Tagged: france

The Secret Language of Stones by M.J. Rose

(Cover picture courtesy of Goodreads.)

Nestled within Paris’s historic Palais Royal is a jewelry store unlike any other. La Fantasie Russie is owned by Pavel Orloff, protégé to the famous Faberge, and is known by the city’s fashion elite as the place to find the rarest of gemstones and the most unique designs. But war has transformed Paris from a city of style and romance to a place of fear and mourning. In the summer of 1918, places where lovers used to walk, widows now wander alone.

So it is from La Fantasie Russie’s workshop that young, ambitious Opaline Duplessi now spends her time making trench watches for soldiers at the front, as well as mourning jewelry for the mothers, wives, and lovers of those who have fallen. People say that Opaline’s creations are magical. But magic is a word Opaline would rather not use. The concept is too closely associated with her mother Sandrine, who practices the dark arts passed down from their ancestor La Lune, one of sixteenth century Paris’s most famous courtesans.

But Opaline does have a rare gift even she can’t deny, a form of lithomancy that allows her to translate the energy emanating from stones. Certain gemstones, combined with a personal item, such as a lock of hair, enable her to receive messages from beyond the grave. In her mind, she is no mystic, but merely a messenger, giving voice to soldiers who died before they were able to properly express themselves to loved ones. Until one day, one of these fallen soldiers communicates a message—directly to her.

So begins a dangerous journey that will take Opaline into the darkest corners of wartime Paris and across the English Channel, where the exiled Romanov dowager empress is waiting to discover the fate of her family.

[Full disclosure: I received a free ebook in exchange for an honest review. It was supposed to be for a tour but I didn’t get it done in time.]

I’ve only read two other books by M.J. Rose but what always strikes me about her books is that she has such a beautiful writing style. It’s descriptive and yet fascinating. She can describe things like stones in minute detail and yet you never find yourself skipping over the descriptions to get to the action. She really just has a beautiful writing style that grabs your attention and holds it for the whole book. It’s what makes finishing the book so disappointing. It’s not that M.J. Rose’s endings are terrible or anything like that, but rather it’s that I hate coming back to the real world after such beautiful writing.

With that said, what I like about this book is that while Opaline is Sandrine’s daughter and thus the daughter of a woman who practices dark magic (and allowed the spirit of her ancestor to possess her in the first book) but she despises dark magic. She feels magic call to her from the stones but resists praticing magic for fear of turning out like her mother or, worse yet, La Lune herself. And yet she’s having trouble controlling her natural powers and they almost get out of hand and destroy her before Opaline realizes she has to embrace her heritage in order to save herself. She clearly struggles with ethical dilemmas and fears the call of the dead from the stones but in the end, Opaline really does want to do what’s right.

M.J. Rose handles both characters and descriptions well but what struck me about this second book in the series is the politics. More so than in The Witch of Painted Sorrows, the political situation is ever-present. She really captures the feel of World War I, the fact that life was both normal and not normal. Normal business went on as much as it could but the war touched everyone: jewellers made mourning jewellery instead of fancier necklaces and tiaras, certain foods were hard to find and almost an entire generation of young men was wiped out. And of course, things weren’t just bad in France. As Opaline finds out when she creates a necklace for the dowager empress of the Romanov family, even innocent children aren’t safe from the war and its effects.

I liked both The Witch of Painted Sorrows and The Secret Language of Stones. While the stories of Sandrine and Opaline are different, they do have some similarities that connect the two books together in a satisfying way. Although I’ll have to say goodbye to Opaline, I can’t wait for the next book, The Library of Light and Shadow, which is coming out in July 2017. The Daughters of La Lune series is fantastic and I can’t wait to spend more time in M.J. Rose’s beautiful, enchanting world.

I give this book 5/5 stars.

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The Beautiful and the Cursed by Page Morgan

The Beautiful and the Cursed by Page Morgan(Cover picture courtesy of Goodreads.)

After a bizarre accident, Ingrid Waverly is forced to leave London with her mother and younger sister, Gabby, trading a world full of fancy dresses and society events for the unfamiliar city of Paris.

In Paris there are no grand balls or glittering parties, and, disturbingly, the house Ingrid’s twin brother, Grayson, found for them isn’t a house at all. It’s an abandoned abbey, its roof lined with stone gargoyles that could almost be mistaken for living, breathing creatures.

And Grayson has gone missing.

No one seems to know of his whereabouts but Luc, a devastatingly handsome servant at their new home.

Ingrid is sure her twin isn’t dead—she can feel it deep in her soul—but she knows he’s in grave danger. It will be up to her and Gabby to navigate the twisted path to Grayson, a path that will lead Ingrid on a discovery of dark secrets and otherworldly truths. And she’ll learn that once they are uncovered, they can never again be buried.

[Full disclosure: This was the second of two books I received in the mail from a mystery sender.  As far as I am aware I am not under any obligation to review them for an author and as with every book I read, this is an honest review.]

Honestly, like The Commander’s Desire I’m still not really sure how I feel about this book.  On one hand, I loved the unique mythos of the gargoyles and how they came to be gargoyles.  On the other hand, the plot was rather predictable and at times oddly confusing.  I could connect with some characters and not others.

I’ll start off with my favourite part: the gargoyles themselves.  I’ve never been exposed to any gargoyle mythology outside of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Disney version) so this was a breath of fresh air for me.  I feel like Page Morgan really thought out her gargoyles well and had a reasonably good explanation for how they came to exist and why they must protect their dwellings.  The hierarchy within the gargoyles definitely makes sense if you look at the main types of gargoyles and grotesques in architecture as well.  I really didn’t have any problems with the world-building in this one.

The time period is the turn of the century and the attitudes of the characters generally reflect it.  At the same time, I felt like some of the things Ingrid did were far out of character and certainly were not acceptable for a young lady (no matter how disgraced) at the time.  The way Page Morgan describes her setting immersed me in the history, but it was quite jarring to see such modern attitudes present in many of the characters.  Other than that I really couldn’t spot any historical inaccuracies and the attitude problem requires only a slight suspension of disbelief.

My main problem with the book was the characters.  The point of view wasn’t really consistent and sometimes I had no idea whose point of view I was reading.  I wish the transition between characters was a little smoother because then I wouldn’t have been so confused when there was a lot of action going on.  Some points of view even sound the same (the two sisters on occasion) so that really didn’t help the situation.  Gabby was my least favourite character because she could be such a free spirit one minute and then have such prudish thoughts more in line with the time in the very next chapter.  It’s that kind of inconsistency that annoys me.

All in all, I really can’t complain much about The Beautiful and the Cursed.  It was relatively fast-paced and although it was confusing at times, I got the main gist of the plot.  Would I read the second book in the series?  Probably.  I wouldn’t go out of my way to buy it, but if I found it in the used section I’d certainly give the rest of the series a chance.

I give this book 3.5/5 stars.

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Tales of Passion, Tales of Woe by Sandra Gulland

Tales of Passion, Tales of Woe by Sandra Gulland(Cover picture courtesy of Goodreads.)

Tales of Passion, Tales of Woe is the much-awaited sequel to Sandra Gulland’s highly acclaimed first novel, The Many Lives & Secret Sorrows of Josephine B. Beginning in Paris in 1796, the saga continues as Josephine awakens to her new life as Mrs. Napoleon Bonaparte. Through her intimate diary entries and Napoleon’s impassioned love letters, an astonishing portrait of an incredible woman emerges. Gulland transports us into the ballrooms and bedrooms of exquisite palaces and onto the blood-soaked fields of Napoleon’s campaigns. As Napoleon marches to power, we witness, through Josephine, the political intrigues and personal betrayals — both sexual and psychological — that result in death, ruin, and victory for those closest to her.

After hearing about her incredible early years, in Tales of Passion, Tales of Woe  focuses on Josephine’s most well-known years.  And although she has gained a sort of infamous reputation from her supposedly numerous affairs while Bonaparte was in Egypt, this is not the way Sandra Gulland portrays her.  You know what?  This portrayal feels much more real, more authentic than the typical ‘immortal cheating harlot’ angle that Josephine is always portrayed from.  In Gulland’s portrayal, we get to see how Josephine gradually does begin to care for Napoleon, how she soothes over the men in power so her husband may succeed and how she does her best to take care of her only two children by her first husband.

Although I think pacing isn’t as important in historical fiction, this second book in the Josephine B. trilogy is more fast-paced than the first.  Perhaps it’s because I actually know a little about the events that occur in the novel or perhaps it’s because it was Gulland’s second book and she got a better feel for pacing.  Who knows?  All I know is that the pacing and even the quality of writing, which was already high, has improved.

Not only does Josephine come off as an incredibly strong woman, the other characters in the novel really popped out of the pages as well.  Napoleon Bonaparte is portrayed in many different ways in movie, television and books but I’ve never really seen this portrayal of him: the awkward, graceless (yet handsome) Corsican who has no time for the nonsense of high society and who is oddly paranoid about poisoning.  Having him around is a huge contrast to Josephine, who is graceful and takes to high society, even if she isn’t comfortable with it deep down.  Bonaparte’s bizarre, ruthless family definitely doesn’t make it easy on poor Josephine or even Bonaparte himself!  Having them around definitely added drama, but it’s not like they were the stereotypically evil in-laws because they had depth.  They had real reasons for their actions, thank goodness.

I give this book 5/5 stars.

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The Many Lives & Secret Sorrows of Josephine B. by Sandra Gulland

The Many Lives & Secret Sorrows of Josephine B. by Sandra Gulland

(Cover picture courtesy of Goodreads.)

Young Josephine Bonaparte shines at the center of a new, sweeping, romantic work of historical fiction by Sandra Gulland: detailed and exhaustively researched, compelling and powerful, The Many Lives and Secret Sorrows of Josephine B. is the first in a trilogy of fictional novels tracing the actual rise of a young European noblewoman who would one day stand next to Napoleon. From the heartbreak of lost loves to the horror of revolution to the hope of new days, it’s an intimate epic any romance lover will love.

Like many people, I never really thought much about Josephine, the immoral wife of Napoleon Bonaparte—at least until I read Sandra Gulland’s take on her.  Learning her story from her extremely humble beginnings, to her unhappy marriage to Alexandre Beauharnais and the fact that she just barely survived Robespierre’s Reign of Terror made me really connect with her.  She was in business when it was unseemly for women to do so.  She divorced her husband—a true rarity of the time!  And she also played a huge role in the politics of the time, again despite being a woman.  Reading about her early years up to her marriage to Bonaparte really gives you the feeling she was judged harshly by history like many strong women.

I wouldn’t recommend it if you’re in for fast-paced historical fiction, but for those of us that like slowly building tension and intricately plotted narratives combined with vivid imagery it’s a dream come true.  It’s told in diary form from Josephine’s perspective, but it never gets annoying like other books told in the same format.  From that perspective, we get to see her innermost thoughts as she struggles to deal with life in Paris, far away from her homeland of Martinico.  In a loveless marriage with two children she has to look out for we really get to see so many different aspects of her character.  We see her savvy political side, her motherly instinct to protect her children and her iron lady side as she insists on doing what’s best for her children and those she loves.

French history isn’t exactly my strong point, especially around the time of the French Revolution, but with a bibliography and a note at the end on historical accuracy, you get the feeling that Sandra Gulland has done her research.  As with Mistress of the Sun, even if everything isn’t 100% accurate the main events are and the minor details feel accurate.  This is important in historical fiction and I honestly felt like I was transported back in time to Josephine’s terrifying, exciting, constantly changing world.  Josephine is most definitely a memorable character and is now one of my favourite historical figures.

I give this book 5/5 stars.

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Mary, Queen of Scots: Queen Without a Country by Kathryn Lasky

Mary Queen of Scots(Cover picture courtesy of Open Library.)

July 12, 1554

I think hawking is one of the things that Francis and I do so well together.  Our instincts combined with those of the birds seem to fit perfectly when we are in the field.  We speak very little to one another but silently give the calls to the birds and perform our hand signals.  This afternoon the two of us went out with only Robin McClean as our guard.  And I thought as I took a rest on the ridge of a hill that there was something of perfect harmony amongst the three of us and the birds we had brought to fly.  If only all of life could be kept in the company of such good souls…

Mary Queen of Scots was a fascinating historical figure and I think that in some ways, Queen Without a Country does her justice.  On the other hand, objectively speaking, it wasn’t the best book I’ve ever read.  I’ll talk about the latter first.

Throughout the whole book, Kathryn Lasky seemed to be trying to get at something, hinting at some greater meaning.  Yet at the end of everything, all we see is a stereotypical, predictable ‘ending’ that shows Mary’s ingenuity but doesn’t leave the reader with that message.  It feels incomplete, partly because Kathryn Lasky was hinting at Mary reconciling with Queen Catherine, but she never really did.  Of course, being a diary of a woman who continued to live for many years afterward, you can’t expect it to be a perfectly wrapped up ending.  But there was still something…lacking.

Mary herself was an interesting character, but not exactly memorable.  Still, Kathryn Lasky did do Mary the historical figure justice with her portrayal of a headstrong, resourceful, intelligent young woman.  One thing I found odd, however, was the lack of mention about Mary’s religion.  Mary was relatively pious, spending the last few hours before her execution praying, but religion seems not to be a big feature in Queen Without a Country.  I’m not complaining, but it does seem a bit strange considering religion played such a big role in everyone’s daily lives in the 16th century.

Overall, Kathryn Lasky’s portrayal of Mary Queen of Scots was decent and her writing was okay, but nothing more.  There was really nothing to distinguish her book from the many others in The Royal Diaries.

I give this book 3.5/5 stars.

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Eleanor: Crown Jewel of Aquitaine by Kristiana Gregory

215252_SCH_RDEleanor_0.tif(Cover picture courtesy of Goodreads.)

June 24th

Such excitement…the horsemen announced travelers, and Count Geoffrey of Anjou arrived an hour later with some of his chevaliers.  Petra and I peered from the stairs down to the great hall and saw the visitors.  I decided we must put on our loveliest dresses right away.  the count is taller and even more striking than Father…Geoffrey the Handsome is our name for him.  When he pushed back his hood of chainmail, his hair fell to his shoulders in brown curls.  the tunic over his armor was blue with a golden crest.   He and Father greeted each other warmly…

The reason for Count Geoffrey’s visit?  He has invited Father to go to war.  He is just twenty-three years old and needs help invading Normandy.

And without thinking twice, Father said yes!  I worry he has made another terrible decision….

I’ve heard quite a bit about Eleanor of Aquitaine, but never actually knew much about her life and the times she lived in.  Well, finally Kristiana Gregory has remedied that in a book aimed at kids 8-13.  The early years of Eleanor are not quite as exciting as her later years, as we learn in the Historical Note, but it was nice to see things from her perspective.

I personally would have liked a little more description of daily life at the castle, but I can understand why Kristiana Gregory did not include more (it would have turned into a lecture).  In Eleanor: Crown Jewel of Aquitaine we don’t really see Eleanor’s love of books and literature, even though she was a huge patron of the arts later in life.  Still, I loved seeing the strong relationship between her and her sister that lasted into adulthood.  Sadly, the book ended just when things were getting interesting, what with her marriage to Prince Louis and all.

Eleanor: Crown Jewel of Aquitaine is well written and entertaining, but it’s certainly one of the shorter books in the Royal Diaries series.  Still, overall it’s a pretty good book and it’s a great one to get kids interested in history.

I give this book 4/5 stars.

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Marie Antoinette: Princess of Versailles by Kathryn Lasky

(Cover picture courtesy of Fantastic Fiction.)

June 13, 1769

It has come at last—the marriage proposal!  King Louis XV’s personal envoys arrived this morning.  I was called immediately to Mama’s summer house, The Gloriette, where she works on the hottest days.  I did not know what I was being called for.  Indeed, I thought maybe Luisa had told Mama about our picnic and I was to be reprimanded for hill rolling!  But as soon as I set foot in the cool marble receiving room, Mama was out of her chair behind the desk and running toward me.  She crushed me to her bosom and whispered, “Antonia, you are to be married!  You are to be the Queen of France!”  Her cheeks were wet with tears and soon mine were, too!

When my mother told me people used to urinate on the floors of Versailles, I laughed at her and chaulked it up to either hyperbole or myth.  Sure, Europeans weren’t the cleanest bunch back then, but to relieve oneself indoors on those magnificent palace floors?  That’s crossing the line between truth and fiction, right?

Wrong.

For all of their protocol, manners and customs, the French nobility apparently acted like dogs who have not been properly house trained.  Enter Marie Antoinette, an Austrian princess who has been married off to Louis XVI, the Dauphin of France.  Can you see why she rebelled against their ridiculous customs?  I knew a little bit about the customs of the French court before reading this, but learning the extent of their stupidity was shocking.  You learn something new every day, I guess, especially when you read historical fiction like this.

Marie Antoinette: Princess of Versailles is written for ages 10-12 and focuses mainly on Marie Antoinette’s life before her marriage.  We get a little bit of her life after marriage, but most of the novel focuses on the time before she became Dauphine.  This is not exactly my favourite book in the Royal Diaries series because of its incredibly simplistic style (especially at the beginning), but young readers will love it.  They will be able to identify with Marie Antoinette, enjoy a well-written book and learn quite a bit of history without even realizing it.  What more can you ask for in historical fiction?

I give this book 3.5/5 stars.

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