Wolves in Winter by Lisa Hilton

Wolves in Winter Beginning in 1492, Wolves in Winter is the story of Mura Benito, the young daughter of a bookseller from Toledo. Even at the age of five, Mura knows she is not like other children. With her mixture of Moorish blood (from her father) and Nordic blood (from her mother) and her pale, androgynous appearance, she has always looked different. She has also grown up listening to her father read to her from his books and possesses a wealth of arcane knowledge which would be unknown to most little girls.

When Mura’s father is arrested by the Inquisition, he leaves his daughter in the care of his friend, Adara, but Mura is eventually sold into slavery and finds herself taken to Florence where she becomes a maid in the household of Piero de’ Medici. Here she continues her education under the eye of the great scholar Marsilio Ficino, learns the arts of healing and fortune telling with the help of the wise woman Margherita, and makes a special friend called Cecco who shows her the sights of Florence. However, Mura’s life is soon to undergo another big change: the downfall of the Medici, the rise to power of the monk Savonarola and the threat of war with the French mean that these are uncertain times in Florence. Fate will take Mura next to Forli and the home of the Countess Caterina Sforza, known as the Lioness of the Romagna.

I picked up Wolves in Winter while browsing the shelves in the library and was intrigued by the promise on the cover of “poison, alchemy and intrigue in the court of the Medici”. I had never heard of either the book or the author but thought I would take it home and give it a try. I did enjoy some aspects of the novel – it’s an entertaining, imaginative story set against a fascinating historical backdrop – but it wasn’t as good as it could have been or as I’d hoped it might be. The positives first: I loved the atmosphere and the richness of Lisa Hilton’s writing (I particularly liked the way she used colour in her descriptions) and the various settings were vividly described. In 350 pages we move from a Spanish bookshop to a Florentine palazzo, from the camp of a travelling circus troupe to a castle under siege!

It was the fictional story of Mura that I had a few problems with. First, she narrates in the first person and although she does age over the course of the novel, she never feels significantly different from the child she is at the beginning. Then there are the supernatural elements of the book – for example, Mura believes she has the ability to communicate with wolves and that she has the gift of the Sight. I just don’t feel that this added very much to the story. Renaissance Italy is always an interesting setting anyway and you would expect any novel featuring both the Medici and the Borgias to be full of intrigue and drama. Add Caterina Sforza, a fascinating character (and one I haven’t read about until now), and there should already have been enough material here to tell a compelling story without the addition of the ‘magical’ elements.

Mura herself is an unusual heroine; I liked her, but I think her strangeness made her a difficult character to fully engage with. I did appreciate, though, that Lisa Hilton was trying to do something a bit different here and that this was not supposed to be your average heroine or your average historical novel! Another way in which Mura’s story is unusual is that it doesn’t involve a lot of romance – she does have a romantic interest but it only forms one small part of the novel. There’s a good reason for this, which I won’t explain here but which will be revealed if you read the book.

Wolves in Winter was an enjoyable, easy read but it lacked the sort of depth I prefer in historical fiction. This edition of the book includes a preview of the author’s next novel, The Stolen Queen, which is about Isabelle of Angoulême. It looks promising but I’m not sure I’ll be reading any more by this author.

Bitter Greens by Kate Forsyth

Bitter Greens Since reading Kate Forsyth’s Brothers Grimm-inspired The Wild Girl last year, I have been looking forward to Bitter Greens, another novel with a Grimm connection. I’m sure most of us know, or have at least heard of, the fairy tale Rapunzel. Although this fairy tale was included in the Grimm Brothers’ 1812 collection, Children’s and Household Tales, it was actually based on a much earlier story, Persinette, which was published in 1698 and written by a woman called Charlotte-Rose de Caumont de La Force. In Bitter Greens, Kate Forsyth combines a re-telling of the Rapunzel story with a fascinating account of the life of Charlotte-Rose.

The novel begins in 1697, on the day that Charlotte-Rose is banished from the court of Louis XIV and sent to a convent. With her sharp tongue, sense of humour and spirited personality, it seems that Charlotte-Rose has been the cause of too much scandal for the Sun King’s liking and is now receiving her punishment. After the lively and opulent court of Versailles, Charlotte-Rose finds it very difficult to adapt to life in a strict and austere nunnery. The only thing that makes her days bearable is her friendship with one of the nuns, Soeur Seraphina, who entertains her with a story about a little Italian girl called Margherita…

Accused of stealing a handful of bitter greens from a witch’s garden, Margherita’s parents are forced to make a bargain with the witch: she will not report them for the theft if they agree to hand over their daughter as soon as she reaches the age of seven. And so Margherita finds herself taken from her parents and locked in a high tower by Lake Garda – a tower which can only be accessed when Margherita throws her long red hair from the window to form a ladder.

Margherita’s story unfolds slowly, a few chapters at a time, and alternates with the story of Charlotte-Rose who is looking back on her life, her love affairs and her time at court. There is also a third strand to the novel and in this we learn the history of Selena Leonelli, the witch of the fairy tale, who was once a Venetian courtesan known as ‘La Strega Bella’ and a model for the artist Titian. These three women lead lives which are in some ways very different but in others quite similar. Each has been touched by sadness and tragedy, but each woman proves herself to be strong and resilient in the end.

There’s just so much packed into this novel: the scandals and intrigues of the 17th century French court, a version of Rapunzel much darker and more compelling than the one I remember from my childhood, a vivid depiction of Renaissance Italy, magic and witchcraft, religious persecution, stories within stories, and much more. I was never bored, no matter which of the three women I was reading about. Charlotte-Rose is a wonderful character and I’m surprised that more authors of historical fiction haven’t used her as a subject for their novels. This is the first time I’ve had the pleasure of reading about her and I think it’s sad that she seems to have been largely forgotten by history.

Much as I loved Charlotte-Rose, though, I always found myself looking forward to returning to Margherita in her tower. She and Selena never felt quite as real to me as Charlotte-Rose did (which is maybe not surprising as they are supposed to be fairy tale characters, after all!) but I really enjoyed revisiting the Rapunzel story, which I hadn’t read or even thought about for such a long time. There were elements of fantasy and magical realism within Margherita’s tale that worked well alongside the more realistic narrative of Charlotte-Rose and I thought the balance was perfect. I loved Bitter Greens and would highly recommend both this book and The Wild Girl.

Bitter Greens_Blog Tour Banner_FINALv2 I read Bitter Greens as part of the Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tour. For more reviews, interviews and guest posts please see the tour schedule.

The Sunrise by Victoria Hislop

The Sunrise This is Victoria Hislop’s fourth novel but the first one I’ve read. She has previously written about the Greek leper colony on the island of Spinalonga (The Island), the Spanish Civil War (The Return), and the history of the Greek city of Thessaloniki (The Thread), all of which sound interesting to me as I know nothing about any of those subjects! Like the three books I’ve just mentioned, in The Sunrise, Hislop takes a time and place that many people, including myself, will be unfamiliar with and weaves a story around it.

In the summer of 1972, the city of Famagusta in Cyprus is a thriving holiday resort, one of the most popular tourist destinations in the Mediterranean. The beach is lined with luxury hotels, the most luxurious and expensive of them all being The Sunrise, which has just opened its doors for the first time. For the hotel’s owner, Savvas Papacosta, these are exciting times; his dream of becoming the most successful hotelier in Famagusta is moving one step closer to reality.

Within two years, everything changes. Unknown to the tourists as they enjoy the sun, sea and sand, a Greek military coup has led to Turkey invading the northern part of the island to protect the Turkish Cypriots. When the army approaches Famagusta, frightened guests evacuate the hotels and people flee their homes, among them Savvas and his glamorous wife, Aphroditi. But as Turkish soldiers surround the abandoned city, two families remain hidden inside their apartments. One family, the Georgious, are Greek Cypriots, and the other, the Özkans, are Turkish Cypriots. We follow the stories of both of these families, as well as the Papacostas, and see how each character copes with what has happened to their city.

I did enjoy The Sunrise but I thought it felt a bit uneven; not much happened in the first half of the book and a lot of time was spent introducing the characters, setting the scene and describing the interior of the new hotel. With hindsight, I can see that maybe this was necessary, so that we could appreciate the extent to which the lives of these characters were disrupted and destroyed by the coming conflict, but I still found myself getting impatient and wanting to get into the story! I loved the second half of the novel, though. The descriptions of the abandoned city – houses with beds still unmade and food still on the tables, waiting in vain for their owners to return – are extremely vivid and there are images from the book that have stayed in my mind several days after finishing it.

I didn’t particularly like any of the characters in the story but I thought they were an interesting selection of people and I could certainly sympathise with the situations in which they found themselves. While there are one or two characters in the novel who are motivated by greed and self-interest, it was good to see people of different backgrounds and political beliefs working together, overcoming their differences and discovering that their ‘enemies’ are human beings just like themselves.

Towards the end of the book there are too many coincidences and things are wrapped up too neatly for my liking, but overall I found The Sunrise a fascinating read. I have never been to Cyprus and as I said at the start of this post, I know very little about its history (apart from the 15th century civil war, which I read about in Dorothy Dunnett’s Race of Scorpions) so I’m pleased to have had an opportunity to learn about Famagusta’s tragic past. What makes the story even more poignant is that the district of Varosha, where The Sunrise is set, remains a ghost town even today, untouched and uninhabited for four decades.

Thanks to Bookbridgr for my copy of The Sunrise.

The Daughters of Mars by Thomas Keneally

The Daughters of Mars Until I picked up The Daughters of Mars in the library I was only really aware of Thomas Keneally as the author of Schindler’s Ark (which I haven’t read), the book on which the film Schindler’s List was based. I was surprised to find that he has written more than forty other books (both fiction and non-fiction) and I’m pleased that I’ve finally read one. The Daughters of Mars is the story of two Australian sisters, Naomi and Sally Durance, who serve as nurses with the Australian Army Nursing Service during the First World War. I had a few problems with the book, mainly due to the unusual writing style, but it gave me lots of fascinating insights into the challenges facing wartime nurses.

When we first meet the Durance sisters, they are leading very different lives: Naomi has left home and has gone to work at a hospital in Sydney, while Sally has remained on the family dairy farm in the Macleay Valley and is caring for their sick mother. The two girls have little in common other than a love of nursing but an unwelcome bond is formed between them when their mother dies under tragic circumstances. Deciding to get away for a while from Australia and the memories it holds, they enlist on the hospital ship Archimedes. Sailing first to Egypt and then to the Dardanelles, the sisters are kept busy treating casualties of the Gallipoli Campaign and as the war progresses, they find themselves in separate hospitals on the Western Front where they face the horrors of trench warfare and gas attacks.

The work is demanding, dangerous and emotionally draining, but also very rewarding. As well as learning new skills, both girls find new friends among the other young nurses and meet the men they hope to spend the rest of their lives with. Of course, nothing is certain in times of war and there’s no guarantee that either they or the men they love will survive long enough for marriage to become a possibility. And the most important relationship of all – the one between Naomi and Sally – will remain tense and strained until the sisters can find a way to put the past behind them.

I can’t say that I particularly enjoyed reading The Daughters of Mars, but I did find it interesting to learn about the work of the Australian nurses, which is something I haven’t read about before. Most of what we hear about the Great War involves stories of men fighting on the front lines, but it’s important to remember the important contribution of these brave women who also played their part in helping the war effort. While I have read British author Vera Brittain’s first-hand account of life as a wartime nurse, Testament of Youth (which I highly recommend), this is the first time I’ve read about the same subject from an Australian perspective. It was fascinating, although if you’re squeamish I should warn you that Sally and Naomi are faced with all kinds of gruesome battle wounds, injuries and illnesses – and they are described in a lot of detail, along with the medical procedures and surgical operations that are used to treat them.

Now I need to explain what I didn’t like about this book and it’s something that’s really a matter of personal taste. In his author’s note, Keneally tells us that if the use of punctuation in the novel sometimes seems unusual it’s because he has taken inspiration from ‘the forgotten private journals of the Great War, written by men and women who frequently favoured dashes rather than commas’. The dashes didn’t bother me, but the lack of quotation marks did! We use punctuation to indicate speech for a reason and because it wasn’t there I found that the text didn’t flow properly, which made it unnecessarily difficult to read. I felt that I was viewing the events of the story from a distance and never fully engaged with either Durance sister. In fact, I found most of the characters quite bland and difficult to tell apart. There was none of the passion and emotion that I would have expected from a book like this.

I can’t comment on the accuracy of the book (as I said, wartime nursing is not a subject I know much about) but it does seem to have been very well researched and covers almost every aspect of the war you can think of from conscription and conscientious objectors to shell shock and the Spanish flu. Despite the problems I had with Keneally’s writing, I found the story interesting enough to keep reading until I reached the end. And what an intriguing ending it was! Unfortunately I can’t tell you what was so special about it, but it was completely unexpected and I’m still not sure whether I liked it or not – it’s the sort of ending that will leave you wondering why the author chose to end the book in that way and what message he wanted us to take from it.

If anyone has read any other Thomas Keneally books, let me know if you think I should try another one. Are his other books written in a more conventional style?

The Constant Nymph by Margaret Kennedy

The Constant Nymph This week Jane of Fleur in her World has been hosting a Margaret Kennedy Reading Week. Margaret Kennedy is a new author for me so I could have chosen to read any of her books (they all sound intriguing in different ways), but I decided to go with The Constant Nymph, as I’d received a copy from NetGalley a while ago. The Constant Nymph was published in 1924 and is probably Margaret Kennedy’s best-known book.

At the beginning of the novel, Lewis Dodd, a talented young composer is on his way to the Tyrol to visit his friend and fellow musician, Albert Sanger, who lives in a chalet in the Alps with his large family. Sanger has seven children – with three different mothers – and they are known collectively as ‘Sanger’s circus’. Lewis has been a frequent visitor to the chalet for years and the children consider him almost part of the family, but for fourteen-year-old Teresa (Tessa) he’s something more than that: he is the man she has loved for as long as she can remember. Lewis loves Tessa too, but as he is more than twice her age, they don’t tell each other how they feel.

When Albert Sanger dies unexpectedly, Sanger’s circus is broken up; the two eldest children, Caryl and Kate, decide to start new lives elsewhere, while Sanger’s current mistress, Linda, moves out of the family home with her young daughter, Susan. Tessa’s sixteen-year-old sister, the wild and free-spirited Antonia, marries her lover Jacob Birnbaum, so that only Tessa and her two younger siblings, Paulina and Sebastian, remain. Their relatives in England come to the rescue, with the children’s cousin, Florence Churchill, setting off for the Alps to see what she can do to help.

Florence is a well-educated, beautiful and refined young woman of twenty-eight and is shocked by the Sangers’ unconventional, bohemian lifestyle. She immediately makes plans to bring Tessa, Paulina and Sebastian to England and send them to school. Before she leaves Austria, however, she finds herself falling in love with Lewis Dodd who is still at the chalet. Despite his feelings for Tessa, Lewis is also drawn to Florence and the two are soon married.

It may seem that I’ve given away a lot of the plot here, but all of this actually takes place in the first half of the book. The remainder of the novel describes the marriage between Lewis and Florence, which as you might expect, is not a very successful one as Lewis really wants to be with Tessa – who is still in love with him. The viewpoint shifts from character to character so that we can understand the emotions and motives of all three (I never managed to warm to Lewis at all, but loved Tessa and had some sympathy for Florence). As the story starts to move towards the final chapters it’s obvious that things aren’t going to end happily for all of them – and maybe not for any of them. The ending, when it does come, is unexpected and not very satisfying. I felt that the characters deserved a better conclusion to their story.

I was also a bit disappointed that so many of Tessa’s other family members and friends disappeared in the middle of the book; Kennedy had gone to so much trouble to introduce us to Caryl and Kate, Linda and Susan, the Russian Trigorin and others, it seemed a shame not to develop any of their stories any further (though I’m aware that there’s a sequel, The Fool of the Family, where we might meet some of them again).

I did enjoy The Constant Nymph, though! The book hasn’t aged very well in some respects (the portrayal of Antonia’s Jewish husband, for example) but then, I read a lot of older books and can accept that sometimes they do feel dated. I loved the setting, the characterisation and the elegant, engaging writing style and am looking forward to reading more of Margaret Kennedy’s books. Thanks to Jane for hosting the reading week and introducing me to an author I might never have thought about trying!

A Glimpse into 1960s Paris – a guest post by Rachel Hore

It’s not often that I have the chance to introduce a guest post here at She Reads Novels, but today I’m pleased to welcome author Rachel Hore to the blog to tell us about researching 1960s Paris for her new novel A Week in Paris which has been published in the UK this week.

Rachel Hore

Rachel Hore

A GLIMPSE INTO 60s PARIS by Rachel Hore

My new novel, A Week in Paris, opens in 1961, when Fay Knox, a young English violinist, visits the city with her orchestra and learns secrets of her family’s wartime past. What was Paris like at that time and how did I go about researching it?

Reading histories of the period gave me the context. Paris, though glamorous, elegant and romantic, a cradle of new ideas in philosophy and high art, was still socially conservative, France as a whole even more so. In 1958, after a period of unstable government and succeeding crises over the war of independence in Algeria, General de Gaulle was recalled as President and a period of strong rule ensued. It wasn’t until the students’ riots and sit-ins of May 1968 that the young and dispossessed really challenged the aging, authoritarian head of government, and change was finally, if painfully slowly, set in motion.

Boutique off Rue de Rivoli

Boutique off Rue de Rivoli (2014)

In other ways, too, the liberal sixties came late to Paris. A glance at the popular music hits of 1961 reveals months of No.1s for traditional French crooners Edith Piaf and Charles Aznavour, with a young Johnny Hallyday making an appearance with ‘Kili Watch’ and, bizarrely for January, Richard Anthony singing ‘Itsy Bitsy Petit Bikini’. This picture had not changed much by early 1964 when the Beatles played a series of concerts at the Olympia music hall. An interviewer had to ask, ‘What is Beatlemania?’ and there were no girls screaming and fainting. Jazz is still big in this period. On her arrival in the city, Fay spots a poster about the trumpeter Miles Davis playing the Olympia.

Paris Match March 1961

Paris Match March 1961

Guidebooks for 1961 were immensely helpful for my research. The Dolphin Guide to Paris, written for American tourists, was full of black and white photographs of the period; a student jazz band jamming on the quays of the Left Bank of the Seine and haute couture models wearing the latest boxy coats – like Fay’s. My copy of Paris Match magazine featuring film-maker Jean-Luc Godard’s elegantly sexy wife Anna Karina made its way into my narrative, as did the Gateway Guide’s advice to fashion-hunters on a budget to visit Worth, Dior and Schiaparelli’s ’ cheaper ‘boutiques’ or to satisfy themselves with the big department stores, Printemps and Galeries La Fayette.

A Bout de Souffle

Poster of A Bout de Souffle

Much has been written about French film of the time. Fay’s fellow musician Sandra is excited when her French boyfriend holds out the possibility of meeting Alain Delon, the heart-breaker star of 1960’s Purple Noon. In the same year came A Bout de Souffle (Breathless) by Jean-Luc Godard, which with its bold visual style and innovative use of jump cuts was hailed as an important example of French Nouvelle Vague (New Wave). Other practitioners included Francois Truffaut (The 400 Blows) and Alain Resnais (Hiroshima, Mon Amour), both released in 1959. Movies, of course, can be a gift to the novelist conducting research as long as one weighs up their veracity.

A rest from sightseeing

A rest from sightseeing

Research can only take the fiction-writer so far. The trick for me was to recognize when to leave it all behind and to enter instead the world of 1961 Paris I’ve imagined – the world Fay sees and in which she lives and loves. When I could hear her voice I knew that it was time to put the books away.

Text and photos ©Rachel Hore 2014 unless stated otherwise.

Hand of Fire by Judith Starkston

perf6.000x9.000.indd In this wonderful combination of historical fiction and Greek mythology, Judith Starkston reimagines events from the Iliad, telling the story of the Trojan War through the eyes of Briseis, a woman who plays an important role in Homer’s epic despite being only briefly mentioned. In Hand of Fire, Briseis is finally given the attention she deserves.

At the beginning of the novel, Briseis is a young priestess of the healing goddess Kamrusepa, but is sadly unable to prevent her own mother from dying. There is more sadness to follow for Briseis when she is married off to Mynes, a prince of Lyrnessos, and finds him to be a violent and abusive man. Sustained by the compassion of her elderly nurse, Eurome, and by visions of the handsome, half-immortal Greek warrior, Achilles, the turning point comes when the city of Lyrnessos falls to the Greek army and Briseis is taken captive. How can she reconcile her love for Achilles with her new position as slave?

Hand of Fire surprised me; I really didn’t expect to enjoy it quite as much as I did. I love reading historical fiction but tend not to choose books set in the ancient world. I often find that I have trouble identifying with the characters – I sometimes feel that even the non-mythological ones seem more like mythological beings than real people. That was not a problem here: this is a very human story with characters I could love and care about. Briseis herself is a great protagonist and I liked her from the beginning. She has great strength and resilience, all the more impressive when you consider everything she has to endure – the loss of her mother, marriage to a man who treats her badly, personal tragedy in the face of war, life as a captive slave, and her tumultuous relationship with Achilles.

Achilles is more difficult to understand. His personality is complex and conflicted; in battle he is a fierce, mighty warrior gripped by an unstoppable rage, but when he is alone with Briseis we see the gentler, more sensitive side of his nature. Of the secondary characters, there are two in particular that I found very well developed and memorable. One is Eurome, Briseis’ elderly maid, a caring, warm-hearted person and a devoted friend Briseis can trust and rely upon. The other is Patroklos, the beloved companion of Achilles, the only person apart from Briseis who is able to quell his rage.

This is a novel that has been thoroughly researched, which is evident from Judith Starkston’s author’s note in which she describes her reasons for writing this story, the things she discovered during the writing process and the decisions she needed to make. She does an excellent job of drawing on her knowledge of the period to create a convincing picture of what life may have been like for a woman who lived during the Bronze Age. The history of medicine is something I’ve always found very interesting, so I enjoyed the parts of the book that describe Briseis’ work as a healer (which consists mainly of using herbs and magical rituals as unlike her brother, Iatros, she is unable to study to be a physician).

Even for a reader like myself who only has a limited knowledge of Ancient Greece and hasn’t actually read the Iliad, I found this novel very accessible and easy to follow. I appreciated the fact that the author takes the time to flesh out the background to the story and doesn’t just assume that every reader will be familiar with the time period and the mythology. I was also pleased to find that there’s not too much emphasis on the battle scenes! This is Briseis’ story and the focus is on her personal life and on her relationships with Achilles, Mynes and the others. I really enjoyed spending time in her world and will be looking out for more novels from Judith Starkston in the future.

Hand of Fire tour graphic I read Hand of Fire as part of a Fireship Press Virtual Book Tour. You can find the tour schedule here.