Thursday, May 30, 2013

Katherine by Anchee Min

Katherine by Anchee Min

<3 <3 <3 

Summary: This novel, described by the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review as "nothing short of miraculous," is the story of Zebra Wong, a Chinese girl whose pragmatic mind conflicts with her passionate heart; Lion Head, her classmate, whose penchant for romantic intrigue belies his political ambitions, and Katherine, the seductive American with the red lipstick and the wild laugh who teaches them English and other foreign concepts: individualism, sensuality, the Beatles. In Katherine's classroom, repression and rebellion meet head-on-and the consequences are both tragic and liberating.

Review: The novel Katherine written by Anchee Min tells the story of a Chinese Girl "Zebra" living in China during the 1980's after the chaotic, and painful years of the Cultural Revolution in China during which the lifestyles of the rich were condemned and the peasants and the good of the people and modern knowledge were held up as the standard as well as Chairman Mao's teachings and beliefs. These philosophies led to many underground cruelties and a generation who was now living under a government who controlled almost every aspect of their lives, they were used to living in a restricted environment and with restricted emotions.

Into this world walks Katherine, an American in her thirties who has been married and divorced, who loves color, and dances to music and dares to speak her mind in a country where this is not only discouraged but it can get you arrested just to speak out against a party official.  Zebra; and her friends quickly come to both admire and yet at times hate their new teacher for her outgoing ways because she is the opposite of everything they have been taught to be and yet they yearn to be able to feel and act as freely as she does.  

With love triangles, arrests made in the middle of the night, and moments when you just want to cry along with the characters this is not a book that will lose your attention.  The writing was a little choppy at times for my taste, but overall it was a good read.

Mrs.Lincoln's Dressmaker

Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker 

by: Jennifer Chiaverini

<3 <3 <3

Summary:In Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker, novelist Jennifer Chiaverini presents a stunning account of the friendship that blossomed between Mary Todd Lincoln and her seamstress, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Keckley, a former slave who gained her professional reputation in Washington, D.C. by outfitting the city’s elite. Keckley made history by sewing for First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln within the White House, a trusted witness to many private moments between the President and his wife, two of the most compelling figures in American history.
In March 1861, Mrs. Lincoln chose Keckley from among a number of applicants to be her personal “modiste,” responsible not only for creating the First Lady’s gowns, but also for dressing Mrs. Lincoln in the beautiful attire Keckley had fashioned. The relationship between the two women quickly evolved, as Keckley was drawn into the intimate life of the Lincoln family, supporting Mary Todd Lincoln in the loss of first her son, and then her husband to the assassination that stunned the nation and the world.

Keckley saved scraps from the dozens of gowns she made for Mrs. Lincoln, eventually piecing together a tribute known as the Mary Todd Lincoln Quilt. She also saved memories, which she fashioned into a book, Behind the Scenes: Thirty Years a Slave and Four Years in the White House. Upon its publication, Keckley’s memoir created a scandal that compelled Mary Todd Lincoln to sever all ties with her, but in the decades since, Keckley’s story has languished in the archives. In this impeccably researched, engrossing novel, Chiaverini brings history to life in rich, moving style.

Review: In the novel Mrs. Lincoln's Dressmaker the story of Elizabeth Keckley unfolds; Elizabeth is a woman in her late thirties at the beginning of the novel who works for years to gain her and her sons freedom out of the cruel world of slavery.  After being a slave for thirty plus years she saves up enough money to buy her way to freedom and eventually finds herself in Washington working as a modiste or a dresser, and creator of fashions for the elite of society in Washington's higher circles. Her contacts will eventually lead her to Mary Todd Lincoln who will be one of her most challenging and yet rewarding clients.  

The plot line follows the two women's relationship as it progresses from when the Lincoln's first enter the white house, into the events of the Civil War, through Mrs. Lincoln's bad press reviews, the death of her sons, Mrs. Lincoln's bad spending habits which she gets bad press reviews for, into the hard won second election of President Lincoln, and his assassination.  Through the years it is interesting to look at these events through the eyes of two different women from totally different places in society, and to imagine how they might have dealt with the challenges they were facing. 

Overall the book for me gave a different perspective to Abraham Lincoln from Elizabeth Keckley's point of view that I'd never thought about before, and there were other historical details in the book that I learned about that definitely made it a worthwhile read for me, especially knowing that Elizabeth Keckley was a real woman, and did have similar experiences to those portrayed in the book.  It is one I would recommend to those interested in this time period in American history. 

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Painted Girls

The Painted Girls 

<3 <3 <3 <3 <3

By Cathy Marie Buchanan

Summary: 1878 Paris. Following their father’s sudden death, the van Goethem sisters find their lives upended. Without his wages, and with the small amount their laundress mother earns disappearing into the absinthe bottle, eviction from their lodgings seems imminent. With few options for work, Marie is dispatched to the Paris Opéra, where for a scant seventeen francs a week, she will be trained to enter the famous ballet. Her older sister, Antoinette, finds work as an extra in a stage adaptation of Émile Zola’s naturalist masterpiece L’Assommoir.

Marie throws herself into dance and is soon modeling in the studio of Edgar Degas, where her image will forever be immortalized as Little Dancer Aged Fourteen. There she meets a wealthy male patron of the ballet, but might the assistance he offers come with strings attached? Meanwhile Antoinette, derailed by her love for the dangerous Émile Abadie, must choose between honest labor and the more profitable avenues open to a young woman of the Parisian demimonde. 

Set at a moment of profound artistic, cultural, and societal change, The Painted Girls is a tale of two remarkable sisters rendered uniquely vulnerable to the darker impulses of “civilized society.” In the end, each will come to realize that her salvation, if not survival, lies with the other.

Review: The Painted Girls tells the story of three sisters living in late 1800's Paris with a Mother addicted to absinthe, a dead Father and a society who predicts failure for them before they have even reached their majority.  Antoinette, the oldest meets a very dangerous young teenager, Emile who begins to lead her down a dark path away from her sisters and the world of honest wages and into the world of prostitution, prison, and onto a road that might separate her from her family permanently. 

Marie  (along with her sister Charlotte who is ten) who is fourteen is sent to the ballet to earn wages and to train to hopefully move up the ranks to eventually become a famous ballerina.  While there she attracts the eye of an artist and also takes on modeling for him to earn an extra wage to help feed her family.  As the story progresses Marie continues to look for ways to pay for her ballet lessons and feed her family that lead her down dark paths with a patron who says that he will support her but not for free and she finds that she must pay a huge price if she is to continue on with his support.  Antoinette also sees the dark side of life for a female in these times as she is thrust into the world of rich men, stealing, and selling her body to the highest bidder. 

This book looks at what women in the lower parts of society did to survive and to pull themselves up out of hard places in late 1800's Paris. It's an easily read narrative type viewpoint switching from Marie to Antoinette.  It was a very good book and one of my favorites so far this year.

Mother of the Believers

by: Kamran Pasha

<3 <3 <3 <3

Summary: Deep in the heart of seventh-century Arabia, a new prophet named Muhammad has arisen. As his message of enlightenment sweeps through Arabia and unifies the warring tribes, his young wife Aisha recounts Muhammad's astonishing transformation from prophet to warrior to statesman. But just after the moment of her husband's greatest triumph -- the conquest of the holy city of Mecca -- Muhammad falls ill and dies in Aisha's arms. A young widow, Aisha finds herself at the center of the new Muslim empire and becomes by turns a teacher, political leader, and warrior.

Review: Mother of the Believers tells the story of Aisha one of the wives of Muhammad, the prophet of Islam who was a brilliant statesman, in both the political and military arenas.  The book follows the years of her childhood and her marriage with the prophet and covers the years of the religions earliest conception and its rise to power.  Its followers faced many hardships and prejudices but would eventually rise to power through the leadership of the prophet and the strong band of faithful followers he had behind him.

Aisha's life was not one of ease filled with luxury, and riches, the prophet expected his wives to give most of their belongings to the poor and to be examples to the people, and years into the marriage his harem of wives were expected to take up the veil and be separated from any men except close male relatives and the prophet himself; which was hard for Aisha to adjust to when she was used to freedom but was something she grew accustomed to.  

Aisha goes through many  hard times as the story unfolds, and even though this was quite a large book it was not one I wanted to put down.  Learning about the different customs, beliefs, and traditions of a different religion and culture was very interesting for me, and the way in which the author wrote the story itself was lyrical and beautiful.

Aisha's life is one that women of today can look at and still relate to, in that we are all struggling to do the best that we can with the gifts that we are given, and in the time that we live and to serve our God/live out our spiritual beliefs in the best way we can through helping others.

Friday, May 24, 2013

By Fire, By Water (a novel)

By Fire, By Water (a novel)

By Mitchell James Kaplan

<3 <3 <3 <3 <3

Summary: Luis de Santángel, chancellor to the court and longtime friend of the lusty King Ferdinand, has had enough of the Spanish Inquisition. As the power of Inquisitor General Tomás de Torquemada grows, so does the brutality of the Spanish church and the suspicion and paranoia it inspires. When a dear friend’s demise brings the violence close to home, Santángel is enraged and takes retribution into his own hands.  But he is from a family of conversos, and his Jewish heritage makes him an easy target. As Santángel witnesses the horrific persecution of his loved ones, he begins slowly to reconnect with the Jewish faith his family left behind. Feeding his curiosity about his past is his growing love for Judith Migdal, a clever and beautiful Jewish woman navigating the mounting tensions in Granada. While he struggles to decide what his reputation is worth and what he can sacrifice, one man offers him a chance he thought he’d lost…the chance to hope for a better world. Christopher Columbus has plans to discover a route to paradise, and only Luis de Santángel can help him.
   Within the dramatic story lies a subtle, insightful examination of the crisis of faith at the heart of the Spanish Inquisition. Irresolvable conflict rages within the conversos in By Fire, By Water, torn between the religion they left behind and the conversion meant to ensure their safety. In this story of love, God, faith, and torture, fifteenth-century Spain comes to dazzling, engrossing life.

Review: Santangel is the chancellor to the court of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand in a time when it is dangerous to be a converso, (convert from Judaism to Christianity specifically Catholicism) he is a third generation convert to Christianity through the Catholic church in a time when the Catholic Church still holds great sway in the population's everyday lives, homes, and personal convictions. Santangel must take desperate measures to try to protect those he holds most dear from the prying eyes of the  new inquisition in Spain.

 While researching the the truth about his past one of Santangel's intimate friend's learns the cost of being on the wrong side of religion in Catholic ruled Spain.  Santangel mixes his family up in a plot that brings the head of the new inquisition to his door specifically Torquemada, who is a inquisitor investigating the murder of a high ranking official; this causes tragedies and inquiries to unfold that will change multiple families lives forever in numerous ways.  

Judith a young Jewish woman living in Ferdinand and Isabella's kingdom find's the courage to help raise her nephew and  take care of his grandfather, after tragedy strikes.  Judith also learns how to do metal work and thus keeps the family business going in a time when women were expected to stay behind the scenes and shows remarkable courage in stepping forward in a country where there was prejudice against both her sex, and her religious beliefs.  The twist and turns in her story alone could have made a book themselves. 

Christopher Colon (Columbus would be the more well known name) is also interwoven throughout the story as a sailor and at one point asks the royals for a grant to go to the new world.  He is also involved with some of the plotting / mapping that related to the Hebrew writing (on a map and scrolls) that was connected to Santangel's family being accused of heresy because of their converso background.

The entire novel fit together like a beautiful manuscript.  I read it in a day, and could not put it down.  I usually read books that have more female characters then male, however this book is easy to relate to, well put together and VERY easy to recommend.  I love it.  

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Love's First Bloom by Delia Parr

Love's First Bloom

By: Delia Parr
<3 <3 <3

Summary: Ruth Livingstone's life changes drastically the day her father puts a young child in her arms and sends her to a small village in New Jersey under an assumed name. There Ruth pretends to be a widow and quietly secludes herself until her father is acquitted of a crime. But with the emergence of the penny press, the imagination of the reading public is stirred, and her father's trial stands center stage. Asher Tripp is the brash newspaperman who determines that this case is the event he can use to redeem himself as a journalist. 

Ruth finds solace tending a garden along the banks of the Toms River--a place where she can find a measure of peace in the midst of the sorrow that continues to build. It is also here that Asher Tripp finds a temporary residence, all in an attempt to discover if the lovely creature known as Widow Malloy is truly Ruth Livingstone, the woman every newspaper has been looking for. Love begins to slowly bloom...but is the affection they share strong enough to withstand the secrets that separate them?

Review: Love's First Bloom tells the story of Ruth Livingstone who must leave her home in New York and relocate to a small town near New Jersey when her Father a minister is accused of the murder of one of the young prostitutes who he (her Father) helps in the ministry he runs helping the young fallen women of New York restart their lives in new places.  Ruth takes on a new identity, and takes care of the young murdered women's child.   As she adjusts to her new life Ruth must learn to rely on God, and the middle aged couple she is living with as she awaits the verdict in her Father's murder trial.

To cope with the stress of not seeing her Father and learning to care for a young child Ruth plants a garden, and in this pursuit meets a man named Jake who she suspects may have as many secrets as she does, and seems to be not altogether truthful.  As this story unfolded it was not always easy to connect with all the characters, and the flow was not always connected.  The end seemed to be almost smashed together.  The toddler Lily was my favorite character and was one of the reasons I continued to read the book.  If your looking for a sweet Christian historical type romance I'd recommend it, but it won't be on my top ten for the year.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Twilight of a Queen 

By: Susan Carroll

Rating: <3 <3 <3 <3 <3

The last book in the Dark Queen series.

Summary: As war and treachery loom, an ambitious man’s mission threatens to topple two dazzling realms and their formidable rulers: Catherine de Medici, the Dark Queen, and Ariane, the Lady of Faire Isle.

It is 1588, and as the Spanish Armada prepares to besiege England, Paris balances on the brink of revolution. To maintain her grip on the throne and on the dark magic that has become her obsession, Catherine de Medici turns to Louis Xavier, a ruthless corsair who was schooled in the dark arts and has mastered piracy along the Spanish main. But Louis’s basest instincts are held in check by the kindness of Lady Jane Danvers, a British exile whose innate sense of honor is but one facet of her complex and passionate nature.

On Faire Isle, Ariane Cheney, unaware of the escalating threat from the Dark Queen, struggles with the task of protecting the daughters of the earth and their vast store of ancient magical wisdom. Weak and desperate for an advantage, the ailing Catherine makes a devil’s bargain that will cast a shadow over all.

Review: Set in the late 1500's in France the last book in the Dark Queen Series introduces the son of Chevalier Cheney into the world of the daughters of the earth, with Ariane Cheney, the oldest daughter being the most hurt by her Father's betrayal of having been with another woman while being married to their Mother.  The brother known to most as Xavier like his sisters knows how to use herbs and other tools of the earth to make potions and other elixirs and has done so for the Dark Queen, he also dabbles in privateering, and has a ship that is one of the only things he has left of his Father's.  After some unfortunate events Xavier finds himself stranded on Faire Isle and injured with a bunch of women and powerless at least until he heals, the only bright spot he can see, is the woman assigned to take care of him, the kind and gentle Jane Danvers.  Jane on the other hand is confused about her feelings for the coarse and sometimes rough sea captain who can be loud and obnoxious while still showing a softer side when playing with his nieces, or comforting Megaera  who is nervous about who will be chosen to be the next Lady of Faire Isle; or the threat of the Dark Queen which is always an ever present danger. 

Through being imprisoned, a face off with the Dark Queen, and many more dangers Jane and Xavier show that opposites really do attract one another. 

As the characters in this book face each danger together the reader is drawn in because you feel a connection to them in how they relate to each other, the plot, and the surroundings.  Each of the books in this series connected to each other well, and I would recommend them to anyone; I enjoyed all of them.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

God's Handmaiden

God's Handmaiden 

By: Gilbert Morris

<3 <3 <3 <3 <3

Summary: A historical and romantic adventure woven around the story of Florence Nightingale. Gervase Howard is in her mid-teens when her working-class mother dies and she must go to live with relatives in service to a wealthy, noble family, outside of London. While learning various jobs, she is drawn to the eldest son, Davis. Her fascination with him grows deeper, but more hopeless, since the two are separated not just by class, but also by Davis's love for Roberta. When Davis announces his engagement, he asks Gervase to join them as Roberta's maid. But instead Gervase becomes a companion to Florence Nightingale and accompanies her when the Crimean War breaks out and she is asked to create a corps of nurses. On the field, Gervase crosses paths with Davis, who has become disillusioned in his marriage and is drawn to her warmth and care. Both know, however, there is nothing more for them than friendship. Upon her return to England, Gervase receives word that Davis has been seriously injured in a fall and is asked to nurse him back to health. As he regains consciousness, he reveals shocking news that plunges them both into danger.

Review: Gervase Howard is a young fifteen year old girl who is thrown into a frightening new world when she loses her Mother, and is sent to live with her aunt and uncle at their home of Kimberly, where they work as the head cook and gardener. She takes along her trusted friend and furry kitty companion Mr.Bob, and is befriended by the master and mistress's oldest son Davis who she develops feelings for as the years pass.  

Through  encounters with bullies,  and in one instance almost losing her furry friend, Gervase's feelings for Davis grow deeper as time passes, so when he becomes engaged to be married she leaves the Kimberly home to be a companion and ladies maid to Florence Nightingale; and will eventually work with her to take care of soldiers during the Crimean War.  During this time Gervase again meets up with Davis who has left home and joined the war effort because of problems in his marriage,  and unhappiness at work.  After returning home from the war Gervase works with Florence and a friend for awhile then finds herself back at Kimberly, as for what happens next you should read to find out ;)

The characters in the book were warm and easy to relate to, it was an easy book to read and I did not want to put it down.  The only thing that I would change is that the ending was very predictable, and during the last few chapters I figured out exactly what was going to happen so it got a little taxing I think it could've been shortened quite a bit, other than that I loved the plot, and the idea of the book and its characters in general. 

Friday, May 17, 2013

Thousand Pieces of Gold

Thousand Pieces of Gold

<3 <3 <3 <3 <3

By: Ruthanne Lum McCunn

Summary: Lalu Nathoy's father called his thirteen-year-old daughter his treasure, his "thousand pieces of gold," yet when famine strikes northern China in 1871, he is forced to sell her. Polly, as Lalu is later called, is sold to a brothel, sold again to a slave merchant bound for America, auctioned to a saloonkeeper, and offered as a prize in a poker game. This biographical novel is the extraordinary story of one woman's fight for independence and dignity in the American West.

Review: Thousand Pieces of Gold tells the true story of Lalu Nathoy, who grows up for the first decade of her life in the male dominated world of the late 1800's in China.  Her Father unlike many other men calls her his 'thousand pieces of gold', and even when hard times come, resists the urge to sell her as his only daughter but when the family is threatened by bandits a few years later as he is watching his sons and wives starve cultural and societal pressures come together and Lalu's Father sells her for nothing more than a few bags of seed.  After this the reader follows Lalu's life through journeys with bandits, dark roads into brothels, and it follows a path that leads her to America where she is sold to a saloon and renamed Polly.  She eventually regains her freedom, and as a reader it was a book I could not put down as you celebrated with her as she found happiness love, and  ultimately redemption.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Equal of the Sun by: Anita Amirrezvani

Equal of the Sun by: Anita Amirrezvani

<3 <3 <3 <3 <3

Summary:  Iran in 1576 is a place of wealth and dazzling beauty. But when the Shah dies without having named an heir, the court is thrown into tumult. Princess Pari, the Shah’s daughter and protégée, knows more about the inner workings of the state than almost anyone, but her maneuvers to instill order after her father’s sudden death incite resentment and dissent. Pari and her closest adviser, Javaher, a eunuch able to navigate the harem as well as the world beyond the palace walls, possess an incredible tapestry of secrets that explode in a power struggle of epic proportions.
Legendary women—from Anne Boleyn to Queen Elizabeth I to Mary, Queen of Scots—changed the course of history in the royal courts of England. While they are celebrated, few people know of the powerful and charismatic women in the Muslim world. Based loosely on the life of Princess Pari Khan Khanoom, Equal of the Sun is a riveting story of political intrigue that brings one extraordinary woman to light. Anita Amirrezvani is a master storyteller, and her lustrous prose breathes life into this rich and labyrinthine world with a stunning cast of characters—passionate and brave men and women who defy or embrace their destiny in a Machiavellian game played by those who lust for power and will do anything to attain it

(review copy provided by author/publisher) (thank you)

Equal of the Sun takes the reader into the world of Iran beginning in 1576, where the Palace Eunuch Javaher literally gives up his manhood to serve the royal family, and the shah to prove his loyalty and avenge his Father's honor.  He is offered the chance to serve under the Shah's favored daughter Princess Pari who has served as her Father's protege and advisor since the age of fourteen.  From the moment of their very first meeting Javaher realizes that his new mistress is more than just a princess in the harem, and that his new job will require loyalty that will consistently be tested.

From the first chapter their are twists and turns that each character must face narrated against the luscious backdrop of the royal palace and harem of Iran in the 1500's with great detail and visual imagery, and wording that made the story easy to relate to and to imagine.  The poems and stories included within the story went with the narrative and added to the plot line.  Pari's rise, demise, and life in a time when women were still facing suppression shows a bright star that was crushed too soon, I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to learn more about her, Iran, or who just wants to read a great book in general.