All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

All The Light We Cannot SeeBook Review

Title: All The Light We Cannot See
Author:  Anthony Doerr
Imprint: Scribner
Published: 2014
Pages: 544
ISBN: 978-1-5011-0456-5
Stars:  4.0

I am not usually drawn to novels set during World War II.  Maybe it’s because I am half German, and have no desire whatsoever to read anything about Hitler, particularly now that we are living in a political climate fuelled by a buffoon dictator just south of the border, in 2017. I do, however, love stories set in Paris, which is why I decided to give this book a try, although it was also enthusiastically recommended to me by my good friend Deborah Ledon who did not steer me wrong with her last recommendation.

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, the Pulitzer Prize-winning 2014 novel, is a work of art in more ways than one.  Each short chapter is like a photograph come to life, filled with colour, texture, and light, revealing one image, a small piece of the story. Doerr’s prose is so beautiful that we cannot put the book down for wanting to experience, with all of our senses, that next piece of the story. And all of our senses are heightened as we do.

The book begins on 7 August 1944 as Germany is bombing France, or more specifically, Saint-Malo, France, as a 16-year-old blind girl named Marie-Laure LeBlanc kneels over a table at Number 4 rue Vauborel, holding a model of the city in miniature. She knows every centimetre of the model by touch and has memorized its street names. She can hear the bombers, who are three miles away, approaching Saint-Malo.

“Five streets to the north, a white-haired 18-year-old German private named Werner Pfennig wakes to a faint staccato hum.” He is in the Hotel of Bees, a once cheerful address where Parisians would stay on weekend holidays. Werner is in the building when bombers brandishing high-velocity anti-air guns known as 88s start to destroy everything in the vicinity of the hotel. What, we wonder, could possibly happen next?

Compelled to turn the pages of each short chapter, we study them as if they are photographs on exhibition in an art gallery. As we move through each chapter in the first 90 pages of the book, a ten-year history of these two main characters is revealed in snapshot after snapshot.

We learn about the curse of an ancient blue diamond containing a touch of red at its center, known as the Sea of Flames. The 133 carat diamond has been locked up in a cleverly disguised vault in the basement of the Museum National d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris where Marie-Laure’s father works as the principal locksmith.

We also learn that Werner was raised with his sister Jutta, in a Children’s Home in Zollverein, a coal-mining complex near Essen, Germany by a kind woman named Frau Elena, and that young Werner, who has a love of science, also possesses a knack for repairing radios, which may just save him from having to work in the coal mines like all of the other 15-year-old boys in the region.

Sergeant Major Reinhold Von Rumpel, a gemologist before the war, now works for the Reich. It is his mission to find the Sea of Flames for the Führer for his proposed empyrean city in Linz, Austria, at the center of which he plans to build a kilometre-long museum filled with the greatest treasures in all of Europe and Russia.

The author flips us back and forth between what is happening to Marie-Laure and what is happening to Werner from 1934 to 1944, his exquisite writing moving with the pace of a suspense thriller. And then he starts to weave in the story of Von Rumpel and we slowly discover how all three characters’ lives will intersect.

Werner’s story is particularly heart-wrenching as he is recruited by the Reich – who force 14-year-old boys to train for their Machiavellian purposes – always weeding out the weakest, with unbelievable cruelty, while staying focused on building their superior Aryan race. Werner is small, sensitive and very smart and he dreams of becoming an engineer. He tries with all his strength to hold onto those dreams as the grim realization of his situation becomes evident and he slowly understands just how evil the force that he has had to follow and support really is.

By the time I read half of this novel, my guts were gripped by the horror of how vicious human beings can be and I cried as I was reminded that although we earthlings have endured two World Wars, so many of us don’t seem to have learned anything from them as the current political state of affairs in much of the world can attest to.

However, it is the indestructible optimism and resilience of the spiritually strong, like Marie-Laure,  who give us hope that things can change for the positive in the future. When one’s will to live is as strong as hers, there may be no limit to what we can endure. However, the price we pay for surviving the struggle is steep.

By the time I read half of this book, I was filled with sadness. This is not the type of book I should be reading as throughout this winter I have struggled with stress and depression. I read on because I had to know what happens to these characters in whom I had become deeply invested. There has to be some light at the end of this literary tunnel, some redemption, joy even. After all, the title is All The Light We Cannot See…but by page 400 there is still no light.

By the time I had almost finished the book, I could barely read the last 50 pages because of the ugly, depressing, soul-destroying events that occur page after page in relentless succession. Surely there can be no light in reliving this dismal history? I understand Doerr’s metaphors and by the end of the book I could see the light he refers to in the title, but that light just didn’t shine brightly enough to make me feel that reading this book was a gift and something that I shouldn’t have missed out on. The novel has its share of beauty and light, to be sure, but the cold, hard facts of what people endured in World War II at the hands of a fascist dictator are definitely not something I ever want to relive in a story, of any kind, ever again.

Mrs. Poe by Lynn Cullen

Mrs. Poe by Lynn CullenBook Review
Title: Mrs. Poe
Author:  Lynn Cullen
Publisher: Gallery Books
Released: October 1, 2013
Pages: 336
ISBN-10: 1476702918
ISBN-13: 978-1476702919
Stars:  4.0

Over the past year I’ve had a few opportunities to revisit the genius that was Edgar Allan Poe, a main character in the thoroughly engaging new novel Mrs. Poe by Lynn Cullen. Poe’s literary work has inspired every dark fiction writer who succeeded him as well as an inconceivable number of other twisted, creative minds. Late last autumn I watched The Raven, an interesting but flawed graphic crime thriller about a madman committing murders in the mid 1800s inspired by Poe’s writing, starring John Cusack and directed by James McTeigue. Earlier in 2013, I became addicted to a brilliant new television series called The Following starring Kevin Bacon and James Purefoy. It’s about a charismatic, yet psychotic serial killer who engages with other killers and psychologically disturbed individuals to create a cult who follows his every, Poe-inspired command. I’ve had a volume of Edgar Allan Poe Stories (published by Platt & Munk in 1961) on my book shelf for years and was compelled to start reading it after I finished reading Mrs. Poe so that I’d be more familiar with his most popular work.  I’m not the only one who is captivated by the mythology of Poe and if you’re equally interested, I’d recommend adding Lynn Cullen’s novel to your reading list.

Based on the true story of Edgar Allan Poe’s obsessive liaison with Frances “Fanny” Sargent Osgood, Mrs. Poe begins in the winter of 1845 and concludes in the winter of 1847.  During that period we’re transfixed, like peeping Toms gazing through a forbidden window, by Cullen’s spin on the mythology of Poe. In her story, he’s at the height of his literary fame in New York City following the publication and astounding success of “The Raven.”  He’s married to his much younger cousin Virginia Clemm who is slowly dying from tuberculosis and they live in poverty with Virginia’s mother, Maria (“Muddy”) who runs their household while subversively trying to rule their lives. Poe is constantly writing and attending literary conferences as well as a weekly gathering of New York’s literary crowd hosted by Miss Anne Charlotte Lynch, where he meets and is captivated by the writer Frances Osgood. Unfulfilled in his mainly chaste marriage, Poe cannot help but be drawn to lovely, yet lonely, Mrs. Osgood but is soon surprised to discover that his wife is also interested in getting to know her better.

Mrs. Poe is narrated by Fanny, whose no-good, cheating, artist husband, Samuel, is usually nowhere to be found, leaving his wife and two daughters to subsist on the charity of her dearest friends, Eliza and John Bartlett.  We care about Fanny, an intelligent, attractive woman of 33 whose talent as a writer has impressed Mr. Poe.  Although he’s a man appreciated by the ladies, his image is that of a moody alcoholic who doesn’t seem to have many friends and who no one really knows, although that doesn’t stop them from speculating about his character.  In particular, critic Reverend Rufus Griswold, loathes him because he has an obvious crush on Fanny.  Griswold encourages her to stop writing the flowery poetry and children’s stories that she’s known for and start to contribute stories of the macabre to The Evening Mirror.  Fanny finds that too difficult a task but agrees to interview the Poes for an insider’s look into their personal lives for a payment that she can’t afford to turn down.

In the meantime, Mrs. Poe asks Edgar to bring Fanny home to meet her, not realizing at first that he already has feelings for her.  Although her mind is sharp, Virginia is a small, pretty, fragile woman who depends on both Edgar and her mother for everything. Fanny’s visits continue for over a year and steadily become more unpleasant for her as she becomes more deeply embroiled in a secret affair with Edgar, with whom she has been exchanging public love poems that incite gossip among their readers.  Edgar makes every effort he can to be in Fanny’s presence without revealing his motive, but she can’t help but notice that Virginia is becoming very suspicious.  Strange mishaps and accidents occur involving Fanny, who worries more and more for her own safety as she pieces together evidence that points directly at Mrs. Poe.

Lynn Cullen infuses her historical novel about unfortunate love with equal parts mystery and sensuality and does an excellent job of creating a backdrop for the New York literary society, on which she paints a vivid cast of characters. Poe is depicted as the complex man that he undoubtedly was…someone who took his writing very seriously but who was largely insecure about his talent despite the public’s reaction to it.  A man who marched to the beat of his own drum, he cared little for what people thought of him personally and was ready to leave his wife for Osgood.

An essential supporting cast assists in setting up opportunities for Edgar & Fanny to meet while peppering the background with references to famous people of the time (Walt Whitman, Audubon, the Astors). Although the cover is lame in my humble opinion, the prose is well written and easy to read while suspense builds with a slow burn that ultimately leads to the final explosive denouement.

This tale is not unlike a Merchant Ivory film: slow moving, filled with dialogue, gorgeously depicted and ultimately rewarding to those who watch the whole thing. If you read Mrs. Poe to the very end, you’ll be satisfied that it was worth the effort.  Now that I’ve read it and Poe’s most celebrated stories, I want to go back and re-watch Season 1 of The Following all over again.

The Wolves of St. Peter’s by Gina Buonaguro & Janice Kirk

The Wolves of St. Peter's by Gina Buonaguro & Janice KirkBook Review
Title: The Wolves of St. Peter’s
Authors:  Gina Buonaguro & Janice Kirk
Publisher: HarperCollins
Released: April 23, 2013
Pages: 288
ISBN-10: 1443417459
ISBN-13: 978-1443417457
Stars:  4.0

In The Wolves of St. Peter’s by Toronto’s Gina Buonaguro and Kingston, Ontario’s Janice Kirk, young Francesco Angeli is the unenthusiastic houseboy/assistant of the irritable, arrogant and eccentric Michelangelo (he keeps a three-legged chicken as a pet!) who is busy at work on his masterpiece on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Although educated and a lawyer by trade, Francesco’s libido has got him into trouble. After becoming involved with Juliet, the wife of his employer, Guido del Mare, his father sends him from Florence to Rome to work for Michelangelo.

Francesco often shirks his responsibilities to either bed the married gypsy girl Susanna who lives next door, or to hang out with his friend Raphael and the artists who gather socially at the home of Imperia, a madam who operates a brothel near the Vatican while Pope Julius II ignores its activities.

One rainy morning, Francesco witnesses a golden-haired woman’s body being pulled from the Tiber River and is shocked when he recognizes her as being one of Imperia’s prostitutes, Calendula, (who reminds him of his illicit lover and who had been flaunting an expensive ring given to her by an unknown paramour) or so he believes. And if her death wasn’t enough of a mystery, Francesco is even more horrified when other people he knows turn up dead as well.

In the meantime, the rising waters of the Tiber are flooding city streets and turning the citizens of Rome – who are terrified by the possibility of a plague – into refugees and the Coliseum into an emergency shelter.  Hungry wolves descend from the hills at night to “stalk the city like ghosts,” but these wolves are really just a metaphor for the true wolves of the city that are far more dangerous than their canine counterparts. “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but are inside ravenous wolves.”

As Francesco follows the deepening mystery from the backstreets to the pope’s inner sanctum, he begins to realize that danger and corruption may lurk behind the most beautiful of facades.

The cast of lively characters include not only Michelangelo and Raphael, but also Marcus, Calendula’s artist lover; a rich shipping merchant and admirer of Calendula’s referred to as The Turk; Guido del Mare’s brutish bodyguard Pollo Grosso “Big Chicken”; the Pope’s suspicious right hand men Cardinal Asino and Paride di Grassi; and Dante, a fine wood-carver who with every full moon undergoes a transformation and believes himself to have changed form, this time into a bat.

I loved The Sidewalk Artist by Buonaguro & Kirk and read it in 2011 which is the reason I said yes to reviewing The Wolves of St. Peter’s.  I understand that this book is the first of a planned trilogy.  The authors are currently working on the second installment which is set in Venice during the carnival season of 1510 and also stars Francesco Angeli as its protagonist.  I also discovered in an article written about the book and its authors by Wayne Grady of the Kingston Whig-Standard on April 18, 2013 that Gina and Janice discovered, “From their reading of the contemporary historian Benevenuto Cillini, they gained a sense of the casual nature of violence in Renaissance Italy — “Everyone carried a dagger, and thought nothing of using it.” As a result, 16th century Rome emerges as a dark, dangerous and curiously ironic place. Its plot was informed by their discovery that painters of the images of the Madonna and Child found in nearly every Roman household often used prostitutes for their models.”

What strikes me most about Buonaguro & Kirk’s writing is the detail with which they sculpt their superior prose. The amount of research they undertake for their stories is obvious, the settings are captivating and their characters are quirky, interesting and complex at the same time while remaining totally accessible to the reader. They allow the characters to describe their point of view and I loved the characters of Michelangelo and Raphael who were so different but who would each go on to become two of the most famous, celebrated artists in history. Francesco’s scenes with Michelangelo and the three-legged chicken were particularly entertaining.

The romantic and somewhat gothic setting of corrupt, Renaissance Rome in 1508 sets the tone for this captivating murder mystery and the writers’ inclusion of humour at key points in the story perfectly balances the dour atmosphere in which the main characters find themselves. I must say that I didn’t solve the mystery myself until it was revealed near the end of the book. This is an immensely satisfying read for fans of historical fiction or Renaissance Italy and the artists of its time that would translate delightfully into a stunning feature film.

Gina Buonaguro and Janice Kirk, who now have a new Facebook page, will be signing copies of The Wolves of St. Peter’s at Chapters Kingston on Saturday, September 28th from 12-3 pm while they’re in town for Kingston WritersFest so don’t miss this wonderful opportunity to meet two of Canada’s finest writers.

The Time In Between by Maria Dueñas

BOOK REVIEW
Title: The Time In Between
Author: Maria Dueñas
Publisher: Atria Books
Released: November 2011
Pages: 624
ISBN-10: 1451616880
ISBN-13: 9781451616880
Stars: 3.0

A book could have all the rave reviews in the world from prestigious sources (as this one does); it could have a beautiful, stylish jacket, an author who is a PhD, and be set in countries that you have an interest in, and still not be what you expected it to be.  This is the case for me with The Time In Between by Maria DueñasSimon & Schuster Canada generously gifted me with an advanced reader’s copy of this bulky, literary spy novel because after I read its synopsis, I really wanted to read it.

The Time In Between by Maria Duenas is an international bestseller that spans the Spanish Civil War to World War II. This beautifully spun novel tells the story of a seamstress who rises to become the most sought after couturier and an undercover spy who passes information about the Nazi regime to the British Secret Service through a secret code stitched into the hems of her dresses.

The Time In Between is one of those rare, richly textured novels that, down to the last page, has you hoping it won’t end. Written in splendid prose, it moves at an unstoppable pace. An exceptional debut, it is a thrilling adventure through ateliers of haute couture, the glamorous elite, political conspiracies and obscure secret service missions blended with the unhinged power of love.”

The fact that it took me over two months to read and I seldom found myself wanting to make time to finish it is definitely not a good sign.  I’m trying to figure out why I feel this way about the book because it certainly has an interesting storyline and I enjoyed the section that was set in the Spanish Protectorate of Morocco (Tetouan) very much.  However, I just didn’t really connect with the main character, Sira Quiroga, because she felt quite restrained and lacking in passion for life and love and that’s not how I expected to feel.  She evolves from a being an uneducated young woman who is foolish in love, to a self-doubting, fearful entrepreneur, to a confident, globetrotting secret agent.  I pictured her as Angelina Jolie: someone who is beautiful to look at, interesting for a while, capable of acting fragile or tough, and then you just get sick of her.  Perhaps some of her character traits didn’t translate well from the original Spanish (Daniel Hahn translated), but I found it hard to really empathize with her or understand why she would decide to become a spy for the British when she didn’t seem to have any real understanding of what was going on in her own homeland of Spain nor in England during World War II at the time that she became a spy.

The novel begins in Madrid at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War with a young, naïve Sira about to marry a “modest government clerk” after knowing him for only a few weeks.  She works as a seamstress with her mother in a local dressmaker’s shop that services a distinguished clientele.   As she is considered a girl with no professional expectations, it makes sense to her to marry Ignacio and become a wife and perhaps later, a mother.  But she doesn’t really love him and it doesn’t take long for her to be completely swept off her feet by a smooth-talking, tall, dark and handsome typewriter salesman named Ramiro who she meets when Ignacio convinces her that she should learn how to type and takes her shopping for a typewriter.  Sira quickly breaks Ignacio’s heart when she leaves him for Ramiro.

Sira’s mother, who had raised her as an only child on her own, introduces Sira to her father, a wealthy engineer and foundry owner named Gonzalo Alvarado, who is married and has two sons from whom he is estranged.  Gonzalo is worried about the state their country is in under Franco’s dictatorship and fears for his life so he decides to put his affairs in order and acknowledge his daughter by giving her an inheritance consisting of boxes of family jewels.  He convinces Sira that she must leave Madrid for Morocco where it will be safe and although her mother refuses to join her, Ramiro goes willingly to Tangiers, and later, unsurprisingly, deceives Sira by leaving her and stealing her family jewels.

Alone and unable to pay her hotel bill, Sira flees to Tetouan with next to nothing, only to be apprehended by Commissioner Claudio Vázquez who then decides to help her get back on her feet so that she can repay her debt, by putting her in the care of a street smart boardinghouse owner named Candelaria.  Candelaria the Matutera (the Smuggler) is one of my favourite characters in the book because she has a large, fearless personality to go with her heart of gold.  She doesn’t always operate on the right side of the law, but she’s a survivor who is willing to help those who are less fortunate and will do whatever it takes to keep food on her table and the authorities off her case.  It’s not long before Candelaria and Sira embark on a dangerous, exciting adventure that leads to Sira being able to set up her own dressmaker’s shop where she suddenly finds herself making clothes for wealthy Nazi’s wives and meets a mysterious blonde British waif named Rosalinda Fox.  Rosalinda is involved in an extramarital affair with Spain’s high commissioner in Morocco, Lieutenant Colonel Juan Luis Beigbeder and they (who were in fact real people) are responsible for recruiting Sira for a life of espionage.

I was quite transfixed with the story up until this critical juncture.  Sira’s friendship with Rosalinda presents a pivotal turning point in her life.  Dueñas’ narrative prose is exceptional and historical research thorough.  The story moves quite quickly in Part One and is still captivating in Part Two (Tangiers in the 1930s) where we meet another interesting character named Félix who becomes a good friend to Sira.  However, as the plot becomes more about politics and espionage, the characters who are introduced are unsympathetic and tedious, with the exception of Marcus Logan, but even he isn’t allowed to be truly remarkable until the very end and by then I just didn’t care.

A lot more occurs in The Time In Between, but I won’t give away the entire plot.  It’s full of twists, turns and individuals whose lives later intersect.  By Part Three, Dueñas started to lose me and from there on it took me a long time to finish reading the book.  In Part Four, Sira, now using the name of Arish and pretending to be Moroccan, departs for Lisbon to try to infiltrate a textile distributor named Manuel Da Silva who is in business with the Third Reich.

So in contradiction of Simon & Schuster’s synopsis, I found myself wishing the book would end because it moved from the second half on at a sluggish pace and I didn’t find much emphasis was put on the power of love at all.  This is not a love story but rather the story of a gifted seamstress who discovers that she has what it takes to be a great spy, in spite of the people she cares about.  This is just my opinion.  A Nobel Prize Laureate loved it so I think you’ll have to decide for yourself.

Juliet Blog Tour Q & A With Author Anne Fortier

When HarperCollins Canada asked me to participate in their blog tour for author Anne Fortier and her novel Juliet (that I loved and you can check out my review here!), I was delighted to take part. Each reviewer of Juliet – recently invited by HarperCollins Canada – was invited to be a part of this blog tour and we got to ask Anne Fortier several questions that were burning in our inquiring minds!

1. What was your inspiration for writing JULIET? Are you a big fan of Shakespeare’s play or did the inspiration come from something else?

ANNE: It was actually the city of Siena that inspired me to write a novel set in Tuscany in the Middle Ages. In 2005, I visited Siena with my mother for the first time, and was instantly swept away by this magical place. It wasn’t until Mom and I started looking into Siena history in order to find a juicy setting for my story that we came across the fact that the very first version of the Romeo and Juliet-story was actually set right there, and not in Verona. Obviously, I had to embrace this golden opportunity. The funny thing is that I wasn’t even a great fan of that particular Shakespeare play before I started writing JULIET. But now, of course, I love it.

2. Have you discovered anything interesting and/or exciting about your own ancestry before or after writing JULIET?

ANNE: I don’t think I am descended from anybody even remotely famous, but I certainly do identify with Julie Jacobs when it comes to growing up in a family of many secrets. My grandparents were very much members of the stiff-upper-lip approach to parenting, and so emotions and frustrations were never expressed openly – nor were people’s past ever fully laid open. As a result, Mom and I often – even now – have moments where I cry out, “Really? I never knew that! That’s incredible!” and I don’t think I will ever feel that I fully know my family history.

3. There are several different covers for JULIET and my personal favourite is the Danish cover. Which one is your favourite and why?

ANNE: The Danes were the only ones who actually asked me how I envisioned the cover, and where I worked directly with the designer from start to finish. So, inevitably, the Danish cover is very special to me. That said, the business of cover design and the choices of individual publishers depend so much on their particular market, and their knowledge of what appeals to certain groups of readers, and I completely understand that the Danish cover might not work everywhere. A lot of countries have adopted the American cover with the rose, and I do think it is very beautiful, and that it makes the book stand out.

4. Who would you want to play Juliet in the movie if there was one?

ANNE: I am always reluctant to put specific features on Julie Jacobs, because I know my readers envision her in so many different ways. And this, of course, was what I hoped would happen. Some see her as a blonde, some as a brunette … the truth is that, to me, she actually changed hair-color half-way through the writing process. Originally, she was a sort of Scarlett Johansson ‘esque blonde, but towards the end she had become more of an Anne Hathaway. We shall see what the producer says; by the time the book is made into a film there are probably a dozen new faces in Hollywood, who would all do a good job as Julie. As for the original Giulietta Tolomei, I hope the whole 1340-narrative will be cast with relatively unknown, Italian actors.

5. Your research about Siena for this novel was very thorough. Where will your next novel take place?

ANNE: Once more, we will be going back and forth in time between the present day and a very distant past. The present-day narrative will start in North Africa and travel through some rather remote parts of Europe, while the historical chapters will take place mostly in the Mediterranean region during the Bronze Age. It is hard for me to say too much right now without giving away the plot, but I promise there will be another unusual treasure hunt as well as many legendary characters, both good and evil.

[And finally, the question I MOST wanted to know the answer to!]

6. Why did you choose to basically “cut to a commercial” when it came time for the love scene between Giulietta and Alessandro and not write a detailed passionate love scene befitting a Romeo & Juliet?

ANNE: Excellent question. On the one hand, I am not entirely sure it does befit Romeo and Juliet to have a very detailed love scene – Shakespeare never wrote stage directions, remember? On the other hand, I certainly share your frustration with the commercial break; it’s just that I – as an author – need to make sure the book is not branded as “a certain kind of book”. I see it all the time: it doesn’t matter how great the book is, if the love scenes are not censured, the book will be snubbed. I wish it were otherwise, but there you have it. So, how about this: I challenge my readers and the readers of this blog to write the missing scene, and we will all vote for the best one?

That should be fun 🙂

xx Anne

PLEASE NOTE

HarperCollins Canada is going to hold a contest for Anne’s challenge to her readers (see above) and you have until October 31, 2010 to submit your written version of the love scene between Giulietta and Alessandro to HCContests@harpercollins.com – The winner will receive an autographed copy of JULIET!

You can sign up for HarperCollins Canada’s contests newsletter here:

www.harpercollins.ca/members/newsletters/samples/03.html

P.S. For a wonderful photo tour of Julie’s Siena, visit www.randomhouse.com/rhpg/features/anne_fortier/photo-gallery.php

Juliet by Anne Fortier

Book Review
Title: Juliet
Author: Anne Fortier
Publisher: HarperCollins
Released: 2010
Pages: 464
ISBN-10: 1554684994
ISBN-13: 978-1554684991
Stars: 4.0

When HarperCollins Canada asked me if I would like to be a part of their blog tour for author Anne Fortier and her impressive sophomore novel, Juliet, I jumped at the chance after reading the book’s synopsis.

“Juliet” follows Julie Jacobs on a trip to Siena, Italy where she is to locate an old family treasure. Soon she is launched on a precarious journey into the true history of her ancestor Giulietta, whose legendary love for a young man named Romeo turned medieval Siena upside down. As Julie crosses paths with the descendants of the families involved in Shakespeare’s unforgettable blood feud, she begins to realize that the notorious curse — “A plague on both your houses!” — is still at work, and that she is the next target. It seems the only one who can save her from her fate is Romeo . . . but where is he?

Juliet is a splendid romantic mystery set in Siena, Italy involving 25-year-old American Juliet Jacobs, a.k.a. Giulietta Tolomei, a direct descendant of THE Juliet of Romeo and Juliet notoriety. Juliet’s story is told in two centuries, Jacobs’ own, and the 14th century when the original Romeo and Giulietta’s tale unfolded in Siena – not Verona as Shakespeare had us believe.

When Juliet’s guardian, her great Aunt Rose, passes away, she leaves her entire estate to Juliet’s heinous twin sister Janice (the opposite of Juliet in almost every way) with whom she has an estranged relationship. For the single Juliet, who has never shown much ambition beyond teaching Shakespeare in summer camp, she leaves a mysterious key to a safety deposit box in her home town of Siena and a letter encouraging her to discover a treasure that will unlock the secrets of her own ancestry as well as the death of her parents. So begins Juliet’s exciting journey to medieval Tuscany where she uncovers history changing secrets and events that will put her life at risk while possibly introducing her to her own Romeo.

The novel juxtaposes between Juliet’s first person narrative in modern day and a third person narrative of the never before revealed events in the lives of the original Romeo Marescotti and Giulietta Tolomei. It will likely be a far more intoxicating read for those who have sound knowledge of Shakespeare’s play but I believe it will stand up as an above average read for lovers of historical fiction and romantic mystery even if you don’t. Juliet boasts a dramatic cast of intriguing characters including Juliet’s family butler Umberto, Eva Maria Salimbeni, her nefarious nephew Alessandro Santini, and the artist Maestro Lippi who will keep you riveted to the plot every step of the way!

Anne Fortierwho is as beautiful as the Juliet we all imagine, writes with splendor, intelligence and elegance and I was captivated by this story from Chapter 1. Her heroine is a complex character who is far from perfect which makes her refreshingly interesting and Fortier has obviously done a great deal of research, not only about medieval and modern day Siena, but also about Romeo and

Sir Frank Dicksee\’s Painting of Romeo and Juliet

Juliet. Like the Capulets and Montagues, she writes of two families who have been feuding for centuries – the Tolomeis and Salimbenis (who actually existed) – and her description of Siena is so perfect that you will find yourself fully immersed in it without any hesitation. For an armchair tourist like myself, I was in heaven!

There are so many deceptive twists and turns in this adventurous novel that it will keep you guessing until the final pages. The only thing that disappointed me about it was the “love scene” in Chapter VIII.II and without giving away anything, I’ll just say that it was a pretty big disappointment at that. My star rating dropped from 4.5 to 4 because of it.

However, it has been a joy to stumble upon a read this good. I worried for nothing about being able to read the book fast enough for HarperCollins’ deadlines, but I needn’t have as I could barely put it down. Reading Juliet is the perfect way to spend a chilly autumn day and I will be recommending this fascinating book, which will change your perception of Romeo and Juliet forever, to my girlfriends for a long time to come.

Anne Fortier, PhD. will be appearing at the International Festival of Authors in Toronto from October 30 – November 1 so don’t miss this opportunity to see her in person and to ask her all about the adventures of Juliet!

Thank you HarperCollins Canada! Find out more about the upcoming Juliet Blog Tour with Anne Fortier at www.facebook.com/HarperCollinsCanada, twitter.com/HarperCollinsCA and through the Savvy Reader Newsletter at www.harpercollins.ca/members/newsletters/samples/19.html

The Saint and The Fasting Girl by Anna Richenda

Book Review
Title: The Saint and The Fasting Girl
Author: Anna Richenda
Publisher: iUniverse.com
Released: 2009
Pages: 344
ISBN-10: 1440132410
ISBN-13: 9781440132414
Stars: 3.0

It has taken me quite a while to get through The Saint and The Fasting Girl by Anna Richenda, not because it isn’t well-written historical fiction, because it is, but because I’ve been very busy and I’ve had trouble getting through this book that highlighted the often brutal treatment of main character, Sister Georgia, and her fellow nuns and followers of the mysterious Saint Isela.

The Saint and The Fasting Girl is intelligently written with obvious passion by a woman who is enamored with and well versed in the time period. Set in the years 1524-1551 during the Reformation of Henry VIII’s England and the beginning of the boy king Edward VI’s reign when monasteries and nunneries were being obliterated, this is an exceedingly visceral depiction of the brutality of men and it was sometimes difficult for me to continue reading because it was so realistic and I hated the characters of the King’s cruel subordinate Horley Romsfeld and the vicious Philip SeVerde, Archbishop of York. I didn’t particularly have a lot of sympathy for Georgia either because she was ruthless in her devotion to Isela and I couldn’t understand why she continued to endure horrific hardship for the sake of protecting an ancient relic that she believed to belong to Isela when her journey meant death for so many people around her.

The story begins in a Northern England nunnery and throughout the entire book, tragedy after tragedy befalls the nuns and those closely associated with them as they fight for their right to practice their religion. Sister Georgia, who is known as The Bearer, makes it her mission to follow the visions that are bestowed upon her and to keep safe the ancient relic of Isela, a bronze & amber amulet that provides her with the ability to lead Isela’s followers until her prophesied return.

A peasant girl is born during this tumultuous era and Georgia believes she is The Chooser. The girl is called Lo by the nuns who raise her and after Romsfeld destroys their nunnery and murders Georgia (who is later reincarnated as a common girl named Jane), she is taken prisoner by him to serve as his own personal sex slave.

One might think that this book was written by someone who loathes men, or it could simply be that she chose to write about a barbaric time in which most men had absolutely no respect for women (which is probably the case):

“The preacher took a deep breath. “It is no fault of hers. Women are by nature drawn to whoredom. It is why they must marry and be tamed, to prevent such a fall as this. They must submit to their fathers and their husbands in every obedience. And though they may beat her, yet it is done in love. For it is in her own good, to purge her of sin and licentiousness.”

I just can’t get my head around that!

One of the things I was most confused by was why Georgia would continue to incarnate through several lifetimes to constantly be tortured and abused by the men of medieval times just so she could fulfill her purpose to Isela who we know absolutely nothing about. I didn’t really understand what Isela’s promise was and if it was to the nuns specifically or to women in general.

The character of Sister Mendaline, a born healer, is an interesting one and she often grounds the otherworldly Georgia and literally saves her from a ghastly demise. She also acts as a caregiver and friend to Lo, who seems to be a woman whose brain hasn’t fully developed and can’t think for herself.

I think my main problem with The Saint and the Fasting Girl is that I cannot understand what drove people to such medieval piety and severe religious devotion or what today might be called fundamental fanaticism. I don’t have much empathy for them and think they are weak-minded people who are easily brainwashed even though they may be extremely strong in their convictions. Many of the chapters are titled after saints and I have no idea who they were or what they were the saint of and if I did, I think it might have woven the story together for me in a clearer manner.

There was too much pain and hardship in this book for me to truly enjoy it and not enough light and hope, even though it ends with a glimmer and a surprise. However, if you love medieval historical fiction, you will most likely appreciate The Saint and The Fasting Girl. It was a commendable first novel from Anna Richenda but I was disappointed that I didn’t like it more.

You can learn more about monastic life and medieval history at Anna Richenda’s Historyfish.net.

Conceit by Mary Novik

Book Review
Title: Conceit
Author: Mary Novik
Publisher: Doubleday Canada
Released: 2007
Pages: 416
ISBN-10: 038566205X
ISBN-13: 978-0385662055
Stars: 4.0

Vancouver author Mary Novik’s debut novel, Conceit (awarded a Globe and Mail Best Book stamp of approval), is an ambitious, elegant and visceral story of the life and loves of Margaret More Donne, a.k.a. Pegge, daughter of the famous 17th century poet, John Donne (whom I first heard about in Van Morrison’s song, “Rave On, John Donne”). It is also the tale of the great love affair between Ann More – a descendant of Sir Thomas More – and John Donne, who after her death, became an Anglican priest and the Dean of St. Paul’s Church in London.

I read a few chapters before I became thoroughly engaged by Novik’s own poetic prose (I must confess that I’m not enamoured by the sport of angling nor of fish in general, although Pegge’s recipe for cooked pike made me pause) as well as by the thoughts and feelings of the rebellious young Pegge. Set largely in the London of Elizabeth I, Novik weaves her descriptive, subtly erotic tale using the first person voices of several characters including Pegge, her dead mother Ann and John Donne himself.

It wasn’t until part three, “Death’s Duel”, that I was truly hooked on the story and wanted to know if Pegge ever got to consummate her love for Izaak Walton, although (up until that point) I couldn’t understand why she was so attracted to him. Because Novik switches the voices of the main characters and time periods without warning from chapter to chapter, you can get confused about where you’re at if you put the book down for too long. However, this impressive piece of literature is well worth the effort and by the end we discover that the Pegge we thought we knew; who was quite possibly going mad as a result of her obsession with her late father; was someone who was, in fact, incredibly clever and full of guile.

One of my favourite passages came in the very last paragraph of the book:

Come, William, I see Venus rising like a pink nipple on the plump horizon. Shall we make that clock of yours run faster? Let us bed down together in this new dawn and weave a silken tent of arms. Such feats are not reserved for extraordinary lovers, and my love for you has grown over the years to marvellous proportions. Let us die together in the act of love, so death cannot divorce us. When our grave is broken open, our souls shall take flight together, assuming limbs of flesh, and lips, ears, loins, and brows. But first let us speed darkening time and savour this long night of love.

Did you sigh when you read that? I did, and if you love historical fiction (I’m envisioning the movie version!), this captivating book will make you sigh deeply too. Just in case you have forgotten, Mary Novik’s Conceit will remind you of the soul-expanding sensation that is true passion.

Discover Mary’s inspiration for Conceit here: