Thursday, April 27, 2017

Review: The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence by Alyssa Palombo

From the Back Cover:

A girl as beautiful as Simonetta Cattaneo never wants for marriage proposals in 15th Century Italy, but she jumps at the chance to marry Marco Vespucci. Marco is young, handsome and well-educated. Not to mention he is one of the powerful Medici family’s favored circle. 

Even before her marriage with Marco is set, Simonetta is swept up into Lorenzo and Giuliano de’ Medici’s glittering circle of politicians, poets, artists, and philosophers. The men of Florence—most notably the rakish Giuliano de’ Medici—become enthralled with her beauty. That she is educated and an ardent reader of poetry makes her more desirable and fashionable still. But it is her acquaintance with a young painter, Sandro Botticelli, which strikes her heart most. Botticelli immediately invites Simonetta, newly proclaimed the most beautiful woman in Florence, to pose for him. As Simonetta learns to navigate her marriage, her place in Florentine society, and the politics of beauty and desire, she and Botticelli develop a passionate intimacy, one that leads to her immortalization in his masterpiece, The Birth of Venus.

Alyssa Palombo’s The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence vividly captures the dangerous allure of the artist and muse bond with candor and unforgettable passion.

My Thoughts:

Simonetta Cattaneo is a beautiful young woman, raised in Genoa with a sheltered childhood, allowed to learn the basics of reading and writing, but not allowed to further her education beyond that, though she yearns to study the great masters of literature and art. So when a handsome young Florentine man comes calling with poetry and promises of a grand life in Florence, a city alive with new ideas and overflowing with art and literature, Simonetta gladly accepts his offer.

Simonetta marries Marco Vespucci, who is friends with the man behind the Florentine Renaissance, Lorenzo de' Medici, Il Magnifico. Simonetta instantly becomes the star of the de' Medicis' social circle, and soon all of Florence is caught up in the idea of her--emulating her fashion, fighting for a glimpse of her, and gifting her with the title of the most beautiful woman in Florence. She also catches the eye of young Sandro Botticelli and sits for him for a portrait. Moved by her beauty, both inside and out, her likeness begins to appear in more of his works. Simonetta is in heaven, free to read all she wants and to discuss the new and somewhat heretical ideas sweeping through the country with other intellectuals. But not everyone is happy with her esteemed status, and as her star eclipses her husband's, and as so many men vie for her attention, jealousy and thwarted ambition lead to problems in their marriage. Somewhat disillusioned and suffering from bouts of ill health, Simonetta seizes the chance to sit for Botticelli again, this time to be immortalized in his famous masterpiece, The Birth of Venus. Over the course of many months, the relationship between the artist and his muse becomes tangled, and a forbidden passion erupts, though fate will soon intervene with tragic consequences.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Blog Tour Guest Post: The Mourning Ring by Sarah Parke

Please join me in welcoming Sarah Parke to Let Them Read Books! Sarah is touring the blogosphere with her debut novel, The Mourning Ring, a novel that reimagines the childhood of the Bronte siblings. She's here today with a fascinating guest post about the young Brontes' early storytelling efforts. Check it out!

Sixteen-year-old Charlotte Bronte lives to tell stories. She longs to improve her fortunes through her writing. Charlotte’s father expects her to leave behind her childish fantasies in order to set an example for her three younger siblings.

But the Bronte children hold a secret in their veins—a smidgen of fairy blood that can bring their words to life.

When Charlotte discovers that the characters from their childish stories exist in an alternate world called Glass Town, she jumps at the opportunity to be the heroine of her own tale.

The city of Angria teeters on the brink of civil war and Charlotte and her siblings must use their magic and their wits to save its people from a tyrant with magic abilities. But entering the fictional world means forfeiting control of their own creations. If they fail, the characters they have come to know and love will be destroyed.

Charlotte is determined to save the city and characters she loves, but when the line between creator and character becomes blurred, will she choose her fantasy or her family?

It’s a Small World: The Brontës’ Earliest Fiction
By Sarah Parke

In our modern age, smaller has a certain appeal for individuals looking to scale back and enjoy the simpler things in life. From tiny houses, to mini-horses and every little thing in between--the new downsizing trend seems to prove the old adage that good things come in small packages.

Two hundred years ago, the four young Brontë siblings were discovering the power of creating characters and worlds on a miniature scale in a remote village of West Yorkshire. A small portion of their juvenilia survives and has been preserved for further study; some of the miniscule manuscripts can be seen at special exhibits, like the one hosted by the Morgan Library and Museum in NYC last fall, and the Brontë Parsonage Museum in Haworth, England.  What is important about the juvenilia is that it provides a glimpse into the childish psyche of this remarkably creative family. From what the children read that influenced their adult work, to the way in which real world events shaped their first storytelling efforts.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Blog Tour Guest Post + Giveaway: The Fisherman's Bride by Catherine Magia

Please join me in welcoming Catherine Magia to Let Them Read Books! Catherine is touring the blogosphere with her historical fiction debut, The Fisherman's Bride, a novel of the wife of St. Peter. Catherine is here today with a guest post about her own spiritual journey and the inspiration for giving a voice to a woman forgotten by history. Read on and enter to win a copy of The Fisherman's Bride!

She has no name. She is not even a footnote. Her tale is hidden behind the well-told fable of her husband, the man who would become Simon Peter, the first Apostle.

Cast off by her family after shunning a wealthy suitor to marry a humble fisherman, her life is fraught with hardship. She endures her husband’s growing restlessness, fish shortages from the Sea of Galilee, and the oppression of an all-powerful Roman Empire over her people. Then her life is forever changed when her dying mother is saved by a miracle performed by a young carpenter—a man who speaks with understanding and acts with compassion. A man who can inspire the extraordinary.

Simon Peter lives on in history as the undaunted martyr of the carpenter. This is the untold story of his young bride. Her journey traverses villages and deserts, love and tradition, and a brewing revolution, to an awakening of faith that challenges everything she has ever known.

My own spiritual journey inspired The Fisherman’s Bride, the journey from brokenness to healing. Eight years ago, I hit the lowest point in my life personally and professionally. I had post-surgical complications at the same time that I was laid off from my job and ended a long term relationship.  I was utterly lost. I traveled and wandered for about a year, searching for my path. Along the way, I learned lessons of authenticity, courage, and humility.  During a retreat in the Shenandoah Valley, being chased by cows with a Bible in hand, I discovered a new inspiration. I imagined the story of a woman who was also abandoned by her husband, a man who left without a word to follow Jesus, a man we know as Simon Peter.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Blog Tour Review: The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck

From the Back Cover:

Three women, haunted by the past and the secrets they hold

Set at the end of World War II, in a crumbling Bavarian castle that once played host to all of German high society, a powerful and propulsive story of three widows whose lives and fates become intertwined—an affecting, shocking, and ultimately redemptive novel from the author of the New York Times Notable Book The Hazards of Good Breeding.

Amid the ashes of Nazi Germany’s defeat, Marianne von Lingenfels returns to the once-grand castle of her husband’s ancestors, an imposing stone fortress now fallen into ruin following years of war. The widow of a resister murdered in the failed July 20, 1944, plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, Marianne plans to uphold the promise she made to her husband’s brave conspirators: to find and protect their wives, her fellow resistance widows.

First Marianne rescues six-year-old Martin, the son of her dearest childhood friend, from a Nazi reeducation home. Together, they make their way across the smoldering wreckage of their homeland to Berlin, where Martin’s mother, the beautiful and naive Benita, has fallen into the hands of occupying Red Army soldiers. Then she locates Ania, another resister’s wife, and her two boys, now refugees languishing in one of the many camps that house the millions displaced by the war.

As Marianne assembles this makeshift family from the ruins of her husband’s resistance movement, she is certain their shared pain and circumstances will hold them together. But she quickly discovers that the black-and-white, highly principled world of her privileged past has become infinitely more complicated, filled with secrets and dark passions that threaten to tear them apart. Eventually, all three women must come to terms with the choices that have defined their lives before, during, and after the war—each with their own unique share of challenges.

Written with the devastating emotional power of The Nightingale, Sarah’s Key, and The Light Between Oceans, Jessica Shattuck’s evocative and utterly enthralling novel offers a fresh perspective on one of the most tumultuous periods in history. Combining piercing social insight and vivid historical atmosphere, The Women in the Castle is a dramatic yet nuanced portrait of war and its repercussions that explores what it means to survive, love, and, ultimately, to forgive in the wake of unimaginable hardship.

My Thoughts:

The Women in the Castle opens with a prologue in which Germany's academic elite have gathered in celebration, and we are introduced to Marianne von Lingenfels and the von Lingenfels castle, a charming relic that has been used only for annual parties but that will soon become a refuge and a lifeline for the wives of the men sequestered in Albrecht von Lingenfels's study plotting the downfall of Adolph Hitler. Seven years and one failed assassination attempt later, World War II has just ended, and Marianne, now a traitor's widow, makes it her mission to find the wives and children of her husband's co-conspirators, heroes in her eyes, and bring them to safety.

Though she is only able to find two, Ania, a woman she'd never met, and Benita, the young wife of Marianne's childhood best friend, she gathers them and their children and brings them to the castle, where she hopes to keep them safe in the dangerous post-war climate, and where she hopes they will all be able to rebuild their lives together. None of these women have been untouched by the war, although Marianne, as a wealthy member of the aristocracy, has not had to suffer the physical depravities or face the daily fight for survival that the others have, and she soon realizes that coaxing these women into forming a new family with her will not be as easy as she'd hoped. Through food shortages, illness, the Russian and US occupations, and the bands of discharged soldiers and former prisoners roaming the countryside, Marianne desperately attempts to hold them all together, but she is eventually forced to admit that she can't force her fellow survivors to follow her path, that she must let them each come to terms with the war and their roles in it in their own way, and that they must each determine their own future.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Quick Review: The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden

From the Back Cover:

At the edge of the Russian wilderness, winter lasts most of the year and the snowdrifts grow taller than houses. But Vasilisa doesn’t mind—she spends the winter nights huddled around the embers of a fire with her beloved siblings, listening to her nurse’s fairy tales. Above all, she loves the chilling story of Frost, the blue-eyed winter demon, who appears in the frigid night to claim unwary souls. Wise Russians fear him, her nurse says, and honor the spirits of house and yard and forest that protect their homes from evil.

After Vasilisa’s mother dies, her father goes to Moscow and brings home a new wife. Fiercely devout, city-bred, Vasilisa’s new stepmother forbids her family from honoring the household spirits. The family acquiesces, but Vasilisa is frightened, sensing that more hinges upon their rituals than anyone knows.

And indeed, crops begin to fail, evil creatures of the forest creep nearer, and misfortune stalks the village. All the while, Vasilisa’s stepmother grows ever harsher in her determination to groom her rebellious stepdaughter for either marriage or confinement in a convent.

As danger circles, Vasilisa must defy even the people she loves and call on dangerous gifts she has long concealed—this, in order to protect her family from a threat that seems to have stepped from her nurse’s most frightening tales.

My Thoughts:

Looks like I'm going to be the voice of dissension on this one. I'm sure you've seen the hype surrounding this book. It's hard to miss. Ads were everywhere when it was released, featuring one accolade after another. And the description sounds amazing, doesn't it? I so wanted to love it. I love Russian historical fiction, and I went into it expecting to love it, to be wowed, to be swept off my feet. Alas, none of that happened. While it's not a bad book, at the end of the day, I honestly found it to be just plain boring.

I loved the folklore and magical elements, and I liked Vasilisa, but the pacing is soooo slow. Agonizingly slow. And the omniscient style means we get the point of view of way too many characters, some who don't even have a name, that's how insignificant they are to the story, yet we get their fleeting thoughts anyway. And if you know me, you know I'm a stickler for a tight, focused point of view structure. The author's writing has been described as beautiful and lyrical, but I thought it was rather on the simple side. And then when I got to the end and discovered this is the first in a trilogy, I couldn't help but note that the story would not need to be a trilogy if this book had been trimmed down, the pace quickened, and the rest of the story added in. I actually groaned at the thought of reading this story stretched out over two more books at a snail's pace.

I don't mean to sound harsh, and I know plenty of readers are loving this, but it just didn't live up to my expectations. I'm still giving it three stars because I did stick with it till the end, and I did find some things to admire about it. But not enough to continue on with the other books.

My Rating:  3 Stars out of 5

*Please Note: This review references an advance digital copy received from the publisher via NetGalley, and therefore the final published copy may differ. Though I received this book from the publisher, these are my honest and unbiased thoughts, and I was not compensated in any other way for reviewing this book.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Blog Tour Review: The Enemies of Versailles by Sally Christie

From the Back Cover:

In the final installment of Sally Christie’s “tantalizing” (New York Daily News) Mistresses of Versailles trilogy, Jeanne Becu, a woman of astounding beauty but humble birth, works her way from the grimy back streets of Paris to the palace of Versailles, where the aging King Louis XV has become a jaded and bitter old philanderer. Jeanne bursts into his life and, as the Comtesse du Barry, quickly becomes his official mistress.

“That beastly bourgeois Pompadour was one thing; a common prostitute quite another kettle of fish.”

After decades suffering the King's endless stream of Royal Favorites, the princesses of the Court have reached a breaking point. Horrified that he would bring the lowborn Comtesse du Barry into the hallowed halls of Versailles, Louis XV’s daughters, led by the indomitable Madame Adelaide, vow eternal enmity and enlist the young dauphiness Marie Antoinette in their fight against the new mistress. But as tensions rise and the French Revolution draws closer, a prostitute in the palace soon becomes the least of the nobility’s concerns.

Told in Christie’s witty and engaging style, the final book in The Mistresses of Versailles trilogy will delight and entrance fans as it once again brings to life the sumptuous and cruel world of eighteenth century Versailles, and France as it approaches inevitable revolution.

My Thoughts:

If you follow my reviews, you know that I adored the first two books in Sally Christie's Mistresses of Versailles trilogy, both making my list of best books in the years they were released, and I was awaiting the final installment with a mix of anticipation and sadness. Madame du Pompadour's novel was a tour-de-force, and she left huge footsteps to follow. I was skeptical that I could fall in love with the woman who took her place alongside an ageing king who had grown so debauched, cruel, and oblivious that no woman could possibly want to be his mistress for anything other than the perks. But I was wrong.

We first meet Jeanne Becu as a seven-year-old child working as a servant in a courtesan's household. Her unparalleled beauty, even at such an early age, makes life difficult for her as lecherous men seek to take advantage of her and women are jealous of her. She soon finds herself shipped off to a convent, where she spends the next ten years of her life. Though she stifles under such harsh living conditions and religious teachings, Jeanne's generous heart and sweet nature earn her many friends, and when she is finally released, she quickly lands a job at one of Paris's most exclusive dress shops, where beautiful girls attract customers and help sell the wares. Then one day the Comte du Barry walks in, and the rest is history. I knew little about Jeanne other than that she was Louis XV's last mistress, so there were a few surprises for me as I savored this story, some delightful, some tragic, so I will leave the details of what happens from here for the reader to discover.

This book differs from the others in that we have alternating chapters from the viewpoint of Jeanne's avowed enemy, Princess Adelaide. Desperate for any scrap of attention from her father, she determines to be a spinster and convinces her younger sisters to do the same, so that she may always be at her father's court. Thus she never knows romantic love and cannot understand the appeal of intimacy. Though she has a list of reasons why Jeanne, "the harlot," as she calls her, is an abomination in the world of Versailles, underneath it all, her hatred stems from nothing more than pure jealousy. She fosters animosity toward Jeanne in every courtier she speaks to and quickly turns the new dauphine, Marie Antoinette, against her. Adelaide is so resistant to change, so wrapped up in comporting herself in the manner she thinks befitting a princess of France, so blinded by her own self-importance that she allows the best of what life has to offer pass her by. In the end, the death of Louis XV sets both women adrift.