Monday, March 25, 2019

Review: The Embroiderer by Kathryn Gauci

James Michener, one of my favorite authors, could have written a tale set in an Ottoman world, for he was fond of complex human identities. He even spoke of mixed ethnicities, for which he coined the term Golden Men in his best-selling novel, Hawaii.

Kathryn Gauci's The Embroiderer has much of the Golden Men in it - but here though, we should speak of Golden Women. Eleni Stephenson, the first woman we meet in the novel, is after all an impressive blend of Greek, French, Russian and English. Meanwhile, her Greek heritage bears an undeniable Ottoman influence.

James Michener never wrote The Embroiderer. But he could have. It is perfect.

A vivid, cinematic tale, The Embroiderer is a richly woven family saga beginning during the Ottoman Empire through to its downfall and ending in the 70s. On the light side, it is a tale that travellers and those who seek culture, and oriental history will love. But it is also a tale of love, survival, loss, revenge, and the search for one's identity. It unravels the lives of four passionate women: Eleni Stephenson, her aunt, Maria, her grandmother, Sophia, and her great-great-grandmother, Dimitra.

Most of the story centers on the talented and shrewd Sophia who lives in the cosmopolitan Smyrna (modern day Izmir) during the early 20th century. Following in the footsteps of her embroiderer grandmother, Dimitra, Sophia runs a successful fashion boutique catering to an elite clientele, both Turkish and Greek. In a world where both Greeks and Turks have over centuries, inherited deeply felt resentments, Sophia becomes swept up in a complex and dangerous political climate, spanning the Balkan Wars, the Great Fire of Smyrna, the genocidal crimes that pitted Turks against Greeks and Armenians, and the dramatic emigration of Greeks from Turkey to Athens.

Through Sophia's life, we meet a vast cast of touching and fascinating characters. Even the minor characters are so well-portrayed that their fate keeps the reader interested.

Both Dimitra and Maria were intriguing to me. Dimitra was my favorite character because of her enigmatic and old world quality. As for Maria, given the hostility and romantic disappointments she had to face in her life and her desire to be loved and admired, I thought that her psychology was well-executed.

The Embroiderer was a fantastic, entertaining read with much depth. There is never a moment where the story loses momentum or wavers. There are two mysteries to keep one reading - what happened to the baby we learn of in the first chapter? And will the fortune-teller's prediction come true and how? Yet even without those two questions, the reader is enthralled by this hybrid Ottoman-Balkan world of romance, glamour, espionage, political turmoil and family drama.

When dealing with the political, The Embroiderer offered a well-balanced view of both Greek and Turkish sides, never judging or aligning itself to an ideology. It was more focused on the theme of revenge. Revenge is explored both at the individual level and on a mass social level. Both times it is portrayed as senseless, a series of actions that reap no rewards. The rich quote that accompanies this theme opens the story, and resurfaces later, where it makes a high impact.

Smyrna by Ahmet Ziya Akbulut

I learned so much from this novel. After reading it, my mind wandered to Smyrna and what it must have looked like before the Great Fire. I read up about the great famine that overtook Greece during World War II - a part of history I ignored and which this story touches on. The author's knowledge of the secret societies was intriguing while the historical detail on the whole was exceptional without being overwhelming or tedious.

Kathryn Gauci is a gifted storyteller whose passion for her subject showed. I am ever grateful that she has penned this masterful tale. Some stories change you. This is one of those.

Turkish Cafe in Smyrna 
by Johann Michael Wittmer the younger

Monday, March 11, 2019

Review: Falling Pomegranate Seeds by Wendy J. Dunn

They say good writers are those who can reach the reader's heart. Wendy J Dunn possesses this gift. Few novels have moved me to tears. Hugo's Les Misérables is one of them. The last time I cried was after reading Carlos Ruiz Zafon's Marina.

Falling Pomegranate Seeds achieved to do the same.

Set in Spain at the time of Queen Isabel and King Ferdinand's reign, and covering key historical events, from the fall of Granada, Christopher Columbus' funding and the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, Falling Pomegranate Seeds is a touching account of Catherine of Aragon's childhood told from the perspective of her educator, Beatriz Galindo. A scholar, and one of the most educated women of this period, Beatriz is tutor for the family and advisor to the Queen. The novel ends as Catherine - Catalina, as she is called in her home country - departs for England to be wedded for the first time, leaving the reader eager for the novel's sequel.

The novel is an intimate journey into the heart of the House of Trastámara, recounting its joys, conflicts and sorrows. We are there, in their bedroom, their hidden world. We feel what they feel. The novel unfolds with beauty, its descriptive passages artfully woven rendering each scene as vivid as though it were a painting.

There is no mistaking the emotional trauma suffered by this fascinating royal family and Wendy's superb writing plucks at every heart string and unravels every secret. On two counts we witness marriage and romantic love thwarted by betrayal and then tragic loss. The selfish and scheming, King Ferdinand, tormented by his more powerful wife, is also a lustful beast. Queen Isabel, burdened by royal duty is at once frightening in her determination against Jews but also pitiful in her recurring mother's loss. Princess Joanna's relationship with her father speaks of abuse and dysfunction. It is a disturbing dynamic which, for those aware of Joanna's future fate, remains psychologically satisfying. We also see the seeds of Catalina's religious piety and her inner strength.

Characters are revealed in all their complexities and inner conflicts as when Catalina unveils her father's true motives and temporarily despises him only to cherish him later. But most of all, it is Juan who, at least for me, steals the light. The young prince - a poet, free-spirit and gentle soul who was never to be king, is captivating and utterly lovable. It is he who had me weeping.

Doña Beatriz de Galindo

Falling Pomegranate Seeds is also the story of humanist and writer, Beatriz Galindo who for years suffers torment at the hands of the King and conceals her secret from the Queen for fear of losing her employment with the family she has learned to love.

Falling Pomegranate Seeds is well researched, but its historical details are carefully chosen while its creative liberties only make the novel more enjoyable, letting the reader speculate over truth. Through Catalina's schooling and the reflections of Beatriz, the novel also explores the literature and thinking of the period and achieves to paint Beatriz as a profound and intelligent woman.

But feeling remains the motor for this novel. There are passages that will remain with me always. I wait eagerly for the other books in the series and recommend this book highly for Tudor fans with a genuine interest in Catherine of Aragon's life.

The trial of Catherine of Aragon
Maybe in Wendy J. Dunn's future books...

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Review: A Drop of Ink by Megan Chance

I don't want to give too much away so I will talk about feelings rather than plot. When I finished this wonderful book, I felt both awe and sadness. 

Awe - from the writer's talent and the original convolution of ideas in ways one did not suspect. 

Sadness - as though something had been ripped from me and left behind a deep loss, a longing, a feeling of the unresolved. 

A Drop of Ink culminated into a haunting, magical end but the ride was both powerful and illuminating.

For those who write, for those who are fans of Mary Shelley, for those curious about writers and their frustrations and for those who pine for a nostalgic bygone era, this book is exquisite.

A Drop of Ink stands out as a superbly crafted story for this very reason: speculating on what could have been...and offering us a glimpse into this possibility through imagined characters. Again, without giving too much away, the characters mesmerise in their resemblance to that first quintet who met 60 years prior in the very villa where Frankenstein was penned - Lord Byron, Dr John Polidori, Mary Shelley, her husband Percy Bysshe Shelley and step-sister, Claire Clairmont.

The original writers - Percy and Mary Shelley and Lord Byron

This novel is an unusual and at first, unsuspected, love story thwarted by class differences and ambition. At first, the stage is set, like an almost comedic Woody-Allen-does-Switzerland with its insufferable characters, each with their own flaws and eccentric manners or moods. Then as one scratches the surface and the engaging plot unravels, the emotional entwining is revealed and multiple facets emerge in each character.

I most identified with the passionate Vanni (based on the real life John Polidori) - I thought he was remarkably well defined, with reactions and emotions so vivid they seemed to match my own, achieving to complete a well-drawn and believable character. Toward the end of the book, I became haunted by what would become of him.

John William Polidori,
physician to Lord Byron and writer

Megan Chance is a wonderful writer in a way that is unique and difficult to describe. A Drop of Ink unravelled at an intensely emotional pace. It brought forward many questions about the original quintet and offered consolation to a tragic real life ending. It was perfect.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Review: Insatiable - A Macabre History of France by Ginger Myrick

My first meeting with Marie-Antoinette was at age eight upon reading Alexandre Dumas' excellent Le Chevalier de Maison Rouge.

While I felt sorry for the sad lady in the prison du Temple, I wondered at length why anyone would grow so in love with her to the point of staging the intricate Carnation Plot and endangering the lives of many to rescue her.

From then on, I read many books about Marie-Antoinette, and while each time I grew more sensitive to her plight and more unsettled at her terrible fate, I still could not understand the romantic infatuation with the Queen.

Well, Insatiable changed my feelings. I absolutely loved Ginger Myrick's characterisation of Marie-Antoinette. This book is in essence a biography of her life set in a horror paradigm. I loved it.

Everything about this novel was not only painstakingly researched and fascinating, but the prose was also immensely enjoyable. 

The macabre aspects were stylish and suspenseful. (The key and secret passage escape scene had me on the edge of my seat - so to speak!) In short, I loved the author's deft merging of the horror and historical genre. The paradigm was well staged with great attention to detail which rendered it quite plausible.

Yet the true strength of this book's horror dimension is not that it plays an added entertaining role, but rather that it achieves an unsettling social commentary in an almost satirical manner. As the novel progressed into the well-known reign of Terror, the story's supernatural horror elements became overshadowed by the horrors of reality. It was reality, not fiction, that gutted me. And here lies the social commentary - during certain historical events, we witness human horror on such unprecedented scale that one might wonder whether these might as well have resulted from macabre supernatural forces.

Truth is stranger than fiction.

This is one of my favourite novels about the french revolution.

Review: Marina by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

I like that, Zafon, after luring me deep into the grim entrails of Gothic Barcelona - from its macabre mansions with their secret tragedies of years long past, to its cavernous streets shrouded by heavy rain and misty lights, and deep down into its hellish sewers, until I came face to face with the Devil himself - I like how, Zafon, all along, had the vision to finally bring me home, out of the surreal, beyond his circus world with its freakish characters and its forbidden games against Nature, so that before I could realise what I had just learnt, about life, about death, gone was the suspense and there was only awe, acceptance and tears. 

A master storyteller.