Love in Exile by Ayşe Kulin

exile Love in Exile by Ayşe Kulin

Thank-you to NetGalley and Amazon Crossing for my advanced reading edition of this translated novel. Ayşe Kulin is a contemporary Turkish novelist and this novel is based upon her own family’s history. It has been translated into English by Kenneth Dakan.

Love in Exile tells the story of a Muslim family living in Istanbul in the 1920s. The establishment of the Republic of Turkey in 1923 meant that this was a period of great social and political upheaval for the people of Turkey. I enjoyed reading about the varying perspectives of the changes that were taking place, as each member of the family has a very different outlook. Each one of them has their own unique story to tell and the reader is thrown head first into the midst of them all, which meant for quite a bit of confusion at times. There is a helpful genealogy table at the beginning that I kept referring back to in order to keep everybody’s names straight and to familiarize myself with the relationship between each family member. Nonetheless, there were still times I found myself at a loss as to who exactly an individual was.

One of the female protagonists of the novel, Sabahat, is an intelligent young woman with a strong sense of self. She insists upon pursuing her education through high school and beyond. The reader is made aware that this was unusual for a Muslim girl living in Istanbul in the 1920s and thus the reader cannot help but admire her father for being so progressive and allowing his daughter her education. However, he is still a man of his time and he is devastated to find that his daughter has fallen in love with an Armenian boy. The Turkish-Armenian War is still fresh in many minds and therefore Sabahat and Aram find a lot of opposition to their relationship. Her father is particularly against it as Aram is a Christian and it is unthinkable for Sabahat not to marry another Muslim.

Overall I found this aspect of the story to be the most captivating and I was desperate to see if the relationship between Sabahat and Aram was strong enough to withstand everything that was thrown their way. Unfortunately their story became lost in the middle of so many others and I didn’t receive the closure that I would have liked from their story. In the epilogue the author briefly tells the reader what happened, but I very much would have liked for it to have been a part of the novel itself.

Perhaps Sabahat and Aram’s story takes a step back from being the focal point in order for the author to tell us more about a different couple. Sitare and Muhittin are two people that we follow separately through the pages of this novel until they eventually meet and marry. Sitare is Sabahat’s niece and therefore the two grow up in the same household, along with the rest of their very large family. Muhittin is a Muslim of Bosnian decent. His parents fled Bosnia before the Balkan Wars of 1912/1913 and were therefore spared from being caught up in a period of deep savagery. Muhittin was educated in Istanbul and becomes a very successful civil engineer. We follow both Muhittin and Sitare’s lives until their marriage and the birth of their daughter, Ayşe: the author of this novel. I cannot blame the author for wanting to tell her parents’ story.

Ultimately I did enjoy this novel and I was fascinated by this glimpse into such a compelling era of history. Sadly I spent a fair bit of time confused and had to go back and re-read different parts of the novel to try to understand who a person was or why they were doing what they were doing. I would recommend reading a brief history of the time period before you read, which is something I ended up doing as I was reading in order to give myself a better understanding of the novel itself.

 

 

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Katherine of Aragon, The True Queen: A Novel by Alison Weir

Aragon Katherine of Aragon, The True Queen: A Novel by Alison Weir

Alison Weir is the author of many books pertaining to the Plantagenet and Tudor eras, both fiction and non-fiction. I’ve enjoyed all of Weir’s non-fiction books but in my experience her novels are a little hit-and-miss. This novel however was both well-written and informing and I enjoyed reading it. For a full synopsis of this novel provided by Goodreads please click here.

Having read many novels of Katherine of Aragon I was pleased to find that Weir’s perspective was one of the best I’ve read so far. She portrays Katherine as a flesh and blood woman, not a saint, nor does she insinuate that Katherine was a stubborn old hag that refused to bow out gracefully. Often Katherine is portrayed as being one or the other and therefore it was refreshing to read about a woman that I could actually relate to.

The reader joins Katherine on her voyage to England to wed Prince Arthur and we stay with her until the bitter end. Her story is a tragic one and yet her dedication to her faith and commitment to the truth allowed her to meet her death with the knowledge that she stayed faithful. Her conduct to the very end is unfailing. This is not to say however that she did not ever complain or feel sorry for herself, of course she did; as any person in her situation would have. The difference is that she had a steely resolve and never allowed herself to waiver in her commitment to her role as the one true queen of Henry VIII.

In my opinion one of the biggest achievements in this novel has to be how Weir brings to life the world of the sixteenth century. For it is truly another world than our own. So many historical fiction authors go wrong in trying to provide a modern slant to a bygone era, allowing modern perspectives to cloud our interpretation of the facts. It is not fair to judge historical figures by the standards of the present day. I believe Weir herself sums it up nicely in her author’s note: “I have tried to show that the past was indeed another country, and that modern preoccupations with women’s rights, feminism, and political correctness had no place in it”.  

I commend Ms. Weir for having succeeded in doing exactly that and I have greatly appreciated the opportunity to be able to dive into the world of Katherine of Aragon. It has given me a new admiration for Katherine and heartfelt sympathy towards her plight. Regardless of whether or not I believe the reformation of the English Church to have been the best thing for the county or not, I can do nothing but look kindly upon Henry VIII’s first queen. She faced her struggles with courage and conviction and was a remarkable woman of her time.

Overall I enjoyed this novel and the fresh perspective that it gave. I absolutely recommend giving it a read if you’re looking for a novel that stays as close to historical fact as possible without boring you to tears.

 

Daughters of the Silk Road by Debbie Rix

silk road Daughters of the Silk Road by Debbie Rix

Thank-you to NetGalley and Bookouture for my advanced reading edition of this novel. For a full synopsis of this novel provided by Goodreads please click here.

This novel tells the story of a Ming Vase (imperial blue and white ceramic dating from the Ming period circa 1426-35) that has been passed down through the generations of one family. The vase enters the family of Niccolò de’ Conti during his expedition to China. The vase is painted with a dragon: a symbol of good luck. As the vase is passed down to Niccolò’s daughter Maria de’ Conti and the subsequent generations of her family the reader is given the sense that the vase does seem to be passing on a measure of good luck to its recipients.

This novel is separated into many parts, both past and present. The reader is first introduced to the modern day character, Miranda, who is a single mother to a fifteen year old daughter. It is evident from the first that money is scarce and that Miranda struggles to keep her head above water. She is trying to start her own knitting business and she works two days a week at a local book store, owned by her friend Jeremy. It is at this bookstore that Miranda meets the charming antiques dealer, Charles. We follow the relationship between Miranda and Charles whilst knowing very little about how Miranda is linked to Maria de’ Conti…except for the dusty old vase sitting in Miranda’s hallway.

Maria lives with her father and brother in Venice, where she meets a German merchant named Peter Haas. In my opinion this is the most exciting part of the book, as Maria must go through many travails before she is able to be with Peter. The two eventually move to Bruges to start their new life together. This is the beginning of a line of successful traders and business owners that span for centuries. Throughout the course of the novel we are briefly introduced to each generation to see how Maria’s descendants are faring. The Ming vase has been passed down through the female line and is subsequently in the possession of the Kaerel family. They own a successful business in the Netherlands with a focus upon ceramics.

Overall I found that the third person perspective of this novel, paired with the very concise descriptions of the lives of the historic characters, meant that I was unable to form an emotional attachment to Maria’s descendants. The time frame moves along so fast that it read like a fleshed out version of a family tree instead of a novel. The reader is kept at a distance from the characters, which I found to be disappointing. Once Miranda realizes the value of the vase (about two thirds of the way through the novel) things once again become more exciting, however the rest of the novel is pretty non-descript.

A nice aspect of the novel is that Miranda travels to Venice at the end and visits the same places that Maria walked six hundred years previously. This gave a sense of closure, with things coming full circle from the start of the novel. I just wish that the historic parts of the novel were more detailed in order to heighten the link between Maria and Miranda. There is a mere thread between them and I feel as though making the family members that tie them together much more vivid and authentic would have strengthened this bond. I did enjoy this novel, however I will say that the character development is sadly lacking.

 

Call to Juno by Elisabeth Storrs

juno Call to Juno by Elisabeth Storrs

Thank-you to NetGalley and Lake Union Publishing for this advanced reading copy of a title that I have been long awaiting. This novel is the third installment in the brilliant Tales of Ancient Rome series and I believe this to be its heartbreaking conclusion.

Elisabeth Storrs is an incredibly talented writer that brings the ancient world to life with her prose. Her characters are intriguing, vivid figures that I love to read about. The female protagonist Caecilia has changing so much since the first novel in the series, The Wedding Shroud, where she is an unwanted and unimportant Roman maiden with an inner desire to have her voice heard. In the next novel, The Golden Dice, Caecilia is the beloved wife of an Etruscan man, a fierce mother, and the shrewd commander of her own destiny. I adore the character of Caecilia and as heart-wrenching as it was to stay with her until the bitter end I am so glad to have been able to do just that.

What I love about this novel in particular is how the author has balanced the spiritual aspect of the first novel with the political angle of the second. The intricate blend of religion, politics and familial drama has led to an incredibly absorbing and exciting novel. After the first two books in the series the reader has a solid grasp of Etruscan life and thus is able to truly appreciate the world in which the people of Veii belong. I found it deeply moving to have been able to have spent the last days of Veii’s existence with Caecilia, her family and their people. What has been reduced to a short tale of Roman supremacy in conquering Veii has been enlarged and brought to life by an incredibly gifted writer. Thank-you Elisabeth Storrs for crafting these remarkable characters and for bringing this ancient world to life in an unforgettable story. I look forward to reading it again someday.

To gain a more complete perspective of the novels in this series please read my reviews of The Wedding Shroud and The Golden Dice. I absolutely recommend reading all three of these superb novels: you won’t regret it.

The Running Vixen by Elizabeth Chadwick

the running vixen The Running Vixen by Elizabeth Chadwick

For a full synopsis of this novel please click here. This novel is the second in a trilogy, the first novel is The Wild Hunt.

This is a medieval romance novel set in the Welsh Marches (along the English-Welsh border) in the early twelfth century. It is one of Elizabeth Chadwick’s earlier novels and I have been meaning to read it for a long time. Although not immersed in historical fact as her more recent work, this novel is still a well-crafted, imaginative tale. The characters are fictional figures instead of historical, however the context within which they are placed is just as historically valid and well-researched as you would expect from this talented author.

This novel follows on from an earlier novel, The Wild Hunt. Although the story is self-contained and therefore can be read by itself, I would still recommend reading them in order. The female protagonist in this novel, Heulwen, is the daughter of Guyon, the male protagonist in The Wild Hunt. Thus it is intriguing to read of the next generation and see how events have transpired.

Not only have events moved forward for our characters, the kingdom has also gone through turbulent events. This story is set during the time of Henry I, six years after his son and heir drowns in the sinking of “The White Ship”. It can be argued that this tragic event was the catalyst for a period of English history known as “The Anarchy”. After losing his heir Henry I is left with only one legitimate living child: his daughter, Matilda. Although this novel takes place prior to “The Anarchy”, Ms. Chadwick does a marvelous job of portraying the discontent the English lords felt at having to pay homage to a woman. It also gives insight into the type of woman that Matilda was (to explore this more deeply, Ms. Chadwick’s novel  Lady of the English focuses upon the life of Matilda). Haughty and arrogant, Matilda alienated a lot of the lords that could have supported her. This novel sets the scene of how it came to pass that Matilda’s cousin, Stephen of Blois, assumed the throne after Henry I’s death and successfully held it for his lifetime. Perhaps if Matilda had of been a more likeable figure the lords would have supported her claim instead.

However, I digress…

What I liked about this novel in particular is that whilst it alludes to the grand historical picture, the focus is primarily upon the relationship between Heulwen and Adam, a well-respected knight and land-holder in the Welsh Marches. Adam was the ward of Heulwen’s father and therefore they grew up together. It is evident from the very beginning that Adam has always held deeper feelings for Heulwen and yet she married elsewhere as a young girl. When the reader is introduced to the characters Heulwen is a young woman, a widow, and searching for a husband that will provide her with a marriage of convenience. Although it takes time to fully puzzle it out, the reader is aware that her first husband broke her heart in some way and thus she is not looking for a love match. She has sealed off her heart to prevent herself from being hurt once more.

The villain in this story is, of course, the man whom Heulwen has decided to marry. Oblivious to his atrocities, it is Adam who must bring them to light whilst trying to win Heulwen’s hand at the same time. This leads to an alluring medieval romance tale that I found to be a very entertaining read. Ms. Chadwick does a wonderful job of bringing the past to life and allowing the reader to view the romance in context. We are not viewing Heulwen and Adam as a modern couple merely living in the past, rather they are a true medieval couple. Their mannerisms and ideals are very different to our own and yet the depth of their feelings are the same. Love might very well be the only thing that has not changed throughout the centuries.

I look forward to reading the last book in the trilogy, The Leopard Unleashed.

 

I Am Livia by Phyllis T. Smith

livia I Am Livia by Phyllis T. Smith

After reading The Daughters of Palatine Hill I knew I had to read this author’s debut novel. For a debut novel I am amazed. Not only was it well-written but the clarity in which Livia’s world opened up before my eyes was unbelievable. Her story felt incredibly real to me, the thoughts she had were complexly human, and never once did I doubt that I was reading the story of a woman who actually lived. Livia was so vivid that I actually forgot that she was a character in this novel and began to view her purely as the historical figure she was. It was as if she was talking to me through the annals of history.

Livia’s story is fascinating to say the least. Daughter of a staunch supporter of the Roman Republic, it is amazing that she ended up marrying Emperor Augustus; a military dictator and the first Emperor of the Roman Empire. Livia has often been portrayed as power-hungry and an “unnatural” woman for claiming the authority that she was granted as Augustus’ wife. Yet she was very intelligent, with a mind for politics, and thus she was ideally suited to life as the wife of the Emperor.

I thought it was very clever of the author to draw the comparison between Livia and Augustus’ sister, Octavia, as often as she did. Octavia was held up to be the paragon of Roman womanhood, loyal and subservient and happy to sacrifice herself for the good of the Roman people. Her  marriage to Marc Anthony was a way in which to forge a peace between him and her brother and yet it was a turbulent marriage with many difficulties for Octavia. Even after her husband shunned her and married Cleopatra of Egypt, Octavia stayed loyal to her role as peace-keeper between him and Augustus. The Roman people saw this as for their own benefit, nobody wanted another war, and thus Octavia became their darling. Compare this to the “unnatural” woman that was their Emperor’s wife and it becomes apparent why Livia may have been remembered in such a negative light.

What the author brought to the foreground in this novel is that Livia, too, was loyal to the Roman people. Her father had been a man of the Republic, a man of the people, therefore Livia too felt a connection to the common people of Rome. This is evident by her public works and the “fire brigades” that she set up to help with a common issue in the poorer parts of the city. There is a wonderful scene in this novel where Livia comes back from assisting a brigade put out a fire and she has a smudge of dirt on her face. Her son, Tiberius, tells her “Your face is dirty. I don’t think you should go to the fires. It’s unseemly for a lady”. Not only does this highlight what a well-born Roman woman was supposed to be like, but it also gives a small glimpse into the future to show what kind of man Tiberius will grow up to be (The Daughters of Palatine Hill will explore more deeply).

It is important to understand that Livia lived in a time very different to our own. From a modern perspective Livia would most probably be exalted as a strong and intelligent woman. We would expect her to control her own finances, make decisions for herself and her family and we wouldn’t raise an eyebrow at the thought of her helping her husband to rule. However, two thousand years ago in Rome things were altogether different. I believe the author does a wonderful job of bringing this home for the reader and allowing Livia to simultaneously be seen through both our own modern perspective and also the historical perspective of the time. A remarkable feat that is to be greatly admired. I very much look forward to more novels of Ancient Rome from this talented author.

 

America’s First Daughter by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie

daughter America’s First Daughter by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie

Thank-you to Amazon Vine for my advanced reading copy of this novel. For a full synopsis of this novel provided by Goodreads please click here.

This novel is told from the viewpoint of Thomas Jefferson’s eldest daughter, Martha “Patsy” Jefferson. Helpmeet to her father and his almost constant companion, Patsy not only travelled with him to France and witnessed his rise to the Presidency but also kept his secrets close to her chest. This novel utilizes the letters that Thomas Jefferson wrote and received in his life, whilst reminding us that it was Patsy who guarded these letters. Thus it is likely that she passed on an edited history to future generations.

Truthfully, I find this book very difficult to review. I hate that I didn’t enjoy this novel as much as others have professed. For me though, the spark just wasn’t there. Patsy Jefferson was an intriguing historical figure, yet I couldn’t relate to her within these pages. She was a two-dimensional figure from long ago that told me her story as an older person looking  back over her life. It was bland. Not at all what I would have expected from the glowing reviews I’ve read, plus my knowledge of how great an author Stephanie Dray is. I’m not quite sure how the collaboration worked between the two authors, however when it comes to author collaboration Stephanie Dray knows what she is doing. She was a part of two of the most amazing multiple author novels that I’ve ever read: “A Day of Fire: A Novel of Pompeii” and “A Year of Ravens: A Novel of Boudica’s Rebellion”. In fact, in the latter of these two it was Stephanie Dray who rounded off the novel and made it complete for me. Therefore I can only summarize that it was the extensive research that made this novel so bland for me.

Let me explain. This novel is based upon “thousands of letters and original sources” and therefore the historical research is paramount to the novel. Of course this isn’t a bad thing, history is compelling in itself, however I do feel that when the lines are so tightly set the author runs the risk of also putting their imagination on a tight leash and thus creating a very prosaic novel.

For me personally I read historical fiction for two purposes. One, to learn, and two, to be entertained. If I just wanted to learn I would read the original sources for myself. If it’s something that I am fascinated by then I will read both fact and fiction books about it. First I gather as much knowledge as I can about a subject and then I read a novel that brings it to life for me. I want it to be more than just facts on a page, I want the figures to jump to life and show me who they are. For me, this is what was missing in this novel. The entertainment factor.

Let me give an example. Patsy is enrolled in a convent for educational purposes whilst her father is in France. Evidently something about it appealed to her because she later wished to become a nun . I wanted to know what exactly appealed to her and what life inside the convent was like for her. Was it a harsh environment? What were the sleeping arrangements? What clothes did she have to wear? What did she learn there? I really wanted to know about life inside the convent but all that was mentioned was that her father’s secretary William Short visited her there and that she made one friend that teased her about her feelings for him. I have no clue as to what appealed to Patsy so much that she wished to take her vows. Even if there is no factual evidence as to why, her character was so indistinctive that I was not even able to deduce a reason for myself. This is where the story-telling is supposed to come in. The facts are known, the ingredients are set, now is when the fictional salt and pepper should be sprinkled in to create a more lively and exciting recipe.

Nonetheless, I did learn a lot from this book. If I take a step back and do not look at it as a novel then I can honestly say that I have admiration for the work that these two historians have created. The mix of original sources and deduced conclusions from these original sources lead to quite an interesting read. As a non-fiction book this would have been brilliant. Yet unfortunately I feel that I must judge it as what it has been proclaimed to be: a novel. And as a novel, in my opinion, it is sadly lacking.