Thursday, April 28, 2011

Book Review: Madame Tussaud by Michelle Moran

Synopsis (from

The world knows Madame Tussaud as a wax artist extraordinaire . . . but who was this woman who became one of the most famous sculptresses of all time? In these pages, her tumultuous and amazing story comes to life as only Michelle Moran can tell it. The year is 1788, and a revolution is about to begin.

Smart and ambitious, Marie Tussaud has learned the secrets of wax sculpting by working alongside her uncle in their celebrated wax museum, the Salon de Cire. From her popular model of the American ambassador, Thomas Jefferson, to her tableau of the royal family at dinner, Marie’s museum provides Parisians with the very latest news on fashion, gossip, and even politics. Her customers hail from every walk of life, yet her greatest dream is to attract the attention of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI; their stamp of approval on her work could catapult her and her museum to the fame and riches she desires. After months of anticipation, Marie learns that the royal family is willing to come and see their likenesses. When they finally arrive, the king’s sister is so impressed that she requests Marie’s presence at Versailles as a royal tutor in wax sculpting. It is a request Marie knows she cannot refuse—even if it means time away from her beloved Salon and her increasingly dear friend, Henri Charles.

As Marie gets to know her pupil, Princesse Élisabeth, she also becomes acquainted with the king and queen, who introduce her to the glamorous life at court. From lavish parties with more delicacies than she’s ever seen to rooms filled with candles lit only once before being discarded, Marie steps into a world entirely different from her home on the Boulevard du Temple, where people are selling their teeth in order to put food on the table.

Meanwhile, many resent the vast separation between rich and poor. In salons and cafés across Paris, people like Camille Desmoulins, Jean-Paul Marat, and Maximilien Robespierre are lashing out against the monarchy. Soon, there’s whispered talk of revolution. . . . Will Marie be able to hold on to both the love of her life and her friendship with the royal family as France approaches civil war? And more important, will she be able to fulfill the demands of powerful revolutionaries who ask that she make the death masks of beheaded aristocrats, some of whom she knows?

Spanning five years, from the budding revolution to the Reign of Terror, Madame Tussaud brings us into the world of an incredible heroine whose talent for wax modeling saved her life and preserved the faces of a vanished kingdom.

My Review 

4.5 Stars

Leaving the ancient Egyptian world of her previous novels behind, author Michelle Moran takes her readers on a journey through one of the most tumultuous periods in European history - the period encompassing the final months of the reign of French King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette, the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror - through the eyes of a woman who lived through it all and survived - the famed wax sculptor, Marie Grosholtz, better known to the world as Madame Tussuad.  

When a visit by King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette to the wax museum Marie Grosholtz operates with her uncle results in her being hired as tutor to the King's sister, Marie is honoured and excited by the prospects an association with the Royal Family can bring.   This excitement is short-lived, however, when the French Revolution begins to get underway and ties the nobility and the Royal Family become heavily frowned upon.   Despite the presence of revolutionaries in her midst - her uncle often plays host to men such as Robespierre and Desmoulins - Marie is able to carefully balance the world of the revolution with that of the Royal Court, and in so doing is able to develop an appreciation for both the causes of the revolution and the way it is viewed by the Royal Family.  She also comes to realize that the ideals and beliefs behind the revolutionary fervour are not all they seem, and that the revolutionaries will play fast and loose with the truth in order to advance their cause.    
While I enjoyed learning about Marie's experiences, what truly brought this novel alive for me were the secondary and peripheral characters - men such as the Marquis de Lafayette, Robespierre, Marat, Danton and Desmoulins.   Moran's characterization of each of these men, and her descriptions of their beliefs and actions, are what made the events of French Revolution and the Terror come to life.   In addition, although they weren't featured often, I thought the author did an excellent job with the characterizations of King Louis and Marie Antoinette.   She shows that, contrary to revolutionary opinion, they were not bad people out to trample the lower classes.   Instead, I felt she painted them as sympathetic figures whose greatest fault was their ignorance of the severity of the situation in Paris, an ignorance for which they cannot really be blamed given their advisors seemed to keep much from them.  

Overall I found much to like about this novel - great characterizations, wonderful historical details and a fast-moving, engaging plot.   I thought the first half of the novel moved along well, but it was the second half, when the French Revolution was well underway, that made this such a fantastic read for me, one I didn't want to put down until I finished.  

I definitely recommend this novel to any fan of the historical fiction genre. 

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Book Review: Brethren by Robyn Young

Synopsis (from Chapters.Indigo.Ca):


One young knight, bound by faith, driven by valour, begins a quest to protect a secret that could change the course of history irrevocably.

A richly detailed, epic historical adventure set in Paris, London, Egypt, and Palestine on the eve of the last Crusade, "Brethren" tells the story of a young knight's search for a mysterious (and potentially deadly) book belonging to a secret organization within the Knights Templar.   When young Will Campbell joins the most powerful organization in Europe, The Order of the Knights Templar, he finds himself drawn into a world of intrigue and danger.  He is charged with recovering a heretical book stolen from the order's vaults, but what Will doesn't know is that the book, in the form of a Grail Romance, hides the covert plans of a secret group within the Temple known as the Anima Templi: the Soul of the Temple. Whoever controls the book controls the fate of the Templars, and it seems that everyone around Will is ready to kill to possess it.
"Brethren" also traces the rise of Baybars Bundukdari, an ambitious commander in the Egyptian army, who, after assassinating the sultan, takes control of Egypt and Syria. The two stories come together during Baybars' campaign for a new Holy War that will cripple an empire and bring the Crusaders to their knees. 

My Review 

4 Stars

Brethren, the first novel in British author Robyn Young's Brethren trilogy, follows young sergeant Will Campbell from the Templar fortresses of London and Paris to the Templar strongholds of Acre and Antioch in the Holy Land as he seeks not only to recover an important book stolen from the Paris Temple, but also to discover himself.   Brethren also chronicles the rise and rule of the powerful Egyptian Sultan Baybars, whose fate will ultimately have him cross paths with Will Campbell.   

In Brethren, Young paints a vivid portrait of the inner sanctums of the Knights Templar and brings the medieval world to life.   I also thought Young did a very good job of developing each of her characters, whether they were principal or secondary ones.   Although this novel was Young's first, I think it read more like the work of a veteran writer than that of a debut author.  

The story itself was broad in scope and held my interest throughout and, while I initially found some story lines a bit disconnected from the main plot, by the end I thought Young did a good job of bringing all the various story lines together and, in so doing, laid a solid foundation for the second novel in the Brethren trilogy, Crusade.   

I definitely recommend this book to readers interested in historical fiction about the Knights Templar and the Crusades, as well as those interested in historical thrillers.    I'm looking forward to reading the next book in the trilogy.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Book Review: Daughters of Rome by Kate Quinn

Synopsis (From

A.D. 69. The Roman Empire is up for the taking. The Year of Four Emperors will change everything-especially the lives of two sisters with a very personal stake in the outcome. Elegant and ambitious, Cornelia embodies the essence of the perfect Roman wife. She lives to one day see her loyal husband as Emperor. Her sister Marcella is more aloof, content to witness history rather than make it. But when a bloody coup turns their world upside-down, both women must maneuver carefully just to stay alive. As Cornelia tries to pick up the pieces of her shattered dreams, Marcella discovers a hidden talent for influencing the most powerful men in Rome. In the end, though, there can only be one Emperor...and one Empress.

Avid Reader's Review

4 Stars

Kate Quinn's latest novel of ancient Rome takes place in the year 69 AD or, as it's better known, the Year of the Four Emperors.   Daughters of Rome follows the lives of two sisters, Cornelia, who is wife to a man who could one day be Emperor, and Marcella, who likes nothing better than to spend her days writing histories of Rome's emperors.   It is also the story of their two cousins, Lollia, a frivolous young woman who, at the start of the novel, is preparing for her third wedding, and Diana, who cares for nothing but horses and her beloved Reds chariot team.   

The novel opens during the reign of Emperor Galba, a reign that was lasted only seven months and was brought to a bloody end when a coup resulted in the Emperor's assassination.   This coup not only resulted in the installation of a new Emperor, Otho, but also served to turn the world of Cornelia, Marcella, Lollia and Diana upside down.   Would each of these women survive and prosper in Rome's new order?  

Having previously read and immensely enjoyed Kate Quinn's debut novel, Mistress of Rome, I eagerly awaited the arrival of my copy of Daughters of Rome.   I'm happy to report that I wasn't disappointed as the author has delivered yet another winner.   Each of the characters featured in the novel are vividly drawn,  leaving the reader engaged in their story lines and interested in their fates.   In addition, Quinn has created a strong sense of time and place with this novel, as she not only captures the splendor and extravagance that defines ancient Rome, but also its political ruthlessness.    

Not being familiar with this period in Roman history I appreciated Quinn's author's note, as it explained what was fact, what was fiction and what was a blending of the two.   It is my understanding that Kate Quinn is already at work on her next novel of ancient Rome, and having enjoyed her first two efforts I most definitely look forward to reading her third! 

Mailbox Monday

It's Mailbox Monday time again (okay, so I'm actually posting this a day early).   This month, Mailbox Monday is being hosted over at Passages to the Past

Here are the books that found their way into my home this past week, all of which were purchased by yours truly:

Elizabeth I by Margaret George (summary from

"New York Times" bestselling author Margaret George captures history's most enthralling queen-as she confronts rivals to her throne and to her heart. 

One of today's premier historical novelists, Margaret George dazzles here as she tackles her most difficult subject yet: the legendary Elizabeth Tudor, queen of enigma-the Virgin Queen who had many suitors, the victor of the Armada who hated war; the gorgeously attired, jewel- bedecked woman who pinched pennies. England's greatest monarch has baffled and intrigued the world for centuries. But what was she really like? 

In this novel, her flame-haired, lookalike cousin, Lettice Knollys, thinks she knows all too well. Elizabeth's rival for the love of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and mother to the Earl of Essex, the mercurial nobleman who challenged Elizabeth's throne, Lettice had been intertwined with Elizabeth since childhood. This is a story of two women of fierce intellect and desire, one trying to protect her country, and throne, the other trying to regain power and position for her family and each vying to convince the reader of her own private vision of the truth about Elizabeth's character. Their gripping drama is acted out at the height of the flowering of the Elizabethan age. Shakespeare, Marlowe, Dudley, Raleigh, Drake-all of them swirl through these pages as they swirled through the court and on the high seas. 

Time's Legacy by Barbara Erskine (synopsis from 

Ancient secrets buried deep in Glastonbury’s past.   And one woman’s quest to finally set them free.

Cambridge present day: Following the death of her mother, Abi Rutherford receives a mysterious bequest – a misshapen sphere of crystal known as the Serpent’s Stone which seems to hold echoes of concealed mysteries, long covered up by the church.

Western England 25AD: A stranger has come to the chilly Somerset wetlands, with a story of hope and reconciliation. But he is being followed by powerful forces, determined that he will not undermine Roman rule in Britain.

What connects these ancient events and Abi’s gift? And why do so many people seem desperate to hide the truth? A strange shadow has fallen across the centuries, and a woman is in fear of her life. But is it danger that awaits her, or the final truth so long whispered across the echoes of time?


A Race to Splendor by Ciji Ware (synopsis from

Inspired by female architect Julia Morgan, this is the riveting tale of a race against time to rebuild two luxury hotels after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake destroyed 400 city blocks and left 250,000 homeless.

Morgan's fictional protegee Amelia Bradshaw and client J.D. Thayer will sacrifice anything to see the city they love rise from the ashes; in the process, they can't help but lose their hearts.


Book Lover (aka Literacy & Longing in L.A.) by Jennifer Kaufman and Karen Mack (synopsis from

Some women shop. Some eat. Dora cures the blues by bingeing on books-reading one after another, from Flaubert to bodice rippers, for hours and days on end. In this wickedly funny and sexy literary debut, we meet the beguiling, beautiful Dora, whose unique voice combines a wry wit and vulnerability as she navigates the road between reality and fiction.

Dora, named after Eudora Welty, is an indiscriminate book junkie whose life has fallen apart-her career, her marriage, and finally her self-esteem. All she has left is her love of literature, and the book benders she relied on as a child. Ever since her larger-than-life father wandered away and her book-loving, alcoholic mother was left with two young daughters, Dora and her sister, Virginia, have clung to each other, enduring a childhood filled with literary pilgrimages instead of summer vacations. Somewhere along the way Virginia made the leap into the real world. But Dora isn't quite there yet. Now she's coping with a painful separation from her husband, scraping the bottom of a dwindling inheritance, and attracted to a seductive book-seller who seems to embody all that literature has to offer-intelligent ideas, romance, and an escape from her problems.

Joining Dora in her odyssey is an elderly society hair-brusher, a heartbroken young girl, a hilarious off-the-wall female teamster, and Dora's mother, now on the wagon, trying to make amends. Along the way Dora faces some powerful choices. Between two irresistible men. Between idleness and work. And most of all between the joy of well-chosen words and the untidiness of real people and real life.


So that is what was in my mailbox this week.  What was in yours?

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Mailbox Monday

Mailbox Monday was originally hosted at  The Printed Page, but is now a travelling meme.  Amy at  Passages to the Past is hosting during the month of April.

Here are the books that arrived in my mailbox last week (all of which were my own purchases):

The Rose Garden by Susanna Kearsley (synopsis from

When Eva's film star sister Catrina dies, she leaves California and returns to Trelowarth, Cornwall, where they spent their childhood summers, to scatter Catrina's ashes and thus return her to the place where she belongs.  But in doing so Eva must confront ghosts from her own past, as well as those from a time long before her own. For the house where she so often stayed as a child is home not only to her old friends the Hallets, but also to the people who had lived there in the eighteenth century. Eva finds herself able to see and talk to these people, and she falls for Daniel Butler, a man who lived and died long before she herself was born.  Eva begins to question her place in the present, and in laying her sister to rest, comes to realise that she too must decide where she really belongs, choosing between the life she knows and the past she feels so drawn towards.

The release date for this novel is 15 April 2011 in Canada.   I had my copy on pre-order and it arrived a few days early - YIPPEE! 
Vienna Waltz by Teresa Grant (synopsis from

Nothing is fair in love and war. . .

Europe's elite have gathered at the glittering Congress of Vienna--princes, ambassadors, the Russian tsar--all negotiating the fate of the continent by day and pursuing pleasure by night. Until Princess Tatiana, the most beautiful and talked about woman in Vienna, is found murdered during an ill-timed rendezvous with three of her most powerful conquests. . .

Suzanne Rannoch has tried to ignore rumors that her new husband, Malcolm, has also been tempted by Tatiana. As a protégé of France's Prince Talleyrand and attaché for Britain's Lord Castlereagh, Malcolm sets out to investigate the murder and must enlist Suzanne's special skills and knowledge if he is to succeed. As a complex dance between husband and wife in the search for the truth ensues, no one's secrets are safe, and the future of Europe may hang in the balance. . .
Daughters of Rome by Kate Quinn (synopsis from

A.D. 69. The Roman Empire is up for the taking. The Year of Four Emperors will change everything-especially the lives of two sisters with a very personal stake in the outcome. Elegant and ambitious, Cornelia embodies the essence of the perfect Roman wife. She lives to one day see her loyal husband as Emperor. Her sister Marcella is more aloof, content to witness history rather than make it. But when a bloody coup turns their world upside-down, both women must maneuver carefully just to stay alive. As Cornelia tries to pick up the pieces of her shattered dreams, Marcella discovers a hidden talent for influencing the most powerful men in Rome. In the end, though, there can only be one Emperor...and one Empress.

That is what was in my mailbox this week!

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Book Review: Shroud For The Archbishop by Peter Tremayne

Synposis (from

The second book in the first-ever Irish medievalmystery series features Celtic nun Sister Fidelma assigned to investigate the horrible death of Wighard, Archbishop Designate of Canterbury. In the autumn of A.D. 664, the Archbishop is found dead, garrotted in his chambers, and a monk has been arrested fleeing the scene of the crime. Convinced of his innocence, Sister Fidelma joins Brother Eadulf of the Roman Church to find the truth, but instead they find too few clues, too many motives, and a trail strewn with bodies....

Avid Reader's Review:

4 Stars

Shroud For The Archbishop is the second novel in Peter Tremayne's Sister Fidelma mystery series.   Set in Rome during the 7th century, this novel brings the heroine, Sister Fidelma of Kildare, to Rome on a mission for the Archbishop of Ultan.   Also in Rome are the Archbishop Designate of Canterbury, Wighard, and his secretary, Brother Eadulf.    Events in Rome turn sinister when Wighard is found murdered in his room, and an Irish monk is accused of being the killer.   In attempt to prevent any conflict that might arise from Wighard's murder, the Church calls upon Sister Fidelma and Brother Eadulf to solve the case.   The solution, however, turns out not to be as simple as it first seems, and Fidelma most use all of her problem-solving ability and logic to crack the case. 

Although I had a suspicion about who the ultimate culprit would end up to be, it didn't detract from my enjoyment of the novel.   One of the things I'm enjoying most about this series is not only the characters themselves, especially Fidelma, but also the history that is imparted in it.   There existed quite remarkable differences between the Church of Rome and the Church of Ireland during the 7th century, and these differences feature quite prominently in the series.   It's great to read a historical mystery series that focuses on the history just as much as it does on the mystery. 

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Wish List Wednesday...

I had intended to make Wish List Wednesday a weekly meme, but I generally buy books almost as soon as I decide I want to read them...even if I don't read them for ages after I receive books I add to my wish list one week are probably on my shelves or on order the next :-)   I did, however, add a couple of books to my wish list in the last week and, surprisingly, have yet to purchase them.   What does this mean?  It means I once again have a couple of books to post about in my Wish List Wednesday meme!   So, without further ado, here are the books I added to my wish list this week:

The Devil's Consort by Anne O'Brien  (I believe this one will be released in North America as Queen Defiant later this year)

Synopsis from

ENGLAND'S MOST RUTHLESS QUEEN. Eleanor, Duchess of Aquitaine, is a determined woman who plots and schemes an astonishing path between two equally powerful men in twelfth century Europe, a woman who can manoeuvre and manipulate to safeguard her own lands as effectively as any power-grasping lord. Eleanor is single-minded in her struggle to keep her inheritance intact, leading her to reject one husband and take another who will fulfil her desires. Eleanor intends to reign as Queen and is prepared to bring scandal down upon herself in pursuit of her ultimate prize. Hers is a story of power, political intrigue, passion and love. 

Before Versailles by Karleen Koen

Synopsis from

Louis XIV is one of the best-known monarchs ever to grace the French throne. But what was he like as a young man—the man before Versailles?

After the death of his prime minister, Cardinal Mazarin, twenty-two-year-old Louis steps into governing France. He’s still a young man, but one who, as king, willfully takes everything he can get—including his brother’s wife. As the love affair between Louis and Princess Henriette burns, it sets the kingdom on the road toward unmistakable scandal and conflict with the Vatican. Every woman wants him. He must face what he is willing to sacrifice for love.

But there are other problems lurking outside the chateau of Fontainebleau: a boy in an iron mask has been seen in the woods, and the king’s finance minister, Nicolas Fouquet, has proven to be more powerful than Louis ever thought—a man who could make a great ally or become a dangerous foe . . .

Meticulously researched and vividly brought to life by the gorgeous prose of Karleen Koen,
Before Versailles dares to explore the forces that shaped an iconic king and determined the fate of an empire. 

Bride of New France by Suzanne Desrochers

Synopsis from

Laure Beausejour has grown up in a dormitory in Paris surrounded by prostitutes, the insane, and other forgotten women. She dreams with her best friend, Madeleine, of using her needlework skills to become a seamstress and one day marry a nobleman. But in 1669, Laure is sent across the Atlantic to New France with Madeleine as filles du roi. The girls know little of the place they are being sent to, except for stories of ferocious winters and Indians who eat the hearts of French priests. To be banished to Canada is a punishment worse than death.

Bride of New France explores the challenges Laure faces coming into womanhood in a brutal time and place. From the moment she arrives in Ville-Marie (Montreal) she is expected to marry and produce children with a brutish French soldier who himself can barely survive the harsh conditions of his forest cabin. But through her clandestine relationship with Deskaheh, an allied Iroquois, Laure finds a sense of the possibilities in this New World.

What happens to a woman who attempts to make her own life choices in such authoritative times?

Monday, April 4, 2011

To Finish or Not to Finish...

Saturday afternoon began with me cracking open a new historical fiction novel, one which has only recently been released and seems to be garnering great reviews on the historical fiction blogs I enjoy reading, as well as from my trusted reading friends.   As a result,  I eagerly stuck my nose in the book and set out to read it.    Almost immediately I realized that this would not be a great read for me, but I kept going knowing others found it well worth reading.   My thinking was that it simply had to get better. Needless to say, it didn't.    By around page 150 I realized that not only did I think the novel wasn't great, but that I thought it was just plain bad.    I'm not the type of reader who usually bothers finishing books that hold little to no interest for me - my philosophy being that life is too short to read bad books - but for some reason I found it hard to put this one down simply because everyone else seems to think it's so great.   While I was reading there were several points in the novel where I asked myself if I should bother to continue, and it took me close to 200 pages to decide that my time would be better spent on something I would like.   Life is indeed too short to read bad books!   

What about you?  Do you finish everything you read?  Do you have a harder time setting aside novels that you think you are 'supposed' to like?