The Sisters of Versailles by Sally Christie

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The Sisters of Versailles

by Sally Christie

published by Atria Books

September, 2015

I received an advance review copy of this book from the publisher through Net Galley in exchange for an honest review.

Thoughts

I like a fun historical fiction and that is exactly what this was.  This book, which was a very quick read, reminded me a little of Phillipa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl.  The Sisters of Versailles takes place in the French Court of Louis XV in the early 18th Century.  It is based on the real life relationship between Louis and the Nesle sisters- Louise, Pauline, Diane, Marie-ann, and Hortense.  Four of the five sisters became Louis’ mistress.

This story, which is the first in what is to be a trilogy, is told in the voices of the five Nesle sisters.  The first sister to come to court at Versailles is Louise.  She is married to a cousin, very unhappily.  At Versailles, she is a lady for the queen.  Through the machinations of those closest to the King, Louise is chosen to become Louis’ mistress.  A few years later, she invites her sister Pauline to visit her, unwisely it turns out, since Pauline quick replaces her site in Louis’ heart and bed.  Eventually, all the sisters except Hortense- who is actually happily married- become a lover to the king.

This was a fun book that I was able to read rather quickly.  I of course had to look up the actual history of the relationship between Louis and the sisters, and BAM- all true.  Four out of five of them were his “official” mistress.  I couldn’t believe it.  What was more incredible was the fact that Pauline made the King wait until she was married before she would sleep with him.  It was more acceptable if she was married and a part of the court.  It turns out the French people were not really thrilled by the relationships, many calling it incest.  This was a fun book and I am looking forward to reading the next two installments.

Summary

Goodness, but sisters are a thing to fear.

Set against the lavish backdrop of the French Court in the early years of the 18th century, The Sisters of Versailles is the extraordinary tale of the five Nesle sisters: Louise, Pauline, Diane, Hortense, and Marie-Anne, four of whom became mistresses to King Louis XV. Their scandalous story is stranger than fiction but true in every shocking, amusing, and heartbreaking detail.

Court intriguers are beginning to sense that young King Louis XV, after seven years of marriage, is tiring of his Polish wife. The race is on to find a mistress for the royal bed as various factions put their best foot – and women – forward. The King’s scheming ministers push Louise, the eldest of the aristocratic Nesle sisters, into the arms of the King. Over the following decade, the four sisters:sweet, naive Louise; ambitious Pauline; complacent Diane, and cunning Marie Anne, will conspire, betray, suffer, and triumph in a desperate fight for both love and power.

In the tradition of The Other Boleyn Girl, The Sisters of Versailles is a clever, intelligent, and absorbing novel that historical fiction fans will devour. Based on meticulous research on a group of women never before written about in English, Sally Christie’s stunning debut is a complex exploration of power and sisterhood; of the admiration, competition, and even hatred that can coexist within a family when the stakes are high enough.

 

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The Courtesan by Alexandra Curry

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The Courtesan

by Alexandra Curry

published by Dutton

September 2015

I received and advance review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review

My Review

I was eager to read this book because it was based on the famous courtesan Sai Jinhua.  One of my favorite books is Memoirs of a Geisha, which while not based on a real person, was an impressive depiction of the lives of these intriguing women.  The Courtesan takes place in China during the late Qing dynasty.  The story is steeped in history- the weak emperor, the threat of Western Imperialism, the Boxer Rebellion.  I felt the need to break out my old books from college, especially the class I took in Chinese history.  Jinhua is a pampered child of a courtesan who is adored by her father, but barely tolerated by his first wife.  When the father is executed by order of the emperor, the wife sells the child to a brothel and enters a convent.

At the brothel, Jinhua finds a friend in the maid Suyin, who tries to protect her the best she can.  Their relationship is the only good thing in her life, as she suffers the pain of foot binding, and an education in “bed business”.  When she is old enough, her virginity is sold to the highest bidder.  For some years, she must suffer the humiliation of living and working in the brothel, until she is sold to a wealth diplomat as his courtesan.  With him, she travels to Europe and is amazed at the amount of freedom women have there.  She realizes she cannot life forever hidden away.

While I enjoyed much of this book, Jinhua never felt like a real character.  I understand how difficult it must be to write about a actual person, but I think the author made Sunyin a more interesting character and would have liked to have had the story include her more.  While some parts of Jinhua’s life was passed over- like how she left the diplomat- I thought the author did wonderful job of portraying China and her people during this turbulent time.

 

 

Summary

The Courtesan is an astonishing tale inspired by the real life of a woman who lived and loved in the extraordinary twilight decades of the Qing dynasty. To this day, Sai Jinhua is a legend in her native land of China, and this is her story, told the way it might have been.

The year is 1881. Seven-year-old Jinhua is left an orphan, alone and unprotected after her mandarin father’s summary execution for the crime of speaking the truth. For seven silver coins, she is sold to a brothel-keeper and subjected to the worst of human nature. Will the private ritual that is her father’s legacy and the wise friendship of the crippled brothel maid be enough to sustain her? 

When an elegant but troubled scholar takes Jinhua as his concubine, she enters the close world of his jealous first wife. Yet it is Jinhua who accompanies him–as Emissary to the foreign devil nations of Prussia, Austro-Hungary, and Russia–on an exotic journey to Vienna. As he struggles to play his part in China’s early, blundering diplomatic engagement with the western world, Jinhua’s eyes and heart are opened to the irresistible possibilities of a place that is mesmerizing and strange, where she will struggle against the constraints of tradition and her husband’s authority and seek to find “Great Love.”

Sai Jinhua is an altered woman when she returns to a changed and changing China, where a dangerous clash of cultures pits East against West. The moment arrives when Jinhua’s western sympathies will threaten not only her own survival, but the survival of those who are most dear to her. 

Circling the Sun by Paula McLain

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Circling the Sun

by Paula McLain

published by Ballantine Books

July 28, 2015

I received this book as an advance review copy from the publisher through net Galley in exchange for an honest review.

My Review

I loved McLains’ The Paris Wife so much and I was so happy to receive Circling The Sun from the publishers.  I was not disappointed!  First- this makes me want to read, and then watch Out of Africa, which I never have.  Then I want to read Markham’s own memoir West with the Night.  The author has presented an amazing description of aAfrica in the early 20th century, as well as one of the Europeans who either treated it as a part of heaven, or a playground for the wealthy and bored.

Beryl Markham lived an amazing life.  She grew up on a farm in Kenya, raised only by her somewhat neglectful father after her mother leaves them to return to England.  She was permitted to run wild, learning how to hunt and shoot with the native boys.  When her father tries to send her to school in her teens, she repeatedly runs away until she is kicked out.  She lived her life in such an unconventional way, at at time when there weren’t many choices for women living on their own.  She did marry two times- both were very unhappy and ended quickly.  Markham had many affairs, but was only made truly happy but three things- horses, Denys Finch- Hatton, and flying.

This might be one of my favorite books of the year so far.  The writing was wonderful and the author obviously did a meticulous job with her research.  My favorite part of the book is the descriptions of Africa, and the obvious love Markham had for it.  I would definitely recommend this book.  A big thank you to Ballantine Books and Net Galley for sharing it with me!

Summary

Paula McLain, author of the phenomenal bestseller The Paris Wife, now returns with her keenly anticipated new novel, transporting readers to colonial Kenya in the 1920s. Circling the Sun brings to life a fearless and captivating woman—Beryl Markham, a record-setting aviator caught up in a passionate love triangle with safari hunter Denys Finch Hatton and Karen Blixen, who as Isak Dinesen wrote the classic memoir Out of Africa.

Brought to Kenya from England as a child and then abandoned by her mother, Beryl is raised by both her father and the native Kipsigis tribe who share his estate. Her unconventional upbringing transforms Beryl into a bold young woman with a fierce love of all things wild and an inherent understanding of nature’s delicate balance. But even the wild child must grow up, and when everything Beryl knows and trusts dissolves, she is catapulted into a string of disastrous relationships.

Beryl forges her own path as a horse trainer, and her uncommon style attracts the eye of the Happy Valley set, a decadent, bohemian community of European expats who also live and love by their own set of rules. But it’s the ruggedly charismatic Denys Finch Hatton who ultimately helps Beryl navigate the uncharted territory of her own heart. The intensity of their love reveals Beryl’s truest self and her fate: to fly.

Set against the majestic landscape of early-twentieth-century Africa, McLain’s powerful tale reveals the extraordinary adventures of a woman before her time, the exhilaration of freedom and its cost, and the tenacity of the human spirit.

To learn more about Beryl Markham, check out some of these site-

http://scandalouswoman.blogspot.com/2013/04/the-many-lives-of-beryl-markham.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beryl_Markham

http://womanpilot.com/?p=67

The Dream Lover by Elizabeth Berg

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The Dream Lover

by Elizabeth Berg

published by

2015

I received a copy of this book from the publisher through Net Galley in exchange for an honest review.

My Review

I honestly knew next to nothing about French novelist George Sand, though I had heard of her.  Therefore, I was looking forward to reading Dream Lover, especially since I have enjoyed Berg’s previous works very much.  This novel is a departure for Berg, and I am not sure it was totally successful.  The beginning is interesting, where we learned about Sand’s parents, how they met and fell in love, and the early years of their family.  As we move on to where Sand leaves her husband and children to live with her lover in Paris and write, I lost interest.  The story seemed forced and a little boring, which surprised me.  George Sand was supposedly a very scandalous person, but here she was really just selfish and annoying.  I kept waiting for it to improve and was sorry it did not.  This was unusual for me, because I truly enjoy Berg as an author.

Summary

George Sand was a 19th century French novelist known not only for her novels but even more for her scandalous behavior. After leaving her estranged husband, Sand moved to Paris where she wrote, wore men’s clothing, smoked cigars, and had love affairs with famous men and an actress named Marie. In an era of incredible artistic talent, Sand was the most famous female writer of her time. Her lovers and friends included Frederic Chopin, Gustave Flaubert, Franz Liszt, Eugene Delacroix, Victor Hugo, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and more. In a major departure, Elizabeth Berg has created a gorgeous novel about the life of George Sand, written in luminous prose, with exquisite insight into the heart and mind of a woman who was considered the most passionate and gifted genius of her time.

At the Water’s Edge by Sara Gruen

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At the Water’s Edge

by Sara Gruen

published by Spiegel & Grau

 March 31, 2015

I received a copy of this book from the publisher through Net Galley in exchange for an honest review.

My Review

I read Water For Elephants and Ape House by this author so I was really looking forward to her new work.  The beginning of the book dragged a little for me, mostly due to the characters being quite obnoxious.  Maddie, her husband Ellis, and their friend Hank are wetly ne’r do wells living in Philadelphia during WWII.  Ellis and Frank and medically unfit to serve, and this is a source great embarrassment to Ellis’ family.  On New Year;s Eve, the three get very drunk and declare to a large party that they are going to go to Scotland to find proof of the Loch Ness Monster, a particular source of embarrassment to Ellis’ father, who was caught trying to falsify pictures of the monster years earlier.  They make the perilous crossing and take up residence in a small inn.  It is here that Maddie begins to change, and starts to really question the lifestyle she has been leading.  At this point, Gruen really pulls the reader in and makes them care what happens to these characters.  I would have liked to spend more time on the characters of Anna, Angus, and Meg.  I loved that Gruen took some time to give a real sense of a small Scottish town and its inhabitants.  If you like historical fiction, you will enjoy this.

Summary

After embarrassing themselves at the social event of the year in high society Philadelphia on New Year’s Eve of 1942, Maddie and Ellis Hyde are cut off financially by Ellis’s father, a former army Colonel who is already embarrassed by his son’s inability to serve in WWII due to his being colorblind. To Maddie’s horror, Ellis decides that the only way to regain his father’s favor is to succeed in a venture his father attempted and very publicly failed at: he will hunt the famous Loch Ness monster and when he finds it he will restore his father’s name and return to his father’s good graces (and pocketbook). Joined by their friend Hank, a wealthy socialite, the three make their way to Scotland in the midst of war. Each day the two men go off to hunt the monster, while another monster, Hitler, is devastating Europe. And Maddie, now alone in a foreign country, must begin to figure out who she is and what she wants. The novel tells of Maddie’s social awakening: to the harsh realities of life, to the beauties of nature, to a connection with forces larger than herself, to female friendship, and finally, to love.

The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant

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The Boston Girl

by Anita Diamant

published by Scribner

2014

I received an advance review copy of this book from the publisher through Net Galley in return for an honest review

My Review

I read The Red Tent by this author years ago and fell in love with it.  It is still one of my favorite books.  I have not read anything else by her in the years between, so when I had the opportunity to read her latest novel, I jumped at it.  I was not disappointed!  Though very different, The Boston Girl is just as good, if not better, than The Red Tent.  This is the story of Addie Baum, told by Addie herself as an 85 year old woman telling her life story to her 22 year old granddaughter.  It is an amazing story about life growing up Jewish in the North End of Boston in the early 20th century. Beginning in 1915, Addie tell her all about her life- how her family and her friends shaped her life.  I didn’t want it to end.  Looking back, I can’t remember one part of the book that I didn’t think was necessary to the story.  I actually wanted more- more detail, more characters, and I was disappointed when it ended.  I truly hope the author writes more- and quickly.

Summary

From the New York Times bestselling author of The Red Tent and Day After Night, comes an unforgettable coming-of-age novel about family ties and values, friendship and feminism told through the eyes of young Jewish woman growing up in Boston in the early twentieth century.

Addie Baum is The Boston Girl, born in 1900 to immigrant parents who were unprepared for and suspicious of America and its effect on their three daughters. Growing up in the North End, then a teeming multicultural neighborhood, Addie’s intelligence and curiosity take her to a world her parents can’t imagine – a world of short skirts, movies, celebrity culture and new opportunities for women. Addie wants to finish high school and dreams of going to college. She wants a career and to find true love.

Eighty-five-year-old Addie tells the story of her life to her twenty-two-year-old granddaughter, who has asked her “How did you get to be the woman you are today.” She begins in 1915, the year she found her voice and made friends who would help shape the course of her life. From the one-room tenement apartment she shared with her parents and two sisters, to the library group for girls she joins at a neighborhood settlement house, to her first, disastrous love affair, Addie recalls her adventures with compassion for the naïve girl she was and a wicked sense of humor.

Written with the same attention to historical detail and emotional resonance that made Anita Diamant’s previous novels bestsellers, The Boston Girl is a moving portrait of one woman’s complicated life in twentieth century America, and a fascinating look at a generation of women finding their places in a changing world.

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

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Burial Rites

by Hannah Kent

published by

2013

I borrowed an audiobook copy of this novel from my library.

My Review

When this book was published last year, it received  some really wonderful reviews from all over.  I remember other bloggers LOVED this book.  I read the synopsis and-meh- couldn’t really push myself to pick this up.  It sounded too dry and bleak.  Fast forward a year, and give me two teens who go to a school that is a 40 minute drive from home.  I have never listed to an audiobook before, but figured I should give it a try since I was spending so much time in the car now.  I grabbed Burial Rites on cd, figuring I would give it a shot.

First day, I was going a little crazy.  I thought-” Damn, I read so much faster than this lady is reading!!”  Then, I settled down, and I found I couldn’t stop listening.  I actually sat in my driveway until the track was over.  The story was amazing.  I found myself not only wrapped up in the story or Agnes, and the family housing her, but also about Iceland in the 1800’s.  I had to look up as much as I could about everything, because it was so fascinating.  To add to this, the audiobook was narrated byMorven Christie.  Her voice can transport you to the Iceland of the story better than reading the words yourself.  I loved her cadence and think I enjoyed the story so much better for having listed to her narration.

If you have not read this book, I would definitely recommend it to you.  More importantly, I would recommend the audiobook.  I think I might be a convert.

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Summary

Set against Iceland’s stark landscape, Hannah Kent brings to vivid life the story of Agnes, who, charged with the brutal murder of her former master, is sent to an isolated farm to await execution. 

Horrified at the prospect of housing a convicted murderer, the family at first avoids Agnes. Only Tóti, a priest Agnes has mysteriously chosen to be her spiritual guardian, seeks to understand her. But as Agnes’s death looms, the farmer’s wife and their daughters learn there is another side to the sensational story they’ve heard. 

Riveting and rich with lyricism, BURIAL RITES evokes a dramatic existence in a distant time and place, and asks the question, how can one woman hope to endure when her life depends upon the stories told by others?

Some great quotes-

“To know what a person has done, and to know who a person is, are very different things.” 

“They will see the whore, the madwoman, the murderess, the female dripping blood into the grass and laughing with her mouth choked with dirt. They will say “Agnes” and see the spider, the witch caught in the webbing of her own fateful weaving. They might see the lamb circled by ravens, bleating for a lost mother. But they will not see me. I will not be there.”

“Now comes the darkening sky and a cold wind that passes right through you, as though you are not there, it passes through you as though it does not care whether you are alive or dead, for you will be gone and the wind will still be there…”