Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Lady and the Poet by Maeve Haran

Ann More, fiery and spirited daughter of the Mores of Loseley House in Surrey, came to London destined for a life at the court of Queen Elizabeth and an advantageous marriage. There she encountered John Donne, the darkly attractive young poet who was secretary to her uncle, the Lord Keeper of the Great Seal. He was unlike any man she had ever met—angry, clever, witty and, in her eyes, insufferably arrogant and careless of women. Yet as they were thrown together Donne opened Ann’s eyes to a new world of passion, and sensuality.

But John Donne—Catholic by background in an age when it was deadly dangerous, tainted by an alluring hint of scandal—was the kind of man her status-conscious father distrusted and despised.
The Lady and the Poet tells the story of the forbidden love between one of our most admired poets and a girl who dared to rebel against the conventions of her time. They gave up everything to be together and their love knew no bounds.

My Review:

When the handsome John Donne was appointed chief secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton, Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, he was a well-educated man of the world, never dreaming that a young woman named Ann More, twelve years his junior, would become the great love of his life. But that’s exactly what happened.

John Donne

Ann More

Neither of them could deny their feelings for one another, and while Ann’s father began to look for a suitable and noble husband for his daughter, she found herself irrevocably drawn to the dark and witty John Donne. When she was 17, Ann secretly married the very poor 29 year old Donne despite the fact he was a Catholic whose many family members were put to death for their faith, and she came from a staunch Church of England family.

When her father and uncle learned of the marriage they were furious and imprisoned Donne while they attempted to dispute the marriage as illegal. But Donne proved the marriage was indeed lawful and he was soon released from gaol. They lived a solitary life in the country in Pyrford, Surrey. They struggled financially as Donne worked as a lawyer while Sir Francis Wolly housed his wife and children.

Donne House in Pyrford, Surrey

I thoroughly enjoyed this story of forbidden love. Written in first person narrative, the reader is given insight into the thoughts and emotions of a 17 year old Ann More as she struggles against societal restrictions to pursue the path of her heart. She gave up her wealth, her status, and every comfort in order to be with him. She bore him twelve children in 15 years, but died giving birth to the last one.

Maeve Haran has produced a well-researched, historically accurate description of life during the reign of Queen Elizabeth. Although the story is not a gripping one, it does engage the reader through it’s lovely prose and poignant story line. It is a fabulous way to learn more about not only the historical era, but as an insight into the fascinating lives of the great poet and his unique wife who would risk all for love. 



Tuesday, May 24, 2011

When We Were Gods by Colin Falconer

Throughout the centuries, the legend of Cleopatra VII, Queen of Egypt, has fascinated and intrigued. But it has also been clouded by speculation, embellishment, and stormy controversy. Thousands of years after her death, she remains an iconic figure, an enigma; her fascinating life the fodder for numerous novels and movies. Of all the books I’ve read about this notorious heroine, Colin Falconer’s version is perhaps the most plausible and realistic version. He has struck a suitable balance between circumspect and entertainment. 

Cleopatra was born into the Ptolemaic dynasty sometime in late 69 BC – August 12, 30 BC. She was considered the last pharaoh of Ancient Egypt. She spoke Greek and later Egyptian, flaunting herself to the world as Isis, an Egyptian goddess. After the death of her father, as was tradition for Egyptian royal families of the time, she married her brothers, but after their deaths or murders, she became Egypt’s sole ruler. Her liaisons with Caesar strengthened her power and she bore him a son whom she named Caesarian.


After Caesar’s horrific assassination, Cleopatra united with Marc Antony, handsome, powerful, and natural leader of men who loved the decadent life.

Marc Anthony

Together with Marc Antony they set out to defeat Caesar’s power hungry and ruthless nephew and heir, Octavian.


Cleopatra bore the handsome, charismatic Marc Antony twins, Selene and Alexander.

Cleopatra and Marc Antony

But the fates brought little luck to Marc Antony and he committed suicide after failed battles. Heartbroken, Cleopatra followed him to the grave by allowing the bite of a poisonous asp to kill her.

Cleopatra by Frank Dicksee

The novel opens when Cleopatra is 18 years old at the death of her father, Ptolemy. Intrigue and danger follows as powerful men try to usurp the throne of Egypt from her. My favourite passage in the novel is the very first scene where Marc Antony is introduced. I must have read and re-read that scene no less than ten times just for the pure enjoyment. Nothing short of brilliant and so much fun! The story unfolds chronologically, realistically, and with a wonderful mix of fiction and fact. I cannot state it enough how real the story seemed and how believable the author portrayed Cleopatra to the reading audience. Her cunning and wisdom was more than adequately captured, as was her devotion to her children, her country, and her love for Caesar and Marc Antony.

The author’s writing style is direct and easy, allowing the reader to immerse themselves into the story seamlessly. Cleopatra evolves as a sensual, strong, woman trapped in a world of betrayal and the constant battle for power and supremacy. I liked this author’s prose and the way he tells a story. He worked hard to present the facts, but was able to add enough color and individuality to keep me turning and turning the pages. The level of detail made this novel real as life itself. This is the first novel I’ve read by Colin Falconer, but it won’t be the last. I’ll be collecting all of his books and will avidly follow his career from here on in. Bravo Mr. Falconer! Thank you for the pleasure of reading such a fine book. Now, off to Amazon to acquire The Sultan’s Harem.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The Confession of Katherine Howard by Suzannah Dunn

Suzannah Dunn’s latest novel, recounts the compelling story of Katherine Howard, the fifth wife of Tudor King Henry VIII. The story unfolds through the first person narrative of her companion and lady-in-waiting, Cat Tilney, and is told in three parts based on the affairs of Katherine Howard.

Katherine Howard

In the first part of the story, Katherine Howard and Cat Tilney live with the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk, a woman who took on the children of poor aristocratic relatives for education and training.

Dowager Duchess of Norfolk

Because the Duchess was often away, she left her young charges to their own devices which resulted in too many freedoms and a very licentious household indeed. Katherine, a passionate young girl with a keen interest in men and sex, soon became embroiled in her first affair with her music teacher, Henry Mannox.

A short time thereafter, Katherine abandoned Mannox to take up with Francis Dereham. That affair cooled when a position was arranged for Katherine in King Henry’s court as lady in waiting to the new queen, Anne of Cleves.

King Henry VIII

Anne of Cleves

Henry lacked interest in Anne and instead found himself quite taken with Katherine. So much so that the king annulled his marriage and married Katherine only three weeks later.

Meanwhile, back at the Dowager’s household, an abiding friendship developed between Cat and Francis Dereham that blossomed into love. Before long, Queen Katherine summoned them both to court. It was then that Cat discovered Katherine was conducting an affair with Thomas Culpepper, a favorite courtier and a gentleman of the king's bedchamber.

Katherine’s indiscretions soon became known. Cat tried to warn Katherine to put an end to her affair or it could result in her death, but Katherine continued to manipulate and set out to fix matters by her own hands. To keep her ex-lovers silent, she hired them into her household – Henry Mannox as a musician and Francis Dereham as her secretary.

Mary Hall, an embittered chambermaid at the Dowager Duchess’ household and witness to Katherine’s torrid affairs, revealed the information to Thomas Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury and a friend of King Henry.

Thomas Cranmer
Archbisoph of Canterbury

Cranmer, fearful that any contract made between Katherine and Francis Dereham would invalidate the marriage to the king, revealed this information to Henry. A secret investigation was launched which resulted in Dereham’s and Culpepper’s imprisonment. Under torture, the two men confessed and ultimately Katherine was charged and executed.

Suzannah Dunn has penned an intriguing tale of a queen’s self-inflicted downfall. Filled with lush descriptions, the prose is easy to read and the story moves along in an interesting way. The novel focuses quite heavily on the adolescence of Katherine and Cat, whereas I longed for more details about Katherine’s troubles during her marriage with the king and her subsequent imprisonment and execution, like the title suggested. I think the story might have been much stronger in Katherine’s viewpoint rather than that of Cat who is too far removed from true conflict.

Even so, I found the novel to be well written and a wonderful depiction into the treacheries of court life during the 16th century. It is an enjoyable read with plenty of historical accuracy and details to keep readers interested.

Friday, May 6, 2011

La Marquise de Lambert Quote

We like to know the weakness of eminent persons; it consoles us for our inferiority.

La Marquise de Lambert

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Claude and Camille by Stephanie Cowell

Back cover blurb:

Sometimes he dreamt he held her; that he would turn in bed and she would be there. But she was gone and he was old. Nearly seventy. Only cool paint met his fingers. “Ma très chère . . .” Darkness started to fall, dimming the paintings. He felt the crumpled letter in his pocket. “I loved you so,” he said. “I never would have had it turn out as it did. You were with all of us when we began, you gave us courage. These gardens at Giverny are for you but I’m old and you’re forever young and will never see them. . . .”

In the mid-nineteenth century, a young man named Claude Monet decided that he would rather endure a difficult life painting landscapes than take over his father’s nautical supplies business in a French seaside town. Against his father’s will, and with nothing but a dream and an insatiable urge to create a new style of art that repudiated the Classical Realism of the time, he set off for Paris. But once there he is confronted with obstacles: an art world that refused to validate his style, extreme poverty, and a war that led him away from his home and friends. But there were bright spots as well: his deep, enduring friendships with men named Renoir, Cézanne, Pissarro, Manet – a group that together would come to be known as the Impressionists, and that supported each other through the difficult years. But even more illuminating was his lifelong love, Camille Doncieux, a beautiful, upper-class Parisian girl who threw away her privileged life to be by the side of the defiant painter and embrace the lively Bohemian life of their time. His muse, his best friend, his passionate lover, and the mother to his two children, Camille stayed with Monet—and believed in his work—even as they lived in wretched rooms, were sometimes kicked out of those, and often suffered the indignities of destitution. She comforted him during his frequent emotional torments, even when he would leave her for long periods to go off on his own to paint in the countryside. But Camille had her own demons – secrets that Monet could never penetrate, including one that when eventually revealed would pain him so deeply that he would never fully recover from its impact. For though Camille never once stopped loving the painter with her entire being, she was not immune to the loneliness that often came with being his partner. A vividly-rendered portrait of both the rise of Impressionism and of the artist at the center of the movement, Claude and Camille is above all a love story of the highest romantic order.

Claude and Camille is a novel about the great love between impressionist painter, Claude Monet, and Camille Doncieux, a young woman from a well-to-do family. Late 19th century Paris is a lure for aspiring artists. Despite his father’s wishes for Claude to take over the family business, Claude travels to Paris to follow his passion for painting. There, he surrounds himself with other aspiring artists like Bazille, Cezanne, Degas, Renoir, among others. But the path to success is fraught with struggles. Claude and his friends economize and share living quarters, often going hungry or being evicted when they cannot pay the rent. It is a life of hardship that affects their lives in adverse ways, often bringing the couple closer or sometimes tearing them apart.

 Claude Monet and Camille Doncieux

Their hand to mouth existence, coupled with Claude and Camille's own faults, is what really makes this story come alive with humanity and poignancy.  It is difficult for me to adequately describe the evocative, but simple voice the novel is written in, which permits the story to rise forth with richness from its pages.

To describe art is no easy feat, but author Stephanie Cowell does so with splendour and vividness. I found myself running to the computer in order to look up some of the portraits described in the story. This is not only a love story, but a story of survival. The reader is swept into Paris to experience the hardships some of the world's most famous painters endured in order to achieve their success. Love, frustration, betrayal, and lust all take place between this novel's pages. This is truly a beautiful book and one definitely to add to your reading list this year.

Camille Reading
One of many paintings of Camille by Claude Monet

An Interview with Author Stephanie Cowell

Welcome, I’m so glad to have this opportunity to chat with you. Can you share with my readers the essence of the story you’ve penned?

CLAUDE & CAMILLE is the story of the young Claude Monet and the great love of his life, the beautiful Camille. As he struggles to sell his first paintings, Camille leaves her privileged life to share tenement rooms and poverty with him. He promises her everything with the wild promises of a young man, but before he can begin to obtain a little of the fame that would come to him, she dies young. Years later, now a wealthy painter in his water lily gardens in Giverny, he begins a search to discover all the secret things he never knew about her and the reasons she haunts him still.

You’ve chosen a very interesting title. What inspired the title? What inspired the book?

My editor and agent and I really struggled to find the right title. At first it was called “Water Lilies” but I wanted to indicate it was a love story. What inspired the book? Oh many things! I come from a family of artists; I grew up with easels and paint brushes and the smell of oil paints. I never thought to write of an artist though until I saw an exhibition of the early works of the Impressionists; I was inspired by their close friendship and how obscure they were back then. But more than that, almost all my close friends have been in one of the arts or another and there is often such difficulty to be recognized and to create that sometimes we have asked ourselves, “Is all we have gone through and put others through worth what we have created?” And Claude Monet in the novel asks himself, “Are my paintings in the end worth all the hardship to Camille? Which perhaps caused her death?” I leave that question to the reader.

What makes this book special to you?

I fell in love with all the characters, especially Claude and Camille. They had such a tremendous passion between them and such impossible circumstances. Young love often decides to ignore all realities of money, family opposition. It’s the most wonderful thing to write about! And I loved creating the Paris Bohemian world of 1865 of Monet, Renoir, Cezanne, etc. before anyone wanted their work. I loved creating the life of the cold high studios up many flights of steep dark stairs where so many brilliant works were created and no one knew about it.

What makes this a book that people MUST read and WHY?

Many people tell me how wonderful it was to learn how gifted, insecure, sexy, lonely and very handsome and totally undiscovered Claude Monet was in his early years, how desperately in love he was, so much that it conflicted with his painting. I have so many e-mails from readers who have told me they looked at his paintings in a wholly new way after reading the novel and that just thrills me. I am thrilled when I hear a book club has made a journey to a museum to discuss the book next to his paintings.

What sparks your creativity? Any tips to help others spark their own creativity?

I made up stories as a little girl because I was mostly alone. You know children (especially little children) have this wonderful ability to take a clump of sand and see a castle, or a bunch of pebbles and create family and friends from them and make up stories. Now I hardly dare go into a museum without three new novel ideas coming to me and practically persecuting me to write them. Who sat in that 18th century chair? Who walked up that medieval stairway? Was he sad? Who waited for him at the top?

I think creativity in writing comes from wanting to express what fascinates us, what haunts us, what we need to explain to ourselves in life. Just write and let anything come out; you can fix it later. My work is rough sketches and takes many drafts to grow up to be a novel. Love it and be patient with it. Your early work is a little child; you have to love it and feed it time and slowly it will grow in a combination of what you want and what you are.

What has been the biggest stumbling block in your writing? Can you share some tips to help others get past similar problems?

I think the biggest stumbling block is not being patient enough; I have to do things in my own time and in my own way. I discover novels rather than write them. So don’t look at your draft and yell, “Idiot!” at yourself but look for the few parts you love and start to coax rougher parts into a better form. It may take six months or fifteen years. I think jealousy is a problem and can stop us, but we are all unique. No one can write what you can write in your particular way. If you don’t write it, it won’t be there for you and others.

Tell me about the most unusual things you have done to promote your book?

I looked up school art teachers all over the country and e-mailed a bunch of them! And now in library readings with a power point exhibition of Monet’s paintings, I have promised to sing some French folk songs which Claude likely hummed as he painted. The singing author!

Each author is different in the way they create a work of fiction. Please describe for us how you plan or plot a story.

I start with a paragraph or a brief scene; I am generally very taken with a character and a particular place in time…Paris 1865 for instance! I may write many scenes which are not connected at all. As the characters come more to life, I start to see the possibility of a plot and an ending but that may change. The hardest thing for me is pacing and point of view. I generally know a little about the character when I start and a little bit about the place and time. I may change the end and almost always change the beginning.

Authors are very unique in the way they write, the tools they use, when they write, etc. Please describe a typical writing day for you? How do you organize your day?

I try to be up writing by 8:00 or 8:30 and write on average 3-5 hrs. I check a few e-mails first and then after about an hour I make some coffee. I like morning hours because I come from the dream state and the daily needs of my life have not yet become more important than the world of the book. I work on the computer and print out often to read and mark up, especially towards the end of a draft. I try not to go on line too much and see who is doing what on Facebook. I write in my pajamas. Sometimes someone rings the bell (I live in an apartment house in NYC) and it is the house handyman or a delivery and I am sure people wonder why I am in my pajamas with hair all messy at two in the afternoon!

What is your current work in progress?

I am working on a novel about the love story and marriage of the Victorian poets Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning. She was nearly 40 and an invalid in her family’s London house when he fell in love with her (he was younger) and eloped with her to Italy. VERY romantic.

Can you tell us where to find more information about you and your books and how readers can reach you?

Yes! My website is http://www.stephaniecowell.com

What would you like our readers to know about you and your writing?

I started writing when I was about seven years and wrote until my early twenties. I had several short stories published and won prizes in a national writing competition. I left writing because it was lonely I think, and it needed more work than I knew how to give it, and became a classical singer for quite a while. I sang a lot of high soprano roles in opera, all of which went into the research for my fourth novel MARRYING MOZART. I left professional music in my early 40s and returned to writing. I wrote four novels before I sold my first one. It’s often not easy to write and it’s not always a dream at all, but then nothing is. Strangers write me about my books and say the most beautiful things and I feel very awed and humbled by their words.