Review: Stormbringers (Order of Darkness #2) by Philippa Gregory

17912502Title: Stormbringers
Author: Philippa Gregory
Published: June 1st 2013
Publisher: Simon & Schuster UK
Pages: 288
ISBN13: 9780857077349

Luca Vero is a member of the secret Order of Darkness, tasked with searching out and reporting signs of the end of the world. Breaking his journey in Piccolo, he finds a place filled with superstitious fears: of the unknown, of the forces of the sea and sky, of strangers. With him are his loyal friend and servant, Frieze, and his clerk, Brother Peter, as well as the Lady Isolde and her mysterious servant-companion Ishraq. The five of them are followed into the town by a huge children’s crusade, led by a self-proclaimed saint. Its young leader promises that the sea will part before them, and allow them to walk dry-shod all the way to Jerusalem. Luca and Lady Isolde are swept up in the growing excitement; but something dangerous is brewing far out to sea…

When the first book in this series, called Changeling, came out last summer I was very eager to read it, and I actually managed to finish it in less than a day. It was a very refreshing read, very different from Gregory’s other work, and I enjoyed it a lot. This is why I was really looking forward to the second installment, because the story ended very abruptly and I couldn’t wait for it to continue.

This one didn’t disappoint, not exactly, but I wasn’t exactly thrilled by it either. It had some good bits, and some lesser bits, which made it an enjoyable read overall. Some of the characters, mainly Ishraq and Freize went through a nice bit of personal development, but I found the characters of Luca and Isolde were fundamentally lacking something. Isolde slowly turned into a petulant jealous child, and Luca was much too indecisive for my liking. I felt the story in itself was lacking a sense of direction as well, sometimes quite literally. The characters can’t seem to make up their mind as to what it is they want to do. “Let’s go to Croatia”, “no, let’s go to join the children’s crusade”, “I’m going to Romania”, “on second thoughts, I might not go to Romania”. This is what bothered me most about the book I suppose, the indecisiveness.

There were some things I really enjoyed about the book though. One of them is Gregory’s talent for worldbuilding, you just can’t fault her on that count because she’s really good at it. Another one is the character of Ishraq, who is a strong female character, both stronger and more intelligent than most of the male characters in the book combined which is just awesome. My other favourite character is Freize, because he’s honest and loyal and kind. *SPOILER* when I thought Freize had been killed off I was really upset, so I was really relieved when he turned out to be just fine.

One last thing that bothered me about the book was the implied love-triangle between Isolde, Luca and Ishraq. The friendship that was forming between Luca and Ishraq was really great and seemed to be going really well, until Isolde got it into her head that they were in love and turned into a jealous petulant child, because she’s smitten with Luca. This jealousy and distrust wrecks Luca and Ishraq’s friendship, and consequentially the bond between Isolde and Ishraq as well.

All in all it was an enjoyable read, but it was seriously lacking in some parts. I initially gave this a 4 star rating on Goodreads, but after having thought about it for a bit longer I am going to downgrade it to 3 stars instead. Definitely not a bad book, and I will be buying the next installment when it comes out, but not a favourite by a long shot either.

My rating: heartheartheart


Review: The Summer Queen by Elizabeth Chadwick

the-summer-queen-by-elizabeth-chadwickTitle: The Summer Queen
Author: Elizabeth Chadwick
Published: June 20th 2013
Publisher: Sphere
Pages: 478
ISBN: 1847445454

Eleanor of Aquitaine is a 12th century icon who has fascinated readers for 800 years. But the real Eleanor remains elusive.

This stunning novel introduces an Eleanor that all other writers have missed. Based on the most up-to-date research, it is the first novel to show Eleanor beginning her married life at 13. Barely out of childhood, this gives an entirely new slant to how Eleanor is treated bv those around her. She was often the victim and her first marriage was horribly abusive.

Overflowing with scandal, passion, triumph and tragedy, Eleanor’s legendary story begins when her beloved father dies in the summer of 1137, and she is made to marry the young prince Louis of France. A week after the marriage she becomes a queen and her life will change beyond recognition . . .

For me this was one of the most anticipated books of 2013. After having seen the play The Lion in Winter in London in January 2012 I became very interested in Eleanor of Aquitaine. Last year I also read Alison Weir’s non-fiction work on Eleanor, which awakened this interest even further, because for a woman of her time she lead a truly remarkable life. I only wanted to read more about her, which is why I was so excited when I found out that Elizabeth Chadwick hadn’t written just one book about her, but a trilogy dedicated to the life of Eleanor of Aquitaine. I’d never read anything by Elizabeth Chadwick before, so that was a first, and it was also my first fictional novel about Eleanor.

The book outlived all my expectations. At times I had to slow myself down while reading it because I didn’t want it to be over too quickly. I was savouring each and every page of the book and I just loved it from beginning to end. The story starts when Eleanor, called Alienor in the book because that’s what she would have been called, is 13 years old, just before she marries Louis of France and subsequently becomes Queen. Most of this book deals with her trials and tribulations as the wife of King Louis, and her crusade to the Holy Land. She faces a lot of difficulties in her first marriage, which isn’t a happy one: Alienor and Louis are unable to get a male heir and Louis much prefers to devote his time to his faith rather than rule his country properly. Their crusade to the Holy Land turns out to be a disaster, and not long after they return they finally get papal dispensation to get their marriage annulled.

Alienor is now a free woman and Duchess of Aquitaine in her own right, or so she thinks. Even before her marriage is officially annulled there are already multiple suitors for her hand, and there’s even an attempt to kidnap her and force her to marry. Alienor realises she can’t remain unmarried, and eventually marries Henry of Anjou, heir to the English throne.

The book ends during the early days of Alienor’s second marriage, and her story will continue in the sequels The Winter Crown and The Autumn Throne.

I really love the way how Alienor is portrayed in this novel. At the beginning she’s rather naïve, which is natural for a girl of only 13, but very soon after her marriage you can see how she’s beginning to change. She grows up very quickly, and she’s very strong-willed and opinionated. A lot of people have called her a woman “ahead of her time”, though Chadwick disagrees with this and calls her “a woman of her time” which I’m inclined to agree with. You can tell that Alienor was a strong, independent woman, and had she lived at a later date she would have been amazing. But as it stands she lived in the 12th century and, as much as it probably frustrated her, she was only a woman and therefore very restricted in what she could and couldn’t do.

The book often shows these moments of frustration when Alienor feels that she should be allowed to rule instead of her husband because he’s a very incompetent ruler, and also when she realises that she has to remarry because as long as she remains unmarried her life is in danger.

The Summer Queen really sucked me right in from the start, and refused to let me go until I had finished the last page. I can safely say that it’s one of my favourite reads of the year, and I may even go as far as to call it one of the best historical fiction novels I’ve ever read.

(And can I have the next book now please?)

My rating: heartheartheartheartheart

Review: The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

893136Title: The Book Thief
Author: Markus Zusak
Published: September 8th 2007
Publisher: Black Swan
Pages: 554
ISBN: 0552773891

Set during World War II in Germany, Markus Zusak’s groundbreaking novel is the story of Liesel Meminger, a foster girl living outside of Munich. Liesel scratches out a meager existence for herself by stealing when she encounters something she can’t resist–books. With the help of her accordion-playing foster father, she learns to read and shares her stolen books with her neighbors during bombing raids as well as with the Jewish man hidden in her basement before he is marched to Dachau.

The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier, and will become busier still.

This is a book about a young girl growing up in Nazi Germany. Not a story about a Jewish girl, but a story about the seemingly ordinary life of an ordinary 10-year-old girl. The thing is though, this is no ordinary story. And the main character, Liesel Meminger, is no ordinary girl. Probably the most peculiar thing of all is that the book is narrated by Death. And no, that wasn’t a typo. I really mean Death.

At the beginning of the book Liesel loses her younger brother, and is sent to live with a foster family just outside Munich. She’s terrified of her foster mother, but her foster father soon earns her trust and for a while he is her sole comfort in this new town where she doesn’t know anybody. She feels lost and has no idea why her mother sent her away, though slowly but surely she starts to adapt to her new surroundings. In spite of her age Liesel can barely read, and because she suffers from terrible nightmares her foster father teaches her how to read until the small hours.

She stole her first book on the day of her brother’s funeral, but as the narrator noted, she wouldn’t become the book thief just yet. Soon Liesel becomes close friends with one on the boys that lives on the same street, Rudy. They play football together, generally muck about, and steal apples. Later on in the novel Rudy becomes her partner in crime when she’s out stealing books.

He was the crazy one who had painted himself black and defeated the world.

She was the book thief without the words.

Trust me, though, the words were on their way, and when they arrived, Liesel would hold them in her hands like the clouds, and she would wring them out like rain.”

I don’t want to give too much of the book away, but at the same time I have the urge to summarise the entige thing and tell everyone how amazing it is and how much I loved reading it. The general theme that runs throughout the story is that books are a lifeline. People cling to them in troubled times, draw strenght from them, feel exhilirated by them in happier times, and sometimes they’re even life savers, quite literally. Liesel soaks up letters and words and narratives like a giant sponge, and throughout the book we see the many ways in which this helped Liesel, or how it enabled her to help others. She helps Max, the Jewish refugee her foster parents hide in their cellar, not to lose contact with the outside world by bringing him newspapers and describing to him what the sky looks like on that particular day. She reads to her neighbour to comfort her after the tragic loss of her son. She reads to others in the shelter during the bombings to distract them from what’s going on above ground.

I wanted to tell the book thief many things, about beauty and brutality. But what could I tell her about those things that she didn’t already know? I wanted to explain that I am constantly overestimating and underestimating the human race-that rarely do I ever simply estimate it. I wanted to ask her how the same thing could be so ugly and so glorious, and its words and stories so damning and brilliant.”

The Book Thief incorporates so many different elements that I find it hard to pinpoint it all exactly and write it all down. The author writes in such a way that it feels as though you’ve been on an epic journey, when in reality what you’ve read is the story of one seemingly insignificant young girl. This only proves that every single life is precious and special, and that you don’t need to come from a priviliged background in order to be special and give meaning to other people’s lives.

To me The Book Thief encompasses all that is beautiful and all that is cruel in this world, which sounds odd perhaps, but it all fits together beautifully in this book.

As I already mentioned, the book is narrated by Death which is unique in itself. Death tries to make sense of the human race, something which it finds hard to do, and it gives the entire story a unique perspective. Unbiased in a way, observing and occasionally interfering, but not all-knowing.

“So many humans. So many colours. They keep triggering inside me. They harass my memory. I see them tall in their heaps, all mounted on top of each other. There is air like plastic, a horizon like setting glue. There are skies manufactured by people, punctured and leaking, and there are soft, coal-coloured clouds, beating, like black hearts. And then. There is death. Making his way through all of it. On the surface: unflappable, unwavering. Below: unnerved, untied, and undone.”

For me it was a book that’s almost impossible to put down, but at the same time I didn’t want it to end

Many people praise this book and call it a modern classic, and I’m inclined to agree with them. It is truly one of the most exceptional books I’ve read in a long time.

My rating: heartheartheartheart

Review: And The Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini

16115612Title: And The Mountains Echoed
Author: Khaled Hosseini
Published: May 21st 2013
Publisher: Riverhead Hardcover
Pages: 404
ISBN: 159463176X

An unforgettable novel about finding a lost piece of yourself in someone else.

Khaled Hosseini, the #1 New York Times–bestselling author of The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, has written a new novel about how we love, how we take care of one another, and how the choices we make resonate through generations.

In this tale revolving around not just parents and children but brothers and sisters, cousins and caretakers, Hosseini explores the many ways in which families nurture, wound, betray, honor, and sacrifice for one another; and how often we are surprised by the actions of those closest to us, at the times that matter most.

Following its characters and the ramifications of their lives and choices and loves around the globe—from Kabul to Paris to San Francisco to the Greek island of Tinos—the story expands gradually outward, becoming more emotionally complex and powerful with each turning page.

It’s been nearly 2 weeks since I finished this book, and all this time I haven’t been able to write a proper review for it. And why? Simply because I just didn’t know where to start. Because it’s Khaled Hosseini I just knew that I was in for a treat. I was sure that he would once again have written a beautiful book. And I wasn’t about to be disappointed. I suppose that in my flailing, fangirling, inarticulate way of putting it, I thought the book was amazing.

And The Mountains Echoed is one of those rare book which sucks you right into the story from page 1, and won’t let you go until you’ve finished the entire book. And even then you carry the characters and their storylines around with you for days. It gave me one of the worst “book hangovers” I’ve suffered from in quite some time.

I now know that some people feel unhappiness the way others love: privately, intensely, and without recourse.”

It is quite hard to review a book without giving anything away with regards to the plot, which is something I really don’t want to do because I think this is one of those books everybody needs to discover by themselves. The book follows a few different storylines that are partially intertwined, but also partially follow their own course which isn’t necessarilly related to the main plotline of the book. The book centres around one main family, its descendants, and other people whose lives they touch one way or the other. Each character is as beautiful and interesting as the next, and as a reader you yearn to learn every last detail about their lives.

J’aurais dû être plus gentille—I should have been more kind. That is something a person will never regret. You will never say to yourself when you are old, Ah, I wish I was not good to that person. You will never think that.”

As many other people have already pointed out, Hosseini is a master storyteller and he has once again managed to write a fantastic, beautiful, tragic, heart breaking, but also heart warming book about love, friendship, and loyalty. It shows life both at its best and at its worth, and I think this is the particular strength of this book. It shows life the way it is, not only the good but also the bad bits.

I learned that the world didn’t see the inside of you, that it didn’t care a whit about the hopes and dreams, and sorrows, that lay masked by skin and bone. It was as simple, as absurd, and as cruel as that.”

You know you’re reading a quality book when you try to keep putting off finishing it for as long as possible, simply because you just don’t want it to come to an end. This is definitely what happened to me with this book, because I just wasn’t ready to say goodbye to the beautiful story and its wonderful characters. I recommend this book to anyone who loves to lose themselves in a beautifully narrated story from which there is no escaping. This may not have been my most in-depth review, but that’s because this story has to be read first-hand, not read about in vaguely summarised bits in someone’s book review. It just won’t do the story justice, which is why I chose not to discuss the story itself or its characters. But trust me when I say: read this book!

My rating:heartheartheartheartheart

Review: Honour by Elif Shafak

13616853Title: Honour
Author: Elif Shafak
Published: April 1st 2012
Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 343
ISBN: 0670921157

‘My mother died twice. I promised myself I would not let her story be forgotten’.

And so begins the story of Esma a young Kurdish woman in London trying to come to terms with the terrible murder her brother has committed. Esma tells the story of her family stretching back three generations; back to her grandmother and the births of her mother and Aunt in a village on the edge of the Euphrates. Named Pembe and Jamila, meaning Pink and Beautiful rather than the names their mother wanted to call them, Destiny and Enough, the twin girls have very different futures ahead of them all of which will end in tragedy on a street in East London in 1978.

A powerful, brilliant and moving account of murder, love and family set in a Kurdish village, Istanbul and London.

What initially struck me most about this book is not the controversial topic it deals with, but rather that it’s very cleverly written. Almost right from the start you know what’s going to happen in the story, yet it doesn’t make the reading experience any less interesting. The book is about an honour killing; you know who did it, and you know who the victim is, but the author still manages to create a nice build up of tension and anticipation and we explore the background stories of the characters and their respective family histories.

The story focuses on a Turkish/Kurdish immigrant family living in London in the 1970s. The father, Adem Toprak, comes from a simple family in Istanbul and is still traumatised by his childhood because he had an abusive father, and a mother who committed suicide. His wife Pembe originally comes from a remote Kurdish village on the edge of the Euphrates, and she and her identical twin sister Jamila are the youngest in a family of eight children, all girls. Adem initially wanted to marry Jamila, but because she was already promised to someone else he eventually settled for her sister.

The Toprak family move to Hackney, and each of them have their own problems to deal with. Adem struggles with a gambling addiction and eventually leaves home. He remains absent for most of the story. Pembe is a shy woman, easily intimidated by the big scary place that is London, and she tries to hide away from it as much as she possibly can. Her eldest son Iskender, her pride and joy, is an arrogant and intimidating bully in a way that is so typical for a teenage boy. After his father leaves home he decides that this makes him head of the family, and he acts accordingly, telling his mother and sister what they can and can’t do. Middle child Esma is very bright, a good student, but very insecure about her identity and what she should be like and how she should behave. Due to her brother’s behaviour and her mother turning a blind eye, she is constantly reminded of how unfair life is and how much easier it would be if she’d been a boy. The youngest child, Yunus, is the only one born in London and he doesn’t seem to struggle with some kind of identity crisis, at least not in the same way as his older siblings. Because of all the family problems he more or less flies under the radar for quite some time, and he prefers to spend his time hanging around with squatters in a nearby house.

The story switches narrative with each chapter, exploring both parents’ pasts in Istanbul and the Kurdish village respectively, as well as family life in the 1970s and the children’s lives in the 1990s, and the story is told from shifting viewpoints. Even though having multiple narrators can be confusing, I think it was really well done in this book and in my view it really helped to ensure that the whole family saga was told and nothing was left out. Most of the chapters that are set at a later date are told from Esma’s point of view, so I suppose you could consider her the overarching narrator (is there even such a thing?), which helps to keep the story clear and coherent.

‘My mother died twice. I promised myself I would not let her story be forgotten’.

It is quite clever how Shafak manages to capture the reader’s attention for well over 300 pages, considering that we know from the start that Iskender has killed his mother in a so called “honour killing”. You wonder how a story can remain interesting when the whole question of “who did it?” has been taken out of the equation. The fact is that you don’t know when or exactly how it’s going to happen, so that helps to build up the tension quite nicely because you know that it can happen at any moment during the story. And also, as a reader, you don’t know the exact motivation for the murder, which is something you find out as the story progresses.

There is a massive plot twist at the end which had me gasping in shock, but of course I won’t tell you what it is because that would spoil the surprise. All I can say is that it’s very clever, and once again I have to applaud Ms. Shafak for her inventiveness.

This story explores so many different aspects of life, so in my view it should appeal to a lot of readers. It deals with clashing cultures and struggling immigrants learning to cope with their new life, the generation gap between parents and their children, love, faith, family, and the struggles of life in general.

Elif Shafak is one of those authors whose books I buy without checking what the books is about first, because I just know they’re going to be good. And once again she did not disappoint.

Would I recommend this book to others? Definitely!

My rating: heartheartheartheart

Review: Fast Times in Palestine: A Love Affair with a Homeless Homeland by Pamela J. Olson

16000331Title:  Fast Times in Palestine: A Love Affair with a Homeless Homeland
Author: Pamela J. Olson
Published: March 12th 2013
Publisher: Seal Press
Pages: 320
ISBN: 158005482X
Source: Netgalley

For much of her life -like many Westerners- most of what Pamela Olson knew of the Middle East was informed by headlines and stereotypes. But when she traveled to Palestine in 2003, she found herself thrown with dizzying speed into the realities of Palestinian life.

Fast Times in Palestine is Olson’s powerful, deeply moving account of life in Palestine – both the daily events that are universal to us all (house parties, concerts, barbecues, and weddings) as well as the violence, trauma, and political tensions that are particular to the country. From idyllic olive groves to Palestinian beer gardens, from Passover in Tel Aviv to Ramadan in a Hamas village, readers will find Olson’s narrative both suspenseful and discerning. Her irresistible story offers a multi-faceted understanding of the Palestinian perspective on the Israel/Palestine conflict, filling a gap in the West’s popular understanding of the difficult relationship between the two nations.

At turns funny, shocking, and galvanizing, Fast Times in Palestine is a gripping narrative that challenges our ways of thinking – not only about the Middle East, but about human nature, cultural identity, and our place in the world.

Over the years I’ve read quite a few books about Israel and Palestine, but this one is unlike anything I’ve ever read before. I knew that this book was about someone’s personal account of life in Palestine, but I had no idea that Olson hadn’t specifically intended to go to Palestine. She went backpacking in the Middle East and happened to come across some people who invited her to come along to Israel with them, and took her with them to Palestine after that. The fact that the Middle East was a relatively unknown region to Olson before she started out on her journey is actually really nice, especially for people reading this novel who don’t know much about it either, because you gradually discover more and more about the region and Israel and Palestine in particular.

The best thing about this book, in my opinion, are the personal accounts of the people she meets during her time in Palestine. Here in the West we get so much information thrown at us about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but there is nothing we can directly empathise with. By recording people’s personal accounts and allowing us a brief glimpse into their personal lives, it brings the conflict much closer to home. Olson shows that Palestinians are just ordinary human beings who try to go about their normal life as much as they possibly can in spite of all the restrictions imposed by the Israeli government.

The author tries to illustrate the injustices in the region the best she can, and she does so from a fairly objective point of view. It is very easy for a casual observer to generalise a situation and condemn only one of the parties involved, but Olson manages to depict everyone she encountered as human beings, Palestinians and Israelis alike, which is exactly where the power of this book lies. There is no doubt about the fact that Israel is the oppressor in this conflict and Palestine the oppressed, but that does not mean that Israel and all of its inhabitants are the source of all evil, which is how they are often depicted by pro Palestinians. The same goes for the general image of Palestinians in the media. Very often they are either depicted as victims of a great injustice, or as terrorists. The author shows that there are good and bad people on both sides, and also tries to understand and explain why certain people are drawn to certain courses of action. She doesn’t just depict the Palestinians as a poor, homeless people with no prospect, but rather as a multitude of people with hopes and dreams, and with very diverse expectations of life. Olson gives a voice to people who would normally be ignored by the general media, to show that there are many Palestinians who condemn suicide bombers, and there are many Israelis who oppose the settlements in Gaza and on the West Bank, just to name a few examples.

The way in which the book is written, as a kind of travelogue, works really well. Together with the author we gradually peel back the layers of society and of the conflict, and it makes reading the book really exciting because it almost feels as if you are there with her. Olson also manages to strike the right balance between the more light hearted moments of her time in Palestine, such as accounts of helping families with the harvest, enjoying dinners with a large variety of people, and sightseeing, and the more shocking and depressing moments when talking about the many civilian casualties, people being robbed of their land, and tragedies at the various Israeli checkpoints. This way the book offers a perspective that is neither too positive nor too depressing or pessimistic either. It shows how strong human spirit actually is, and that people can manage to retain a degree of optimism even in the most dire of circumstances.

I think this is a must-read for anyone who is remotely interested in the Middle East and who wants to learn more about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but doesn’t want to read a dry text packed with statistics and facts. This book does occasionally contain some statistics to back up arguments, but it is a lively and beautifully written account of a young woman whose life took some truly unexpected turns. It is an engaging and thought provoking book, and I definitely think everyone should read it.

My rating: heartheartheartheartheart

Review: The Boleyn King by Laura Andersen

boleynkingTitle: The Boleyn King
Author: Laura Andersen
Published: May 14th 2013 (expected publication)
Publisher: Ballantine Books
Pages: 368
ISBN: 0345534093
Source: Netgalley

Laura Andersen brings us the first book in an enthralling trilogy set in the dramatic, turbulent, world-altering years of Tudor England. What if Anne did not miscarry her son in January 1536, but instead gave birth to a healthy royal boy? Perfect for fans of Philippa Gregory and Allison Weir.

Henry IX, known as William, is a 17-year-old king struggling at the restraints of the regency and anxious to prove himself. With the French threatening battle and the Catholics plotting at home, Will trusts only three people: his older sister, Elizabeth; his best friend and loyal counselor, Dominic; and Minuette, a young orphan raised as a royal ward by Anne Boleyn. Against an undercurrent of secret documents, conflicting intelligence operations, and private murder, William fights a foreign war and domestic rebellion with equal resolve. But when he and Dominic both fall in love with Minuette, romantic obsession menaces a new generation of Tudors. Battlefields and council chambers, trials and executions, the blindness of first love and the betrayal of true friendship…How far will William go to get what he wants? Who will pay the price for a king’s revenge? And what twists of fate will set Elizabeth on the path to her destiny as England’s queen?

What if one important historical event hadn’t happened, or had turned out differently. What would the world look like then? These are fun things to speculate about, and this is exactly what The Boleyn King is all about. The story starts off on the premise that Anne Boleyn didn’t miscarry her second child, but had a healthy son instead. Because of this Henry VIII never had her executed and he remained married to her until his death. Their son Henry IX, who goes by William, became King at the tender age of 10, and this book follows his story starting when William is 17 years old. His uncle George Boleyn, Lord Rochford, is Lord Protector of the realm until William comes of age.

Life as a boy King is sometimes hard on William and he is wary of people in general. The only people he really trusts are his sister Elizabeth, his best friend Dominic, and Minuette, Elizabeth’s lady in waiting who happened to have been born on the same day as William.

This story is extremely well written and well researched, which you can tell by the in-depth way in which certain historical aspects have been changed. Many things in this alternate reality, if you will, are different, though certain historical aspects haven’t changed. The tension between the Catholic and Protestant nations of Europe is still there, England is facing difficulties with France and Spain, and Mary Queen of Scots is starting to pose a threat as well. And then there are difficulties within the Kingdom as well. Mary Tudor, who still considers her father’s marriage to Anne Boleyn to be invalid, refuses to make an appearance at court and goes out of her way not to be in the vicinity of Queen Anne, who she refers to as ‘that woman’.

The story switches between narrator quite often, though most of it is told from either Minuette’s or Elizabeth’s perspective, and a few times from Dominic’s perspective as well. Although the reader is never notified of this switch in the narrative it is always easy enough to pick up on, because the writing is very clear. Even though the novel is supposedly about William, it actually focuses a lot more on courtly life and the people closest to him. A great deal of the novel is focues on Minuette and her position at court, and also on Elizabeth and the role she will play in the ruling of the Kingdom.

Even though the story often doesn’t focus directly on the way ruling a Kingdom at such a young age affects William, it does show how he has to deal with a multitude of conflicts both at home and abroad. He goes to war against France which ends in a triumph, and he even manages to win some of the cities back that were lost during the reign of his father. But at the same time he discovers a secret plot, with the help of Minuette, aiming to put Mary on the throne by claiming that William was born from an incestuous relationship between his mother and her brother George, and is therefore not the legitimate heir to the throne. And on top of that he also finds himself caught in a love triangle when both he and his best friend Dominic fall in love with Minuette.

The story ends at rather a strange moment when William proposes marriage to Minuette, but this is because it is the first part of a trilogy. So it ends on a real cliffhanger, which leaves the reader wanting more. I am definitely eagerly awaiting the second instalment!

This book was extremely difficult to put down and I finished most if it in one sitting. It’s a story that will appeal to any fan of historical fiction, and especially to people with a fondness for Tudor history.

My rating: heartheartheartheart

Review: The Shadow of the Wind (The Cemetery of Forgotten Books #1) by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

shadow-of-the-windTitle: The Shadow of the Wind
Author: Carlos Ruiz Zafón
Published: October 5th 2005 (originally 2001)
Publisher: Phoenix Press
Pages: 510
ISBN: 0753820250
Original Title: La sombra del viento

Barcelona, 1945: A city slowly heals in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, and Daniel, an antiquarian book dealer’s son who mourns the loss of his mother, finds solace in a mysterious book entitled The Shadow of the Wind, by one Julián Carax. But when he sets out to find the author’s other works, he makes a shocking discovery: someone has been systematically destroying every copy of every book Carax has written. In fact, Daniel may have the last of Carax’s books in existence. Soon Daniel’s seemingly innocent quest opens a door into one of Barcelona’s darkest secrets–an epic story of murder, madness, and doomed love.

You know how it sometimes takes a few pages, or even a few chapters, before you get really into a book? (Or in the case of George R.R. Martin it sometimes takes up to 300 pages, but that’s a whole other story). Well this isn’t one of those books. The moment I finished the first page I just knew that this was my kind of book. Because, let’s face it, any book that starts by describing the discovery of a relatively unknown book that has an air of mystery around it and is so special and gripping that it needs to be finished in one sitting should appeal to any book lover. Just by reading those first few pages I knew that I was about to embark on a very special reading experience. I didn’t feel that the narrative was dragging on at any point during the story, and I was constantly torn between wanting to finish it as soon as possible, and wanting to drag it out because I just didn’t want for the book to end. So in the end I did force myself to put it down every now and then, and I’m glad I did because it enabled me to enjoy the story to the fullest and it made me treasure each and every page.

The build up of the books is just absolutely stunning, and this by itself already deserves some recognition. It starts out slowly, and as Daniel grows up from a young boy into a teenager he begins to discover more about this mysterious book called The Shadow of the Wind, its author, and how the various people in his life that are important to him are somehow linked to his quest of finding out the truth about Julián Carax.

The only problem I have with writing this review is that I want to tell you all how much I love this book, but at the same time I don’t want to give anything away. I started reading this book without having a clear notion of what it was about. I bought this book purely based on the recommendations of others who loved it, and I trusted their judgement to the extend that I didn’t even bother reading the synopsis on the back. So based on this I think this book is best enjoyed when you dive straight into it without having any preconceived thoughts or opinions about it.

The thing is that I cannot recommend this book enough, and I’m constantly in two ways as to how I want to go about promoting it. On the one hand I want to write about it with the eloquence of the grown up person that I am supposed to be, but on the other hand I want to follow people around, pestering them like a small child and bullying them into reading all of my favourite books. It’s a tough choice to make 🙂

But really, joking aside, what I’m trying to say is that regardless of the genres you normally read, I would advise you to give The Shadow of the Wind a try, because it incorporates many different genres so there should be something in there for everyone. It has elements of a Gothic novel, it’s got mystery, suspense, romance, the occasional touch of humour, and of course, most importantly, it’s a book about books. So, what’s not to love?

My rating:heartheartheartheartheart

Review: Defiant Heart by Marty Steere

The author, Marty Steere, kindly provided me with a copy of his book. 

Layout 1Title: Defiant Heart
Author: Marty Steere
Published: April 15th 2013 (expected publication)
Publisher: Penfield Publications
Pages: 382
ISBN13: 9780985401436
Source: Marty Steere

Two extraordinary characters. One unforgettable love story.

In the spring of 1941, young Jon Meyer’s family dies in a tragic accident, and he is sent to live in a small Indiana town. He arrives to find himself unwanted and shunned.

Mary Dahlgren is the mayor’s daughter. A pretty girl, she could have the pick of the boys in town, including Vernon King, the star of the vaunted high school basketball team. To the chagrin of her friends, though, Mary has always been more interested in books than boys. That is, until she meets Jon.

But Jon and Mary are kept apart through the efforts of Mary’s father, who perceives their relationship a threat to his political aspirations, and Vernon, to whom Jon is a rival for Mary’s affections. For months Jon is subjected to a painful ostracism. Then, just when the young man’s earnestness and perseverance begin to win over many of the townsfolk, and it appears that love may conquer all, tragedy strikes.

As the country is caught up in war, so too are the young lovers swept up in events beyond their control, leaving both fighting for their very lives. If, against the odds, they are to be together, each will need to find the strength, the courage and the resourcefulness that beat only in a defiant heart.

I didn’t have any real expectations when I started reading this book, because to me it wasn’t quite clear what exactly it was going to be about. So two things could happen: I could either be left disappointed, or I could be in for a pleasant surprise. Fortunately for me it was the latter, because I really enjoyed this book. It tells the story of sixteen-year-old Jon who, after being the only one in his family to survive a disastrous accident, is sent to live with his grandmother, whom he has never met before, in the small town of Jackson, Indiana. While he’s trying to cope with the loss of his parents and brother he has to find his way in an unfamiliar town, all the while dealing with his grandmother who gives him the cold shoulder and prefers to acknowledge his existence as little as is humanly possible.

Soon after his not quite successful start at his new school things take a turn for the worse when word gets out that Jon is Jewish. It’s 1941 and as America is about to be sucked into WWII people are wary of Jews. Not only is he treated as a pariah at school, he also gets fired from his job at the local hardware store because of his religion. Luckily his life isn’t all bad, and by accident he meets Ben, a man of middle age who used to be in the army and whose hobby it is to fly his own private plane. He takes a liking to Jon and teaches him how to fly, something Jon appears to have a talent for.

Next to his flying lessons he also finds the time to fall in love with Mary, the mayor’s daughter. He explicitly forbids the two of them to be in contact with each other but in spite of this, Jon and Mary keep seeing each other. They manage to keep their relationship under wraps for a few months until things go very wrong.

Jon gets accused of a crime he didn’t commit, and Mary is severely wounded and ends up in a coma. Mary’s father, who is trying to make his big break in politics, doesn’t want to be associated with a crime involving a Jew, so rather than standing trial Jon is forced to enlist in the army. At only 17 years of age his life suddenly becomes a lot more interesting, but also a lot more dangerous. But the question is: will Jon and Mary find their way back to each other?

What I really liked about this book is that it’s not a typical romantic, and somewhat soppy love story. On the contrary, for the best part of the novel the relationship between Jon and Mary isn’t even a very prominent factor. You see a boy change into a man over the course of two years, and it is very interesting to see how he develops and keeps it together even in the most difficult of circumstances. Another thing that I liked is that Mary isn’t a stereotypical girl; she isn’t shallow or vain, she doesn’t really care about clothes or boys, but is very smart and hard working and is determined to make her own way in the world. She’s independent and free-thinking, and that’s what I like about her.

You can tell that this story is well researched because it’s very detailed, both with regards to the war and with regards to aviation. The characters are interesting and well developed, and once you get into the story it’s difficult to put down.

Marty Steere has managed to write a beautiful love story that even people like me who don’t like romantic novels will enjoy very much. I can recommend it to anyone who loves a good love story, a bit of mystery, and a fair amount of history.

My review:heartheartheartheart

Review: The Garden of my Imaan by Farhana Zia

17267943Title: The Garden of my Imaan
Author: Farhana Zia
Published: April 1st 2013 (today)
Publisher: Peachtree Publishers
Pages: Ebook (the hardcover is 192 pages)
ISBN: 1561456985
Source: Netgalley

Aliya already struggles with trying to fit in, feeling confident enough to talk to the cute boy or stand up to mean kids. The fact that she’s Muslim is just another thing to deal with. When Marwa, a Moroccan girl who shares her faith if not her culture, comes to Aliyas school, Aliya wonders even more about who she is, what she believes, and where she fits in. Should she fast for Ramadan? Should she wear the hijab? She’s old enough for both, but does she really want to call attention to herself?

This book tells the story of Aliya, an Indian American girl of, I’m guessing, around 11 years old. She feels American through and through, just like her other school friends, but a few events that follow in quick succession make her begin to question her identity and where she stands in life. When she goes to Sunday school to learn about Islam she wears a headscarf and some of her friends there even wear the hijab, but during the rest of the week she doesn’t because her mother beliefs that modesty is not inherently linked to the covering of your hair. She doesn’t always fast during Ramadan either, because her parents believe her schoolwork will suffer if she doesn’t eat all day. Then a new girl arrives at her ‘normal’ school, a Moroccan girl called Marwa, and she wears the hijab. The headmistress asks Aliya to show her around and make her feel welcome, even though they’re not even in the same class. The reason why she asked Aliya and not another girl? Because she’s a Muslim too. Aliya doesn’t like the fact that she’s been singled out and made to feel different from her friends, because before Marwa’s arrival she was never regarded as “the Muslim girl”. At the same time she gets an assignment from her Sunday school to do a project about what Islam means to her, and she decides to keep a diary with letters addressed to Allah. In these letters she vents her frustration and misunderstanding of the world and the people around her, but after a while she finds that the manner of her writing begins to change, and her way of seeing the world begins to change for the better as well. She eventually befriends Marwa, and she shows Aliya that your identity and your religion is something to be proud of, and that it’s okay to be different. Marwa wears her hijab with pride and isn’t at all fazed by the comments people make about it. Many other things happen in Aliya’s life as well which I won’t go into because it’s too much to discuss here, but over the course of maybe 9 months you see the changes the young girl goes through and by the end she’s changed for the better. She no longer struggles with her identity as much, and she’s beginning to find her own way in the world.

I really enjoyed reading this book, especially because it’s written from a young girl’s perspective and I love the way children see the world. They don’t seem to care about different skin colours and religions unless it’s pointed out to them. And I think that this is what the author is trying to show, that being different is not a bad thing, in fact, it’s a good thing as long as people respect one another and allow other people to be themselves. I think it’s terribly important that children read books like this one, because if we want to create a respectful and understanding generation we need to start teaching them at an early age.

My rating: heartheartheartheart