The most beautiful woman in Florence by Alyssa Palombo

Simonetta is known in Genoa as a true beauty, and a lover of art and poetry. When the Florentine banker Marco Vespucci asks for her hand in marriage, she accepts the offer longing to see the beautiful city with its magnificent Duomo. She leaves Genoa to build a new life in Florence, where she’s is invited by the Medici family to their dinners and feasts thanks to her husband’s connections. Lorenzo de Medici is a patron of many artists and writers. When Simonetta meets Sandro Botticelli, who asks her to pose for him, a girl’s dream comes true.

Another book about Florence and the Renaissance, as a preparation for my citytrip :). I already knew the story of Simonetta, Botticelli and the Medici’s as it’s also covered in the TV series ‘Medici’. Still, for me, this was the ideal introduction to Palombo as a writer.

Simonetta is well portrayed. The only thing that bothered me at times was the immense focus on her beauty. But beauty is the aim during the Renaissance and the subject makes for fine discussions with Lorenzo and Botticelli, so it suits the story. Palombo just fell a bit too in repetition on that subject.

Botticelli is and remains my favourite painter and it was nice to read about him and some of his works better in this book. The love for art splashed off the pages. We don’t know much about the real Simonetta, except that she was famous for her beauty, a supposed lover of Giuliano De Medici and Botticelli’s muse. Sandro is even buried in the Vespucci family church not far from Simonetta’s grave. As not so much is known about Simonetta’s true feelings and thoughts, Palombo could build her own story.

Is this really such a wonderfully well-written book with an original story? No, but ‘The most beautiful woman in Florence‘ is an atmospheric novel that takes you to the streets of Florence at the foot of the mighty duomo. And that was exactly what I was hoping for beforehand. For me, the book might have been longer because I wasn’t ready to leave Florence just yet. And I will pick up some of Palombo’s other books.

What’s your favourite novel about a painter?

Rating: 4 out of 5.

The royal secret by Andrew Taylor

London, 1670. Lord Arlington’s clerk Abbott dies in suspicious circumstances and James Marwood must look for secret papers he is alleged to have taken home. This leads him to the Blue Bush tavern and a mysterious Dutchman called Van Riebeeck. Meanwhile, Cat Lovett or rather the widowed mrs. Hakesby, is working as an architect for Lord Arlington and is also designing for Mr Fanshawe who harbours a lion in his stables and has connections with Van Riebeeck. In this way, Cat and Marwood again become entangled in the same case, one that leads to a secret at the heart of Charles II’s court.

This is another strong volume in the series about James Marwood and Cat Lovett. In The royal secret they both have an equally big role and Cat seems to finally have found her place in the world. Thus, I found it more enjoyable to read about her.

Besides Abbott’s murder, there is an important storyline about the king’s sister Minette – or Madame as she is called at the French court. She is married to Louis XIV’s brother and wants to bring both kings together in all things, also religion. Something the Dutch would rather avoid.

It brings Cat, who gets an assignment for Madame, to France. So there are many new elements in this story, which does make this one of the better parts of the series. There are plenty of plotlines that keep it engaging, also one about two young girls at the Fanshawe household who perform witchcraft. But beside all those different storylines, there’s a clear focus on the case.

The relationship between James and Cat remains an off and on game, but in some way this works for me. Even as a non romance lover. I’m curious to see if the next installment will bring Cat and Marwood closer together.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Do you like on and off relationships in books?

The shadow of Perseus

Danae is imprisoned by her father after a prophecy from the oracle which says that her son will depose his grandfather. Yet she finds love and is brutally expelled from the city of Argos. Together with her son Perseus, she tries to build a new life in Seriphos. The young woman Medusa and Andromeda also face their own challenges, until they meet young Perseus, hunted by his ambition to become a hero and a king.

I previously read Heywood’s debut novel about the sisters Helena and Clythemnestra of Sparta (Daughters of Sparta) and now she is back with a story about Perseus and the three women in his life: his mother Danae, his victim/monster Medusa and his wife Andromeda. A story reminiscent of Haynes’ her recent book about Medusa (Stone blind).

But Heywood has a style of her own. As in Daughters of Sparta, she removes all divine intervention, magic or fantasy elements from the story. Danae is not seduced by the god Zeus and Medusa does not have snake hair and a deadly stare. The myth is told here as a kind of historical narrative.

Not an obvious choice, which I thought worked better in her previous book. The story of Perseus and certainly that of Medusa is so entrenched in myth and fantasy that you get something very different if you leave that part out. And while I loved Medusa’s new backstory, Perseus quickly became a hurt and therefore extremely dangerous young man.

The book has a very feminist nature as the three women are all shortchanged by the world they live in and the men who surround them. Some scenes did touch me. I personally found Danae’s perspective the most engaging, even if the beginning of her story was not so realistic.

Heywood remains a bit unnoticed in the immense popularity enjoyed by other writers of Greek myths. Between a Miller, Haynes, Barker and Saint, she does not stand out so much. Though she does make intriguing choices that still make it worth reading her books. I enjoyed ‘The shadow of Perseus‘ but I liked Daughters of Sparta more. I’m curious to see which myth she takes on next.

Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for a copy of this book in exchange for my honest opinion.

The lady of the loch by Elena Collins

Zoe’s twin sister Leah finds a new job as a caretaker and tour guide at Ravenscraig Castle in Scotland after a tough period. She isn’t allowed to live there alone and Zoe agrees to go with her. Once there, Leah immediately feels at home, but Zoe senses a strange chill in the castle and sees a young woman appear at night. In the 13th century, kitchen maids Agnes and Effie must flee their home when Robert De Bruce wages war against the English king Edward I. They seek refuge in Ravenscraig, only to find that rumours of war are never far.

The lady of the loch‘ is a dual timeline story set in the Scottish Highlands. It’s very modernly written (that annoyed me a bit at first) and the historical part is set during’s Robert De Bruce’s reign. His wife Elizabeth De Burgh and daughter Marjorie flee to Kildrummy Castle where Agnes and Effie work in the kitchen. When they are betrayed, Elizabeth and Marjorie are taken prisoner and Agnes and Effie barely escape alive. Their path takes them to Ravenscraig (which is a fictional place) where the owners are also loyal to De Bruce.

Most of the time I do enjoy the historical timeline more, but this time that wasn’t the case. It took me a long time to get to know Agnes and to sympathize with her. I preferred the modern perspective of Zoe and Leah. They live in a flat in Birmingham, only Leah feels very unhappy. When she gets the job at Ravenscraig she hopes for a new start. But the place seems haunted.

Yes, this is also a little ghost story. Apart from that there are a lot of fast-paced romances of people falling in love instantly (a pet peeve of mine). And yet I quite enjoyed reading this novel, especially the second half of the book is much stronger. Maybe Collins felt a bit lighter than e.g. Gill Paul or Nicola Cornick. But you can compare the style and I’m curious enough to try one of next novels.

Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for a copy of this book in exchange for my honest opinion.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

The alchemist’s daughter by Mary Lawrence

Bianca Goddard is estranged from her father, an alchemist who was imprisoned in The Tower because of a plot against Henry VIII. In her new home in Southwark, she helps others with medicinals. When her friend Jolyn comes to her complaining of stomach pains, Bianca provides her with a tonic after which she immediately dies. Her friend was poisoned and suspicion falls to Bianca. Now she must try to prove her innocence, but who wanted to harm Jolyn?

This is the first book in a series of historical mysteries surrounding Bianca Goddard. It’s set in Tudor England in the 16th century, but the events are completely fictional. There is hardly any link to real history. The book does try to paint a picture of the hard life in the Southwark district, especially for a woman alone.

The mystery surrounding Jolyn’s death is engaging enough. There is her living at Barke house, a former house of ill repute, and her relationship with a new mysterious benefactor. But I would have liked a bit more complexity in the matter.

Lawrence tells the story from different perspectives but I found some rather short or odd. Bianca is a complex main character, and her relationship with John, a long-time friend who is in love with her, was interesting to read about. You can feel that this is still the first book in the series and we need to get to know them better.

So this felt more like an introductory book and although it was an easy read, I don’t immediately feel the urge to read further in the series.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Have you read this series?

Lost roses by Martha Hall Kelly

Eliza Ferriday travels to Russia to visit her friend Sofia and godson Max in St Petersburg. But the Russian people in the countryside are starving and turning against the tsar and the elite. When Eliza has returned to America, a world war and a revolution break out and she doesn’t receive any more letters from Sofia. What happend to her friend?

This book is about three women during WWI and the Russian revolution. The Russian revolution is so brutal and such a break from everything before that I find it incredibly fascinating events to read about. This novel offers three female perspectives. The American Eliza really existed and founded an aid organization for Russian emigrants (known as ‘The whites’) fleeing the revolution in their homeland. Yet I found her perspective the least engaging as she was further removed from the action in Russia.

Sofia is the finance minister’s daughter. She hires the peasant girl Varinka to look after her infant son Max. But their estate is attacked by rebels and Varinka cares for Max when Sofia and her family are locked up. In this way, we get a perspective on the conflict from both an elite family and a peasant family. However, Varinka’s life is very dramatic and maybe a bit too much for my taste.

Lost roses is a complex story with many different plot lines that I can’t all describe here. Each character goes through bad things and for that reason the author also added a lot of positive coincidences (especially the romances). Sometimes this made it a little less believable, but it also fitted the story.

Martha Hall Kelly writes smoothly and she has apparently written two more books about the Ferriday Woolsey family so I should definitely check them out. Eliza’s daughter Caroline, who’s a main character in Lilac girls (the first in this ‘series’), also appears in this book. But you can easily read them as stand alones.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Have you read anything from Hall Kelly? Do you have any recommendations about the Russian Revolution?

The shadow king by Maaza Mengiste

Hirut is taken in as an orphan by Colonel Kidane and his fickle wife Aster. When Mussolini’s troops invade Ethiopia, Hirut and Aster have to follow the army to care of the wounded. But Hirut wants to fight herself. In the meantime the Italian photographer Ettore is asked by his general Fucilli to take pictures of the prisoners in a new jail that they are building.

The Shadow King tells the story of the many women who fought in the war in Ethiopia that raged between 1935 and 1941. A war that is not often written about anyway and in which, as in any war, many atrocities were committed. Mengiste thus brings to life a piece of ‘forgotten’ history and tries to spotlight the women who fought side by side with their men. In terms of diversity in reading about different settings and countries, the Shadow King formed a perfect start of the year.

However, this book has been nominated for the Man Booker Prize. So it is literature. Poetically written, with lots of morals and barely any punctuation (which seems to be a new trend that I don’t like). You don’t immediately know from every sentence whether it is spoken dialogue or just the narrator. I don’t mean that nominees of the Man Booker Prize aren’t great books. Because they are, but for me it doesn’t work that well with the genre of historical fiction. Apart from Hilary Mantel.

And that prevents this book from being a great historical narrative. Although this is really good literature, it’s all a bit too contrived, too made-up for me. It’s meant to be a saga talking about heroical women. I would have preferred to read in plain language the story of Aster, Hirut and her cook who remains nameless during the novel because her name is the only thing they can’t take away. That would have made a bigger impression on me, because the style of language created a distance between myself and the characters, who seemed almost mythical.

I enjoyed reading this one enough, but it won’t be a new favourite.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Circe by Madeline Miller

Circe is the daughter of the sun god Helios and sea nymph Perse. She’s the ugly daughter with a voice like a human and no special power, unlike her brothers and sister. When she takes revenge on another nymph, she discovers her strength almost by accident. As a result, her father and Zeus exile her to the island of Aiaia.

It’s always a nice feeling when your first book of the year will make it to your the end-of-year favorites list. Circe is Miller’s long-awaited second novel and undoubtedly her best yet. Where ‘A Song for Achilles’ opts for a young adult drama during the Trojan War, we dive into the Odyssey with a much more balanced story. Don’t get me wrong, I loved ‘A song for Achilles’ because of its heartbreak and rawness, but I’m glad Miller tries something else with this novel.

Circe is a goddess, a witch so to speak, who is exiled and welcomes on her island all kinds of other gods and people. Hermes, Pasiphae and the minotaur, Daedalus, Medea and Jason and, of course, Odysseus. Circe spans a period of thousands of years and covers several myths that I had not all linked to Circe beforehand. This makes for a well-paced story but from part two onwards, we really do work towards Circe’s own story and her relationship with Odysseus and his family.

In terms of style, this book is more mature than her previous one. But as Circe is exiled, she doesn’t know what’s happening in the world. So she’s only kept informed through others which puts her out of the action at times.

So while I really liked the plot and Circe’s character, the book may just be missing what Nathalie Haynes does have in her books: multiple mythical characters speaking so that you are always in the middle of the action. However, this is an example of the better storytelling that can make you fall in love with the genre of Greek myth retellings. By the way, I never really liked Odysseus and this book isn’t helping :).

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Have you read Circe? Did you enjoy it? Do you prefer A song for Achilles?

When Christ and His Saints Slept by Sharon Kay Penman

When the heir to the throne dies in The White Ship shipwreck, Henry I designates his only legitimate daughter Maude as future queen. However, he has a whole army of bastard children including the charismatic Robert and young Ranulf who is half-Welsh. Maude is married off to Geoffrey Plantagenet, the lord of Normandy. The marriage is loveless but does produce sons. When Henry dies, however, Maude is too late to claim the crown; her cousin Stephen has already been recognised as England’s new ruler. But Maude, with the help of her stepbrothers, does not submit. And so the Anarchy begins.

I once read Penman’s ‘The Sunne in Splendour’ about Richard III and the Wars of the Roses and then resolved to read the rest of her oeuvre. However, it took years until I dared to start this series, which centers on Henry II and Eleanor Of Aquitaine. The books are thick and full of historical detail. This one was written in the early 1990s.

But When Christ and his Saints Slept reads like a modern historical novel. Penman constantly switches perspectives, letting mainly protagonists have their say (Maude, Stephen, his wife Matilda, Robert, Henry, Eleanor and the fictional Ranulf), but also frequently unknown people who, for a short chapter, recount what they experience.

The book begins with the disaster of The White Ship and the perspective of the butcher’s boy who survives was an instant favourite. In addition, I was extremely charmed by Stephen’s queen Matilda (she, like Maude, is called Matilda, a name that appears several times in the book). I was actually not that familiar with her story and this book did trigger something to find out more about her.

Ranulf comes up perhaps the most often and I was saddened to discover that he is a fictional addition, although I suspected as much. He goes through an awful lot and Penman describes this in detail. I really empathised with him and later in the book his Welsh family.

The Anarchy is a complex period and although I knew the basics beforehand, I still learned a lot about the war. The main battles are covered, as are the protagonists besides the royals including for ex. the famous Earl of Chester and his wife Maude (yes, another Maude), the needless violence towards civilians and the role of foreign nations such as France and Normandy.

Eleanor is absent for three quarters of the book and yet she is always there because as queen of France, she is regularly gossiped about. The end of the book where we get to know Eleanor and Henry read even smoother because this is a piece of history I have read about before.

This is a big book, you spend some time with it. It is a bit dry at times. But is it’s worth every page as far as I’m concerned. This is one of those books to be totally immersed in. I will enjoy reading the next parts, but don’t ask me when :).

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Have you read anything by Penham? Or anything else good about the Anarchy?

Miss Austen by Gill Hornby

Cassandra Austen returns to Kintbury in search of old letters between herself, her sister and their mutual friend Eliza Fowles. Eliza’s daughter Isabella has to move out of the priory after her father’s death and so the house is emptied. But Cassandra, who is taking care of the estate of her beloved sister and author Jane Austen, doesn’t want certain letters to be made public.

Miss Austen is a novel about Jane’s older sister Cassandra. Cassandra lived a lot longer than Jane and, in this book, symbolises the single woman in the 19th century. Her fiancé Tom Fowles died before they could marry and Cassandra vowed not to marry anyone else. The book is told in two perspectives: that of Jane and Cassandra as young women and that of the older Cassandra who moves in with Isabella in search of the letters. Isabella, too, is one such single woman who therefore has to look for a new home.

The book alludes to a number of Jane’s works and although the letters are fictional, Jane’s voice is clearly evident in them. The love of literature splashes from this book. But something is missing. The older Cassandra storyline hints to some kind of secret that cannot be disposed. Yet, the letters contain not so much information about Jane and Cassandra that is really secret. So for me it felt Cassandra went through a lot of trouble for nothing.

All in all, this is an adorable novel that takes you into the world of the Austen family. A book to crawl under a blanket with, but one that will also soon be forgotten I’m afraid.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Have you read this one? Do you recommend another book about Jane Austen’s world?