Review: Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

576650Title: Half of a Yellow Sun
Author: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Published: January 1st, 2007
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Pages: 448
ISBN: 0007200285

Once in a while you come across a book that will stay with you for a long time after you’ve finished it. Half of a Yellow Sun is one of those books. Even though its subject material is heavy and complex, it drew me in and wouldn’t let me go.

I started reading it on a long train ride from Lyon to Brussels. By the time I’d arrived in Brussels I was well beyond 200 pages into the book. The next day, on our flight to New York, I read another big chunk of it. I finally finished it a week later on our flight back. It’s very intense reading material and I must admit that I’ve had a few bad dreams because of it, but I just had to finish it.

What makes this book so good is a combination of a fascinating, though at times gruelling piece of history that’s not often written about, but above all it’s Adichie’s beautiful writing style. From page 1 it just grabs you and keeps you wanting more.

Apart from telling a family’s story, it also tells the story of a tragic and short lived nation, that barely had the chance to ever really begin. Biafra is a word that, for most people, will always be connected to the notion of famine and conjures images of emaciated children with swollen bellies. But most people don’t know the story behind these images, are not aware of the conflicts that preceded and ultimately led to that situation.

Even though I love history and would consider myself to be reasonably well read, in this instance I, too, belonged to this majority that didn’t really have a clue about the tragic history of Nigeria and Biafra in that early post-colonial period. This is why I feel this book is so important, not just as a work of fiction, but as a way of making a reasonably unknown period of history accessible to a large number of people.

It has made me interested in a country that I had previously known very little about, and I am sure that I will be reading more about Nigeria sometime in the future.

I would definitely recommend this book to everyone.

My rating: heartheartheartheartheart



Review: The Winter Crown by Elizabeth Chadwick (Eleanor of Aquitaine #2)

wintercrownTitle: The Winter Crown
Author: Elizabeth Chadwick
Published: September 11th, 2014
Publisher: Sphere
Pages: 483
ISBN: 1847445446

At the beginning of The Winter Crown we find Alienor in pretty much the same place where we had left her at the end of The Summer Queen. These are the early years of her marriage to Henry II when they’re still head over heels in love with one another, and they’re ruling side by side as King and Queen of England and Duke and Duchess of Aquitaine. But soon enough, bit by bit, Alienor’s worst fears are starting to become reality. Whereas during the early days of their marriage Henry would often rely on her advise, he’s starting to sidetrack her more and more, disregarding her opinions and insights into how to best contain their unruly vassals in Aquitaine and Poitou. He begins to rely heavily on his Chancellor, Thomas Becket, with whom he develops an unhealthy relationship to say the least. All the while he rules his territories with an iron fist, leaving Alienor with little more to do than bear him a small army of heirs.

This second instalment chronicles Alienor through her relentless childbearing years and sees her become increasingly frustrated with the direction her life is taking. Henry’s political scheming seems to get worse every year, and the games he plays become increasingly more complicated. His love/hate relationship with Thomas Becket spirals out of control after he’s made him Archbishop of Canterbury, and ends with a bloody climax that sees Becket murdered by Henry’s followers inside Canterbury cathedral.

Meanwhile, Alienor worries incessantly about her children’s inheritance, as Henry seems to try and involve their sons in his political schemes. Their oldest surviving heir, Henry, had been crowned as a teenager to rule alongside his father, and was subsequently called “The Young King”, but had in fact not been allowed to rule any of his territories at all. Henry II, becoming increasingly paranoid, tries with all his might to stay the sole ruler over all of his territories. This continues to the point where Alienor has had enough of his scheme, and attempts to give her sons what is rightfully theirs, even if she has to turn to her former husband, Louis of France to achieve this. But Henry gets wind of her plans and has her captured before she manages to reach France. He takes Alienor back with him to England and has her imprisoned at Saurum (Salisbury). This is where the book ends, but Alienor’s story will be concluded in the third instalment, The Autumn Throne.

For me this was one of the most anticipated books of the year, and like The Summer Queen it did not disappoint. Chadwick’s style of writing brings the period to life in an almost magical way, but also manages to convey all the raw, heartfelt emotions and turmoil Alienor experiences. Just before reading this book I had just finished Alison Weir’s The Captive Queen, which is another historical novel centring around Eleanor of Aquitaine, so it was quite interesting to be able to compare the way the two authors filled in the many gaps in our knowledge of this fascinating woman. Both accounts are extremely well written and enjoyable to read, but in my view I got the feeling that the reader gets to “know” Alienor better in Chadwick’s book. Of course there is so much we cannot and sadly never will know about Alienor’s life, but I felt that the gaps were filled in a very realistic manner and very true to her character. But as I am no historian, just someone with a keen interest in history, I don’t know how much my opinion on the matter is worth.

In conclusion, I think this book, together with the preceding and the upcoming volumes, are great reads for anyone interested in history, medieval and women’s history in particular. I definitely enjoyed it and, even though I already know how it’ll all end, I’m looking forward to the third and final part of this story.

My rating: heartheartheartheart

Review: Does My Head Look Big in This? by Randa Abdel-Fattah

79876Title: Does My Head Look Big in This?
Author: Randa Abdel-Fattah
Published: May 1st, 2007
Publisher: Orchard Books
Pages: 360

Sixteen-year-old Amal is just your average Australian teenager. Like most girls her age she loves fashion, make up, and she worries about getting good grades. Then one day, while watching an episode of Friends, the realisation suddenly hits her: she’s ready to wear the hijab. Since she used to attend an Islamic middle school she was already used to wearing it for a few hours a day, but now she’s decided she’s ready to start wearing it full-time. When she tells her parents about her decision they’re hesitant, and wonder whether she’s truly ready. They also try to make her understand that it might be difficult at first, and that people might see and treat her differently. Amal isn’t worried. After all, it is a personal decision that only affects her. She’s doing this because she feels it’s the right thing for her to do, but as it won’t change her beyond her physical appearance, why should anyone treat her differently?

On her first day of school wearing the hijab, her first hurdle is the headmistress. Amal attends a rather posh private school, and her headmistress seems mostly concerned with the fact that the hijab is not in accordance with the school’s strict dress code. In addition to this she automatically jumps to the conclusion that Amal’s parents forced her to wear it, and is highly surprised when Amal tells her that her parents, in fact, tried to talk her out of it. Luckily Amal’s friends don’t make a big thing of it, but she does get subjected to a lot stares and shocked looks from other pupils, as well as a lot of talking behind her back. After 9/11 things only get worse, as people suddenly start treating her as the in-house expert on terrorism.

In spite of this Amal tries to stay positive. Surely everyone will turn round once they realise her hijab hasn’t changed her? It’s just a piece of fabric, nothing more. Gradually some people do start to treat her normally again, and Amal feels that life can in fact be as it once was. During the rest of the school year she does face some hurdles, some of which are related to her religious beliefs, whereas others are just your typical teenage problems. But the open ending of the book gives off an overall positive message.

What I really liked about the book is the fact that it strikes the right balance between humorous and more serious passages. It starts off light-hearted and funny, giving the impression that what you’re about to read fits the “chick-lit” category. Though the story definitely has some serious undertones, but because it’s intertwined with humorous passages it doesn’t get too heavy and is enjoyable to read from start to finish. In my view the story paints a realistic picture of what “hyphenated” people (in this case Palestinian-Muslim-Australian), as Amal calls it, go through in their teenage years.

The book confronts and explores a lot of stereotypes, not just about Muslims, but about many of Amal’s friends as well. Her friend Eileen, for instance, is Japanese-Australian, and her background comes with its own set of expectations and stereotypes. And another friend, Josh, is Jewish, and some of his family members don’t like him being friends with a Muslim girl.

The only downside to the book I could think of is that, at times, it can come across as a bit preachy. The author seems to feel the need to emphasise time and time again what Islam and being a Muslim is truly about, and these sometimes long-winded explanations by Amal to her friends did halt the flow of the story. But this is only a minor thing that I felt I needed to point out, because I can’t say it really tainted my overall impression of the book.

All in all I thought it was an enjoyable read, and a must-read for teenagers from all walks of life.

My rating: heartheartheartheart

Review: Five Quarters of the Orange by Joanne Harris

13499029Title: Five Quarters of the Orange
Author: Joanne Harris
Published: June 4th, 2002
Publisher: Black Swan
Pages: 363

When Framboise Simon returns to a small village on the banks of the Loire, the locals do not recognise her as the daughter of the infamous woman they hold responsible for a tragedy during the German occupation years ago. But the past and present are inextricably entwined, particularly in a scrapbook of recipes and memories that Framboise has inherited from her mother. And soon Framboise will realise that the journal also contains the key to the tragedy that indelibly marked that summer of her ninth year.

Five Quarters of the Orange centres around the character of Framboise Dartigen, and the story splits itself between German-occupied France during WWII and the present day. After years of absence, Framboise returns to the small village of Les Laveuses and takes up residence once again in her childhood home, but under a different name. There is a secret she has carried with her from childhood which ultimately forced her to leave the village behind, and she tries with all her might to prevent any of the locals from discovering her true identity.

It is a very interesting, multi-layered story that sucks you right in and refuses to let go until the story’s finished. Harris’ style of writing always has an almost magical element to it, and manages to fuse different components of a story together beautifully. References to food are abundant, and stories related to particular recipes or even just particular smells are used to bring back vivid childhood memories in a way that most people can probably relate to. Smell and taste are such powerful senses, and they often evoke the most intense of memories in people, which Harris manages to incorporate perfectly into her story.

To me, the jumping back and forth between the past and the present wasn’t at all confusing, which is probably due to the clear style of writing. There was never any confusion about which timeframe I was actually reading. This style gives the story an extra dimension in my opinion, and enhances the air of mystery around the story because it keeps the reader guessing about what’s really going on.

After all the build-up around this mysterious occurrence that supposedly happened in Framboise’s childhood, I was perhaps expecting a slightly more complex ending, but overall the story was a great read. I really enjoyed reading it, and I think anyone who’s read a Joanne Harris book before will, too.

My rating: heartheartheartheart

Review: The King by Kader Abdolah

19162459Title: The King
Author: Kader Abdolah
Published: January 16th, 2014
Publisher: Canongate Books Ltd.
Pages: 448
ISBN: 0857862952
Original title: De Koning (Dutch)

It is the nineteenth century and the kingdom of Persia is at a turning point. When a young King, Shah Naser, takes to the throne he inherits a medieval, enchanted world. But beyond the court, the greater forces of colonisation and industrialisation close in. The Shah’s grand vizier sees only one solution – to open up to the outside world, and to bring Persia into modernity. But the Shah’s mother fiercely opposes the vizier’s reforms and sets about poisoning her son’s mind against his advisor. With bloody battles, intrigue and extraordinary characters, The King brings a historical moment brilliantly to life. Reading as fairy tale and shedding light on a pivotal period in history, The King confirms Kader Abdolah as one of the world’s most engaging storytellers. (Goodreads)

I’ve loved Kader Abdolah’s writing since I first read The House of the Mosque many moons ago. His style of writing and use of language is unique, and whenever I read any of his works I feel as though I’m being taken on some sort of magical journey (and yes I do realise how cheesy that sounds). His books always have some connection to Iran, or take place entirely in Iran, and this one is no exception. The story takes us to 19th century Persia, a country ruled by the young Shah Naser. The country is on a turning point of modernisation and industrialisation, but the Shah is weary of these rapid changes, and prefers to pretend he’s still living in the medieval fairytale-like country whose throne he has inherited from his father. His grand-vizier, however, does realise that the country is in need of some much needed change, and that if nothing is done their power and autonomy will be threatened by colonial superpowers such as Great Britain. The story finds a perfect and harmonious balance between an historical account and a thrilling story, which makes for a great read. Abdolah has truly perfected the art of storytelling, and his books are always a joy to read.

I had the honour of meeting Kader Abdolah at the Edinburgh International Book Festival back in August, which I still need to write a blog post about. He’s a truly fascinating man with an incredible life story, and his novels are a testament to his achievements. I would urge everyone to read at least one of his books, even if you don’t have a special interest in Iran. I assure you that you’ll be swept away by his writing and beautiful turn of phrase.

As this was the first time I read one of his works in the English translation (I usually read them in the original Dutch), I need to acknowledge the translator, Nancy Forest Flier, who did an amazing job in maintaining his unique style of writing, and made the translation just as pleasurable to read as the original.

My rating: heartheartheartheart

Review: The King’s Curse (The Cousins’ War #6) by Philippa Gregory

15849910Title: The King’s Curse
Author: Philippa Gregory
Published: August 14th, 2014
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Ltd.
Pages: 610
ISBN: 0857207563

Philippa Gregory tells the fascinating story of Margaret Pole, cousin to the “White Princess,” Elizabeth of York, and lady-in-waiting to Katherine of Aragon.

Regarded as yet another threat to the volatile King Henry VII’s claim to the throne, Margaret Pole, cousin to Elizabeth of York (known as the White Princess) and daughter of George, Duke of Clarence, is married off to a steady and kind Lancaster supporter—Sir Richard Pole. For his loyalty, Sir Richard is entrusted with the governorship of Wales, but Margaret’s contented daily life is changed forever with the arrival of Arthur, the young Prince of Wales, and his beautiful bride, Katherine of Aragon. Margaret soon becomes a trusted advisor and friend to the honeymooning couple, hiding her own royal connections in service to the Tudors.

After the sudden death of Prince Arthur, Katherine leaves for London a widow, and fulfills her deathbed promise to her husband by marrying his brother, Henry VIII. Margaret’s world is turned upside down by the surprising summons to court, where she becomes the chief lady-in-waiting to Queen Katherine. But this charmed life of the wealthiest and “holiest” woman in England lasts only until the rise of Anne Boleyn, and the dramatic deterioration of the Tudor court. Margaret has to choose whether her allegiance is to the increasingly tyrannical king, or to her beloved queen; to the religion she loves or the theology which serves the new masters. Caught between the old world and the new, Margaret Pole has to find her own way as she carries the knowledge of an old curse on all the Tudors. (Goodreads)

It’s hard to believe that this is already the 6th and last book of the Cousins’ War series, because it doesn’t feel like all that long ago when I bought and read The White Queen, the first book in the series. And once again Gregory has delivered a stunning book. It’s a captivating read, well researched, and I love how it neatly wraps up the Cousins’ War series, as well as establishes the final connections to her Tudor Court novels. I do think that it was wise to leave it at 6 novels, because Gregory does start to get in danger of repeating herself. Each of the novels is told from a different perspective, and they span the period from the reign of Edward IV up until Henry VIII, which is a relatively long and turbulent period. Yet throughout the 6 novels there are quite a number of recurring characters, and some key events are therefore told several times but seen through the eyes of different people. Initially this was very interesting, but I did feel in this last novel that a lot of old plot lines were being rehashed, and I was frankly starting to get a bit bored of it. This bears no reflection on Gregory’s ability to write or tell a story, but it’s just that the events of the time have been discussed at great length and I think by the end of the last novel she was definitely done telling the story.

Having said this, I enjoyed reading about the period through the eyes of Margaret Pole, daughter of Isabelle Neville and George, Duke of Clarence. As the last Plantagenet and rightful heir to the throne of England, she would always be a threat to the Tudor monarchs, and was therefore married off into relative obscurity, while her brother Edward spent most of his younger years in the Tower before finally being beheaded. You follow the rise and fall of Margaret Pole, and see how her change of fortune is tied to the whims of Henry VIII and his increasing paranoia as he grows older. What is most important to Margaret is to ensure that her children are safe and are successful in life, and for a while everything seems to run relatively smoothly. But in the end her luck runs out, and her biggest fears that have haunted her all her life unfortunately come true at last.

I would definitely recommend this novel, especially to those who have been following the series since the beginning. Since it’s historical fiction you could read it as standalone as well, though I think readers would enjoy it more with some knowledge of what has gone before. I’m looking forward to see what Gregory will bring us next, and which period she will focus her writing on.

My rating: heartheartheartheart

Review: If You Could Be Mine by Sara Farizan

Title: If You Could Be Mine17302571
Author: Sara Farizan
Published: August 20th, 2013
Publisher: Alqonquin Young Readers
Pages: 247
ISBN: 1616202513

In this stunning debut, a young Iranian American writer pulls back the curtain on one of the most hidden corners of a much-talked-about culture.

Seventeen-year-old Sahar has been in love with her best friend, Nasrin, since they were six. They’ve shared stolen kisses and romantic promises. But Iran is a dangerous place for two girls in love—Sahar and Nasrin could be beaten, imprisoned, even executed if their relationship came to light.

So they carry on in secret—until Nasrin’s parents announce that they’ve arranged for her marriage. Nasrin tries to persuade Sahar that they can go on as they have been, only now with new comforts provided by the decent, well-to-do doctor Nasrin will marry. But Sahar dreams of loving Nasrin exclusively—and openly.

Then Sahar discovers what seems like the perfect solution. In Iran, homosexuality may be a crime, but to be a man trapped in a woman’s body is seen as nature’s mistake, and sex reassignment is legal and accessible. As a man, Sahar could be the one to marry Nasrin. Sahar will never be able to love the one she wants, in the body she wants to be loved in, without risking her life. Is saving her love worth sacrificing her true self? (Goodreads)

This book has been on my TBR list for ages, ever since I saw the ARC pop up on Netgalley about a year ago. I didn’t request it at the time because I still had so many other books to read, but the story really intrigued me and it was never far from my mind. So when I finally got my own copy at the beginning of the year as a belated Christmas present, I was really excited and couldn’t wait to finally start reading it. But of course that coincided with the start of my second semester, which meant that I didn’t have a lot of time to actually read for fun. So in spite of it being a really short book at just under 250 pages, it still took me a while to finish it.

I have to say the book definitely didn’t disappoint. The style of writing was easy and accessible, which I’d say is rather typical for a young adult book, and personally that’s all I can handle at the moment when I take a break from reading academic texts. And though the style of the book may be simple, the content isn’t. It tackles some big issues about gender and gender-identity, forbidden love, the loss of a parent, corruption, prostitution, and authoritarianism. In addition to that the novel features gay, lesbian, and transgender characters in prominent roles. It sounds like a lot for such a relatively short book but oddly enough it’s not overwhelming, even though that is what you’d expect. It’s all woven together beautifully, and you feel as though you really get to know the characters. The story is told from Sahar’s point of view, and because of that focuses primarily on her. So she was the first character I really sympathised with and really felt sorry for, but as the story progresses you gradually get to know the other characters better as well, and you begin to see that they all have their own problems to deal with. Nasrin seems very happy-go-lucky and superficial, and for the best part of the novel you actually get the impression that that’s all there is to her character, but it’s not. And that just shows, once again, that nobody’s perfect and you shouldn’t judge anyone based solely on outward appearances. The lengths Sahar was willing to go to for her and Nasrin to be together were, I think, equally admirable and terrifying, and I’m so glad that she didn’t go through with it in the end. It’s good that sex-change operations exist for people who really need them, but she was going to do it for all the wrong reasons.

What I like about the ending is that it’s a rather unsatisfying one for the characters. I’m searching for the right word, and unsatisfying isn’t quite what I’m looking for, but that’s the best I can come up with for now. Also, it makes it seem as though I like to see the characters suffer but that’s not the case (I’m not sadistic I swear! :)). I like it because it’s a very realistic ending. I won’t give too much away about the ending, but in the wider context of the story it wouldn’t have worked if Sahar and Nasrin had gotten their happy ending. They live in Iran, and being gay is punishable by death, so they can’t be together. In addition to that Sahar is married and adultery, surprise surprise, is also a criminal offence. So whichever way you look at it they can’t end up together, as much as I wanted them to. But I’m also glad that it didn’t have a tragic ending, which I was dreading for a while as I was reading the book. That would have worked in my view, but it would’ve been too horrible and sad. To cut my rambling short, because this is going nowhere – and Ireally don’t want to give too much away – I thought it was a good book and I enjoyed reading it. I would definitely recommend it to others.

My rating: heartheartheart

Have you read this book? If so, let me know what you thought of it!

Review: The Little Coffee Shop of Kabul by Deborah Rodriguez

coffee_shop_ARTWORK:Layout 1Title: The Little Coffee Shop of Kabul
Author: Deborah Rodrigues
Published: April 11th, 2013
Publisher: Sphere
Pages: 375
ISBN: 075155040X

From the author of the memoir Kabul Beauty School comes a fiction debut as compelling as real life: the story of a remarkable coffee shop in the heart of Afghanistan, and the men and women who meet there — thrown together by circumstance, bonded by secrets, and united in an extraordinary friendship.
After hard luck and some bad choices, Sunny has finally found a place to call home — it just happens to be in the middle of a war zone.
The thirty-eight-year-old American’s pride and joy is the Kabul Coffee House, where she brings hospitality to the expatriates, misfits, missionaries, and mercenaries who stroll through its doors. She’s especially grateful that the busy days allow her to forget Tommy, the love of her life, who left her in pursuit of money and adventure.
Working alongside Sunny is the maternal Halajan, who vividly recalls the days before the Taliban and now must hide a modern romance from her ultratraditional son — who, unbeknownst to her, is facing his own religious doubts. Into the café come Isabel, a British journalist on the trail of a risky story; Jack, who left his family back home in Michigan to earn “danger pay” as a consultant; and Candace, a wealthy and well-connected American whose desire to help threatens to cloud her judgment.
When Yazmina, a young Afghan from a remote village, is kidnapped and left on a city street pregnant and alone, Sunny welcomes her into the café and gives her a home — but Yazmina hides a secret that could put all their lives in jeopardy.
As this group of men and women discover that there’s more to one another than meets the eye, they’ll form an unlikely friendship that will change not only their own lives but the lives of an entire country.
Brimming with Deborah Rodriguez’s remarkable gift for depicting the nuances of life in Kabul, and filled with vibrant characters that readers will truly care about, The Little Coffee Shop of Kabul is the best kind of fiction—full of heart yet smart and thought-provoking. (Goodreads)

This book follows the lives of 5 very different women who would normally probably never meet, but who are all connected to each other in some way through a little coffee shop. Sunny, an American woman from the South has been running the coffee shop a few years now, but the property is owned by 60-year-old Halajan. Sunny takes in Yasmina, a young, pregnant, recently widowed woman from a rural area who was stolen away by drug lords and left abandoned on the streets of Kabul. And then there are Isabel, a British journalist, and Candace, an American ambassadors wife who’s finally left her husband after years of unhappy marriage, who both frequent the coffee shop as well.

The title, cover and description just scream chick-lit, a genre which I’m not very fond of, but I thought the setting was interesting because I like reading about Afghanistan, which is what made me decide to pick it up. And I’m glad I did, because this book is so much more than your ordinary chick-lit. It deals with a variety of different topics such as inequality, the treatment of women and minorities, terrorism, and forbidden love. I wasn’t surprised when I learned that the author has lived in Kabul for several years herself, because the book shows a good understanding of the history of Afghanistan, the politics, corruption, and the opium trade. Even though this was a fairly easy read it’s not a light read. It deas with some pretty gritty topics as well, which adds something to the book and moves it away from the chick-lit genre it would otherwise be placed in.

Yet there were a few things that bothered me, one of which was the love triangle between Sunny and the two main men in her life. I’m not a fan of love triangles in stories because I think it’s a clichéd and heavily overused plot-device, but luckily it didn’t feature heavily in the story and so it didn’t bother me too much. Another thing that grated with me was Isabel’s use of language. She was the only British character in the story, and she just used a few too many “bloodys” and “blokes” for my liking. This overuse of typically British words were for me a telltale sign that the author was trying too hard to make her appear to be very British, which actually had the opposite effect and made her look fake. And lastly, the way they managed to find Yasmina’s sister towards the end of the book, without any lasting consequences or repercussions for stealing her away from people who wanted to sell her into prostitution wasn’t very credible either.

But in spite of this I think it was a well-written, touching story which I enjoyed reading a lot. I would definitely recommend it to others who enjoy reading about Afghanistan or Muslim countries in general, or who like books featuring female protagonists.

My rating: heartheartheartheart

Review: Blackberry Wine by Joanne Harris

Title: Blackberry Wine
Author: Joanne Harris
Published: March 2nd, 2000
Publisher: Doubleday
Pages: 412
ISBN: 0385600593

Everyday magic, he called it. The transformation of base matter into the stuff of dreams. Layman’s alchemy.Jay Mackintosh is trapped by memory in the old familiar landscapes of his childhood, more enticing than the present, and to which he longs to return.

A bottle of home-brewed wine left to him by a long-vanished friend seems to provide both the key to an old mystery and a doorway into another world. As the unusual properties of the strange brew take effect, Jay escapes to a derelict farmhouse in the French village of Lansquenet, where a ghost from the past waits to confront him, and the reclusive Marise – haunted, lovely and dangerous – hides a terrible secret behind her closed shutters. Between them, a mysterious chemistry. Or could it be magic?

I was really excited about starting this book, but also rather nervous because this was my first time reading a Joanne Harris book that wasn’t part of the Chocolat trilogy, which I absolutely love. The synopsis sounded interesting enough, and the fact that it’s partially set in Lansquenet really piqued my interest, because this meant that it was technically taking place within the “Chocolat-verse”. Well it was definitely a book in its own right, and the fact that it briefly mentioned a few of the Chocolat characters was just a nicely added bonus.

It didn’t take long for me to get really into the story, though it did take a bit of time for me to start liking the main character, Jay. Or perhaps liking isn’t the right word, because that would mean I disliked him at first, which wasn’t the case at all. He fascinated me from the beginning, but I guess I was somewhat indifferent about him at first. But once I got to know more about his background he suddenly became a very interesting character. And I loved his impulsiveness. I mean, deciding on a whim that you’re going to buy a chateau and move to France is just completely brilliant, right? I think that’s the moment when I started to really like Jay as a character.

Another aspect of the story that I really liked is that there were essentially two different stories going on simultaneously. There was the present-day story of Jay’s life in France, and the story of his childhood in the North of England and his meetings with the mysterious but definitely loveable, and most of all colourful, Joe. I didn’t find the jumping from one story to the other confusing at all, and I think Harris handled the transition from one narrative to the other really well. There was a great flow to the story which made it an easy and enjoyable read.

One other thing I need to mention that I really loved was the way in which the story was narrated, because part of the novel was actually narrated by the bottles of wine, Joe’s specials. I know this sounds odd, but it actually works and it adds another layer of mystique and eccentricity to the story. It was a very quirky addition to the narrative which I really loved.

There isn’t a real climax or dramatic ending, but that’s alright because it wouldn’t really suit the book. You’re mainly following Joe’s life story and seeing him grow from a 2nd rate writer just bumming around aimlessly, into a passionate grown man with an actual purpose in life. I really enjoyed reading this book, and I think anyone who loved Chocolat will feel the same way. Just don’t expect it to be a similar kind of story, because it’s not. But it is typical Joanne Harris in the way that it appeals to our senses, mainly those of taste and smell, which makes her style of writing unique. A bit like Joe’s specials.

My rating: heartheartheartheart

Review: The Constant Princess (The Tudor Court #1) by Philippa Gregory

538206 (1)Title: The Constant Princess
Author: Philippa Gregory
Published: December 6th 2005
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.
Pages: 486
ISBN: 000719031X

“I am Catalina, Princess of Spain, daughter of the two greatest monarchs the world has ever known… and I will be Queen of England.”

Katherine of Aragon is betrothed at the age of three to Prince Arthur, son and heir of Henry VII of England. She is raised to be Princess of Wales, and knows it is her destiny to rule that far-off, wet, cold land.

Her faith is tested when her prospective father-in-law greets her arrival with a great insult; Arthur seems little better than a boy; the food is strange and the customs coarse. Slowly she adapts to the first Tudor court, and life as Arthur’s wife grows ever more bearable. Unexpectedly in this arranged marriage, a tender and passionate love develops.

But when the studious young man dies, she is left to make her own future: how can she now be queen, and found a dynasty?

I had fond memories of this book from when I initially read it years ago, though I realised that most details of the book had escaped me – it must’ve been about 7 years ago when I first read it. Having just finished Philippa Gregory’s latest novel The White Princess I suddenly had the overwhelming urge to read The Constant Princess again, which in a way felt like I was reading a continuation of that story. So for people who haven’t yet read either series, I’d definitely recommend starting with the Cousins’ War series and then continuing on to the Tudor Court novels. But I digress, because I’m not covering the complete works of Philippa Gregory here, but just the one novel.

I’ve always found Katherine of Aragon an interesting character, and I’m very saddened by the way she’s often portrayed both in books, and in film and television. People tend not to pay her that much attention, and they merely see her as the sad, past her prime, has been of a wife that Henry has set aside in favour of the much younger and prettier Anne Boleyn. This book, however, take an indepth look at the young Katherine, from about the age of 5 up until her late 20s.

When I first read this book I finally felt that I was getting to know the character of Katherine a bit better, in spite of this being a work of fiction of course. She was quite an admirable young woman and she had so much to deal with when she was still really young. She wasn’t born in a beautiful palace, but rather in an army camp that was always on the move as her parents, Ferdinand and Isabella of Castile and Aragon, were attempting to reconquer all of Spain from the Moors. She then spent a few relatively calm years living at the Alhambra palace in Granada, before being sent off to England at the tender age of 15 to be married to Arthur, the Prince of Wales.

It is admirable to read how she composed herself and held it together as she tried to adjust to life in a strange, cold country when she didn’t speak the language and was appalled by their strange – and in her view barbaric – customs. It is of course well known that she was initially married to Arthur, who died shortly after their wedding, and was then later married to his younger brother Harry, who would become the notorious King Henry VIII of England. What I liked about this story, although I have no idea how much of it is fact and how much of it is fiction, is that Katherine grew to love Arthur after she initially despised him. The fact that she tried to get herself betrothed to Henry through a series of elaborate schemes, which took her quite a few years, and was fuelled by her love for Arthur is probably almost entirely fictional, but it does add a very interesting layer to the story and to Katherine as a character. People thought her a mere feeble young woman who could easily be pushed aside, but she was very persistent, constant as the title of the book suggests, and in the end she managed to get what she wanted.

Of course we know that her story doesn’t have a happy ending, but that’s a part of her life that is not dealt with in this book. This book focuses on Katherine’s personal growth from a young girl into a strong woman who is a force to recon with, which makes her demise at the end of her life all the more sad if you think about it. If you look at Katherine’s life as a whole it is quite sad and miserable, but in her younger years, especially during the early stages of her marriage to Henry, it would appear that she was relatively happy, which adds a lot to the general feel of the book. Her story isn’t as dark and gloomy as it is often made out to be.

The second time around I enjoyed this book just as much as when I first read it, so I’m sticking with the rating I initially gave it.

My rating: heartheartheartheartheart