As a young boy Xeno Atlas learned of an ancient book called the ‘Caravan Bestiary’ that contained stories of all the animals who had been denied safe...moreAs a young boy Xeno Atlas learned of an ancient book called the ‘Caravan Bestiary’ that contained stories of all the animals who had been denied safe passage on Noah’s ark: the manticore, the unicorn, the sphinx, to name of a few. An isolated youth whose mother died giving birth to him – and whose father resents him for it – Xeno is raised by his grandmother and her tales of animal spirits. When his grandmother dies and Xeno is shipped off to boarding school a teacher tells him of the Caravan Bestiary, and herein begins Xeno’s quest to find the book, which has been lost for hundreds of years. During his school years he begins researching fantastical beasts, taking notes in spiral bound notebooks, and when he is drafted some years later for the Vietnam War it is only Xeno’s desire to find the bestiary that prevents him from succumbing to his traumatic wartime memories. Soon his father dies and leaves him with a fortune – a mysterious occurrence since Xeno’s father was a sailor – and Xeno finds himself able to travel the world looking for the bestiary. His quest takes him to libraries from Hawaii to Europe, even an unlikely friendship with a seance master, each step revealing clues that take Xeno one step closer to his goal. Xeno’s story is a fascinating one at first, punctuated by his melancholic passion for mythology and a frustrated love for his childhood friend, Lena. However, though the conclusion matches the overall tone of the book it was unsatisfying. Many questions are left unanswered, which is in keeping with Xeno’s mysterious search, but I couldn’t help wishing for more from the author.(less)
Empress Nur Jahan was the twentieth and favorite wife of Mogul Emperor Jahangir. Born into an aristocratic Persian family who had immigrated to India,...moreEmpress Nur Jahan was the twentieth and favorite wife of Mogul Emperor Jahangir. Born into an aristocratic Persian family who had immigrated to India, her birth name was Mehrunnisa. She was a remarkable beauty, with blue eyes and pale skin, who fell in love with Jahangir as a young girl serving Empress Ruqayya Sultan Begam (chief wife of Jahangir’s father, Emperor Akbar) in the Imperial harem. Then a prince, Jahangir was likewise enamored with her, but at seventeen she was married off to a soldier named Ali Quli as a sign of favor from the Emperor. Numerous rebellions against Jahangir eventually led to Ali Quli’s death, however, and as a widow the now twenty-something Mehrunnisa was returned to Empress Ruqayya Sultan Begam’s side. Inside the imperial harem again, Mehrunnisa’s love for Jahangir was finally allowed to bloom, and after some clever scheming on Ruqayya’s part Jahangir and Mehrunnisa married. Upon ascension to the throne Jahangir renamed her Nur Jahan, which means “Light of the World.” She had formidable skills in administration, politics, economics, and culture, all of which she could now use as Jahangir’s favorite wife. Her power and influence were unprecedented in the Moghul empire, where women remained veiled behind the harem walls. Nevertheless Nur Jahan was able to reach beyond the harem through determination, intelligence, and her passionate relationship with Emeperor Jahangir. “The Twentieth Wife” begins with the birth of Mehrunnisa on a dusty side road as her family flees Persia, and ends with her ascension to the throne as Nur Jahan. In between these two events is a remarkable story about love, destiny and the resilience of the human spirit. Sundaresan’s attention to historical detail and largely accurate representation of Nur Jahan’s life creates a vivid narrative that is hard to put down. As soon as I finished “The Twentieth Wife” I couldn’t help but leap right into “The Feast of Roses,” which continues Nur Jahan’s story.(less)
Set in late 1800’s Mexico amid the political turmoil of General Porfirio Diaz’s regime “The Hummingbird’s Daughter” recounts the real-life story of Ur...moreSet in late 1800’s Mexico amid the political turmoil of General Porfirio Diaz’s regime “The Hummingbird’s Daughter” recounts the real-life story of Urrea’s great-aunt Teresita. The illegitimate daughter of the patron and one of the indios working his ranch, Teresita eventually became known as Santa Teresa, the Saint of Cabora. Apprenticed to the colorful curandera (healer) Huila at an early age she eventually became known for her midwifery skills, healing powers and supposed return from the dead. Eventually her popularity among the laypeople inspired massive pilgrimages to her home and attracted the attention of General Diaz himself, who saw her as a threat to his authority when she began encouraging the Yaqui Indians to fight for their land. After spending twenty years researching Teresita’s life and even the healing techniques of the indios, Urrea has created an enthralling story filled with lively characters who all but jump off the page. I especially appreciated his colorful use of colloquial Spanish, which not only reminded me of some of my relatives but made his characters seem all the more human.(less)
Ever since I read Carroll’s “The Dark Queen” I’ve been a fan of her writing. A mix of historical fiction and romance novel, Carroll has a knack for ca...moreEver since I read Carroll’s “The Dark Queen” I’ve been a fan of her writing. A mix of historical fiction and romance novel, Carroll has a knack for capturing the atmosphere of 1500’s Europe while also showcasing the indomitable personalities of her heroines. The first three novels in this series recount the adventures of the Cheney sisters, who are “daughters of the earth” – called witches by some – skilled in the ancient arts of healing. “The Huntress” shifts focus by telling the story of Catriona O’Hanlon, an Irish warrior woman of sorts sent to England by the eldest Cheney sister. Her quest: to find a young girl who some believe to be a powerful dark sorceress. Cat uses her skills with a sword, her beauty and her wit to accomplish her mission – meeting a handsome gentlemen along the way, of course. “The Huntress” was not as action packed as “The Dark Queen” (a book I finished in one night), but was nevertheless an enjoyable read. I only wish Queen Elizabeth I and her spy master Sir Francis Walsingham had played more active roles in the storyline.(less)
After reading the Amazon.com reviews I was eagerly anticipating this book about Lady Emma Hamilton, a common born woman who rose to fame both for her...moreAfter reading the Amazon.com reviews I was eagerly anticipating this book about Lady Emma Hamilton, a common born woman who rose to fame both for her beauty and for her affair with Admiral Lord Nelson. Born Amy Lyon in 1765, by seventeen years of age she was already well-known in London society as the mistress of several men and as the “Goddess of Health” for a quack Scottish doctor named James Graham. Eventually she moved to Italy where she became the toast of society and married the English Lord Hamilton, and it was during this period of her life that Lady Hamilton met Admiral Lord Nelson. Altogether Lady Hamilton’s life is captivating and “Too Great a Lady” captures some of that, especially during the first half of the book where we learn about Emma’s early years in a brothel and as a kept woman. However, the second half of the book loses much of Emma’s voice and reads more like a history book than a novel. Significant portions of each chapter are composed of excerpts from Lady Hamilton and Lord Nelson’s letters, and though we still learn about her life, for the most part she recounts Nelson’s military history and current missions. I felt like her story took a backseat while Nelson’s military prowess came to the front, and while I don’t dispute Nelson’s well-deserved renown I was more interested in Emma’s thoughts and feelings. The old adage of “show don’t tell” would have improved the story significantly in this area, transforming Emma’s social gatherings from something akin to “went we to a dance” to an entire world of costume, food and conversation. Finally, Emma’s inconsistent dialect drove me up the wall. The author goes to great lengths to convince the reader that Emma was so proud of her Cheshire accent that she refused to get rid of it, despite having near native pronunciation in languages such as Italian and French. Nevertheless, Emma’s dialogue is incredibly inconsistent. For instance, on page 360 Emma says “Mam, Emma Carew has just arrived. Tell me, and tell me true: did you plan this?” then some 8 lines down Emma suddenly sounds like this “Only I ‘ope I never ‘ave to answer too many questions. My ‘eart won’t be able to stand up to it, y’nau?” In the first example Emma sounds like a well-spoken ‘lady,’ capable of pronouncing the letter H and all. In the second example, she has reverted to her Cheshire accent, dropping all the H’s and even becoming unable to say “you know” correctly. I realize I’m being tremendously picky here, and I have no problem with accents – but if a character is going to have a heavy accent they should have it throughout!(less)
I first learned about the Sookie Stackhouse vampire series when HBO’s “True Blood” premiered last summer. Based on Charlaine Harris’ novels, the show...moreI first learned about the Sookie Stackhouse vampire series when HBO’s “True Blood” premiered last summer. Based on Charlaine Harris’ novels, the show takes viewers into a small town in Louisiana where vampires have recently become legal and a mind-reading waitress named Sookie falls for a sexy vampire named Bill. “Dead Until Dark” is the first book in Harris’ series and the early episodes of “True Blood” follow the story line pretty closely, with a few variations and a darker twist. If you are a fan of the show you will be able to predict 99% of what happens in “Dead Until Dark,” but that being said I still enjoyed reading this book.
In “Dead Until Dark” vampires have recently come out of the proverbial coffin and are a legal minority that suffers the prejudice/superstition of regular people. Rather than drinking directly from the source, vampires now have the option of subsisting on artificial blood – and some vampires like Bill Compton opt for the fake stuff in the hopes of “mainstreaming” with general society. Bill meets Sookie one night when he goes to the bar she works at, and she promptly saves his life from crooked townsfolk who want to drain all his blood to sell on the black market. (Vampire blood is sought after by some as a drug-like stimulant.)
Sookie is immediately attracted to Bill not only because of his looks, but because she can’t hear his thoughts. Choosing to view her mind-reading abilities as a disability, Sookie has always hated the way she hears peoples thoughts unless she makes a conscious effort to block them out. With Bill she can completely let down her guard, and she understandably finds this ability to relax with him alluring. Soon a shape-shifter enters the paranormal mix and a serial killer begins hunting women who are associated with vampires. Sookie is one of the killer’s targets, but with her powers and Bill’s protection the killer is in for more than expected.
Harris writes with authority, imagination and humor. I only wish the creators of “True Blood” had included some of her more unique plot elements into the series. For instance, that Sookie eventually enjoys drinking Bill’s blood and that doing so gives her vampiric qualities of her own. I’d say more but then I’d be giving away too much of the story! If you enjoy reading vampire fiction or are even curious about the genre, I recommend picking up a copy of this entertaining book.(less)
I never thought I would say this but John Speed now rivals Philippa Gregory as one of my favorite authors of historical fiction. Set in India in the y...moreI never thought I would say this but John Speed now rivals Philippa Gregory as one of my favorite authors of historical fiction. Set in India in the year 1657, “The Temple Dancer” is a riveting tale of two women: Lucinda Desana, a beautiful Goan heiress; and Maya, a devadasi (temple dancer) who is bought by Lucinda’s family and sold as a concubine. They meet in Goa and travel through the Western Ghats by elephant, each heading towards a fate that has changed by the time their journey has ended. Escorted by a dangerous man with a reputation for violence, a conniving eunuch, a cold-hearted businessman and a mysterious prince, their story is filled with intrigue, adventure, sensuality and forbidden love. Indeed, I lost many hours of sleep because I simply had to find out what Speed’s exotic collection of characters were going to do next. His immense knowledge of Indian history and culture transforms them into vibrant people who inhabit an unforgettable world. The back cover of this book says that Speed has studied Indian history, art and religion for over thirty-years and I believe it. I can hardly wait for the next two books in this planned trilogy.(less)
When psychologist Rebecca Butterman arrives home one evening she finds a squadron of police cars parked outside her condo. Her neighbor Madeline, it s...moreWhen psychologist Rebecca Butterman arrives home one evening she finds a squadron of police cars parked outside her condo. Her neighbor Madeline, it seems, has committed suicide. Yet Madeline’s mother isn’t convinced that her vibrant daughter was suicidal, and persuades Rebecca to use her knowledge of psychology to investigate. In this way the unassuming psychologist (who also happens to write an advice column) finds herself involved in a mystery that is increasingly perilous. Madeline’s online life comes eventually to light in the form of two blogs and an online dating venture, revealing startling aspects of her personality and crucial information that will lead to a surprising conclusion.
Rebecca is an avid cook so food plays a significant role in this story, both as a way for Rebecca to work through tensions (nothing fights stress like the smell of bread baking in the oven) and as a conversation starter. As a foodblogger myself, I enjoyed how tea, cakes and cookies were so often used to break through people’s defenses, uncovering important clues in the process. The underlying mystery behind Madeline’s death is disturbing once revealed and Rebecca gets herself into situations that are truly frightening, but I was right there with her, hoping she would make it through. At times I wished the action had moved more quickly, but the exciting finale made the lead up seem worth it. I only hope that, in the future, Isleib includes some of Rebecca’s recipes at the end of the novel. (less)
As a sequel to “Push Not the River,” this book continues the story of the Polish Countess Anna Maria Berezowska. The author began writing about her af...moreAs a sequel to “Push Not the River,” this book continues the story of the Polish Countess Anna Maria Berezowska. The author began writing about her after discovering her unpublished diary, which recounted her experiences as a 17-year-old orphan who falls in love with her handsome neighbor Jan Stelnicki, but is brutally raped and married off before their love can be realized. Behind her misfortune is none other than her cousin Zofia, and “Push Not the River” follows Anna up until the Russian army invades Poland. “Against a Crimson Sky” picks up right where the first book left off, which is great, but unless you have read its predecessor the characters’ actions and motivations will not make much sense. At this point Queen Catherine of Russia has taken control of Poland and Napoleon Bonaparte’s army has begun their ill-fated march whose aim is conquering Russia. Because of their noble status Anna and her family cannot help but become entangled in the political and military intrigue that encompasses their country. From fierce loyalty and bittersweet longing, to blackmail and murder, this story has a bit of everything. Martin does a fine job of incorporating Polish history into his novel and I especially loved the chapters that dealt with Anna’s sons, who by this time are old enough to be soldiers in Napoleon’s army. I only wish that he had devoted more time to the character of Zofia, whose beauty, intelligence and ruthlessness makes her a riveting tale waiting to happen. Perhaps he is saving her for book number three?(less)
Readers of “The Temple Dancer” will likely enjoy “Tiger Claws,” John Speed’s second book in a planned trilogy. Chronicling the latter years of Mogul e...moreReaders of “The Temple Dancer” will likely enjoy “Tiger Claws,” John Speed’s second book in a planned trilogy. Chronicling the latter years of Mogul emperor Shah Jahan’s reign and the power struggles that emerge as he declines,Speed paints a picture of 17th century Indian life that is both intriguing and, at times, horrifying. Through the eyes of a high ranking eunuch named Basant we glimpse the realities of life inside Jahan’s palace: from Basant’s vivid childhood memories of being made into a eunuch, to Princess Roshanara’s clandestine affair with ambassador Shaista Khan, to the emperor’s obsession with twin sister concubines. As Shah Jahan withdraws into an opium infused world his sons begin to vie for control of his empire – especially Dara, the pampered court favorite, and Aurangzeb, the dangerous Viceroy of the Deccan. While drawing you into this story Speed simultaneously introduces you to Shivaji, a disinherited Hindu chieftain who begins retaking his rightful territory with the help of longtime friends and sinister allies.
There is a lot going on in this novel and though the storyline is engaging the characters are almost exclusively male. Princess Roshanara plays a prominent role in the first third of the book, while the temple dancer Maya appears when the story moves outside the palace. Since “The Temple Dancer” focused mainly on two female figures I was surprised by this seeming reversal -neither Roshanara nor Maya progress beyond the two-dimensional sphere, though if you’ve read “The Temple Dancer” you’ll be able to add much more personality to Maya than is present in the story. Nevertheless, the end of the novel makes it clear that Maya’s time with Shivaji is just the beginning of another adventure, and in this sense the riveting dialogue, political maneuvering and action in the male driven story adds an exciting chapter to her life. In truth, had I not read “The Temple Dancer” and been so eager to learn more about Maya I probably wouldn’t have missed her playing a larger role in the novel.
Fans of historical fiction will devour the detail in this story. Speed’s profound knowledge illuminates the novel, drawing you into a world rich with Indian culture, religion and tradition. Though the ending is somewhat abrupt it seems that Speed is setting the stage for the final book in his trilogy. I can’t wait to finish this adventure with him.(less)