My brilliant friend by Elena Ferrante

Lila and Elena grow up as best friends in a poor neighbourhood of Naples. They both do well at school, but Lila’s parents don’t want her to go to the conservatory. And so at 12, Lila has to help out in her father’s cobbler’s shop, while Elena learns Latin and Greek at school. The girls estrange a bit, especially when they start hanging out with boys.

This series by the unknown Italian author (we don’t even know if it’s a she or he) Elena Ferrante is fairly hyped and even made into a series. I was expecting a story about two girls and their bond with a fair amount of drama in it. But the latter turned out to be a wrong assumption on my part. This is more of a literary story that gently moves on and explores the relationship between the two girls in much detail. No big events or drama.

The story is set in Naples during the 1950s and the first book is about their childhood and adolescent years. This is the time when girls going to school is still seen as a waste of time. And life in Elena and Lila’s neighbourhood is hard.

We get to know the whole neighbourhood and that involves quite a lot of names and at times I didn’t remember who was who. It also didn’t seem that important either because one boy was rather interchangeable for another as far as I was concerned. Lila and Elena are total opposites. It’s Elena, the one who does get to go to school, who tells the story and has a kind of fascination with Lila’s personality. She is ‘her brilliant friend’. But maybe, it’s just the other way around…

The book didn’t touch me emotionally and the slow pace made me look forward to the end when things picked up a bit more pace. The book has an open ending, but I don’t think I’ll read the next part. The story didn’t hold on to me enough for that. Ferrante writes well and builds beautiful sentences, typically for an Italian author. But this genre is just not for me.

Rating: 3 out of 5.
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City of masks by S.D. Sykes

In this third part of the Somershill Manor Mysteries, we meet Oswald De Lacy again but this time in Venice. He’s staying there with his mother and her awful dog Hector at the house of an old acquaintance, Mr. Bearpark. They’re on their way to Jerusalem for a pilgrimage, but Venice is at war with Hungary and no ships are allowed to leave for the Promised Land. Oswald doesn’t really care about that as long as he doesn’t have to return to England, but even in Italy a shadow continues to haunt him. On the night of Carnivale, Oswald finds the corpse of a friend on his doorstep, and this discovery makes him a murder detective once again.

This series is easy to read and offers a nice 14th century setting. After two volumes set in Kent just after the great plague epidemic, we are now in dirty Venice with narrow streets and waterways where you can lose your way easily. Venice is the city of masks, not only during Carnivale. A lot of citizens have secrets to hide and this is something Oswald will quickly discover.

A nice change of scenery you might think but I missed Kent a lot. Oswald leaves something behind and is therefore not himself for almost the entire book. It’s interesting to read about his feelings and depression, but it were mainly the explanatory chapters that took place in England that fascinated me.

The murder mystery is not too complex, but contains enough dead ends and vivid characters that it continues to captivate. Although the noses are clearly pointing in one direction at the end, I still found the ending engrossing enough. There are some surprising elements to be found.

In the fourth part, Oswald returns to England and I am looking forward to that. Nice series, but this was not the best part. I do recommend to start with the first book ‘Plague land‘.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

This is book 9/20 for ‘20 books of Summer‘.

The scarlet contessa by Jeanne Kalogridis

The orphaned Dea is taken into the household of Bona, duchess of Milan, who also cares for the bastard children of her husband. Among those is the young and beautiful teenager Catherina Sforza who dotes on her father. But Duke Gian Galeazzo Sforza has many enemies and he is murdered during a church visit. Dea’s fate is now collided with Catherina as she accompanies her to Rome to her wedding with Girolamo Riario, the pope’s nephew.

After Engeland, renaissance Italy is my second favourite historical setting. I just love all the political intrigues, the art, romances and yes even the bloodshed. Catherina Sforza is by far my most loved character of this period and this is one of the only fictional novels about her life. I also enjoyed two other works from Kalogridis before. ‘I, Mona Lisa’ about Da Vinci and his Lisa (I don’t remember a lot from it) and ‘The devil’s queen’ about Catherine De Medici which I liked a lot. Needless to say, I was looking forward to reading ‘The scarlet contessa’.

However, the novel is told from the fictional perspective of Dea, Catherina’s lady-in-waiting who has a magical gift to read the future via tarot cards. A huge part of the storyline goes to exploring Dea’s background (her parentage, her gifts, her relationship with her husband…) and I was just eagerly waiting until Catherina’s story would really start taking off.

It did at a certain point. After the assassination of her father, she goes to Rome to marry into the forceful Riario family. There, she meets charming Rodrigo Borgia, who will become her arch enemy and also Giuliano Della Rovere, another future pope. When pope Sixtus dies, Catherina and her husband move to their estates of Imola and Forli and there will be a lot of trouble for them. I don’t want go into too much detail about the (complex) politics, but Kalogridis does a great job in making it understandable.

Unfortunately, she has to omit certain things from the story in order to do that. There is no mention of Catherina’s second marriage and a few of her children are also not spoken of. Instead, we again get some more insight in Dea’s gifts and a heavy focus on the Borgias.

I did like this novel, I just believe a less heavy focus on the fantasy part would have worked better. Regarding Catherine De Medici, I liked the magic because it is just part of how we look at her. In this novel, it felt out of place. Catherina Sforza was a formidable woman and commander of her army. Had she been born a man, she would have become a great military leader. In this novel, she turns from a vain young lustful girl into this woman that I admire. And no magic is needed to tell that story in my opinion.

I still need to read Kalogridis’ most famous book ‘The Borgia bride’ which receives higher ratings and is about Sancha of Aragon. If you have read and loved Sarah Dunant’s work about renaissance Italy, Jeanne Kalogridis is your next go to!

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

What’s your favourite novel set in Italy?

The passion of Artemisia by Susan Vreeland

Artemisia Gentileschi has learned to paint from her father Orazio and his colleague Arentino. When the latter rapes her and her father forces her to take the case to court, 18-year-old Artemisia becomes the talk of Rome. After being tortured and her father’s betrayal, Artemisia marries the painter Pierantonio who lives in Florence. Trapped in a loveless marriage she fights for acceptance as a female painter in a world full of men. In Florence, she will find a patron in Cosimo II De Medici and a friend in Galileo Galilei and Michelangelo The Younger. Her life will never be easy, but the greatest art springs from sorrow.

Ever since creating a Goodreads account, this book has been on the recommendations list. When I recognized the title in our library, I decided to give it a try. I love stories about art and painters and I adore novels about Italy and especially Rome and Florence. So yes, this might be something for me.

The story opens in Rome when Artemisia goes to court to defend her case against Arentino, a colleague of her father who raped her. She needs to endure some awful things and you immediately get an insight in the male dominated society of Baroque Italy.

I must admit that I didn’t know much of Artemisia’s life and work. But what a life she had! I loved to read about her search for acceptance and her journey through Italy. We travel to Florence, Rome, Naples and Genoa to look for patronage amongst the nobles. I was especially interested in her friendship with Galilei. As he is also struggling to be taken seriously by the Pope.

The story takes some leaps in time which made the transitions a bit too fast sometimes. Vreeland tries to include most of the key moments of Artemisia’s life and adds her own imagination to fill the gaps. The author takes some liberties regarding Artemisia’s relationship with her father and husband.

Artemisia first and only love was painting and in this novel she creates her most-known works such as her Judith paintings and Susanna and the elder. After every chapter where she created a painting, I Googled it to study the details. It certainly enriched my reading experience.

The book reads like a fictional biography. The writing style is dry and some characters feel distant. But I still enjoyed it a lot. I’ve added Vreeland’s other famous novel ‘Girl in hyacinth blue‘ about Johannes Vermeer to my list.

Rating: 4 out of 5.