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.

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.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Review: Armadale by Wilkie Collins

I adore this book. Perhaps more than The Woman in White which is a tale of crime and mystery, something Armadale is not, despite initial appearances. Here, I focus on the main female character.

What began as a complex tale of friendship and revenge turned out as quite the love story. It moved me.

For all her conniving, her devilish mind and revengeful streak, Lydia Gwilt's character transformation took my breath away and was splendidly executed. I felt every part of her psychological journey; it was real, and it spoke volumes for Collins' understanding of the contradictions in the tormented female mind. 

The end both saddened and satisfied - Lydia achieving to redeem herself through it. Despite forgiving her, the two main male characters were found lacking in the end, especially Midwinter for his lack of introspection. One is left feeling that Lydia loved him more than he ever did. 

I can't help wonder whether Lydia would have at all carried out her designs had she found Midwinter more responsive in love, less preoccupied with his writing and if he had ceased brooding obsessively over his friend's safety. By the same token, would Lydia have perceived herself lacking in Midwinter's eyes, would she have felt as sensitively about his behaviour if she had not been plagued by the knowledge of her past deeds and doubted her own morality. 

The question of the self-fulfilling prophecy is vivid here. That is the tragedy.

Review: Anastasia by Colin Falconer

I loved this book. French author, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry once wrote that perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away. Colin Falconer's Anastasia is a slim book that recalls the very best masterpieces. For me, it is now a modern classic. 

I am passionate about the Russian Revolution and the murder of the Romanovs but what initially drew me to this novel was promises of time travel to 1920s Shanghai, Berlin and New York. I was not disappointed. Colin Falconer's wonderfully scribed vivid descriptions transported me to the bars and nightclubs of Shanghai with its expat soirées and its seedy Triad underworld, before sweeping me away to the sexual decadence and currency collapse of Weimar Berlin. Soon after, I was indulging in London's tea houses and flapper period, casting an uneasy eye on rising unemployment, before finally leading a ritzy life in 5th Avenue New York prior to the Wall Street collapse. 

If all this travel wasn't enough, Colin Falconer also managed to paint glimpses into Lenin's Russia and make poignant observations on the Revolution's disappointing aftermath.
In this passage, the main character, journalist Michael Sheridan, travels to Petrograd (now St Petersburg) where he attempts to uncover evidence to prove that the love of his life is or is not the late Anastasia Romanov. Michael's visit to the room where the Romanovs were murdered is particularly harrowing. I was left with a feeling not evoked by other novels dealing with the same subject. 

In his depiction of all cities, I loved the author's keen eye for the tragic pantomimes of excess and how these are often bound to chaos and misery. Even his female character, Anastasia, assuming she were a Romanov, would embody the idea of aristocracy toppled by Revolution; wealth's sudden descent into poverty. 
Through conflicting desires, Anastasia strives to survive, reminding the reader constantly of the fine line between fortune and destitution.

I whizzed through the suspenseful second part of this book which saw Michael putting on his ruthless journalist cap and going to war with the very scum of stockbrokers. With the aid of an unlikely ally, he uncovers a stunning revelation filled with political intrigue about the fate of the Romanov fortune. 

This is a fantastic novel packed with social insights; it combines elements of romance, mystery and intrigue. Highly recommended.

Review: Spirit of Lost Angels by Liza Perrat

I loved this book and highly recommend it to those who wish a glimpse of the poorer classes on the eve of France's revolution. It is a passionate and well-told story of survival and of overcoming obstacles faced by every day French women in the late 18th century. 

But it is much more - it vividly depicts Paris during that period, with a keen knowledge of the city's geography and of the injustices which saw the classes pitted against one another. It is also a mystery - where the main character's integrity comes under question. And last, it is a triumphant affirmation of the bond between women and of the power some women can have to better the lives of their sisters - a theme not often explored.

The main character is Victoire, a young woman from the country, who suffers tragic losses, mistreatment, betrayal, imprisonment, and as a mother, the worse tortures of the mind. Perhaps it was the author's background in nursing but I felt that the passages depicting Victoire's growing emotional instability during a difficult period in her life, were believable and evocative. I enjoyed the medical attention to detail around Victoire's ordeal and her dramatic passage into the very darkness of Paris. 

Jeanne de la Motte 
painted by Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun

Without spoiling it for readers, I want to say how much I enjoyed the entertaining and saucy intrigue which begins with the appearance of Jeanne de Valois-Saint-Rémy in the story. Though I had read about l'Affaire du Collier and the scandal it created around Marie-Antoinette, I ignored much about Jeanne. The adventuress can be credited for much of the spice and reversal of fortune injected into this wonderful tale. I love when authors take daring approaches to speculative history and this was perhaps my favorite passage in the book. 

One detail that stood out for me is the author's sensitive attention to nature, a considerate touch given the main character's country origin. Nature's presence is pervasive in this novel, not only through weather and its effects on crops and the socio-economic upheavals of the time, but also through what the main character glimpses from her surroundings, as these reflect her mood and consciousness. 

Victoire's touching letters to her daughter Lucie, her beautiful and enterprising relationship with her husband, Armand - who was my favorite character - gave much heart to this novel. The love of a mother shines in many passages. 

In all, a well-researched and highly enjoyable read.

Review: Habibi by Craig Thompson

Exquisite storytelling. 

Craig Thompson has a gift for conveying complex emotional messages through images alone. One can guess at his vision, which is one of tolerance, understanding and peace, and is delivered subtly in delightful images, always with compassion for his characters; compassion for people in all walks of life. 

I was highly moved and entertained by this wonderful tale of love and life. Aside from the original narrative, both the novel's intriguing non-linear progression and its subtle humour offer compelling reasons to keep reading. 

Craig's artwork sways gently between the divine and the erotic. I had never read his other book, Blankets; it was Habibi's cover and the beautiful Islamic calligraphy of the cover's interior which drew my eye. 

I had to own Habibi! I was not disappointed.

Review: The Last Romanov by Dora Levy Mossanen

A celebration of beauty and art weaved masterfully into a historical tale of great interest. 

This story affords an intimate glimpse in the lives of the Romanovs, and their chilling end. The novel's grandeur and opulent expression seemed to me to be a metaphor for the main character's refusal to discard her dignity and monarchist hopes following the Russian revolution. I found it effective and always artfully constructed. 

I enjoyed this novel and was grateful for the author's evocative depiction of Rasputin. He really did come alive for me and the macabre circumstances of his death constituted one of the more gripping passages in the novel.