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Jennifer Rothwell

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Daughters of the Silk Road: A beautiful and epic novel of family, love and the secrets of a Ming Vase
Daughters of the Silk Road: A beautiful and epic novel of family, love and the secrets of a Ming Vase
Price: £1.99

3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars An intriguing premise, 17 April 2016
This novel tells the story of a Ming Vase (imperial blue and white ceramic dating from the Ming period circa 1426-35) that has been passed down through the generations of one family. The vase enters the family of Niccolò de’ Conti during his expedition to China. The vase is painted with a dragon: a symbol of good luck. As the vase is passed down to Niccolò’s daughter Maria de’ Conti and the subsequent generations of her family the reader is given the sense that the vase does seem to be passing on a measure of good luck to its recipients.

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

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

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

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

A Year of Ravens: A Novel of Boudica's Rebellion
A Year of Ravens: A Novel of Boudica's Rebellion
by E Knight
Edition: Paperback
Price: £11.69

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Amazing!, 15 Jan. 2016
This is an epic novel based before, during and after the time period of Boudica’s uprising against the Romans. It is an incredibly imaginative and moving tale and we are introduced to many vivid characters. What makes this novel even more impressive is that it is separated into multiple parts, each one written by a different author. These are separate stories and yet they weave together to create one vast perspective of Boudica’s rebellion. It is truly amazing what these talented authors have been able to achieve.
For a full review, where I have addressed each section separately, I invite you to visit my blog:
I have written a condensed version here.
In the very first chapter of the novel I expected to be introduced to Boudica herself but instead we meet Cartimandua, Queen of the Brigantes. In a short period of time Stephanie Dray is able to bring Cartimandua to living, breathing, fire-spouting life. She is portrayed as a strong woman who is fiercely loyal to her people and who would sacrifice anything for them--including her own reputation.
Next we are introduced to Ria, the bastard daughter of Boudica's recently deceased husband, the King of the Iceni tribe. It is through Ria's eyes that we see the early stirrings of the Iceni rebellion and witness first hand how Boudica suffered at the hands of the Romans.
The next chapter is told from the perspective of a Roman officer with a legion of eighty men. The story of Agricola and the bloody battles that he and his men fought stayed in the back of my mind throughout the remainder of the novel. It truly brought to life the savagery of the Roman occupation of Britain.
We meet Yorath next, a young Druid-in-training who survives the butchery of his people on the holy Isle of Mona (modern day Anglesey). The author portrays the Druids as the wise men of the realm that do not hold allegiance to any one tribe. The Druids are respected by all and thus they are a threat to the Romans.
The next character, Andecarus, was my favourite of the novel. Son of an Iceni warrior and yet raised by Romans he is able to see both sides of the rebellion. He is a man with a foot in each world and therefore I found his perspective to be the most interesting. I found myself pitying him and the situation in which he finds himself: caught between loyalty to his tribe and the knowledge that the Romans will eventually defeat Boudica. Eventually Andecarus must decide whether to stand and fight with his tribe or flee to the Romans.
Next comes Kate Quinn's section of the novel. She writes of Andecarus' father, Duro, a man I had come to dislike after his appearance in two of the previous chapters. However after reading Kate Quinn's portrayal of him I came to understand him. A revered warrior of the Iceni tribe and Boudica's right-hand man, I came to respect him and the decisions that he made.
This part of the novel tells the epic battle finale between Boudica's army and the Romans. It is vivid, brutal and shocking in it's descriptions but not at all distasteful--nobody can write quite like this author. I will admit that it was Kate Quinn's name that attracted my attention to this novel and as always I wasn't disappointed.
The final chapter of this book was incredibly moving. E. Knight does a wonderful job with her characters and through the eyes of Boudica’s daughters she gives Boudica the warrior’s end that she deserves. To see it through their perspective instead of her own was even more heart-wrenching and I understand why the author chose to do this, even though it meant that Boudica’s inner voice is never heard throughout the pages of this novel. This final chapter is dedicated to three very unique and yet equally strong women and I loved them all.
The epilogue is written by Stephanie Dray. I was relieved by this, as I felt I needed to see Cartimandua one last time before the end of the novel. The story came full circle by leaving the reader in the same place that we began. That’s exactly how I felt after finishing this novel: the same, and yet inexplicably changed somehow. I knew the bare bones of Boudica’s rebellion and I am grateful to these authors for using their incredible talent to flesh this story out for me and for everybody else who embarks on this novel. Please do, you won’t regret it.
In true historical fiction there is always an author’s note at the end and this novel was no exception. Each author has written one, which means the decisions behind each character are explained. I really appreciated this and it brought home just how much collaboration went into this work. This is the second novel written by multiple authors that I have read, the first being “A Day of Fire: A Novel of Pompeii” which has five of the same authors. I really hope there is another one coming!

The Conqueror's Wife
The Conqueror's Wife
by Stephanie Thornton
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.33

4.0 out of 5 stars The Conqueror's Wife: A Novel of Alexander the Great, 26 Dec. 2015
This review is from: The Conqueror's Wife (Paperback)
This is a novel with a very misleading title. “The Conqueror’s Wife” leads the reader to believe that it will be told from the perspective of one woman: the wife of Alexander the Great. This is not at all the case. The author strives to gain a wider perspective of Alexander by using multiple voices to tell the story. Four voices to be exact. Furthermore, only one of them was Alexander’s wife and it took until page 273 to find out who.

This is not to say that I didn’t enjoy this novel however, I did, but I found myself boggled by the title. In fact during the first few chapters it actually put me off the story a little. The multitude of voices when I expected just one caused me to find the beginning of the novel somewhat diluted. However I’m glad to say that as the novel progressed I became attached to all four characters and appreciated their varied outlooks upon the events of the novel. They are four very unique and vivid characters that highlighted the way of the world during Alexander’s reign.

Hephaestion, one of the four and the only male voice, was a childhood companion of Alexander that travelled by his side throughout his decade-long conquering campaign. It is amazing just how much Hephaestion, and all of Alexander’s loyal soldiers, were willing to give up in order to serve him. It is as though they truly thought him to be the God he declared himself to be and would follow him to Hades itself if he asked. In fact there are certain scenes in this novel that would make you think they were already there.

The author did a wonderful job of depicting the battle scenes, making them realistic and very fast-paced. I learnt much about how Macedonian battles were fought. I found it particularly interesting to learn that many Indian Lords and even the Persian King of Kings Darius III used War Elephants in battle. Overall I really enjoyed all the portrayals of Alexander’s success in battle. This plus the loyalty of his men gave me a good impression of how Alexander was able to build an empire in a relatively short period of time.

My favourite character in this novel was Drypetis, second daughter to King Darius III. It was her perspective in particular that I clicked with the most and I felt a similar dislike of Alexander to that which she felt. Whilst I could see how he was admired through Hephaestion’s eyes, it was through Drypetis’ eyes that my opinion formed. From the very beginning she showed him to be the most human–not at all God-like–and it was this notion that really came through towards the end. Alexander was just a man, flawed as any man is, and I appreciated the author’s talent in taking him down from his pedestal step-by-step. Nothing felt rushed, rather the story came to a head of it’s own accord and Alexander’s world began to unravel. The end of his reign and the years following were very chaotic and somewhat confusing if you read the history. However the author gives us a concise explanation that was easy to follow and ended her story nicely. She explains why she chose to do certain things in her author’s note, which I always appreciate.

Overall this was a very interesting read and I enjoyed it greatly. I just really wish it had a more appropriate title!

Bitter Greens
Bitter Greens
by Kate Forsyth
Edition: Paperback

4.0 out of 5 stars A beautifully written historical fantasy, 3 Dec. 2015
This review is from: Bitter Greens (Paperback)
I enjoyed this very unique historical fairy tale. I have never read anything quite like it before.
This novel tells the stories of three different women, one of whom is the historical figure Charlotte-Rose de la Force; the writer of the Rapunzel fairy tale that we know today. The other women are two of the characters from Charlotte's story, but this novel presents them as having existed in reality. The three stories are gloriously woven together to create one vivid and all-encompassing story. It was a real page-turner.
Kate Forsyth is a very talented writer that is able to bring to the surface a vast amount of different emotions; love, passion, greed, vanity...the list is endless. There is a darkness to her story. She shows human weakness as well as strength, the dark side of human nature as well as light. Although reaching into the realm of fantasy through the use of magic it becomes entirely believable because the emotions that the magic stems from are so real. From the reader's perspective every action is credible, the characters act in such a familiar way that we are able to be transported with ease into a world where their use of magic is implicit.
Throughout the novel, as the reader is flipped from one story to another, I found myself continuously wishing I knew what was happening in the other story. Not that I wasn't enjoying what I was reading in that moment, rather I felt as though I had to be missing something as the stories had come to life so greatly for me. Although entwined, the stories themselves do not fall together in a consecutive way. We are jolted through time to various periods in each character's life, especially Charlotte-Rose. Although somewhat jarring at times, as the novel develops we are able to see the bigger picture more clearly and one large tapestry emerges before our eyes. It isn't until the very end that the pieces all fall into place. And now that I know the full story, I realize that it made sense all along.
A brilliantly created tale that I definitely recommend giving a read.

A Triple Knot
A Triple Knot
by Emma Campion
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.39

3.0 out of 5 stars Not the best plot, but some very vivid characters, 2 Dec. 2015
This review is from: A Triple Knot (Paperback)
This was an enjoyable novel based upon the life of Joan of Kent. The majority of this novel takes place prior to Joan's marriage to Edward the Black Prince, beginning with her life as a young adolescent and following her into womanhood. I found her life story to be very interesting and the relationship dynamic between Joan and the three men in her life made for an intriguing read. In love with one man, married to another and coveted by another Joan very much came across as a young woman struggling to assert control over her own life. Already a difficult feat for a medieval woman, for Joan in particular it was a fight to keep her head above the murk of the political quagmire that she as a royal family member is immersed in.
The best part of this novel was definitely the characters. At times the plot became a bit stilted, especially towards the end where events suddenly moved at a much faster pace than the rest of the novel, making it feel rushed and giving it a somewhat anticlimactic ending. However, the characters were fantastic. Vivid and complex and so different to one another, especially the three main male characters--Ned, Thomas and Will. Joan was the anchor weighing them down and bringing them together, she was caught between three very diverse personalities. Yet this is not to say that Joan's personality was diminished by them, in fact she was portrayed as a strong-willed and determined woman who fought for what she wanted against all odds. I definitely have a different perspective about Joan after having read this novel.
Emma Campion has shed an interesting light not only upon various historical figures but also upon this period of history itself. Set within the context of the Hundred Years War and the Black Death I felt as though Joan's struggles were mirrored by the struggles of the world around her. It was such a turbulent period of history to have lived through and this sets the undertone for this novel.

The Crown (Joanna Stafford 1)
The Crown (Joanna Stafford 1)
by Nancy Bilyeau
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

4.0 out of 5 stars An imaginative novel that uses the historical context of dissolution, 2 Dec. 2015
This was such an unusual novel and I really enjoyed it. Set in 1536, during the Dissolution of the Monasteries and just after the Pilgrimage of Grace, Joanna Stafford is a novice nun who gets caught up in the hunt for a mystical crown thought to be hidden somewhere in the religious houses of England.
Joanna is a wonderful character, she holds great conviction in her religious beliefs and yet is not so devout that she is not easily relatable to the reader. Her lack of worldliness is not due to a lack of intelligence, in fact she is a very learned and astute young woman, but rather due to being cloistered since she was sixteen years old. We get the sense that there is particular reason behind Joanna's decision to enter a convent, some incident that occurred at the court of Henry VIII when she was lady-in-waiting to Queen Katherine, but it is not until later in the novel that this secret is divulged to the reader. Joanna is a very well-developed character and her thoughts, actions and emotions make her vivid and incredibly life-like. Consequently I easily became absorbed in her story and was with her every step of the way.
This novel is an historical mystery at it's heart, using the context of the Dissolution to form the backbone of the story. It is full of mysticism and secrecy that I found very intriguing blended as it was with the historical authenticity of the time period. As Joanna hunts for the cryptic crown of Saxon King Athelstan she learns not only more about the crown itself but also those who came into contact with it; Edward the Black Prince, Edward III's son, and Prince Arthur; brother to Henry VIII. She begins to feel a sense of destiny surrounding her quest. Although pushed to search for it by the wily Bishop Gardiner (who is keeping her father captive in the Tower of London as surety for her cooperation) Joanna also reminisces back to a time when she nursed the dying Queen Katherine and the urgency with which she told Joanna to take her vows at Dartford Priory--Gardiner's suspected location of the crown. Joanna finds herself suspecting the motives not only of Gardiner but also those that she has enlisted to help her search for the crown, two Dominican friars that were set to guard her by Gardiner but supposed to remain in ignorance of her quest. As the novel progresses Joanna's trust in all those around her is put to the test and the reader may be shocked to find who has been with and against Joanna all along...

The Chalice (Joanna Stafford 2)
The Chalice (Joanna Stafford 2)
by Nancy Bilyeau
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Unfortunately not as good as the first, 2 Dec. 2015
I did enjoy this second novel in the Joanna Stafford trilogy but not as much as I enjoyed the first novel, "The Crown". This was mostly due to the lack of intimate details provided by the author to make the characters more vivid to the reader. This was a fast-paced novel with a great storyline but unfortunately it just wasn't fleshed out enough with afore mentioned details for me to truly become absorbed in Joanna's story. If I hadn't of read the first novel in the trilogy then I doubt I would have enjoyed this book very much, but the prior knowledge I already had of the characters somewhat made up for the lack of character development in this novel. I definitely would not recommend for someone to read this novel without reading "The Crown" first.
Having said that I will still be reading the final installment in this trilogy, "The Tapestry", because I am very intrigued as to what will occur next in the story. The storyline has been gripping throughout, full of intrigue and suspense. Luckily this novel contained just as much of this mixture as the first one did. There are always new plots afoot and new secrets being discovered, making this a true historical mystery. Many of the characters are historical figures whom the author weaves into her web of intrigue...and the best part is we are never sure of what their true intentions really are.

The Accidental Empress
The Accidental Empress
by Allison Pataki
Edition: Paperback
Price: £11.99

4.0 out of 5 stars An easy to read historical fiction novel about Empress "Sisi", 2 Dec. 2015
This review is from: The Accidental Empress (Paperback)
I found this to be an easy, enjoyable read. I would say this novel is more for those who do not already know much about Empress Elisabeth rather than those who know a lot and wish her character to be explored more deeply. I fall into the former category so for me it was interesting to learn of who "Sisi" was and what she went through as Empress of the largest empire in Europe in the nineteenth century.
In many ways the beginnings of her story reminded me of an early Marie Antoinette. Sisi had to learn the strict protocols of Austrian etiquette and her life was dictated to her in a series of writings that told her what to do, how to act and what to say during almost every single second of her day. Sisi rails against this and therefore finds herself pushed aside from the Hapsburg inner circle by her overbearing mother-in-law Archduchess Sophie. Sophie implies to the court that Sisi is therefore too young and naive to take care of herself properly, subsequently leading to her complete ostracism from rule and her children being taken away to be raised by their grandmother. One cannot help but feel sorry for Empress Elisabeth.
However, Sisi eventually gains self confidence and self worth back again and due to this the last quarter of the novel was my favourite part. I was a bit disappointed that the four years that Sisi spent away from court whilst she gained this security of herself was not documented in the novel. Rather we jump forward four years and are introduced to Sisi as her new self. I loved her, yes, but I wished we could have witnessed this transformation throughout the pages.
Nonetheless the confident self-assured woman who is present for the latter part of the novel was very enjoyable to read of and I loved how the author showed how Sisi created private daily routines to gain control back of her own life. She did not revert back to the free spirited girl of her youth but rather matured into an intelligent and strong woman who did things on her own terms.
There are two main relationships in the novel that the author explores and they are very different from one another. First, the relationship between Sisi and her husband Emperor Franz Joseph and second, the relationship between Sisi and Andrassy, a liberal Hungarian count who wishes independence for his county. I loved how the author portrayed the former as an instant infatuation that quickly burned out and the later as an early dislike that grew to mutual respect and then eventually blossomed into love. The author drives home the point that a successful relationship is built on so much more than just lust. I really enjoyed reading of how Sisi and Andrassy's relationship developed.
Overall an enjoyable read that was easy to get into and kept my attention throughout.

Watch the Lady
Watch the Lady
by Elizabeth Fremantle
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £13.48

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A well-written novel set in the court of Elizabeth I, 2 Dec. 2015
This review is from: Watch the Lady (Hardcover)
This was another great read by Elizabeth Freemantle. This time she delves into the later years of the reign of Elizabeth I by telling the story of Penelope Devereux, lady in waiting to Elizabeth and sister of Elizabeth's favorite of the time; the second Earl of Essex, Robert Devereux.
What I loved most about this novel was how the author was able to create the atmosphere of backbiting and jealously in Elizabeth's court. The rivalry between Robert Devereux and Robert Cecil (son of William Cecil, Lord Burghley, and later Earl of Salisbury under James I) was vicious at times. The novel was full of intrigue and conspiracy and yet not to the point of conjecture on the author's part, keeping this novel's foot holding firmly in the historical fiction pool and not in it's subgenre of historical mystery. Not that I don't love a good historical mystery but often they can favor speculation and hyperbole over fact and as the author states at the book of this novel: "I have adhered closely to historical fact".
Penelope Devereux is a fascinating character and what I particularly enjoyed was that the author did not concentrate solely on her being the inspiration for Sir Phillip Sidney's "Astrophel and Stella" sonnet series. Yes Sir Phillip is in the novel but it is the later years of Penelope's life that make for the most interesting read. She had a sharp mind and a keenness for politics. She was in contact with James VI of Scotland long before he became James I of England. She was part of her brother's rebellion of 1601, although to what extent we can only speculate. It is very interesting that Penelope was the only person on the list of rebels given to the Queen that did not face trial.
Overall I found this to be a compelling and enjoyable read. The characters were well-developed and the content thought-provoking. It was interesting to see the outsider portrayal of the later years of Elizabeth's reign. I have read a lot of historical fiction about the earlier years, but there does not seem to be as much about the years leading up to her death. Although this novel somewhat puts you in the Devereux camp I still found Elizabeth's story to be quite saddening in the end.

The Tiger Queens: The Women of Genghis Khan
The Tiger Queens: The Women of Genghis Khan
by Stephanie Thornton
Edition: Paperback
Price: £10.40

4.0 out of 5 stars An intriguing and enjoyable read, 2 Dec. 2015
This was an enjoyable read about the wife, daughter and daughter-in-laws of Genghis Khan. Beginning this novel I knew next to nothing about this fearsome Mongol warrior of the thirteenth century and yet now I feel comfortable with a solid knowledge base of what life was like for Genghis and his clan on the Great Steppe.
Being told from the perspective of women, the novel was less concerned with battle depictions and more about what daily life was like for a woman in a Mongol clan. I enjoyed the religious aspects of their life as well as learning of the way their society was structured. Genghis Khan's wife Borte may have been a queen but she worked just as hard as the other women in the camp; making cheese, making horse meat sausage after the annual slaughter, and always tending to her hearth in the centre of her ger--the tent which was not just her home but also significant of her life as a married women. The felts of a woman's tent were a matter of pride, especially since they continued on even after the owner's death. By keeping a woman's ger erected the Mongol clans believed that her spirit would live on.
One of my favourite perspectives of the novel (of which there are four) was not actually a relation to Genghis Khan but rather a Persian slave girl who came to be close to one of his daughter-in-laws. She became one of the inner circle of women despite her violent past of becoming a slave and her religious differences to those around her (she was Muslim, and most of the Mongols were considered heathen--their religion an earth-based one--though Christianity was present in a small way amongst the clans also).
Fatima was particularly interesting to read because she highlighted how inclusive Genghis' inner circle of women could be. Fatima was saved from death by Toregene (married to Genghis' third son by Borte) and they became friends not just slave and master. Fatima ends up running shoulders with the Great Khatun Borte and also her daughter Alaqai and daughter-in-law Sorkhokhtani, married to Genghis and Borte's youngest son. The outside perspective of these women was really intriguing to read, especially since Borte, Alaqai and Sorkhokhtani were the other three narrators of the novel.
Overall this was an enjoyable read. It got a little confusing at times due to the long cast of characters but it wasn't terrible enough to ruin the book. There are a few violent scenes that turned my stomach slightly but again nothing terrible. Although war was a huge part of living with Genghis Khan the author has done a wonderful job in showing that their lives was more than just war and that Gengis was so much more than just a warrior.

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