Saturday, June 30, 2012

Great Canadian Historical Fiction

July 1st is Canada Day, the day we Canadians celebrate the anniversary of the birth of our nation on July 1st, 1867.  

In honour of Canada Day I've put together a list of my favourite works of Canadian historical fiction.   Although Canada is not often a setting found in historical fiction,  I do think that the novels that are available are of top quality and well worth reading.   I encourage anyone interested in learning more about the history of this great country through historical fiction to check out the novels listed below, all of which have been written by Canadian authors and are set in whole or part in Canada.  

Do you have any favourites to recommend?  Feel free to share them in the comments section. 

Melissa's List of Great Canadian Historical Fiction

Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden

It is 1919, and Niska, the last Oji-Cree woman to live off the land, has received word that one of the two boys she saw off to the Great War has returned. Xavier Bird, her sole living relation, is gravely wounded and addicted to morphine. As Niska slowly paddles her canoe on the three-day journey to bring Xavier home, travelling through the stark but stunning landscape of Northern Ontario, their respective stories emerge-stories of Niska's life among her kin and of Xavier's horrifying experiences in the killing fields of Ypres and the Somme.

The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill (AKA Someone Knows My Name outside of Canada)

Abducted as an 11-year-old child from her village in West Africa and forced to walk for months to the sea in a coffle, a string of slaves, Aminata Diallo is sent to live as a slave in South Carolina. But years later, she forges her way to freedom, serving the British in the Revolutionary War and registering her name in the historic Book of Negroes. This book, an actual document, provides a short but immensely revealing record of freed Loyalist slaves who requested permission to leave the US for resettlement in Nova Scotia, only to find that the haven they sought was steeped in an oppression all of its own.

Aminata's eventual return to Sierra Leone, passing ships carrying thousands of slaves bound for America, is an engrossing account of an obscure but important chapter in history that saw 1,200 former slaves embark on a harrowing back-to-Africa odyssey. Lawrence Hill is a master at transforming the neglected corners of history into brilliant imaginings, as engaging and revealing as only the best historical fiction can be. A sweeping story that transports the reader from a tribal African village to a plantation in the southern United States, from the teeming Halifax docks to the manor houses of London, The Book of Negroes introduces one of the strongest female characters in recent Canadian fiction, one who cuts a swath through a world hostile to her colour and her sex.

Bride of New France by Suzanne Desrochers

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

This haunting first novel explores the challenges that a French girl faces coming into womanhood in a brutal time and place. From the moment she arrives, Laure is expected to marry and produce children with a brutish French soldier who can barely survive the harsh conditions of his forest cabin. But through her clandestine relationship with Deskaheh, an allied Iroquois, Laure discovers the possibilities of this New World.

The Day the Falls Stood Still by Cathy Marie Buchanan

Steeped in the intriguing history of Niagara Falls, this is an epic love story as rich, spellbinding and majestic as the falls themselves.

1915. The dawn of the hydroelectric power era in Niagara Falls. Seventeen-year-old Bess Heath has led a sheltered existence as the youngest daughter of the director of the Niagara Power Company. After graduation day at her boarding school, she is impatient to return to her picturesque family home near the falls. But when she arrives, nothing is as she left it. Her father has lost his job at the power company, her mother is reduced to taking in sewing from the society ladies she once entertained, and Isabel, Bess's vivacious older sister, is a shadow of her former self. She has shut herself in her bedroom, barely eating and harboring a secret.

The night of her return, Bess meets Tom Cole by chance on a trolley platform, she finds herself inexplicably drawn to him against her family's strong objections. He is not from their world. Rough-hewn and fearless, he lives off what the river provides and has an uncanny ability to predict the whims of the falls. His daring river rescues render him a local hero and cast him as a threat to the power companies that seek to harness the falls for themselves. As the couple's lives become more fully entwined, Bess is forced to make a painful choice between what she wants and what is best for her family and her future.

Set against the tumultuous backdrop of Niagara Falls, at a time when daredevils shot the river rapids in barrels and great industrial fortunes were made and lost as quickly as lives disappeared, The Day the Falls Stood Still is an intoxicating debut novel.

Away by Jane Urqhuart 

A stunning, evocative novel set in Ireland and Canada, Away traces a family's complex and layered past. The narrative unfolds with shimmering clarity, and takes us from the harsh northern Irish coast in the 1840s to the quarantine stations at Grosse Isle and the barely hospitable land of the Canadian Shield; from the flourishing town of Port Hope to the flooded streets of Montreal; from Ottawa at the time of Confederation to a large-windowed house at the edge of a Great Lake during the present day. Graceful and moving, Away unites the personal and the political as it explores the most private, often darkest corners of our emotions where the things that root us to ourselves endure. Powerful, intricate, lyrical, Away is an unforgettable novel.

The Halifax Connection by Marie Jakober 

A Canadian counter-intelligence novel with a memorable romance at its heart, The Halifax Connection brings to life 1860s Montreal and Halifax with wit, action and a finale that will leave you breathless.

Canada in 1862 is still a few scattered colonies run by an indifferent British crown. As the American Civil War heats up south of the border, Southern Confederates flood into Montreal and Halifax, among them numerous spies and military officers planning secret missions against the Union - missions they hope will provoke a war between England and the United States, throwing the whole weight of the British Empire into the Confederate camp.

Erryn Shaw is a charming British aristocrat who has been banished to the colonies and now wants nothing more than to run a theatre. Instead, he is convinced to spy for the British and finds himself befriending Southern Rebels to learn of their plans. On a mission to Montreal, he gets wind of a sinister plot-a plan the Confederates believe will win them the war. And he can't seem to find a way to stop it.

At the same time, he meets and courts an intriguing woman, Sylvie Bowen, who escaped the cotton mills of England seeking a better life.  Though she's drawn to Erryn's charm and cleverness, she once met with disaster at the hands of the South, and he knows it is only a matter of time until she discovers his ties to the Rebels and turns against him.

Drawing on actual events, The Halifax Connection captures a fascinating and largely forgotten piece of Canada's history.  From the comfortable parlours and ballrooms of the bustling metropolis of Montreal to the back alleyways of the port town of Halifax, to the deadly high seas patrolled by Southern raiders, the novel draws a remarkable picture of Canada in the mid-1800s - its people, its power struggles, its hopes and its dreams.

The Trade by Fred Stenson

The Hudson's Bay Company is about to exercise its uncontested monopoly over the lands drained by Hudson Bay. The first step is to find a new source of beaver pelts and profits, and the only hope lies in the unmapped territory held by the Blackfoot-speaking Indian tribes. The new governor mounts an expedition into the heart of this unknown land, a journey that will test the mettle of a new generation of Hudson's Bay Company men.  ...this brilliant novel tells an incredible story of those who were ruled by the often brutalizing fur trade. It is a story of love and economics and of how European culture, including religion, tried-and often failed-to root itself in this anarchic place. In the end, it is the story of how the mighty fur trade was rolled under by the greater forces of change and history.

All book synopses courtesy of

Happy Canada Day! 

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Book Review: An Unmarked Grave by Charles Todd

World War I nurse and amateur sleuth Bess Crawford matches wits with a devious killer in this exciting and suspenseful adventure from New York Times bestselling author Charles Todd.

In the spring of 1918, the Spanish flu epidemic spreads, killing millions of soldiers and civilians across the globe. Overwhelmed by the constant flow of wounded soldiers coming from the French front, battlefield nurse Bess Crawford must now contend with hundreds of influenza patients as well.

However, war and disease are not the only killers to strike. Bess discovers, concealed among the dead waiting for burial, the body of an officer who has been murdered. Though she is devoted to all her patients, this soldier's death touches her deeply. Not only did the man serve in her father's former regiment, he was also a family friend.

Before she can report the terrible news, Bess falls ill, the latest victim of the flu. By the time she recovers, the murdered officer has been buried, and the only other person who saw the body has hanged himself. Or did he?

Working her father's connections in the military, Bess begins to piece together what little evidence she can find to unmask the elusive killer and see justice served. But she must be as vigilant as she is tenacious. With a determined killer on her heels, each move Bess makes could be her last.

Synopsis courtesy of

My Review

4 Stars

An Unmarked Grave is the fourth entry in Charles Todd's Bess Crawford mystery series.   This novel opens with the heroine, British nurse Bess Crawford, working tirelessly in a field hospital full of soldiers wounded at the front, as well as those suffering from the flu, which is reeking havoc all across Europe.   When secretly called upon to view the body of a man whose death an orderly believes suspicious, Bess discovers that the body belongs to a close family friend and officer within her father's regiment.  Determined to get to the bottom of the apparent murder, Bess makes plans to discuss her findings with her nursing superior at the earliest opportunity.  Unfortunately, Bess almost immediately falls ill with the flu herself, and it is weeks before she's recovered enough to investigate further.   Moving between the French front and the English countryside, Bess never gives up on her quest to uncover the truth.  Yet, with a number of new murders, it appears the killer is one step ahead of Bess.   More dire is that Bess herself has become a target.   Will Bess be able to solve the murders before she becomes a victim herself?

Overall, I enjoyed this novel immensely.  Bess is a strong heroine who is easy to relate to and her attitudes and actions are consistent with the time period in which she lived.   The secondary characters, including Bess' parents and friend, Simon, are also wonderfully drawn and interesting.  The mystery itself is intriguing and left me guessing as to the killer's identify until the very end.  I especially like the fact that this novel is set against the backdrop of World War I, a period in which becoming increasingly interested.   Todd's descriptions of life in a field hospital are especially vivid.

Not having read any of the previous novels in the Bess Crawford mystery series, I was a little worried that my unfamiliarity with the events of earlier books might make it difficult for me to understand some of the back story included in this one.  It turns out that this wasn't an issue and, as a result, the novel stands well on its own.   Nevertheless, I'm looking forward to going back to the beginning of the series to read the books I've missed.   I highly recommend this novel to fans of historical mysteries.

Note: I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

An Unmarked Grave is currently on tour with TLC Book Tours.   Click here to view the tour schedule.  You can also check out the author's webpage by clicking here

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Mount TBR Challenge 2012: Checkpoint #2

It's time for checkpoint #2 on this year's Mount TBR Reading Challenge, which is being hosted by My Reader's Block.  I wish I could report significant progress towards the achievement of this challenge, but of the 46 books I've read so far this year only 16 have come from my pre-2012 TBR pile!  In other words, I've only made it a little more than a quarter of the way up the mountain I've chosen to climb - Mt. Kilimanjaro, which requires I read 50 books from my pre-2012 TBR pile.   Since I still have six months to read the remaining 34 books, I'm going to try really hard from here on out to focus on my TBR pile instead of all the new releases I keep picking up...we'll see how that goes :-)

Here is an updated list of the books I've read for this challenge so far:

(1) Dark Road to Darjeeling by Deanna Raybourn -  4 Stars
(2) The Running Vixen by Elizabeth Chadwick - 3.5 Stars
(3) Lady Macbeth by Susan Fraser King - 3.5 Stars
(4) The Kingmaking by Helen Hollick - 3.5 Stars
(5) The Forgotten Legion by Ben Kane -  4 Stars
(6) Worth Dying For by N. Gemini Sasson -  3 Stars
(7) Henry Tilney's Diary by Amanda Grange - 3.5 Stars
(8) Rivals in the Tudor Court by D.L. Bogdan - 3.5 Stars
(9) A Girl's Guide to Witchcraft by Mindy Klasky - 3.5 Stars
 (10) Fool's Errand by Robin Hobb - 4 Stars
(11) A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry - 4 Stars
(12) Cleopatra's Daughter by Michelle Moran - 4 Stars
(13) The Xibalba Murders by Lyn Hamilton - 3.5 Stars
 (14) The Leopard Unleashed by Elizabeth Chadwick - 4 Stars
(15) Ender's Game by Orson Scott Cart - 3.5 Stars
(16) The Stolen Crown by Susan Higginbotham - 4 Stars

While none of these novels was a standout for me, my particular favourite is Ben Kane's The Forgotten Legion.   

So far, my overall favourites for the year are all 2012 releases: Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel, The Queen's Vow by C.W. Gortner, and The Shoemaker's Wife by Adriana Trigiani. 

Friday, June 22, 2012

Interview with Author C.W. Gortner

I'm excited to host my first ever author interview here at Confessions of an Avid Reader.   My guest is historical novelist C.W. Gortner, who is currently on tour with Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours to promote his latest release, The Queen's Vow, an enthralling novel about Queen Isabella of Castile (click here to check out my review).   If you haven't read any of Mr. Gortner's novels, I highly recommend you do so as he is one of the historical fiction genre's best authors.    

Q:  Three of your four novels feature a controversial (i.e., Isabella of Castile and Catherine de Medici) or misunderstood (i.e., Queen Juana of Castile) female monarch as its principal character.   What is it about each of these women that drew you to write a novel about them? 

A: I’m drawn to controversial women. Popular history often reduces complexity to clichés, so that we have Isabella of Castile as the fanatic; Catherine de Medici as the evil crone; and Juana as the victim. However, the truth is much more interesting. These women were flesh-and-blood human beings. Their motivations aren’t simply defined; the challenge for me, the inspiration, is the desire to go beyond their legends to discover the actual person they may have been. In the instance of Isabella, I was attracted to her contradictions. She had the strength to become queen against incredible odds, coupled with a near-visionary belief in the unification of Spain, and yet she unleashed something as terrible as the Inquisition. I wanted to make sense of what may have driven her. With Juana, she’s accused of being mad and unable to rule; it’s said she threw aside her kingdom for grief. I wanted to delve into that myth and see if there was a deeper story there, and indeed it turned out there is. With Catherine de Medici, her legend is horrible: she’s accused of some of the 16th century’s worst crimes, including the massacre of nearly 6000 Protestants in Paris. Was it true? Did she conspire to kill those who stood in her way? When I start asking these questions, it’s usually a sign that this is a person I want to write about.

Q:  During the course of your research for The Queen’s Vow, what was the most interesting or surprising thing you discovered about Isabella of Castile? 

A: Isabella had a very rudimentary education. Despite this, she was quite forward thinking in terms of women’s education. In an era when more than half the population of Castile was illiterate, Isabella decreed that women could study in universities, earn degrees, and teach there— the first time in Spain when women had any access to higher learning. She also employed a female scholar, the famous Beatriz Gallindo, known as la Latina, to be private tutor to her daughters and herself. Already a queen in her mid-thirties, Isabella set out to learn Latin, a language she had never mastered, though it was the primary language of diplomacy. She also imported the first printing presses to Spain and was known to call out certain, ignorant nobles at her court who eschewed learning by asking them if they’d read that book she’d sent them.  The nobles of her era were sword-wielding macho men with a serious contempt for what they deemed ‘monkish behavior’ but Isabella was a great believer in improvement through education and as a result, by her death, literacy in Spain had risen significantly.

Q: Have you always wanted to be a writer?  Was historical fiction always the genre you wanted to write in?  If you weren’t a writer what do you think you’d be?

AI didn’t always know that I wanted to be a writer. For as long as I can remember, I’ve written stories but I didn’t consider that I might try to make a living at it until later on in my life. I’ve also always loved historical fiction; growing up, it was my favorite genre. In my teens, however, I read a lot of fantasy and classics, and my writing reflected that. Then, in my mid-twenties, I re-discovered my love of history and began writing what turned out to be my first (and to date, unpublished) historical novel. Once I started, I found that I liked writing historical fiction best, because it combined my passion for history with the ability to turn the dry facts into a living world. However, if I wasn’t a writer, I’d have liked to work in animal rescue.

Q:  As an author of historical fiction, do you think certain historical figures and/or time periods have been overdone?   What historical figures or time periods do you wish were written about more often? 

AI think that we experience certain prevailing trends in the genre, and that some eras/personalities are endlessly fascinating to readers. I don’t really consider any particular figures or time periods overdone, providing there’s a fresh or unique approach. Take the Tudors, for example: you’d think there’d be nothing left to say about them, and yet every so often a novel appears that has a new spin, a new angle, a new way of telling the story. That said, I do wish there was less emphasis from a publishing stand-point on the so-called ‘marquee name’ or the most famous people. These characters are few, and we have a wealth of untold stories in other eras, and figures who are not considered household names; the medieval era, for example, is rarely explored outside of England.

Q:  Do you read historical fiction featuring the people about whom you’ve written?  Why or why not?

A: I can’t when I am writing about the character, because I don’t want to be influenced by another author’s vision. I want my interpretation to remain mine. Sometimes, once my book is finished and delivered to my publisher, I will read a novel about the same person. Not always, but I have in the past; mostly, when the author’s approach intrigues me and seems removed enough from my own.

Q:  Who are your favorite historical fiction authors?    What is it about their writing that you most admire?

AOh, far too many to mention! I think there are a lot of talented people right now writing in the genre, and to signal a few out wouldn’t be fair. However, among those writers who have passed on, I am a great admirer of Daphne du Maurier, whose historical novels, such as The Glassblowers, are under-appreciated today.

Q:  Have you started work on your next novel?  If so, who or what is the subject? 

AI’ve recently finished the second book in my Elizabeth I Spymaster Chronicles (after The Tudor Secret). It is titled The Tudor Conspiracy and is scheduled for publication by St Martin’s Press in the US and Hodder & Stoughton in the UK, in 2013.

I’m currently working on a novel about Lucrezia Borgia, tracing her years from her indulged youth as the illegitimate child of an ambitious Spanish churchman to her notoriety as the pope’s daughter and dangerous struggle to escape the web of her family’s ambitions. Once again, I’ve found myself drawn into the life of a woman who’s been vilified by history. The book will be published by Ballantine in 2014.

Q:  If you could invite three historical figures to a dinner party, who would you invite and why?

A: Catherine de Medici, Rodrigo Borgia, and Erasmus: I think they would have a lot to discuss concerning freedom of religion and their perspectives would be fascinating.

Thank you so much for having me. I sincerely hope readers enjoy THE QUEEN’S VOW.  To learn more about me and my work, please visit me at:

C.W. Gortner is the author of The Last Queen, The Confessions of Catherine de Medici and The Tudor Secret.  He holds an MFA in Writing with an emphasis in Renaissance Studies from the New College of California.


In his extensive travels to research his books, he has danced a galliard in a Tudor great hall and experienced life in a Spanish castle. His novels have garnered international praise and been translated into thirteen languages to date. He is also a dedicated advocate for animal rights and environmental issues.


He's currently at work on his fourth novel for Ballantine Books, about the early years of Lucrezia Borgia, as well as the third novel in his Tudor series,The Elizabeth I Spymaster Chronicles (US) or Elizabeth's Spymaster (UK).

Half-Spanish by birth, C.W. lives in Northern California.

Click here to check out the tour schedule for The Queen's Vow. 

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Book Review: The Queen's Vow by C.W. Gortner

No one believed I was destined for greatness.

So begins Isabella's story, in this evocative, vividly imagined novel about one of history's most famous and controversial queens-the warrior who united a fractured country, the champion of the faith whose reign gave rise to the Inquisition, and the visionary who sent Columbus to discover a New World. Acclaimed author C. W. Gortner envisages the turbulent early years of a woman whose mythic rise to power would go on to transform a monarchy, a nation, and the world.

Young Isabella is barely a teenager when she and her brother are taken from their mother's home to live under the watchful eye of their half-brother, King Enrique, and his sultry, conniving queen. There Isabella is thrust into danger when she becomes an unwitting pawn in a plot to dethrone Enrique. Suspected of treason and held captive, she treads a perilous path, torn between loyalties, until at age seventeen she suddenly finds herself heiress of Castile, the largest kingdom in Spain. Plunged into a deadly conflict to secure her crown, she is determined to wed the one man she loves yet who is forbidden to her-Fernando, prince of Aragon.

As they unite their two realms under "one crown, one country, one faith," Isabella and Fernando face an impoverished Spain beset by enemies. With the future of her throne at stake, Isabella resists the zealous demands of the inquisitor Torquemada even as she is seduced by the dreams of an enigmatic navigator named Columbus. But when the Moors of the southern domain of Granada declare war, a violent, treacherous battle against an ancient adversary erupts, one that will test all of Isabella's resolve, her courage, and her tenacious belief in her destiny.

From the glorious palaces of Segovia to the battlefields of Granada and the intrigue-laden gardens of Seville, The Queen's Vow sweeps us into the tumultuous forging of a nation and the complex, fascinating heart of the woman who overcame all odds to become Isabella of Castile.

Click here to view the book trailer on YouTube.  

My Review

4.5 Stars

Historical novelist C.W. Gortner's latest release, The Queen's Vow, is a biographical novel about one of history's most famous female monarchs, Isabella of Castile.   While the novel doesn't follow Isabella's life and reign in their entirety, it does cover their most significant aspects, including her early years with her mother and brother in Arevalo, her tumultuous days at the court of her half-brother King Enrique, her marriage to Fernando of Aragon and fight for her crown, and her reign as Queen of Castile up until her decision to sponsor Christopher Columbus on his journey to the New World.  

Gortner does an admirable job of bringing Isabella of Castile to life and this is complemented by his lovely, descriptive prose.  I particularly enjoyed how Gortner chose to characterize Isabella, who is portrayed as an intelligent, loyal and determined woman, one whose chosen courses of action are always made in consideration of what she feels is best for Castile, even if they are actions she doesn't necessarily agree with.   While Isabella is often praised for the many reforms she instituted within her Kingdom, including her support for women's education, as well as for her efforts, along with her husband Fernando, towards the unification of Castile and Aragon, she is also much criticized for her agreement to establish the Spanish Inquisition and subsequent expulsion of the Jews.  Although Gortner paints Isabella in a positive light throughout most of the novel, he doesn't try to diminish her role in the Inquisition or her decision to expel the Jews.  He does however, portray Isabella as a woman who thought long and hard before making such momentous decisions, one who understood what her decisions would mean for those they directly impacted.  As Gortner notes in his author's afterword, little to nothing is known about Isabella's true feelings on the Inquisition and expulsion of the Jews, so Gortner used what is known about her personality to craft the views she espouses in this novel.  While we'll never know if Gortner's interpretation accurately reflects Isabella's actual beliefs, they are consistent with how she is portrayed in the rest of the novel and thus make them plausible.

One of the things I love about reading historical fiction is that it provides the opportunity to not only be entertained, but also informed.   Prior to reading this novel my knowledge of Isabella of Castile did not extend much beyond her marriage to Fernando, her sponsorship of Christopher Columbus and the fact that she was the mother of Catherine of Aragon and Juana of Castile.  I had no idea she had such a turbulent upbringing, that her marriage to Fernando was arranged at her request, nor that many of the decisions about the rule of Castile were hers to make alone.   Thanks to The Queen's Vow I now have a much greater appreciation for Queen Isabella, as well as a desire to learn even more about her.

If you've not read any of C.W. Gortner's novels I highly recommend you do so and The Queen's Vow would be a great place to start.     

Note: I received a copy of The Queen's Vow from the publisher as part of the blog tour for the novel. 

You can check out the tour schedule by clicking here.  
You can also follow the tour on twitter by using the hash tag: #QueensVowVirtualTour

Be sure to stop by on June 22 when I'll feature an interview with C.W. Gortner.

Equal of the Sun by Anita Amirrezvani: Giveaway Winner

It's my pleasure to announce that the winner of a copy of Anita Amirrezvani's latest release, Equal of the Sun, is:


Congratulations, Susan!  The winner was selected using

Thanks to everyone who entered the contest and to TLC Book Tours for the giveaway opportunity.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Book Review: Saving Ruth by Zoe Fishman

When Ruth returns home to the South for the summer after her freshman year at college, a near tragedy pushes her to uncover family truths and take a good look at the woman she wants to become.

Growing up in Alabama, all Ruth Wasserman wanted was to be a blond Baptist cheerleader. But as a curly-haired Jew with a rampant sweet tooth and a smart mouth, this was an impossible dream. Not helping the situation was her older brother, David—a soccer star whose good looks, smarts, and popularity reigned at school and at home. College provided an escape route and Ruth took it.

Now home for the summer, she's back lifeguarding and coaching alongside David, and although the job is the same, nothing else is. She's a prisoner of her low self-esteem and unhealthy relationship with food, David is closed off and distant in a way he's never been before, and their parents are struggling with the reality of an empty nest. When a near drowning happens on their watch, a storm of repercussions forces Ruth and David to confront long-ignored truths about their town, their family, and themselves.

My Review

3.5 Stars

Ruth Wasserman has always wanted to fit in but, as a self-professed fat girl, she has always associated fitting in with being skinny.  After spending her freshman year extreme dieting, Ruth returns home to Alabama for the summer determined to maintain her new skinny figure, even if it means eating nothing but candy and salad.  When her family and friends comment that she's gone too far, Ruth insists that she has everything under control;  but does she really?   Meanwhile, Ruth's older brother David has also returned home for the summer.   For Ruth, David represents everything she is not.  He's a star athlete and student, with movie-star good looks, the type of person everyone wants to be like.  But the normally extroverted David has become withdrawn and uncommunicative, taking little pleasure in the activities he once thrived on and leading Ruth to wonder what has happened to the brother she used to know.  As Ruth tries to uncover the truth behind her brother's strange behaviour, she is also forced to confront her own issues.

Given her propensity to engage in questionable activities, I was initially worried that I wouldn't like Ruth enough to become engaged with her story.   Ultimately, however, I found Ruth to be a character worth rooting for.   While she has flaws and makes mistakes, Ruth also has a number of strengths, not the least of which is her ability to bring out the best in the kids she coaches in swimming.   Indeed, I greatly enjoyed Ruth's interaction with her 'guppies'.  Another aspect of the novel I enjoyed was the Wasserman family dynamic.  It's refreshing to read a novel about a young woman who generally gets along with her family and has parents who seem engaged in the lives of their children.  While the story is told from Ruth's perspective, the reader also gets a sense for how her parents struggled with how to appropriately deal with her and David's issues.  

While I enjoyed this novel overall, I do feel there was a little too much going on.  Both the main storyline and the various subplots involve heavy subject matters -- eating disorders, depression, racism, etc.   But when all was said and done, despite the serious nature of each of these plot lines, their resolutions were all a little too neat.  This issue didn't detract greatly from my overall enjoyment of the novel, but it did leave me thinking that the ending wasn't necessarily as realistic as it could have been.    Nevertheless, I would recommend this novel to others and look forward to reading more from Zoe Fishman. 

Note: I received a copy of this novel from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. 

Saving Ruth is currently on Tour with TLC Book Tours.  Click here to check out the tour schedule.

Also, you can listen to Zoe Fishman talk about Saving Ruth with Book Club Girl Book Club Girl On Air show on Tuesday June 12th at 7pm EST. 

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Book Review & Giveaway: Equal of the Sun by Anita Amirrezvani

Legendary women—from Anne Boleyn to Queen Elizabeth I to Mary, Queen of Scots—changed the course of history in the royal courts of sixteenth-century England. They are celebrated in history books and novels, but few people know of the powerful women in the Muslim world, who formed alliances, served as key advisers to rulers, lobbied for power on behalf of their sons, and ruled in their own right. In Equal of the Sun, Anita Amirrezvani’s gorgeously crafted tale of power, loyalty, and love in the royal court of Iran, she brings one such woman to life, Princess Pari Khan Khanoom Safavi.

Iran in 1576 is a place of wealth and dazzling beauty. But when the Shah dies without having named an heir, the court is thrown into tumult. Princess Pari, the Shah’s daughter and protégé, knows more about the inner workings of the state than almost anyone, but the princess’s maneuvers to instill order after her father’s sudden death incite resentment and dissent. Pari and her closest adviser, Javaher, a eunuch able to navigate the harem as well as the world beyond the palace walls, are in possession of an incredible tapestry of secrets and information that reveals a power struggle of epic proportions.

Based loosely on the life of Princess Pari Khan Khanoom, Equal of the Sun is a riveting story of political intrigue and a moving portrait of the unlikely bond between a princess and a eunuch. Anita Amirrezvani is a master storyteller, and in her lustrous prose this rich and labyrinthine world comes to vivid life with a stunning cast of characters, passionate and brave men and women who defy or embrace their destiny in a Machiavellian game played by those who lust for power and will do anything to attain it.

My Review

4 Stars

Anita Amirrezvani's latest novel, Equal of the Sun, transports readers to 16th century Iran.   At the centre of the story is Iranian princess Pari Khan Khanoom, daughter of the Shah.  Although Pari lives in a male-dominated society, she becomes her father's closest adviser due to her unrivaled knowledge and understanding of court politics.  When the Shah dies suddenly without naming an heir, the country falls into chaos.  Putting her prodigious skills as a courtier to use, Pari works tirelessly to install her brother Isma'il on the throne, hoping he will reward her efforts by naming her his chief adviser.  While her efforts on behalf of Isma'il are successful, her aspiration to become his chief advisor goes unrealized, and ultimately contribute to the power struggles that characterize Isma'il's reign.   At Pari's side is her chief adviser, Javaher, a eunuch whose loyalty to his princess never wavers.  Together, they must navigate their way through an increasingly treacherous court, one where it is difficult to tell friend from foe.

The greatest strength of this novel lies with Amirrezvani's conveyance of the customs and conventions of the royal court, especially as they pertain to women.  Whether Pari or Javaher are in audience with the Shah or simply trying to collect information through associates in the royal harem, the reader is given great insight into life at court.   Although Pari is at the heart of this novel, I feel it is her trusted adviser Javaher, from whose perspective the story is told, who is the real star of the book.   Although born into the nobility, Javaher's father is accused of treason and put to death.   To prove his loyalty to the court, Javaher does the unthinkable and voluntarily becomes a eunuch.  Amerizzvani does a masterful job developing Javaher's character, showing his determination to balance his service to his princess while at the same time attempting to uncover the truth about his father's death.   She also successfully conveys Javaher's inner struggles to come to terms with his decision to become a eunuch. 

Given my knowledge of Iranian history is limited, I was immediately drawn to this novel because reading it would present me with the opportunity to learn about historical people and places of which I know little.   Upon reading the first couple of chapters, however, I wasn't immediately sure that the historical components of the novel would be detailed enough to meet my expectations.   Nevertheless, by the time I finished I realized my concerns were unfounded, as I had, in fact, learned an awful lot.  Although it did take me a bit of time to connect with the novel's characters and story lines, by the midway point, when court power struggles and intrigues come to the forefront of the story, I found the book difficult to put down.  I look forward to reading more from this author.

Note: I received a copy of this novel from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. 


I'm pleased to offer a copy of Equal of the Sun to one lucky reader as part of the TLC tour for the novel. 

Giveaway details:

- Open to Canada and United States residents.
- To enter, simply leave a comment below with your email address.
- The giveaway will be open until midnight on June 15th.

Good luck!