Saturday, September 10, 2016

The Velvet Hours: A Novel by Alyson Richman

The Velvet Hours: A Novel. Alyson Richman. Penguin Publishing Group. September 2016. 384 pp. ISBN#: 9780425266267.  

Solange Beaugiron discovers that her father was adopted and finally gets to meet her grandmother, Marthe de Florian, who has literally reinvented herself.  Everyone who has grown up very poor has a different reaction to it and very few would repeat those years of struggle and adversity. Some will do anything to escape its death-like grip!

Just when Marthe meets Charles, a rich married man who adores Marthe and keeps her in luxury for the rest of her life, Europe is about to experience its own hell spawned by Adolf Hitler.  Little, however, touches Marthe, even in times of crushing starvation for the rest of France.  This then is the story that Marthe shares with her granddaughter as they struggle to share their lives, a relationship that grows from storyteller to author to a deep abiding love between grandmother and granddaughter.

It would seem a simple story initially, one that’s actually been told by others in many and different ways.  But the magic of The Velvet Hours lies in the appreciation and celebration of beauty, whether that be in Marthe’s collection of Far Eastern cups, pottery and other items or in the lovely and priceless pearls Charles gives to Marthe for her financial security “forever.”  Then there is the magnificent portrait of Marthe commissioned by Charles from the famous painter, Giovanni Baldini, with its vibrant colors but most of all its living essence that has captured the spark of life constantly emanated by Marthe.

Add to this Belle Époque tale a lovely romance experienced by Solange as she learns about a Jewish text she has inherited that was hand-created with beautiful illustrations.  As Hitler approaches, momentous decisions must be made whether to stay or leave Paris. 

No spoilers here – as there is so much more about Marthe and Solange that makes for engaging attention and an unrelenting desire to know what will happen next.

Alyson Richman has created a story replete with the most beautiful descriptions of art, food, ancient books and more and interspersed with the nerve-wracking tensions brought on by WWII.  Readers will love this superb story and will be recommending it to everyone they know.  Highly recommended historical fiction!

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

A Gift of Love: Lessons Learned from My Work and Friendship with Mother Teresa by Tony Cointreau

A Gift of Love: Lessons Learned from My Work and Friendship with Mother Teresa.  Tony Cointreau. Easton Studio Press, LLC. September 2016. 200 pp.  ISBN#: 9781632260499.

Tony Cointreau lived his youth with a constant background message, “You must be perfect…” in order to be loved. So when Tony learned of the work Mother Teresa was doing with both sick and poor, it struck him as both too good to be true but also something he desperately had to experience. Unconditional love shared with those hungry in body, mind and spirit!

Tony went to India but was so traumatized by the devastating poverty, he came back to America.  Then he volunteered at a Greenwich Village, New York Hospice in 1990, a place specifically dedicated to caring for dying AIDS patient.  This was brave work at a time that little was known about the disease and AIDS patients all too frequently died alone and suffering greatly.  This book is the story of Tony’s volunteer experiences.  Yes, it’s about what he learned and experienced but it’s also an inspiring book for those who want to learn how to “be” with those who are dying, with or without AIDS.

The secrets shared are humbling experiences for both patients and volunteers who come to truly know the richness of listening, touch, sharing music, showing respect, bypassing assumptions, sharing humor no matter how severe a situation, doing whatever needs doing in the given moment, non-judgment, having faith (in something or someone – not necessarily church-oriented), and realizing saints are all around us and in us. These are just a few of the vibrant chapter headings that each contain poignant and powerful scenes exemplifying these virtues. 

A hug here and there when it’s the last thing one would normally imagine, sharing a make-believe, exaggerated, funny story with an elderly woman that makes her come alive for the first time in a long time, hugging a person with no visitors, holding a hand to give strength to someone in excruciating pain, avoiding those who would exploit the suffering and neediness of patients, allowing each individual the right to “choose” where and when to die, and so much more. 

Believe it or not; this isn’t a sad or saccharine book at all!  It’s so full of vibrant hope and peace that it’s a privilege to read it.  It certainly applies to every man, woman and child in the world.  Mother Teresa was far from the serious person people put on a pedestal but her gift of unconditional love and life permeates every page of this book and of the man she mentored to serve life and thus be served!  Moving, inspirational and highly recommended! Messages the reader will never forget and will hopefully live!

Monday, September 5, 2016

Falling Pomegranate Seeds: The Duty of Daughters (Katherine of Aragon #1) by Wendy J. Dunn

Falling Pomegranate Seeds: The Duty of Daughters (Katherine of Aragon #1). Wendy J. Dunn. MadeGlobal Publishing. August 2016. 302 pp. ISBN# 9788494489396. 

Catalina, a/k/a Catherine of Aragon, is a child being reared in the Court of her parents, King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Spain.  Beatriz is Catalina’s tutor who narrates this poignant story of children who must learn to respectfully accept both homely joys and devastating tragedies.  They must do this with dignity and aplomb, no matter how grievous the events that are honestly not fit for children’s awareness. 

In an age when women are educated to marry and raise children, the royal children, Catalina and Marie, are educated as men are.  Catalina flourishes in this environment, having a natural and exciting curiosity about literature, philosophy, science, and other subjects.  She is being prepped to be the future Queen of England, expected to separate from her Spanish family forever, and to be loyal to England, a huge task that will hopefully unite both countries. Wendy Dunn does a fine, fine job of conveying the essence of Catalina and Isabella’s world in which woman must appear to be obedient and self-effacing to their husbands but in reality wielding royal power that shapes the destiny of one’s kingdom.  Subtlety is the art being taught through listening, observing, and commenting on her mother’s rule.

A secret mystery suggests King Ferdinand’s complicity in the death of the husband of one of Catalina’s siblings.  Beatriz herself is accosted by the King several times which fills her with fear that will not be cast aside for many years.  Several siblings of Catalina will die, causing such grief that it brings some to near-madness.  In the effort to banish the Moors from Spain, Beatriz, Catalina and her siblings are forced to view in person the most devastating and horrifying aspects of actual warfare. The conflict between the Catholic faith that exhorts brotherly love and yet murders the infidel enemy causes intense consternation in Catalina’s mind, heart and soul.

Royal children are political pawns as their children must choose foreign spouses and political expediency over happiness.  If love occurs, so be it; if not, one may perhaps learn to love.  The loss of real love is mourned but then quickly pushed to the side for political strategies.  It’s a relevant reality that makes the reader why a certain hardness pervades royal personalities.  The reader is left to judge but of necessity accept as brutal reality that keeps nations united and safe.

While the events of history generate intense interest, it is the multi-dimensional characterization within this novel that is so intriguing and enchants the reader on every page.  It’s also a window into the world of this woman who would become such a formidable and beloved Queen in England years hence!

Wendy Dunn’s novel, Falling Pomegranate Seeds… is magnificent, riveting reading that this reviewer highly recommends as MUST reading! 

Queen's Courier by Jen Black

Queen’s Courier. Jen Black. Orchard Hill Books. July 2016. 3208 KB. ASIN#: B01JGQB5SO.  

Margaret or Meg Douglas is a woman in love with Matthew, Earl of Lennox, but they are dependent on the approval of King Henry VIII as royalty may not marry without his permission.  Meg’s father has other plans but Meg is feisty enough to do what she must to thwart his ambitions and get what she wants.  For a time, she is extremely fearful as she holds a secret that could be her undoing forever. 

King Henry is adamant that Scotland must be brought to heel before his troops leave to conduct war with France.  Marie or Mary of Guise, Queen Dowager of Scotland, is determined to carry out schemes so that her daughter Mary will eventually obtain and hold power over Scotland.  A great deal of this novel lies in the machinations of Henry and British lords to take away castles in Scotland and make promises for local rule that shift with every wind.  Still as all are greedy for power, they all connive to be in the right place at the right time, often promising loyalty to both sides at the same time. 

Matho is a carrier of letters or spy who tries to stay out of trouble but always seems to anger the wrong people, including Marie of Guise.  He occasionally travels with other spies and must be wary as everyone’s services are for sale to the highest bidder.  For all of his experience, he plays the game but frequently blunders in speech, accidentally revealing news others should not know.  However, what he longs for most is his own great love, Phoebe, and their future together.  Instead he finds himself avoiding British and Scottish warriors who are more engaged in skirmishes to capture local territories in Scotland than conduct an all-out war.

The story culminates in a period of quiet when Scotland is relatively quiet, for now, and new adventures await all in France where a new battle is about to commence and new fortunes will be lost and made. 

For one unfamiliar with the historical period covered in this novel, an over-abundance of characters can be difficult to connect to their rightful place and position; but the passionate, temperamental and determined essence of the characters makes up for that overabundance.  Jen Black does a fine job of depicting men and women avid to own their Scottish land and heritage as well as those who serve them. Obviously well-researched and nicely crafted, this is fine historical fiction.

The Gybford Affair: The Heiress and The Fortune Hunter by Jen Black

The Gybford Affair: The Heiress and The Fortune Hunter. Jen Black. Orchard Hill Books. April 2016. 267 pp.  ASIN#: B01E48GFXE.  

Frances or Lady Rathmere is a widowed heiress spending some quiet time enjoying the warm, fragrant weather when a horseman comes tearing across her pathway and on the barking of her dog Gyp is thrown into the nearby River Derwent.  After rescuing him, Frances is appalled at the way he berates her for allowing the dog to run wild.  She quickly disavows his accusation and declares he is at fault for riding over private land, an uncomfortable fact he simply chooses to ignore he heard.  All in all, their meeting doesn’t bode well for any future relationship.

Jack, 4th Marquess of Streatham has turned hard of heart in grief over losing his beloved Elizabeth and being thrown off his horse and hitting his head on a stone hasn’t helped his mood much.  Frances is quick to rebuke his cold comments and they part with no desire to see each other again.  But such separation is not meant to be as they meet at a social gathering where he attempts to apologize.  But their laid-aside animosity is cast aside as a puzzle threatens to mar the pristine reputation Frances holds in the area.  Someone is publishing letters in the local newspaper that hint at her improper and immoral behavior.  At the same time a newly appearing soldier, Holbrook, appears and Frances catches him trying to force himself on a young woman and later much more harmful behavior.

The remainder of the story concerns increasing letters to the editor hinting at Frances and Jack’s relationship, a duel, an attempted kidnapping and more adventurous events.  While the plot’s complexity will unravel, the beauty of this novel concerns the gradual transformation of Frances and Jack as both carry wounds from the past that are more of an obstacle to their growing closeness and misunderstandings. 

Jen Black has crafted another winner that is fast-paced, intriguing and humorous in many scenes.  While some of the characters are stereotypical in nature, the main characters have very human qualities that are shaped by the past but not irrevocably stuck in them.  Feisty, enigmatic, devious, independent and sweet characters unite to shape a very nice read!  Nicely done, Jen Black!