thought made her scramble to her feet.

“I can’t wait! I am going to see the garden!”

She had learned to dress herself by this time and she put on her clothes in five minutes. She knew a small side door which she could unbolt herself and she flew downstairs in her stocking feet and put on her shoes in the hall. She unchained and unbolted and unlocked and when the door was open she sprang across the step with one bound, and there she was standing on the grass, which seemed to have turned green, and with the sun pouring down on her and warm sweet wafts about her and the fluting and twittering and singing coming from every bush and tree. She clasped her hands for pure joy and looked up in the sky and it was so blue and pink and pearly and white and flooded with springtime light that she felt as if she must flute and sing aloud herself and knew that thrushes and robins and skylarks could not possibly help it. She ran around the shrubs and paths towards the secret garden.

Review: The Wild Girl, Kate Forsyth

wildgirlTitle: The Wild Girl (Goodreads)
Author: flag_aus Kate Forsyth (website)

Rating: ★★★★★

Dortchen Wild fell in love with Wilhelm Grimm the first time she saw him.

Growing up in the small German kingdom of Hessen-Cassel in early Nineteenth century, Dortchen Wild is irresistibly drawn to the boy next door, the young and handsome fairy tale scholar Wilhelm Grimm. 

It is a time of War, tyranny and terror. Napoleon Bonaparte wants to conquer all of Europe, and Hessen-Cassel is one of the first kingdoms to fall. Forced to live under oppressive French rule, the Grimm brothers decide to save old tales that had once been told by the firesides of houses grand and small all over the land.

Dortchen knows many beautiful old stories, such as ‘Hansel and Gretel’, ‘The Frog King’ and ‘Six Swans’. As she tells them to Wilhelm, their love blossoms. Yet the Grimm family is desperately poor, and Dortchen’s father has other plans for his daughter. Marriage is an impossible dream.

Dortchen can only hope that happy endings are not just the stuff of fairy tales.

Details

Series: Stand-alone
Genre: Historical romance, with fairy tales
Published: Vintage Australia (Random House), March 18, 2013
Pages: 530
My copy: From the author as part of a giveaway, thanks!

Paper copies:  Book Depository (pre-order) • Booktopia • Bookworld
E-copies: Amazon.com   Bookworld (epub)

Review

The Wild Girl is a story of the Brothers Grimm and how their book of fairy tales came to be written. It is also a story of two families, growing up in Hessen-Cassel (now central Germany) in the early nineteenth century,  just as Napoléon is starting his conquest to bring all of Europe into his empire. It is sometimes heartbreaking and even disturbing at times, but over all, it is one of the most beautiful, gentle love stories I’ve read in a long time.

Dortchen Wild lives with her five sisters and her parents above her father’s apothecary shop in Cassel. Dortchen’s best friend, Lotte Grimm, lives next door, but when Lotte’s brothers Wilhelm and Jakob return home from their studies in Marburg and Paris, the twelve year old Dortchen falls in love with Wilhelm. In November 1806, Napoléon’s armies marched through and occupied Cassel, freeing the serfs and bringing other freedoms, but putting terrible pressure on the economy of the city. Unable to find work under the new regime, Wilhelm begins to collect folk stories to preserve them. His brother Jakob supports his whole family on his meagre librarian’s wage.

Many people (myself included) think that the Grimm fairytales were told to the brothers by various people all over the country, or written by the brothers themselves. In fact, many of them were told to Wilhelm Grimm by the young Dortchen Wild, of whom very little is written. Others of the stories were told to Wilhelm and Jakob by other well-to-do young ladies of their acquaintance, and in the well-researched The Wild Girl we are introduced to those ladies and to the original, less child-friendly versions of some of the most popular fairy tales of the present day, including Cinderella (Aschenputtel), Hansel and Gretel, Sleeping Beauty, Rumpelstiltskin, and many more.

The Wild Girl not only tells the story of the creation of the fairytale collection of the Brothers Grimm, it is also a beautiful love story between Dortchen and Wilhelm, heartbreaking at times but very sweet at others. The tale of the people of Cassel and their suffering at the hands of the French armies is not an overwhelming part of the story but there is just enough historical context to frame the other events of the story. Kate’s telling of dark and dramatic events is interspersed with light-hearted moments which made reading this book an absolute delight.

It wasn’t only the research into historical events that interested me about this story, but also the extensive herb lore Dortchen and her father use as part of their apothecary work. The garden of medicinal plants just fascinated me, much like the herbology also discussed in Bitter Greens!

The real highlight of this story is the characters themselves. Kate Forsyth does such a wonderful job of bringing characters to life that I felt I was sharing their joy, terror or anger. Herr Wild, Dortchen’s father, is such a creepy and at times terrifying man in this story, but at the same time we see his despair at his country being trodden down by the French and his kindnesses to those less fortunate families in the town. Dortchen herself starts out as such a carefree and happy girl, but the hardships throughout her adolescence make her into a much more subdued young lady – something that I’m sure has happened to many women throughout history. That doesn’t stop her from being a selfless and kind person, always putting others well-being before her own, sometimes putting herself in harm’s way instead.

The Wild Girl is not just for historical and romantic fiction readers – those who love fairy tales will also find plenty to fascinate them here. It’s certainly one of my favourite reads so far this year!

Warnings: Violence including towards children, sexual situations (some abusive)

What did others think of The Wild Girl?

  • “An engaging historical novel about fairytales, love, despair and hope that at times reminded me of Little Women- only a little darker.” – The Australian Bookshelf
  • The Wild Girl is about yearning and love, poverty and sacrifice, but it’s also a very dark tale.  Those expecting the same tone as Bitter Greens should prepare themselves for a darker journey, and a greater struggle that lasts almost a lifetime for Dortchen.” – Carpe Librum
  • “A stunning achievement, and a book that I would reccomend to anyone interested in romance, historical fiction or fairy story interpretations.” – InkAshlings

Review: Bitter Greens, Kate Forsyth

Bitter GreensTitle: Bitter Greens (Goodreads)
Author: flag_aus Kate Forsyth (website)

Rating: ★★★★★

Charlotte-Rose de la Force has been banished from court by the Sun King, Louis XIV, after a series of scandalous love affairs. She is comforted by an old nun, Sœur Seraphina, who tells her the tale of a young girl who, a hundred years earlier, is sold by her parents for a handful of Bitter Greens …

After Margherita’s father steals a handful of greens—parsley, wintercress and rapunzel—from the walled garden of the courtesan, Selena Leonelli, they give up their daughter to save him from having both hands cut off.

Selena is the famous red-haired muse of the artist Tiziano, first painted by him in 1513 and still inspiring him at the time of his death, sixty-one years later. Called La Strega Bella, Selena is at the centre of Renaissance life in Venice, a world of beauty and danger, seduction and betrayal, love and superstition.

Locked away in a tower, growing to womanhood, Margherita sings in the hope someone will hear her. One day, a young man does…

Three women, three lives, three stories, braided together to create a compelling story of desire, obsession, black magic, and the redemptive power of love.

Details

Series: Stand-alone
Genre: Fantasy/historical romantic fairy tale
Published: Vintage Australia, March 2012, tbp Allison & Busby in the UK, 25 February 2013.
Pages: 576

Paper copies: Amazon.co.uk (pre-order) • Book Depository (pre-order) • Booktopia (AU – available!)
E-copies:
Amazon.com  Amazon.co.uk (pre-order) • Barnes & Noble • Bookworld (epub)

Review

Bitter Greens is partly a heart-breaking retelling of the Rapunzel fairy tale, and partly historical drama set in 17th-century France. I enjoyed every moment!

Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de la Force, a writer and great lover of the salon scene in Paris, has been banished to a convent by the Sun King, Louis XIV of France. The past twenty years of her life at court in Versailles has been filled with scandal and rumours of black magic, and during the course of Bitter Greens we hear about these stories through a series of flashbacks.

While working in the garden at the convent, Charlotte-Rose is told a story by one of the nuns. In Venice during the late 16th Century, a young girl, Margherita, is stolen from her parents by Selena (known as La Strega), a beautiful but dangerous witch. Margherita is locked in a high tower on an island and La Strega only comes to visit once a month with supplies, calling for Margherita to let down her long hair so that she may climb up. Each month, La Strega takes nine drops of blood from Margherita’s wrist and bathes in it to keep herself looking young and beautiful. Margherita longs for someone to rescue her.

The lives, loves and losses of Charlotte-Rose, Margherita and Selena are woven together in Bitter Greens. Each character, setting and emotion are described in such gorgeous detail I almost felt like I was watching a drama on TV rather than reading! I found it very compelling and found myself snatching moments to read whenever I could.

The only thing that put me off slightly at times was the way the story jumps back and forth to the different story arcs after many chapters. One moment I was happily absorbed in the story of Margherita and then was jolted back into Charlotte-Rose’s France. By the end of the book I was used to it, but at first it was a little jarring.

There have been some horrible moments in the histories of France and Venice, and some of that horror has been captured in Bitter Greens – the plagues in Venice that decimated the population, the slaughter of the reformée Huguenots in France and other, earlier persecutions.

Reading about how women were treated in times gone by makes me really grateful to those women who fought for equality during the twentieth century. Women like Charlotte-Rose and Selena did their best to survive and then make a difference in a world dominated by men. Nowadays, we modern women should never take our ability to work, vote and speak our minds for granted.

Bitter Greens is a fairy tale wrapped within a historical drama. With the character of Charlotte-Rose based on a real woman and the settings and events taken straight from history, it is obvious that a great deal of research and effort (and fun!) went into the making of this book. Well done, Ms Forsyth, you have created a masterpiece!


Interested in reading more about the creation of this book? All the Books I Can Read hosted a guest post from Kate about Vampire legends of Venice, and the author Elizabeth Storrs posted an interview with Kate on redroom.com, talking about inspiration and the art of Bitter Greens.

Warnings: Violence including towards children, graphic sexual situations (some abusive)

What did others think of Bitter Greens?

  • Bitter Greens is a stunning novel. I was spell bound from beginning to end by the lush prose, magnificent characters and intriguing story.” – Book’d Out
  • “Forsyth demonstrates her skill as a Fantasy writer, with the storytelling every bit as enchanting as fairytales of old.” – Devoted Eclectic
  • “It’s the sort of novel that has so many elements that it will appeal across the board, to historical fiction fans, fantasy fans, even fans who enjoy a bit of the romance. But ultimately if you like a good story no matter what the particular genre, then this book is definitely for you!” – All The Books I Can Read

Review: Dodger, Terry Pratchett

Title: Dodger (Goodreads)
Author:   Terry Pratchett

Rating: ★★★½☆

Dodger is a tosher – a sewer scavenger living in the squalor of Dickensian London.

Everyone who is nobody knows Dodger. Anyone who is anybody doesn’t.

But when he rescues a young girl from a beating, suddenly everybody wants to know him.

And Dodger’s tale of skulduggery, dark plans and even darker deeds begins . . .

Details

Series: Stand-alone
Genre: YA Fantasy Comedy
Published: HarperCollins, September 2012
Pages: 360
My copy: The publishers via Edelweiss

Paper copies: Amazon.com • Amazon.co.uk • Book Depository • Booktopia.com.au 
E-copies: Amazon.com • Amazon.co.uk • Barnes & Noble

Review

Dodger is on the tosh – that is, collecting valuables washed down drains into the old sewers. A massive storm arrives and Dodger happens to pop out to the street long enough to rescue a young girl who is trying to escape some violent men in a carriage. This rescue and subsequent meeting with one Mr Charlie Dickens sets off a chain of events that draws Dodger out of the slums and into more upper-class circles of Victorian London. Can Dodger work against the powers-that-be to rescue the girl of his dreams a second time, and make something more of his life?

Dodger is an interesting departure from the Discworld for Terry Pratchett. It feels very much like a City Watch book, with a mystery to be solved, dirty streets of a big city and policemen everywhere. I think that’s the main reason I didn’t quite enjoy it as much as I wanted to – every time the peelers (policemen of Sir Robert Peel’s Scotland Yard) were involved, I expected Nobby Nobbs to appear. Peel himself had rather a “beat copper” feel about him – very Sam Vimes. In any case, this is not the Discworld and I had to keep reminding myself of that as I read.

Pratchett has taken real-life personalities from Victorian England and put them into a fantasy situation. Charles Dickens, John Mayhew, Benjamin Disraeli and several other notable personalities are involved. At times, it did feel like people were being stuck in just to see how many could be included (Sweeney Todd, for example), but they did all mostly fit in with the story.

The story itself has exciting moments, although had a rather rambling start which slowed my progress into the book. Secondary to the main story was a very interesting look at how the poor lived in Victorian times – it was a time of extreme poverty for the underclasses of London. There are some distressing discussions of the trend of young girls who moved to the city, got taken advantage of by men who ply them with drink, then threw themselves into the river when they discovered they were pregnant. The plight of orphaned children is also rather terrible and is one of the reasons I like to keep away from Dickens and the like – too depressing!

Dodger lives in the Seven Dials with an old Jewish watchmaker. I’m not sure if Samuel Cohen is based on a real person but he is certainly a fascinating character – full of snippets of stories about his travels and meetings with famous people. I’d love to hear more about him!

Dodger has just the right amount of humour for a story with quite a dark undertone. Although billed as a “young readers” story, all fans of Pratchett (and indeed, fans of Dickens and Victoriana) should give this one a read. I just found that the story didn’t grab me quite as much as I hoped it would.

Warnings: Some violent behaviour.

What did others think of Dodger?

  •  “I can’t even begin to tell you how wonderfully well all of this is executed. The writing itself is strong, but the ideas are even better.” – Book Aunt
  • “…it is a terrific read, a break from Discworld for those who might not appreciate pure fantasy.” – Wickersham’s Concience
  • “Unexpected, drily funny and full of the pathos and wonder of life: Don’t miss it.” – Kirkus

Review: India Black, Carol K. Carr

Title: India Black (Goodreads)

Author:  Carol K. Carr

Rating: ★★★★☆

When Sir Archibald Latham of the War Office dies from a heart attack while visiting her brothel, Madam India Black is unexpectedly thrust into a deadly game between Russian and British agents who are seeking the military secrets Latham carried.

Blackmailed into recovering the missing documents by the British spy known as French, India finds herself dodging Russian agents-and the attraction she starts to feel for the handsome conspirator.

Details

Series: Madam of Espionage #1 of 3
Genre: Historical, Spies
Published: Berkley Trade, January 2011
Pages (Hardcover): 296

Paper copies: Amazon.com • Amazon.co.ukBook Depository
E-copies: Amazon.com • Amazon.co.uk • Barnes & Noble

Review

India Black is the first book our shiny new book club decided to read, and wow, what an opener! This review is a little about what I thought of the book, and a little about the group’s opinions from last night.

India Black is the proprietor of Lotus House, an establishment in Victorian London. In other words, she’s a retired bint, now the abbess of an upmarket brothel of which she is immensely proud. When one of the regular customers dies at the house and important government documents go missing from his possession, India is drawn into a dangerous ring of spies in order to recover the documents for Prime Minister Disraeli (whom she likes to refer to as “Dizzy”).

The chase leads India and the inscrutable English spy, French, into the Russian Embassy, swanky London hotels and eventually across-country and across the Channel!

Not only was this rather saucy story about whores and spies, but India herself is a delight to read about – a very strong, snarky and rather bitchy character. She’s grumpy a lot of the time but extremely determined. She doesn’t think much about the well-being of others. Her real draw, however, is her very dry wit. She made me laugh on several occasions, while also wincing at her treatment of Vincent the urchin boy and some of the girls in her employ.

In general we felt that the characters were a little one-dimensional – although showing snatches of interesting histories, there really wasn’t any back-story told about India or any of the supporting characters. The mention of romance in the blurb might as well have not been there – there are hints of a romance but barely any action. Perhaps in the future adventures.

The chase for the Government documents is a fast-paced cat and mouse, with the English and Russian sides passing the spoils back and forth several times in increasingly desperate circumstances. By the end of the book I thought the chase was starting to draw out a little, but it wrapped up rather nicely.

I found that India Black was a very enjoyable read. In general the book club decided it wasn’t a waste of our time (although not everyone felt that way!) and it was an easy and entertaining read.

Warnings: Plenty of sexual references. Violence.

The Madam of Espionage Series

  1. India Black
  2. India Black and the Widow of Windsor (2011)
  3. India Black and the Shadows of Anarchy (expected 2013)
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