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16th-century

REVIEW:  Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth

REVIEW: Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth

Bitter-Greens

Spoiler (Trigger Warning): Show

This book has a rape scene.

The amazing power and truth of the Rapunzel fairy tale comes alive for the first time in this breathtaking tale of desire, black magic and the redemptive power of love

French novelist Charlotte-Rose de la Force has been banished from the court of Versailles by the Sun King, Louis XIV, after a series of scandalous love affairs. At the convent, 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 parsley from the walled garden of the courtesan Selena Leonelli, he is threatened with having both hands cut off, unless he and his wife relinquish their precious little girl. Selena is the famous red-haired muse of the artist Tiziano, first painted by him in 1512 and still inspiring him at the time of his death. She is at the center of Renaissance life in Venice, a world of beauty and danger, seduction and betrayal, love and superstition.

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

Dear Ms. Forsyth,

It’s rare that I read a romance book these days that I don’t already have some idea of how the plot will play out. Sometimes I can predict exactly what will happen when and it’s these books that usually almost put me to sleep. So when I come across a book which surprises me as well as delights me with its originality, I get excited. This is such a book even if maybe, technically it isn’t all a romance.

After a bit of backstory, I was expecting the book to quickly jump to the Rapunzel story, as after all that’s what the book is about, right? But no. Instead an amazing start details how Charlotte-Rose gets sent away to a convent. I felt like I was along for her self pitying leave taking of the glory that was the court of the Sun King at Versailles, the bumpy and cold trip to the even colder and bleaker convent as well as the meeting with the sadistic Soeur in charge of postulants. Before I knew it, I was totally wrapped up in the shock Charlotte-Rose feels about this alien world and the women who inhabit it.

It’s a fascinating opening and I found myself learning new things that are effortlessly added to the narrative. Plus they are things that need to be there or have a use rather than just as a show off of research done. I wasn’t in any hurry for Fairy Tale to begin because Charlotte-Rose is so interesting and fun to read about. She’s certainly not an easy person to like at times but I was pulling and rooting for her nonetheless.

Once the kinder Soeur Seraphina begins to tell her fairy tale, I got lost in that world as well. I can see it, touch it, sense it. As with the first section, I was floating along in a happy reading daze as the story unfolded around me. I’d read and read and eventually come up for air to discover that pages had flown by and hours sped past. Seraphina takes the story far past what I grew up hearing and reading by adding backstories, shading in details and giving the whole a glorious color and life.

In the Brothers Grimm version I read as a child, poor Rapunzel’s day to day existence locked up in the tower is skimmed over. Here we see how horrifying, lonely and boring it was. I like the fact that Margherita uses her brains to stay sane and does have agency. She’s told there’s no escape but she tests that to the limit. She makes nice when she has to but never forgets her three truths.

My name is Magherita.

My parents loved me.

One day, I will escape.

But wait, there’s more. We even get the Bella Strega’s point of view and if anyone deserved to get her revenge while learning the arts of herbs and scorcery it’s Selena. She’s tough to begin with and, after what happens to her mother, gets even more hardened early on in her life. I can feel sympathy for what she endured but it is hard to feel sorry for her given what she does to others who had nothing to do with her mother’s fate. However she did come by her mindset of “me first and I must stay beautiful” honestly though.

As I continued to read the book, it was clear that an overriding theme for all the women is that historically, women were at the mercy of men. The witch who taught Selena said it right – a woman could be a nun, a wife or a whore. And the actor who first broke Charlotte-Rose’s heart imparted a secondary truth – a woman needs to be pretty or rich or preferably both to prosper in their world. These realities of the times serve as the impetus for the women’s actions.

It’s also easy to see the parallel between the story within a story in that Charlotte-Rose suffers some of Margherita’s fate – both are locked away, far from loved ones and places at the whim of another. Both have to rely on themselves and both manage to shape their fates as much as it was possible for women to do.

The story was unique and engaging, informative without being a history lesson. I had no idea what would happen next and I can’t tell you how much this thrilled me. The flashbacks opened the beauty and decay of the city of Venice, the glittering world of Versailles and the horror of the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. In writing the book you truly were enjoying a world Charlotte-Rose could only dream of and in reading it I had a wonderful time. B+

~Jayne

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REVIEW:  Beauvallet by Georgette Heyer

REVIEW: Beauvallet by Georgette Heyer

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Dear Readers,

If you’ve never read anything by Georgette Heyer beyond her Regencies, or you’re not interested in prissy Regencies, preferring action and adventure, then do yourself a favor and try this one. It might be that because my introduction to Heyer was through her Georgians and Beauvallet that this is where my preference lies but, honestly I think it’s because these are just darn good books.

What’s the plot? Doña Dominica de Rada y Sylva is on her way back to Spain with her ailing father from his administrative post in the New World. The captain of the ship taking them home spies a vessel he knows is captained by English privateer Nicholas Beauvallet and, unable to resist trying to bring this most hated man in Spain to justice, he orders his men to open fire. Never one to turn down a challenge, Nick and his crew respond and the battle is on. Unfortunately for the Spanish captain, the fight is short, the English win and he and his crew are put in lifeboats and advised to sail to the nearest island.

Dominica is no shrinking violet and loudly states her opinion of Nicholas and the English. It’s not pretty. But Nick laughingly dismisses her tantrums and sees that she and her father, as well as her duenna and their belongings are transferred to his ship. What are his intentions, he’s asked – or is challenged depending on who’s doing to speaking? Why, to carry them both back to Spain. Doesn’t he know he’s a wanted man in Spain? Yes, but he’s not going to let a little trifling like that stop him.

As they sail across the Atlantic, Dominica pouts, sulks, flirts with others and generally tries to act as if she doesn’t care. Something that is negated by the fact that she can’t stop asking Nick’s valet and first lieutenant about him. He, on the other hand, is bluntly open and honest about the fact that he’s in love with her and wants to marry her. It’s only in the finale of the voyage that Dominica is honest with herself as well. But what’s to do? Nick has promised to set them down on Spanish soil and he’s a man of his word.

He promises to come back for her before the year is out but Dominica is a realist at last and knows his chances are slim to none that he could pull off getting her out of a land which wants him dead, dead and then a little more dead. She doesn’t count on three things. One – he doesn’t turn down a challenge. Two – he’s a man of his word. Three – his family motto is “Reck Not!”

This book really needs to be read while listening to a soundtrack by Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Something dashing, with lots of trumpets blaring to stir the blood and make you think swashbuckler-y thoughts then a switch to lush violins for the romance. Warner Brothers should have made this in a movie as it’s packed with derring-do, panache, boldness, cunning and laughs.

Okay first let me list some reasons you might not like this book and get them out of the way. Nick calls Dominica “child” a lot and there’s an obvious difference in their maturity levels. This is slightly off putting to me but not as much as it would be in a more contemporary novel. Dominica is headstrong as is the case with a lot of historic Heyer heroines and worse, she’s a high spirited aristocrat though she doesn’t annoy me as much as Leonie from “These Old Shades.” A lot of time is spent early in the book detailing the Beauvallet homestead in Hampshire with lots of noblesse oblige and brow knuckling servants who are just damn happy to please the Quality. None of this lasts long and the book is soon off and soaring into high adventure but I thought I’d mention all this and the fact that it’s soon finished in case anyone thinks they’re going to get bogged down in it for the duration.

Now for the good stuff. Nick is bursting with energy and vitality and goes straight for what he wants. What keeps him from being overbearing is by being easily cowed by some of Dominica’s whiles and stratagems – though others he sees through and chuckles at. When he tells her that he loves her, he means it and no second guessing.

By the time the action moves to Spain, Dominica begins to show some spirit that I can actually admire instead of her highstrung antics aboard the Venture. She sharpens her wits on the situation, displays herself better and shows herself a worthy woman whom man like Beauvallet would find a satisfying life with. Pretty only goes so far.

For Nick “failure is not an option” not because he’s going to push past anything and triumph against all odds – he just doesn’t ever think he’s not going to come out on top and with what he wants. “Can’t, won’t, unable” are words that aren’t in his vocabulary – he cheerfully can’t conceive of them. His daring escape from prison in Madrid will make your blood sing with excitement. I can feel the sheer joy of it leap off the pages as Nick improvises and charges headlong at all obstacles. Reck Not! indeed.

Still though Nick is usually devil-may-care about most things, when something stands between he and what he wants – he will buckle down and do what he must – such as when he told Dominca’s Aunt Beatrice had she been a man, he would have killed her if she continued to try and thwart him.

There are two secondary characters I have to mention as well. I had forgotten the character of Nick’s valet Joshua Dimmick – what fun. I love his running monologues as he talks to himself, using great language. Is it period or just made up? I had so much fun reading it that I don’t care. At least then you could still get good family retainers and valets. And I almost admire Senora Beatriz who has the wit to admire her foes when they act bravely, display courage and almost beat her. I pity her her weak husband and indolent fool of a son. What she could have accomplished without them as millstones around her neck.

A good pace is maintained throughout. There’s tension where it’s needed and high spirits anon. The fights are more hinted at but there’s enough to follow what’s going on and add color to the narrative. The romance is stirring and the ending will keep you glued to the pages. I do think Nick acted wisely in not telling his Queen his true reason to head to Spain, though. If you’ve only read the Heyer Regencies, treat yourself and give this one a try. A-

~Jayne

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