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Have been blogging for nearly four years now and thoroughly enjoy the wide variety of books sent to me by publishers. Also a member of the Amazon Vine programme which is wonderful
The first thing I liked about this book is that the the story is not about some glam supermodel or impossibly long limbed high flier with a penchant for Prada and Manolo Blahnik, but a middle aged woman who has longings and fears just like us all.
Finding a book about such a heroine is hard so when this one arrived I am very happy to say that I gulped this down in one afternoonon read and thoroughly enjoyed it.
Jilllian Hunter lives in an old tumbledown beach house in Connecticut. She is divorced from Richard "He complained I was cold. Frigid. He's right. I was, but only with him" . She has raised two sons by herself, restored the house and has started a small business all on her own so by any lights she has been a success. But, Jill has fond memories of Colin, ("does that lock of hair still flop cross his Dana forehead? Do his cheeks still dimple when he smiles?") a boy she fell in love with in her teens, and has yearned after ever since and so when she falls into his arms on a visit to an old friend in London (literally, she trips down a flight of stairs), she is ready to embark on a passionate affair with him.
Jill throws caution to the winds and, while it is clear to the reader that perhaps Colin is not the god she thinks he is, she abandons all inhibitions along with her commonsense and hurtles headlong into a relationship with this long lost love of her youth. We can see the inevitable crash and heartbreak coming a mile off, but as I am sure most of us know, love is blind and being older and, in theory, wiser makes no difference at all to heartbreak. By the time Colin dumps her, she has managed to lose old friends, has risked her livelihood and is staggering on the brink of disaster, both personal and professional and she has to Get a Grip and start all over again.
Painting Naked rang some very familiar bells with me during its read and I found myself totally in sympathy with Jill. She is funny, not always wise, but is loyal and lovable with a self deprecating attitude to her own faililngs. The writing is witty and sharp and funny and the narrative is paced beautifully, not too frenetic but zapping along nicely and keeping the reader's attention at all times. You really like the characters, not only Jill but her friend and neighbour Lizzie who though she "has no idea what it's like to run your own business...works in a community college where students turn up on an annual basis, paychecks are deposited directly into her bank account ...computers are fixed, the water cooler is filled and her printer is never ruined by stray cat hairs" is supportive and loving. Apart from friends and family, she also has a cat named Zachary who disappears when Colin is around and comes back when he has gone (cats always know best). It turns out that he has adopted a second home in the next house along the beach where a rather interesting man called Tom happens to live. Such perspicacity....
Ok, well you don't need a degree in rocket science to see what is going to happen and that after all the heartbreak and angst, Jill is going to find happiness and fulfillment. It's a given. If I say that this book is very Katie Ffordish I do hope Maggie takes this as a compliment as I love her books and the slightly scatty heroines who manage to come through against the odds. It is a good feeling to know that books are being written by authors who know that being over 50 does not mean that your heart doesn't stop beating when you are with somebody you love, that you can dither what you are going to wear on a date (big knickers or little knickers), does my bum look big in this, oh dear look at the saggy tummy, and that falling for someone is not the prerogative of the young and beautiful. I found this book heartwarming, amusing and delightful and loved every page.
"I came so close to losing all this..........my best memories lie within the fabric of these walls.....climbing the stairs I run my hands along the banister, down the spindles, feeling drips of paint I neglected to sand off.....in the distance, waves roar and rumble up the beach.
My beach. My home"
The UK title of this book by Sarah Bower was the Book of Love and I Loved the Book when I sat down and read it straight through. Lots to say.
OK so where to begin? The narrator of the story is La Violante, a Jewess converted to the Christian faith, who becomes a lady in waiting to Lucrezia Borgia. Her birth name is Esther Sarfarti and she and her family were expelled from Spain by Ferdinand and Isabella of Aragon (this scenario was the background for another stupendous historical saga The Cathedral by the Sea, reviewed by me last month). Esther's father was banker to the Borgias and it was he who urged her to convert to Christianity and leave her family in order to secure her future.
If you ask most people what they know about the Borgias the most common reaction is "Ah, yes didn't they hold dinner parties and poison all the guests?" This is one of those historical myths which have grown up over the years, entrenched in fact by constant repetition. The Borgias were not exactly the kind of family you would like to have living next door, but not quite as bad as we are led to believe. Judging their behaviour by modern day standards is a pointless exercise. If we lived in a country where each state fought for supremacy and power as Italy did at this time and we had to live by our wits and talents and resort to stratagems which seem unacceptable, merely to stay alive and keep our head on our shoulders, we would view life differently.
As the story unfolds La Violante, Esther's given nickname, accompanies her mistress to Ferrara where Deste Lucrezia has secured an advantageous marriage to Alfonso D'este, Duke of Ferrara (pictured right). Before the departure from Rome, La Violante has met Cesare:
"I knew in less than the space of a breath, his face was the prism though which I would see the whole world from now on, the yardstick by which I would measure the beauty of every face. And that he understood my feelings, and that for this moment, if for no other, his beauty was a gift reserved only for me".
Fascinating, promiscuous, cruel, brave, dashing and endowed with a powerful sexual aura, totally irresistible, she is overwhelmed by a lifelong passion for him, bearing a son who is taken away from her in a brutal betrayal which breaks her heart.
When reviewing a book such as this, I try to avoid cliches but it is difficult 'teeming and pulsating with life', 'a sprawling canvas', these phrases fit the bill beautifully and I set them down here knowing just how hackneyed they are. Reading the Book of Love is like looking at every painting of Renaissance Italy you have ever seen. Scenes pass across the inner eye, full of dazzling colour, warmth and vitality. The political infighting, the jockeying for power, the panic when the Pope, Alexander Borgia dies, and the rush to secure the family's position; the clothes, silks, satins, gold thread; the jewels, diamonds, emeralds, pearls and rubies; golden Venetian masks studded with precious gems; the perfumes, jasmine, rose, orange; the poetry of the Italian language, even the names of the states roll off the tongue - Mantua, Padua, Ferrara, Urbino. Then the contrast of the squalor and the filth of the peasants and their lives, the cruelty of the treatment of the Jews who live from day to day never sure of their place or their security but still clinging to their religious customs in the face of adversity.
"I knew these people, they were the same people I had shared the festivals with as a child...the older girls and their mothers would exchange their modest, even drab clothes for striped silks and slashed velvets and head scarves tinkling with gold coins. Tableware of wood and horn would be replaced with silver and glass, and there would be dishes coloured with saffron and turmeric, fragrant with cinnamon and nutmeg and the distillation of orange flowers"
I am not going to tell you anything about the story as I want everyone to read this book for themselves with no clues from me as to its ultimate outcome. Suffice it to say that La Violante's life, so closely entwined Lucr with that of the Borgias is full of love and heartbreak and despair with a shattering discovery in the final chapters which left me with mouth agape as she learned the truth of the intrigue and deceit practiced upon her by Lucrezia and the family to whom she has given her love and loyalty. Nearly 500 pages of riveting reading and I shut the book up with a huge sigh and deep regret when I came to the end of Esther's story.
Glittering, gorgeous, compelling and stunning - a great read
Before I sat down to start this review I looked up the word 'burble'. According the the Concise Oxford Dictionary there are three definitions:
make a continuous murmuring noise
speak unintelligibly and at unnecessary length
This more or less describes my state since finishing The Needle in the Blood.
A year or two ago I read Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell and was plunged into a totally different world and came out into the daylight blinking and wondering where on earth I was as it took me over so completely. I have named this condition as Norellitis, but it is as nothing as suffering from Odo Syndrome which has fallen upon me after finishing this simply marvellous book.
The Needle in the Blood starts and finishes with the Bayeux Tapestry which is always there in the background but for me the main story and focus is that of the great love between Gytha and Odo. Time and time again when reading Sarah's story, my mind slipped back to my teenage days when I first discovered Kathryn by Anya Seton and could not put it down as I was taken over by the love of Katherine and John, Duke of Gaunt. For me, The Needle in the Blood has the same wonderful sweep of imagery, the contrast of the richness of the food and wine and emeralds and rubies of the Earl and his mistress, with the straw pallets, the mud, the dirt and the basics of life for the rest of the household, the jousting, the feasting and then the quiet moments in the cathedral and church.
Just read this wonderful passage:
"Venison haunches marinated in red wine with cloves, fowls stuffed teasingly one inside the other starting with swans and bustards, ending with ortolans and quails, squirrels legs friend in sweet batter and pasties of songbirds crowned with tiny , gilded beaks....dishes of peas in cream and parsnips stewed with saffron, dried figs and apricots from Provence...the jewels in the wine cups wink mockingly in the light of hundreds of beeswax candles, all green and gold"
Isn't that just lush and gorgeous and sumptuous?
I was totally bowled over by this book but was not sure when I started it if I would be. To begin with, it is written in the present tense which I always find difficult to read. Don't ask me why, there is no logical reason for this at all and in the past I have abandoned books because of this particular style. But not this one. In Odo Sarah Bower has created a charismatic and, quite frankly, gorgeously sexy hero, who has huge power and riches, but is brought to his knees by his love for Gytha. The ending is right but heart breaking and I felt totally lost when I had read the last sentence and closed up the book.
"What shall I say of Odo, Bishop of Bayueux? In this man, it seems to me, vices were mingled with virtues, but he was more given to worldly affairs than to spiritual contemplation" Orderic Vitalis, Ecclesiastical History, Book IV
I am sure this is a correct description of Odo, but how much more human and warm he sounds in this story. In Odo and Gytha, Sarah Bower has created a created a pair of star crossed lovers to rank alongside Eloise and Abelard and Romeo and Juliet and just in case you think that perhaps this is a rave too far, do read the book and see how you feel at the end of it.