Romance, Historical, Contemporary, Paranormal, Young Adult, Book reviews, industry news, and commentary from a reader's point of view

17th-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

AmazonBNKoboAREBook DepositoryGoogle

a Rafflecopter giveaway

REVIEW:  The Sultan’s Wife by Jane Johnston

REVIEW: The Sultan’s Wife by Jane Johnston

sultans-wife

Morocco, 1677.

The tyrannical King Ismail resides over the palace of Meknes. Through the sweltering heat of the palace streets, Nus Nus, slave to the King and forced into his live of servitude as court scribe, is sent to the apothecary. There he discovers the bloody corpse of the herb man, and becomes entangled in a plot to frame him for the murder. Juggling the tempestuous Moroccan king, sorceress queen Zidana and the malicious Grand Vizier is his only hope to escape the blame.

Meanwhile, young, fair Alys Swann is captured during her crossing to England, where she is due to be wed. Sold into Ismail’s harem, she is forced to choose: renounce her faith or die.

An unlikely alliance develops between Alys and Nus Nus, one that will help them to survive the horrifying ordeals of the Moroccan court.

Brimming with rich historical detail and peppered with real characters, from Charles I to Samuel Pepys, The Sultan’s Wife is a story of enduring love and adventure.

Dear Ms. Johnson,

I was enchanted when I read “The Tenth Gift.” I was much less pleased with“The Salt Road” even though it revisited the country of Morocco and also used the same dual timeline to tell its story. This left me torn about even trying “The Sultan’s Wife” which was already out in paperback then. Did I want to risk another disappointment or would I be rewarded in the end? In the end, a comment on my review of “The Salt Road” which likened it more to “Gift” decided me.

Now this is more the kind of book I wanted the last time. The descriptions of life in 1670/80s Morocco are vivid and the visuals stunning. What a magnificent place the palace of Meknes must have been in its day though the suffering to build it seems to have rivaled anything achieved by Louis XIV, Peter the Great or Qin Shi Huang. But then Moulay Ismaïl Ibn Sharif didn’t seem to have heard an adjective or adverb that he didn’t want to better. Eight hundred children from over 1,000 concubines? My mind reels.

But what this book has that the previous one I read didn’t is compelling characters I care about and / or want to see more of as well as a quicker pace. The story hums along with few slow spots and never lost my interest. Which characters was I interested in? Well all of them, hero, heroine, villains, supporting secondary or merely passers-by. I might not have liked them all and positively cheered when a few got what they richly deserved for making everyone else’s life a living hell but they didn’t bore me, annoy me or make me want to slap them off the page.

Since the book is named for Alys, I’ll start with talking about her even though she doesn’t appear on page for quite a while. From the beginning I did want more of her POV and longer, more explanative scenes. Major things happen in her life but they’re skipped or we come in on scene 2 or 3 having missed the opening of the play. Her capture by Barbery pirates? Missed. Her arrival in Meknes and initial presentation to the Sultan? Not there. Why she finally decided to capitulate and “convert?” Well, Nus-Nus had explained a bit about the fact that if she didn’t, they’d both eventually die long after they wished they wanted to but she still appeared to be philosophically debating the issue when the scene ended.

Still Alys has got some spirit and backbone to her. She doesn’t back down in the face of the Barbary pirates, either onboard ship or once she gets to Morocco. At the time Nus Nus meets her, she has been bastinadoed and has the Sultan screaming at her yet she hasn’t yet yielded her faith or her virginity. She listens, she learns and she survives.

Her choice to sexually submit to the Sultan is understandable once Nus Nus has explained the mechanisms of power in the harem. Catch the Sultan’s attention – but not too much – bear a child – preferentially a son – and you can be set for a long, luxurious life.

Once I accepted the idea that I wasn’t going to see as much of Alys’s POV as that of Nus Nus, I was eventually okay with it as I found Nus Nus to be such an interesting and charismatic character. His story is unfortunately a common one of being sold into slavery but like Alys, Nus Nus is a survivor. He survived being sold into slavery, twice, survived being castrated, survived the sodomite attentions of the truly oily and despicable grand vizier and has gained some agency in his life. True as a slave he doesn’t have all that much but he’s carved out a niche in the palace in the service of the Sultan having learned how to “roll with the punches” and face down his opponents.

Nus Nus is also an intelligent and decent guy. He’s learned different languages, enough about herbs to detect when the Sultan’s Chief Wife is up to no good, and knows when to hold his tongue and keep a secret. His sense of duty is impeccable and his wits are keen – good things when he’s in the employ of a man who kills almost daily and whose rage is both swift and merciless. Nus Nus is who I’d want guarding my six and giving me “how to make it through another day” tips.

Mouley Ismael is a fascinating character. He is a chilling example of “Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Was he psychotic? And why do psycho killers always like cats? Zidana reminded me of a huge black widow spider hanging right above your head. Move and she might bite you. Don’t move and she surely will.

What makes my grade a bit lower are some questions I ended up with. How did Nus Nus end up in service of the Sultan and in the jobs he has? It’s almost as if he sprang immediately from when he was castrated to being keeper of the Sultan’s couching book and thus keeper of the records that would establish the succession. Alys has a tremendous secret which is not discovered until almost the end of the book. Why didn’t she make use of it earlier? There are several points where it could have served her well though it would have lessened the impact on the reader but my immediate reaction to it was, “well, why didn’t she say so earlier??”

Initially the Sultan is fascinated with Alys’s coloring – blonde, blue eyed, pale skin – but I find it difficult to believe that he wouldn’t have had other European women in his harem or have seen the Christian slaves at work. His decision to breed a racially diverse army as well as her internal resistance to capitulating to him might account for his continued interest in her but that’s the only reason that’s given in the story. Again during this point I don’t see much of the changing dynamics from her POV.

The last but perhaps the most important is why does Nus Nus fall in love so quickly with Alys and when does she fall in love with him? He sees her blue-gray eyes and snap!, he’s smitten? I guess so. Once he falls his fidelity and defense of her are laudable but I wanted more than her coloring as a reason. I could see a little bit of her changing feelings but given the paucity of her POV as compared to his, again I wanted a bit more than I got.

Parts of this book are amazing. I was cheering Nus Nus on in his struggles to save the woman he loves and survive the psychotic Sultan he served. His reaction to the beauty of the music he heard in England moved me. The setting and characters make me want to go out and learn much more about them. But there were a few holes and tears in the tapestry plot that needed some repair. B-

~Jayne

AmazonBNSonyKoboAREBook DepositoryGoogle