Monday, May 13, 2019

Review: Sultana - The Pomegranate Tree by Lisa J. Yarde

For those with an interest in Spain’s history and who have visited the magnificent Moorish city of Granada, Sultana: The Pomegranate Tree is a must read. It is a compelling and meticulously researched novel that deserves attention.

This is the story of the last queen of Granada, Aisha al-Hurra, the very woman whose son surrendered to the Christian alliance led by King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castile; the Moorish ruler, who you may have heard, told her son, “Do not weep like a woman for what you could not defend like a man.”

The Alhambra, 1999 visit

When I read this quote many years ago, while exploring the wonders of the Granada palace, I longed to learn more about the plight of the kingdom in its last days. Who was this powerful Aisha who spoke so reproachfully to her son? What was her story? I wished that more had been written about this strong woman in the same way the life of her political nemesis, Queen Isabella, had been covered with great detail. This novel answered my wishes and much more.

Sultana: The Pomegranate Tree traces the journey of a wilful and ambitious Sultana, a descendant of the Nasrid dynasty, and her ascent to power as Queen of the Kingdom of Garnatah – or Granada, through marital alliances. From a young age, Aisha demonstrates an innate mastery of political intrigue, an unflinching sense of duty and a profound love of the kingdom. Watching her evolve through the key historical events leading to the fall of Granada is fascinating, and provides a rare glimpse into the lives of Granada’s rulers in that period. The novel is a well-executed biography.

The Slaying of the Abencerrajes
Painting by Mariano Fortuny, 1870
Without revealing too much of the plot, Aisha will face dramatic upheavals in her life, and extricate herself from numerous dangers within the palace and beyond. As a character she was well-rounded and likable, allowing the reader to feel each moment. One particular scene had me gutted, and its aftermath, which dealt with the combined feelings of loss, mourning and revenge, were well-treated. The intrigue around Aisha’s twin sister, Fatimah, the tragic story of Aisha’s mother and the engaging romance with Aisha’s first husband were all fascinating.

The banquet scene, which saw the nobles of the Abencerraje family massacred by Muley Hacén, unravelled with great suspense, and would make a fantastic film sequence.

The treatment around Aisha’s real life rival, Isabel de Solis was complex, with a highly satisfying twist. Due to the aura of mystery around de Solis, she became my favorite character. Second place would go to Aisha’s second husband and ruler of Granada, Muley Hacén, who is entirely believable in his romantic and historical behavior.

So much to admire about this beautifully crafted novel. Attention to historical detail is outstanding. The prose and dialogue are evocative and cinematic. Anyone who reads historical fiction for the pleasure of being swept away into others worlds will not be disappointed – the novel paints Moorish Spain with a creative flair that is both enchanting and historically informative.

Sultana: The Pomegranate Tree is a penultimate novel in a mind blowing series of six. Its plot concludes in the year 1482, the year before Aisha engineers her son’s ascent to the throne, leaving no doubt that the final book deals with this and more, culminating in the climatic surrender of Granada.

The Sultana series no doubt crown this trailblazing author as an unsurpassed master for this unique period of history. Thank you, Lisa J. Yarde.

Want more from this author? You can find a past interview with Lisa J. Yarde here.

Thursday, April 25, 2019

Review: Quatrevingt-treize by Victor Hugo

“Au-dessus de l'absolu révolutionnaire, il y a l'absolu humain.” 
"Beyond the revolutionary absolute, there is a human absolute."

To me, the above statement perfectly summarises the theme of this amazing book set in France's terror years during the French Revolution.

Written in 1874, Quatrevingt-treize is Victor Hugo's last novel. He was 72 years old when it was published. Consider that Hugo was only 29 when he published Notre Dame de Paris.

In Quatrevingt-treize, Hugo reprises the thorny question of what one should choose when faced with a moral decision. At the climax of this story, three men encounter situations that will challenge their core beliefs. Two of them choose to uphold humanitarian principles over and above any revolutionary concerns-even at the cost of their own lives or mission. The third, however, cannot override his convictions, and as a result, his conscience and his failure to act in a humanitarian manner will lead to his demise.

Illustration for Quatrevingt-treize
by Caumont, Robert (circa 1922 - 1924)

The third man, Cimourdain, also functions as an anti-Javert while meeting the same end as Javert.
At the end of Les Misérables, Inspector Javert, who has shown humanity in letting Jean Valjean escape, will suffer enormous cognitive dissonance; through his lenience, he has acted against the grain of his perceived moral duty and cannot reconcile his benevolent behavior with the opposing rigid lawful attitude. His subsequent suicide is a desperate means to escape from a fraught self-integrity.

On the other hand, in Quatrevingt-treize, the character, Cimourdain does not allow humanitarian concerns overtake duty; but here again, dissonance arises because deep down, his emotional attachment to Gauvain reminds him over and over again that he has made the wrong decision. Facing the impasse between his broken conscience and the duty he was forced to obey, Cimourdain takes the same deathly path as Javert.

Danton, Robespierre, and Marat at the wine shop
Wood engraving by Paterson.

What is revealed in his writings is that Hugo was painfully conscious of moral dilemmas and of the human distress that surfaces when people are forced into a choice that offers no solution - whether the choice is in line or goes against strongly held beliefs. Could this have resulted from his upbringing? I mentioned this before in an earlier post - Victor Hugo's parents could not have been more at odds. Could this tension between opposites have created a domestic climate of guilt where every decision was fraught with anxiety?

It is easy to imagine it. His father, Joseph Léopold Hugo was loyal to the French army. In his earlier years, long before the family lived in Spain where his son spent his early childhood, Joseph Hugo had fought in Western France against Bretons rebels, or Chouans, as these were called. Meanwhile his mother, Sophie Hugo, a Breton royalist from Nantes was firmly against the revolutionaries - she sheltered counter-revolutionaries - like the Chouans.

Or perhaps, the tumultuous times during which the author's parents lived were filled with stories that later inspired Victor Hugo? I noted that while depicting the tragic war and violence pitting Chouans against Republication soldiers, Victor Hugo emerges from his narrator's voice and chooses to remind the reader of Quatrevingt-treize that his father fought this war. It is intimate and marked with emphasis.

No matter its origins or the inspiration behind it, I felt that, more strongly than in Les Misérables, Quatrevingt-treize is the author's attempt to reiterate that we are doomed if we hold on too tightly to our convictions. Fanaticism harms the human soul and the human absolute must prevail.

La Tourgue, 1835
llustration by Victor Hugo for Quatrevingt-treize

The book is beautifully written. Like L'Homme qui rit, each chapter stands alone as a masterpiece. Through Hugo's vivid descriptions, I was fascinated by the landscape of Brittany's forests and the extensive network of subterranean caves, some of which date to the 9th century. I found a book published on this same subject, and which covers the terrain in La Roche-sur-Yon, not far from where my uncle lives today. Curious about Western France's subterranean network, I began to research the underground caves of the Vendée and have since featured these in my historical novel, Julien's Terror.

Beyond the rich historical insights of Quatrevingt-treize and the author's deep understanding of moral conflicts, I enjoyed Victor Hugo's rendering of the Breton culture and his colorful, immersive writing. It was a pleasure to read this book and to rediscover my grandfather's homeland. It was enriching to be inspired and moved by this great author.

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.