Wednesday, March 31, 2010

REVIEW: The Virgin Blue by Tracy Chevalier

Ella, an American woman, goes to France with her husband and tries to uncover her family's ancestry. She begins having dreams of a vivid blue and begins reciting a psalm in French, a language that she still is grasping to master. During her search for her roots, she meets Jean-Paul, the handsome local librarian with a sardonic sense of humor but a good heart and a willingness to help her find her roots and herself.
The book parallels the story of Isabelle du Moulin, who has married into the same family, but several hundred years earlier, around the time of the massacre of Saint Bartholomew and the fleeing of the Huguenots. Isabelle is very different from her husband's family, who sees her as a witch because of her midwifery skills and her vivid red hair. She struggles to keep her children safe from her husband's wrath, and a dark secret between her husband and his mother that she is not given access to.

Both Ella and Isabelle's stories interweave nicely, with quite a bit of overlap as Ella gets closer to discovering her family's past. It was fast-paced and a very engaging read from start to finish.

This is the second book I've read by this author (the first being The Lady and the Unicorn) and I really like her style. I will be reading more by her in the future.

A bit about the author:
Tracy Chevalier is a novelist born in the US but of Romande Swiss descent (with possible French Huguenot ancestry) on her father's side, and lives in London with her husband and son.

Chevalier was raised in Washington, D.C and graduated from Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in Bethesda, Maryland. After receiving her B.A. in English from Oberlin College, she moved to England in 1984 where she worked several years as a reference book editor. Leaving her job in 1993, she began a year-long M.A in creative writing at the University of East Anglia.

The Virgin Blue is her first novel, and it closely resembles Chevalier's own connection with and research into her own French/Swiss Huguenot roots. She, unlike Ella, did not find any documented roots in France, as many records just don't go back that far.

Other books to consider:
This book reminded me a little bit of Anya Seton's Green Darkness, which I heartily recommend. Other good books about different periods in French history are the Lady and the Unicorn by Chevalier and Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Suskind, although the characters are fictional, it does give a good picture of what life was like in Paris during the 18th century.

History lesson: A bit about Huguenots and the Massacre of Saint Bartholomew's Day
The Huguenots were members of the Protestant Reformed Church of France (or French Calvinists) from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries. Since the eighteenth century, Huguenots have been commonly designated "French Protestants", the title being suggested by their German co-religionists or "Calvinists". Protestants in France were inspired by the writings of John Calvin in the 1530s and the name Huguenots was already in use by the 1560s. By the end of the 17th century, roughly 200,000 Huguenots had been driven from France during a series of religious persecutions. They relocated primarily in England, Switzerland, Holland, the German Palatinate, and elsewhere in Northern Europe.

The St. Bartholomew's Day massacre (Massacre de la Saint-Barthélemy in French) in 1572 was a targeted group of assassinations, followed by a wave of Roman Catholic mob violence, both directed against the Huguenots (French Calvinist Protestants), during the French Wars of Religion. Traditionally believed to have been instigated by Catherine de' Medici, the massacre took place six days after the wedding of the king's sister Margaret to the Protestant Henry III of Navarre (the future Henry IV of France). This marriage was an occasion for which many of the most wealthy and prominent Huguenots had gathered in largely Catholic Paris.

The massacre began two days after the attempted assassination of Admiral Gaspard de Coligny, the military and political leader of the Huguenots. Starting on 23 August 1572 (the eve of the feast of Bartholomew the Apostle) with murders on orders of the king of a group of Huguenot leaders including Coligny, the massacres spread throughout Paris. Lasting several weeks, the massacre extended to other urban centres and the countryside. Modern estimates for the number of dead vary widely between 5,000 and 30,000 in total.

Monday, March 22, 2010

REVIEW: Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir

This is a brilliantly written historical fiction novel by one of the best British historians out there. I had read some of her nonfiction previously, but this is my first turn into her fiction (I think she has only 3). What resulted was a well written story backed with many real facts and a feeling for the characters that permeated every page. Weir really seems to get to the heart of all the characters, even the despicable ones. This book focuses on the tragic story of Lady Jane Grey, Queen of England for just nine days between the death of Edward VI(King Henry the 8th's only son) and Queen Mary I (child of Henry the 8th and Katherine of Aragon) in 1553. A brilliant scholar and devout Protestant at the tender age of 15 she is thrust onto the throne by powerful and corrupt men who wished to prevent the fervently Catholic Mary from ascending, one of these men being her own father. What follows is disaster and of course the innocent Jane must face the consequences of these men's actions. A sad tale no doubt, but Weir brings it to life with the skill that only she can.

About the Author:
Alison Weir is a well-known historian specializing in British Royal history. She began her adult life as a civil servant and then became a published writer in 1989. Innocent Traitor was her first historical fiction novel. She has another called The Lady Elizabeth, which I have not yet read but definitely mean to get to. A new historical novel is being released this year, on Elanore of Aquitaine. She has written about 17 books.

A brief overview of the Tudors:
The Tudor Dynasty began with Henry VII around the time of the Wars of the Roses (around 1485). Henry conquered England at this time and married Elizabeth of York, sister to the recently overthrown ruler Edward V. His son, Henry VIII, is probably the most infamous of British rulers due to his problem with wives- he had six of them, and two of those were beheaded by his order. The dynasty goes through to Henry VIII's son Edward, who died at 15, and next up is Lady Jane Grey, the nine days Queen. Then comes Mary I and of course Mary's sister Elizabeth I, frequently named as one of the greatest monarchs in British history. Elizabeth marks the end of the Tudor era, as she died without an heir in 1603.

Other suggested reading for this time period in English Tudor History:
The Six Wives of Henry VIII by Alison Weir (nonfiction), The Queen's Fool by Philippa Gregory (fiction), Mary, Queen of France by Jean Plaidy (about Mary Tudor, Henry VIII's little sister and grandmother of Lady Jane Grey)

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Happy St. Patrick's Day all!

No I'm not Irish, but I sure love Irish beer! In the spirit of the season, follow this link to discover twelve reasons why Guinness is good for you. That's right, lift that pint tonight with no guilt, because beer is healthy! Slainte!

Click here for the article.

Monday, March 8, 2010

REVIEW: The House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III

This book tells the story of Kathy Niccolo, who is evicted from her home on a technical error, which is then put up for auction. She is reeling from her husband's recent departure, and trying to pick up the pieces when everything gets thrown out the window. It also tells the story of the Behrani family, driven from their home when the Persian empire fell and fled to the United States. For years they have seen their funds deplete, and when Mr. Behrani sees a bungalow up for auction and going for cheap, he snatches it up in the hopes that this will be his opportunity for a better life-to start again. Both Kathy and Behrani have pinned their dreams and their hopes on this one house, and neither want to let go in submission to the other. It represents too much on either side. What will be the thing that tips the scale? Enter Kathy's married boyfriend, Deputy Sherrif Lester Burdon. He will become more and more involved in this issue of 'injustice' in an effort to get Kathy back what, in his opinion, is rightfully hers. But who is really right here? Who is the good guy, and who is the victim?

This was an extremely well written book, and I was prepared for it not to be happy. But the relentless downward spiral of all the characters was very engrossing, and I found it really interesting that I was able to sympathize with all sides of the argument. My heart was torn in every direction from start to finish, and I did cry at the end. Highly recommended!

My Rating: 5 big stars

Other books to consider: East of Eden by John Steinbeck, Where the Heart Is by Billie Letts

A bit about the author: Dubus is an American writer whose novel House of Sand and Fog was a National Book Award finalist in 1999 and was adapted for a 2003 film of the same title. His other books include the 1989 collection The Cage Keeper and Other Stories, the 1993 novel Bluesman, and the 2008 novel The Garden of Last Days. Dubus's work has been awarded a Pushcart Prize and the 1985 National Magazine Award for Fiction. It has also been included in "The One Hundred Most Distinguished Stories of 1993" and The Best American Short Stories of 1994. He was one of three finalists for the 1994 Prix de Rome given by the American Academy of Arts and Letters. His father was a well known writer of short stories and novellas, and his cousin is the mystery writer James Lee Burke.

REVIEW: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

As always, it is very difficult to describe a book by Japanese author Haruki Murakami. He is so artful of painting this vividly surreal world planted in a 'normal' one. This book follows Toru Okada, an unemployed thirty year old who lives in suburbian Japan with his wife and cat. Then things begin to unravel. First the cat disappears, and then the wife. Through his journey to find out what is going on and attempt to bring his wife back, he meets a colorful group of characters. Sisters Malta and Creta Kano, who were brought in to help find the cat but know more about the situation than they are letting on. A WW2 veteran who lost a part of himself during the war. A woman who has strange powers and her son who doesn't speak. And probably greatest of all is his wife's brother, Noboru Wataya, whose role in all of this may be just a bit more sinister than ever imagined. Once again an excellent book by Murakami!

My rating: 4 stars

Other books to consider: Norwegian Wood and A Wild Sheep Chase, both by Murakami

A bit about the author:
Haruki Murakami is considered an important figure in postmodern literature, and The Guardian has praised him as one of the "world's greatest living novelists." He was born in post WW2 Japan and is the son of a Buddhist priest and daughter of a merchant, but both parents taught Japanese Literature. Murakami's fiction, often criticized by Japan's literary establishment, is humorous and surreal, and at the same time digresses on themes of alienation and loneliness. Through his work, he was able to capture the spiritual emptiness of his generation and explore the negative effects of Japan's work-dominated mentality. His writing criticizes the decline in human values and a loss of connection among people in Japan's society.

Challenge for 2010

Yes I know its March already, but I have embarked on a new challenge for the year. I am going to try and whittle down my incredibly large stack of books that I currently own, and try not to introduce too many more this year. I mean it-this needs to stop.

So I've made a list of twelve books that I have begun my challenge with.

1.Ravens of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley
2. Virgin Blue by Tracy Chevalier DONE
3. The Other Queen by Philippa Gregory
4. Johnathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
5. The Seeing Stone/At the Crossing Places by Kevin Crossley-Holland
6. Memoirs of Cleopatra by Margaret George
7. Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir DONE
8. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami DONE
9. The Princess and the Dragon by Roberto Pazzi
10. Hood by Stephen Lawhead
11. The House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubuis III DONE
12. The Secret Bride by Diane Haeger

All of these books have been on my shelf for at least a year, and many of them longer than that. As you can see I am making good progress by having completed two so far. Onward and upward!