Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Travel Tuesday: Caerphilly Castle, Wales

I missed my Travel Tuesday post last week, so I thought I'd make up for it by sharing a few pictures from one of my favourite castles: Caerphilly Castle, which is in southern Wales.   I had the opportunity to visit Caerphilly a couple of years ago and was impressed by its size.   Given little restoration of the Castle has taken place, it was not hard to imagine the Castle in all its glory way back in the 13th and 14th centuries.    

Caerphilly Castle is the second largest castle in Great Britain (Windsor Castle is the largest).   Construction began during the 13th century by Gilbert de Clare, Lord of Glamorgan.    More information on this castle can be found at: http://www.castlewales.com/caerphil.html

Literary Link:

Caerphilly Castle is featured in Susan Higginbotham's novel The Traitor's Wife,  which is about Eleanor le Despenser, niece to Edward II and wife of Hugh le Despenser (the younger). 

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Mailbox Monday

It's time for Mailbox Monday,  a weekly meme posted by book bloggers to share with their readers the wonderful books they received over the past week.    Mailbox Monday is a travelling meme, and is being hosted for the month of July by Gwendolyn over at A Sea of Books. 

It was another great book week for me!  I'm really looking forward to cracking open each of the new books that arrived in my mailbox this past week.    So, without further ado, here is my mailbox:

Hothouse Flower by Lucinda Riley (synopsis courtesy of amazon.ca):

This is a heart-rending page turner which sweeps from war-torn Europe to Thailand and back again ...As a child Julia Forrester spent many idyllic hours in the hothouse of Wharton Park estate, where her grandfather tended the exotic flowers. So when a family tragedy strikes, Julia returns to the tranquility of Wharton Park and its hothouse. Recently inherited by charismatic Kit Crawford, the estate is undergoing renovation. This leads to the discovery of an old diary, prompting the pair to seek out Julia's grandmother to learn the truth behind a love affair that almost destroyed Wharton Park. Julia is taken back to the 1940s where the fortunes of young couple Olivia and Harry Crawford will have terrible consequences on generations to come. For as war breaks out Olivia and Harry are cruelly separated... 

The Beauty Chorus by Kate Lord Brown (synopsis courtesy of Chapters.indigo.ca):

New Year's Eve, 1940: Evie Chase, the beautiful debutante daughter of a rich and adoring RAF commander, listens wistfully to the swing music drifting out from the ballroom, unable to join in the fun. With bombs falling nightly in London, she is determined that the coming year will bring a lot more than dances, picnics and tennis matches. She is determined to make a difference to the war effort. 5th January, 1941: Evie curses her fashionable heels as they skid on the frozen ground of her local airfield. She is here to join the ATA, the civilian pilots who ferry Tiger Moths and Spitfires to bases across war-torn Britain. Two other women wait nervously to join up: Stella Grainger, a forlorn young mother who has returned from Singapore without her baby boy and Megan Jones, an idealistic teenager who has never left her Welsh village. Billeted together in a tiny cottage in a sleepy country village, Evie, Stella and Megan must learn to live and work together. Brave, beautiful and fiercely independent, these women soon move beyond their different backgrounds as they find romance, confront loss, and forge friendships that will last a lifetime.

India Black by Carol K. Carr (synopsis courtesy of Chapters.indigo.ca):

When Sir Archibald Latham of the War Office dies from a heart attack while visiting her brothel, Madam India Black is unexpectedly thrust into a deadly game between Russian and British agents who are seeking the military secrets Latham carried. 

Blackmailed into recovering the missing documents by the British spy known as French, India finds herself dodging Russian agents-and the attraction she starts to feel for the handsome conspirator.

The Map of Time by Felix J. Palma (synopsis courtesy of Chapters.indigo.ca):

Set in Victorian London with characters real and imagined, The Map of Time boasts a triple-play of intertwined plots in which a skeptical H.G. Wells is called upon to investigate purported incidents of time travel and thereby save the lives of an aristocrat in love with a murdered prostitute from the past; of a woman bent on fleeing the strictures of Victorian society; and of his very own wife, who may have become a pawn in a 4th-dimensional plot to murder the authors of Dracula, The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds, in order to alter their identities and steal their fictional creations.  

But, what happens if we change history?  Felix J. Palma raises such questions in The Map of Time. Mingling fictional characters with real ones, Palma weaves a historical fantasy as imaginative as it is exciting, a story full of love and adventure that also pays homage to the roots of science fiction while transporting its readers to a fascinating Victorian London for their own taste of time travel.

What did you get in your mailbox this week?  


Friday, July 22, 2011

Top Ten: My Favourite Works of Historical Fiction

Since I don't have any reviews to share at the moment, I thought I'd share my top ten favourite works of historical fiction instead.   I think it's pretty obvious from my list that I love epic works of historical fiction set primarily in England during the medieval and Tudor eras, don't you?  

My Favorite Works of Historical Fiction

(1) The Sunne in Splendour by Sharon Kay Penman.   Nobody does historical fiction better than Sharon Kay Penman and I think this novel, about the Wars of the Roses and Richard III, is her finest yet.

(2) Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel.   Mantel brings Oliver Cromwell to life in this novel set in the court of Henry VIII.   Readers seem to either love or hate this novel, and I fall firmly in the love camp.   I thought it was absolutely brilliant and can't wait for the promised sequel. 

(3) When Christ and His Saints Slept by Sharon Kay Penman.   Another fine example of why Penman is a master of historical fiction.  This novel, the first in Penman's series about the Plantagenets, follows the battle for the English throne between King Stephen and Empress Matilda, the mother of Henry II. 

(4) Devil's Brood by Sharon Kay Penman.  The third installment in Penman's Plantagenet books, this one follows Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine and their grown children.   I'm looking forward to the release of the next book, Lionheart, this fall

(5) Katherine by Anya Seton.  Seton's classic novel tells of the love story between John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, and Katherine Swynford.  

(6) Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett.   This is the novel that started my love affair with historical fiction.  Pillars concerns the building of a Cathedral in the fictional English town of Kingsbridge during the 12th century.   The follow-up, World Without End, is pretty good, too. 

(7) The Last Queen by C.W. Gortner.   Gortner's novel of Queen Juana of Castile, often referred to as the Mad Queen, is a wonderfully written tale about one of history's lesser known queens. 

(8) Sarum by Edward Rutherfurd.   This is a multi-generational tale set in and around Sarum/ Salisbury, England.   This is my favourite of Rutherfurd's novels, but you really can't go wrong with any of them. 

(9) Elizabeth I by Margaret George.   Despite a love of the Tudor period,  I've never been much a fan of novels that feature Elizabeth I as a central figure primarily because I have issues with how authors have chosen to characterize  the queen.   George, however, brings the later years of Elizabeth's reign to life and has characterized Elizabeth in such a way as to make the reader understand why she is considered one of England's greatest monarchs. 

(10) The Greatest Knight by Elizabeth Chadwick.   This wonderful novel focuses on the life of William Marshall, who is considered one of the greatest knights of the medieval age.   If you haven't read any of Chadwick's novels, I definitely recommend you pick one up soon! 

Honourable mention:

(11) The Traitor's Wife by Susan Higginbotham.  Set during the reign of Edward II, this novel is about Edward's niece, Eleanor, and her husband Hugh le Despenser. 

So, are any of these novels on your own list of favourites?

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Mailbox Monday

It's time for Mailbox Monday,  a weekly meme posted by book bloggers to share with their readers the wonderful books they received over the past week.    Mailbox Monday is a travelling meme, and is being hosted for the month of July by Gwendolyn over at A Sea of Books.  

I received some great books in my mailbox this week, including the book I have been most looking forward to reading for the last few years (A Dance with Dragons)!  All books are my own purchases.   So, without further ado, here is my mailbox:

A Dance With Dragons by George R.R. Martin (synopsis from Chapters.indigo.ca):

In the aftermath of a colossal battle, the future of the Seven Kingdoms hangs in the balance-beset by newly emerging threats from every direction. In the east, Daenerys Targaryen, the last scion of House Targaryen, rules with her three dragons as queen of a city built on dust and death. But Daenerys has thousands of enemies, and many have set out to find her. As they gather, one young man embarks upon his own quest for the queen, with an entirely different goal in mind.

Fleeing from Westeros with a price on his head, Tyrion Lannister, too, is making his way to Daenerys. But his newest allies in this quest are not the rag-tag band they seem, and at their heart lies one who could undo Daenerys's claim to Westeros forever.

Meanwhile, to the north lies the mammoth Wall of ice and stone-a structure only as strong as those guarding it. There, Jon Snow, 998th Lord Commander of the Night's Watch, will face his greatest challenge. For he has powerful foes not only within the Watch but also beyond, in the land of the creatures of ice.

From all corners, bitter conflicts reignite, intimate betrayals are perpetrated, and a grand cast of outlaws and priests, soldiers and skinchangers, nobles and slaves, will face seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Some will fail, others will grow in the strength of darkness. But in a time of rising restlessness, the tides of destiny and politics will lead inevitably to the greatest dance of all.

Before Versailles by Karleen Koen (synopsis from Chapters.indigo.ca):

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

The Lost Crown by Sarah Miller (synopsis from Chapters.indigo.ca)

Olga, Tatiana, Maria, and Anastasia.  Like the fingers on a hand--first headstrong Olga; then Tatiana, the tallest; Maria the most hopeful for a ring; and Anastasia, the smallest.  These are the daughters of Tsar Nicholas II, grand duchesses living a life steeped in tradition and privilege.  They are each on the brink of starting their own lives, at the mercy of royal matchmakers.  The summer of 1914 is that precious last wink of time when they can still be sisters together--sisters that link arms and laugh, sisters that share their dreams and worries, and flirt with the officers of their imperial yacht.
But in a gunshot the future changes - for these sisters and for Russia.

As World War I ignites across Europe, political unrest sweeps Russia. First dissent, then disorder, mutiny - and revolution. For Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia, the end of their girlhood together is colliding with the end of more than they ever imagined.

At the same time hopeful and hopeless, naive and wise, the voices of these sisters become a chorus singing the final song of Imperial Russia. Impeccably researched and utterly fascinating, this novel by acclaimed author Sarah Miller recounts the final days of Imperial Russia with lyricism, criticism and true compassion.

The Dark Enquiry by Deanna Raybourn (synopsis from Chapters.indigo.ca): 

Partners now in marriage and in trade, Lady Julia and Nicholas Brisbane have finally returned from abroad to set up housekeeping in London. But merging their respective collections of gadgets, pets and servants leaves little room for the harried newlyweds themselves, let alone Brisbane's private enquiry business.   

Among the more unlikely clients: Julia's very proper brother, Lord Bellmont, who swears Brisbane to secrecy about his case. Not about to be left out of anything concerning her beloved if eccentric family, spirited Julia soon picks up the trail of the investigation.  It leads to the exclusive Ghost Club, where the alluring Madame Séraphine holds evening séances…and not a few powerful gentlemen in thrall. From this eerie enclave unfolds a lurid tangle of dark deeds, whose tendrils crush reputations and throttle trust.  

Shocked to find their investigation spun into salacious newspaper headlines, bristling at the tension it causes between them, the Brisbanes find they must unite or fall. For Bellmont's sake and more they'll face myriad dangers born of dark secrets, the kind men kill to keep….

What books showed up in your mailbox this past week? 

Suddenly Sunday

Welcome to another addition of Suddenly Sunday, a weekly meme hosted by Svea at The Muse in the Fog where we share the exciting things that happened on our blog this past week.

It's been yet another quiet blogging week for me.   While I've been enjoying reading posts on other blogs, other than Mailbox Monday I had none of my own to share.   So, if I haven't been blogging, what have I been up to?  Well, I've been completely immersed in George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series.   Still working through my series re-read, which I'm almost finished, in preparation for my read of A Dance with Dragons.  Martin's latest novel, which was released this past Tuesday, is now sitting on my shelf waiting to be read and I should be ready for it early next week.   I can't wait! 

Has anyone been to see Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II?  It's receiving fantastic reviews.   I hope to see it next weekend.   As much as I'm looking forward to seeing the movie it will also be a little sad knowing that once it's finished the series really will be over :-( 

Since the focus of my reading attention has been solely on A Song of Ice and Fire lately, I don't have much coming up by way of book reviews.  I will have my usual Mailbox Monday post this week and will try to post another Travel Tuesdays should I have time, but next week may be just as quiet blogging-wise as this past one.

I hope everyone has a great week.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Mailbox Monday

It's time for Mailbox Monday,  a weekly meme posted by book bloggers to share with their readers the wonderful books they received over the past week.    Mailbox Monday is a travelling meme, and is being hosted for the month of July by A Sea of Books. 

After a few weeks without mail (due to a strike), my mailbox has finally started to fill up again with some wonderful literary treats.  Here is what arrived in my mailbox this past week:

Won courtesy of Audra @ Unabridged Chick and Random House Publishers (Thank you!):

The Peach Keeper by Sarah Addison Allen (Synopsis from Chapters.indigo.ca)

The New York Times bestselling author of The Girl Who Chased the Moon welcomes you to her newest locale: Walls of Water, North Carolina, where the secrets are thicker than the fog from the town's famous waterfalls, and the stuff of superstition is just as real as you want it to be.

It's the dubious distinction of thirty-year-old Willa Jackson to hail from a fine old Southern family of means that met with financial ruin generations ago. The Blue Ridge Madam-built by Willa's great-great-grandfather during Walls of Water's heyday, and once the town's grandest home-has stood for years as a lonely monument to misfortune and scandal. And Willa herself has long strived to build a life beyond the brooding Jackson family shadow. No easy task in a town shaped by years of tradition and the well-marked boundaries of the haves and have-nots.

But Willa has lately learned that an old classmate-socialite do-gooder Paxton Osgood-of the very prominent Osgood family, has restored the Blue Ridge Madam to her former glory, with plans to open a top-flight inn. Maybe, at last, the troubled past can be laid to rest while something new and wonderful rises from its ashes. But what rises instead is a skeleton, found buried beneath the property's lone peach tree, and certain to drag up dire consequences along with it.

For the bones-those of charismatic traveling salesman Tucker Devlin, who worked his dark charms on Walls of Water seventy-five years ago-are not all that lay hidden out of sight and mind. Long-kept secrets surrounding the troubling remains have also come to light, seemingly heralded by a spate of sudden strange occurrences throughout the town.

Now, thrust together in an unlikely friendship, united by a full-blooded mystery, Willa and Paxton must confront the dangerous passions and tragic betrayals that once bound their families-and uncover truths of the long-dead that have transcended time and defied the grave to touch the hearts and souls of the living.

Resonant with insight into the deep and lasting power of friendship, love, and tradition, The Peach Keeper is a portrait of the unshakable bonds that-in good times and bad, from one generation to the next-endure forever.

Purchased (paper copies)

The Agency: A Spy in the House by YS Lee (synopsis from Chapters.indigo.ca)

Introducing an exciting new series! Steeped in Victorian atmosphere and intrigue, this diverting mystery trails a feisty heroine as she takes on a precarious secret assignment.

Rescued from the gallows in 1850s London, young orphan (and thief) Mary Quinn is surprised to be offered a singular education, instruction in fine manners - and an unusual vocation. Miss Scrimshaw's Academy for Girls is a cover for an all-female investigative unit called The Agency, and at seventeen, Mary is about to put her training to the test. Assuming the guise of a lady's companion, she must infiltrate a rich merchant's home in hopes of tracing his missing cargo ships. But the household is full of dangerous deceptions, and there is no one to trust - or is there? Packed with action and suspense, banter and romance, and evoking the gritty backstreets of Victorian London, this breezy mystery debuts a daring young detective who lives by her wits while uncovering secrets - including those of her own past.

Heartless by Gail Carriger (synopsis from Chapters.indigo.ca):

Lady Alexia Maccon, soulless, is at it again, only this time the trouble is not her fault. When a mad ghost threatens the queen, Alexia is on the case, following a trail that leads her deep into her husband's past. Top that off with a sister who has joined the suffragette movement (shocking!), Madame Lefoux's latest mechanical invention, and a plague of zombie porcupines and Alexia barely has time to remember she happens to be eight months pregnant.

Will Alexia manage to determine who is trying to kill Queen Victoria before it is too late? Is it the vampires again or is there a traitor lurking about in wolf's clothing? And what, exactly, has taken up residence in Lord Akeldama's second best closet?

Sisters to the King by Maria Perry

This fascinating biography tells the life stories of Henry VIII's two sisters, Margaret and Mary, who led very interesting lives and made an impact on European history.   Sisters to the King shows that many people considered Henry's sisters to be more important than his wives in the Tudor Age. Margaret became Queen of Scotland at age 13 and Mary married the King of France, but as time went on, both women defied convention, proposed to second husbands and sought divorces.
Purchased (e-books)

 The Crown in the Heather by N. Gemini Sasson

In 1290, Scotland is without a king. Two families-the Bruce's and the Balliol's-vie for the throne.

Robert the Bruce is in love with Elizabeth de Burgh, the daughter of an adherent of the ruthless Longshanks, King of England. In order to marry her and not give up his chances of someday becoming King of Scots, Robert must abandon his rebel ways and bide his time as Longshanks' vassal.

But Edward, Longshanks' heir, doesn't trust the opportunistic Scotsman and vows to one day destroy him. While quietly plotting his rebellion, Robert is betrayed by one of his own and must flee Longshanks' vengeance.

Aided by the unlikely brilliance of the soft-spoken young nobleman, James Douglas, Robert battles for his throne. Victory, though, is never certain and Robert soon learns that keeping his crown may mean giving up that which he loves most-his beloved Elizabeth.

Those are the books that found their way into my home this week.  What books did you get?

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Who's Excited for the Release of A Dance with Dragons?

On Tuesday, July 12th, A Dance With Dragons, the much anticipated fifth volume in George R.R. Martin's epic A Song of Ice and Fire fantasy series, will be released.   I've eagerly anticipated the publication of a number of great books this year, but none more so than this one.   It's been a long wait between books four and five, but I know the wait will be worth it!   A better, more gripping and emotionally intense series I have never read.  

Is anyone else eagerly awaiting the release of A Dance with Dragons?  If you haven't read the series yet I can't recommend it highly enough - even if you're not a fan of the fantasy genre.  Harry Potter notwithstanding, A Song of Ice and Fire was my introduction to fantasy genre and I now consider it one of my favourites. 


Thursday, July 7, 2011

Book Review: Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear

Synopsis from Chapters.Indigo.ca:

When WWI breaks out, Maisie Dobbs is shipped to the front as a nurse. After the War, she sets up on her own as a private investigator. But her very first assignment soon reveals a much deeper, darker web of secrets, which will force her to revisit the horrors of the Great War and the love she left behind.

My Review

4 Stars

Jacqueline Winspears' Maisie Dobbs is the first book in a series of mystery novels featuring the title character.    The story begins in the year 1929, with Maisie opening her own detective agency in London, England.    It is not long before Maisie has her first case, that of following the wife of one of her clients to determine where the wife is spending her time.   The case itself isn't all that mysterious and is easily solved, yet it brings back memories of Maisie's time as a nurse during WWI and of the love she lost during the Great War.  It also raises questions about a secretive convalescence home for badly disfigured veterans known as The Retreat.  

Once her client's case is solved, the novel takes the reader back in time and follows Maisie's early life up until the closing days of WWI.   There is no mystery involved in this part of the novel, yet it provides much needed background on, and insight into, the heroine.   The novel then shifts back to 1929, as Maisie begins to look into the mysteries surrounding The Retreat.   This is the focus of the novel until the end. 

Overall, I enjoyed Maisie Dobbs.  Winspear has a beautiful way with words and has vividly drawn both her main and supporting characters.   While I didn't find the story itself all that mysterious, I was drawn into it nevertheless.   For me, one of the novel's greatest strengths lies in how Winspear was able to capture the essence of post-WWI England, and of the generation of men and women whose lives were forever impacted by the Great War.   Maisie Dobbs is a strong young woman, but her life and outlook, as well as those of the people around her, was eternally changed by the war, a fact that comes  across clearly in the novel.   In fact, whether it was the intent of the author or not, I thought the mystery component of the novel took a backseat to the experiences of WWI and of the physical and emotional scars it left on those who lived through it.  For this reason this is a novel that has stayed with me long after I finished reading the last page.

I definitely recommend Maisie Dobbs and look forward to reading the other novels in this series.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Travel Tuesdays: Prince Edward Island

For this week's edition of Travel Tuesdays, I've decided to feature one of my favourite places: Prince Edward Island, Canada.   PEI is perhaps best known for being the home of one of literature's greatest fictional heroines, Anne Shirley.   It is also the birthplace of Canadian Confederation.     

Here are some photos from my most recent visit:

Green Gables 


Anne's Bedroom in Green Gables

The lake that inspired The Lake of Shining Waters

 Cavendish Beach (PEI's most famous red sand beach)

Literary Link: 

To most people outside Canada - and many Canadians, too - PEI is most often associated with the works of Lucy Maud Montgomery, the most famous of which is Anne of Green Gables.  

As soon as Anne Shirley arrived at the snug, white farmhouse called Green Gables, she knew she wanted to stay forever...but would the Cuthbert's send her back to the orphanage? Anne knows she's not what they expected--a skinny girl with decidedly red hair and a temper to match. If only she could convince them to let her stay, she'd try very hard not to keep rushing headlong into scrapes or blurt out the very first thing she had to say. Anne was not like anybody else, everyone at Green Gables agreed; she was special--a girl with an enormous imagination. This orphan girl dreamed of the day when she could call herself Anne of Green Gables.   Synopsis from Chapters.indigo.ca

If you haven't already read the Green Gables series I highly recommend you do so.   I also recommend spending time in PEI if ever the opportunity arises.