The Romanov Empress

If you like historical fiction, The Romanov Empress by C.W. Gortner is a great read! Narrated by Maria Feodorovna, the mother of the last Tsar of Russia, it follows her life from her idyllic childhood as a Danish Princess through to her role as Dowager Empress of Russia during the Bolshevik revolution.

Minnie, as she is known by friends and family, is betrothed to Nicholas Romanov, the heir to the throne of Tsar Alexander Romanov II. Falling terminally ill unexpectedly, Nicky begs Minnie, upon his death, to marry his brother Alexander III. At the age of 19, Minnie feels that she has no option but to accede to her late fiancee’s request and marries the new heir apparent, a bullish and brooding man, quite unlike his gentle and refined brother. With time though, Minnie, now officially Maria Feodorovna, develops a deep love and respect for this besotted man and bears him six children.

Covering the time period from 1862 to 1918, the story illustrates the dynastic entitlement that accompanies those born of royal blood. We are witness to the opulence and extravagance of the wildly wealthy while at the same time observing the tremendous pressure borne by those fettered by the traditions and behavioural mandates of the Royal family.

As we watch the lives of the Romanovs unfold over the years, we are also witness to the fomenting of rebellion within Russia. While the Royals live lives of extraordinary excess, extreme poverty for many Russians affords them a life of hopelessness and hunger. Dissent runs rampant in the country with many assassination threats and attempts on the Tsar’s life. After one group, the Nihilists, are eventually hung or banished, their cause is picked up by Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks. We all know the story does not end well for Maria’s son, Tsar Nicholas and his family. Facing utter contempt from his citizenry, in part due to the reliance the Royals have put on a ‘sorcerer’, Grigori Rasputin, the Romanovs are without support from the masses and the country rings out with calls of death to the Tsar.

0425286169This novel was well-researched and gives the reader plenty of opportunity to observe the excesses and trials of the Russian monarchy. It also gives additional information on the fate of the surviving Romanovs after their escape from Russia. There are two family trees in the front of the book, one for the Royal Family of Denmark and one for the Imperial Romanovs of Russia.

I would strongly suggest that readers avail themselves of these familial road maps as the interweaving of the families makes it hard to keep straight who the characters are and from which bloodline they descend.

— Nancy C.

Me? Read “Fantasy”?

I will begin this post by saying that fantasy isn’t a genre that I normally read. But I picked up Furyborn, the first book in the Empirium Trilogy by Claire Legrand on the basis of a recommendation from someone… not sure who that someone is anymore. I finished the book although I do have to admit to skimming over some parts because there just seemed to be no end of killing and maiming. Having said that, I think there is a great story underlying all of the blood and gore.

Two Queens, raised in very different circumstances, will rise to save their Kingdoms, albeit a thousand years apart. The Blood Queen and The Sun Queen, who possess the magic of the seven elements, are the fabilized saviours of the empire and only they possess the power to fight back against the Undying Empire.

Opening scene is a prologue…Rielle Dardenne, the Blood Queen, is in labour and at the birth of her daughter, she is attacked by the evil marque Corien who is trying to kill her and the child. Rielle hands the child to a young boy, a good marque, and begs him to take the child to safety in the territory of Borsvall.

The remainder of the story alternates between the young lives of Rielle and a bounty hunter by the name of Eliana Ferracora. Both of these young girls learn at a very early age that they have extraordinary powers… powers that have to be hidden in order for them to survive. But as they both mature, it becomes clear that there is a destiny for them to fulfill and their fight for survival means showing the world who they really are.

The book is classified as Teen Fiction but I don’t think this precludes adult lovers of fantasy fiction from enjoying this read. It has all of the elements that keep a reader of this genre engaged… suspense, action, mysticism, sexuality, violence. The question is, will I read Book 2? I certainly am curious about what the future holds for the protagonists but am not sure that I can bear much more of the slay or be slayed mentality. Call me a wuss but I tend to like people to generally fear significantly less agony in the books I read.

— Nancy C.

From Horror to Hope

Two books written  about the experiences of North American Indigenous women had the power to shake my assumption, based on a lot of previous reading on the subject, that I understood the kind of pain and suffering that First Nations women and girls have endured since colonialism ripped their worlds asunder.

NotYourPrincess#NotYourPrincess, edited by Lisa Charleyboy and Mary Beth Leatherdale, is a stunningly beautiful compilation of short stories and poetry, written as “…a love letter to all young indigenous women trying to find their way, but also to dispel those stereotypes so we can collectively move forward to a brighter future for all”.

Broken down into four sections, the selections take us from horror to hope, from brokenness to healing. The written words are accompanied by rich and powerful artwork and photography and compel the reader to stop and breathe in the message being relayed. The emotional intensity jumps off the page and takes your breath away, not just as an empathetic response but as a celebratory ‘high five’ for the healing that is happening and the strides that are being made.  A mere 109 pages in length, this book doesn’t ask for a huge commitment from the reader but it gives back value a hundred times over.

calling down the skyRosanna Deerchild, a celebrated author and broadcaster, has written Calling Down the Sky, a powerful poetry collection that gives voice to the generational effects of her mother’s experience as a residential school survivor. You can sense the struggle her mother feels when her daughter prods her to share her story. She is overflowing with the emotional impact  of her experience and yet overwhelmed by the telling of it.

One of my first thoughts reading Deerchild’s poems was how she used such small words and yet the message they delivered was like a punch to the gut. I could almost visualize her mother reverting back to the language of a child as she remembered the cruelty and horror inflicted on her and her fellow ‘inmates’. No flowery language required; her voice is as trenchant  as the cruelty bestowed upon them.

Both are stunning and important works of art.

— Nancy C.

Every Note Played

With a PHD in Neuroscience, bestselling author Lisa Genova knows a little bit about the neurological diseases that she incorporates into her novels. Her previous topics have included Alzheimers, Autism, Huntingtons and Left Neglect (Unilateral or Hemispatial Neglect). Genova’s latest foray is into Amyotrophic Lateral Scerlosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. She does not rely on her vast education to provide the research required to demonstrate the horrifying layers of this disease’s progression. Instead, Genova walked with people who are on the ALS journey themselves. Through interviews with many patients and their families, she has developed a solid understanding of what the ALS journey means to those affected by the affliction.

In her latest novel, Every Note Played, we find ourselves following the devastation the disease has wreaked on world-renowned concert pianist Richard Evans. From diagnosis to the drawing of his last breath, Genova artfully puts the reader in a position to feel each loss that Richard suffers.

Initially, Richard doesn’t believe that the physical havoc he has been warned about will affect him but slowly and surely, he faces his new reality. For all intents and purposes, Richard is alone in the world. Estranged from his ex-wife and daughter, he tries to come to terms with how he is going to manage as the disease continues to strip him of the ability to physically handle simple day to day tasks such as eating, bathing and playing his beloved piano. Karina, his divorced spouse, learns of Richard’s fate from mutual friends but struggles with raging resentment toward her former lover which keeps her initially from reaching out to him. Eventually though, she does swallow her pride and reaches out. What she finds is far worse than she can imagine and she knows in an instant what role she must take on during this terrible journey.

The history of their marriage and the real life disappointments and heartbreaks they both endured and suffered come crashing down upon them as they find themselves unhappily bound to each other as Richard’s ALS continues its devastating dismantling of his physical abilities. Both of them are magnificent musicians, albeit with different passions. Richard is a master of the classical genre while Karina discovered after her classical training that jazz gave her the freedom to ‘be the music’. One thrived in their craft… one did not.

The sacrifices and resentments each hold onto are the seasoning for the musical interludes that Genova peppers throughout the unfolding drama. One can feel the intense passion and internal release that both Richard and Karina have felt when they are in their musical moment.

This story is beautifully layered and artfully told. Lisa Genova is a master at bringing the science of neurological disease to her readers with humour, empathy and grace.

— Nancy C.

 

Listen Up!

I love nothing more than discovering new musicians and being the one to introduce these amazing artists to other music lovers!

Leon Bridges is my latest ‘find’ and his debut album Coming Home is a treat for the ears!! Released in 2015, it is garnering a lot of critical acclaim. Stylistically, Bridges could be likened to ’60s soul with overtones of Rhythm and Blues. Bridges, along with co-writers Austin Michael Jenkins, Joshua Block and Chris Vivion, takes the listener back to the early days of R & B reminiscent of Otis Redding and Sam Cooke. Jeff Dazey’s magnificent saxophone had me swooning. It is said that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach… the way to mine is the sensuality of the saxophone! Let the sultry sound melt your heart in Lisa Sawyer… it’s visceral!!! If you are looking for a gospel fix, River will take you down! For a quick peek at this amazing artist, check out Tiny Desk Concert. This album is a treasure and I can hardly wait for his next release which is slated for sometime in 2018.

baziniCanada’s own Bobby Bazini is another young singer-songwriter lighting up the airwaves with a voice that moves between husky and deep-chested to soft and melodious. Hailing from Quebec, his latest album Summer is Gone has a soul/folk feel and his lyrics add another level of depth and richness, pulling the listener into his emotional rendering of these songs. Bazini has created an album full of songs that cover the spectrum for emotive style allowing him to showcase his powerfully stirring voice. This is the third album Bazini has released in his career and he is showing no sign of slowing down.

— Nancy C.

Bala’s Bestseller Ignites Questions

What if you realized that the only thing you know for sure is that you don’t know anything for sure! The Boat People by Sharon Bala is certain to ignite some questions about the beliefs and prejudices the reader holds and may be a reminder to people to assess what governments say and do with more judicious reflection.

The Boat People is about the plight of, among others, a Tamil widower, Mahindan, and his six year old son, Sellian, who are smuggled into Canadian waters in 2009 on an illegal ship. The story flips between their present situation of being detained in a B.C. prison in admission limbo, and the travails of the civil war between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan government during the early 2000’s that drove their desperate escape and search for safety.

The adjudicator for Mahindan’s case is Grace Nakamura, whose parents were affected by the internment of Japanese-Canadians during WWII. Grace’s mother, Kumi, is beginning to question the moral and legal rights of the government who robbed her family of their hope and dignity throughout that process. Watching her mother roil in her resentment and anger at the injustices suffered, Grace is forced to look at what lengths governments will go to in order to ‘keep the peace’.

In an age when terrorism is being played out with such frequency and ferocity, it is easy to point fingers and paint entire groups of people as ‘terrorists’. But what if we changed the script and really believed that 99 percent of the people labelled in such a way just want to live their lives in peace and harmony. Most Canadians have been spared the agony of living in a country embroiled in a civil war. Where you live in a war-torn country may be the determining factor to where your loyalties lie but is that true loyalty or loyalty born from fear of the repercussions of non-alliance? What would any of us do to protect our loved ones from the savagery of war?

The Boat People demonstrates the extreme lengths people will go to in order to protect their families. It also raises questions about the way the Canadian refugee/asylum system handles the complexities of war ravaged individuals who arrive on our shores, frantic to find safety and peace.

— Nancy C.

(Book Clubs note: The Boat People would be an excellent book club selection, generating dialogue and discussion)

 

What a Great Read!

What a great read! One wouldn’t think so given The Prisoner and the Chaplain by Michelle Berry is about a man who is down to his last twelve hours on earth before his execution for a heinous crime.  The chaplain who is to accompany the prisoner during this final stage of his life is a substitute for the regular chaplain who has been known to the prisoner, Larry, during his 10 years on death row. The chaplain, Jim, has tried to get up to speed about Larry’s life and crimes but knows that he is entering into a situation for which he is not prepared.

Being opposed to the death penalty, Jim struggles as he listens to Larry begin to unpack the story of his life, a childhood that was atypical in that his mother ran off with his older brother when he was just seven years old. Having been left with an older sister and an alcoholic, emotionally abusive father, Larry learns to navigate his way through his lonely life the best way he knows how. Without a mentor to keep him on the straight and narrow, Larry turns to petty crime and discovers that this is something at which he can and does excel.

Larry’s recounting of the story of his life triggers within Jim the anguish of his own personal failings brought on by challenges he faced as a child. Those same failings are what have directed him to the chaplaincy and he is torn by the conflicting emotions that Larry’s story has awakened within him.

The final hours creep by as both men are consumed in the devastation of their personal journeys and yet, in spite of the differences in their circumstances, they develop a mutual trust and bond that will endure, at least for Jim, well beyond the final act of cruelty.

To me, this story reinforces why the death penalty should not be the retribution of a civilized people.

— Nancy C.

Note: author Michelle Berry is the owner of an independent bookstore, Hunter Street Books, in Peterborough, Ontario

 

The Music Shop

For anyone who has a love of music, The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce is a delightful read!! Set in 1988, the story is based in a vinyl record store owned by a music aficionado named Frank who has an uncanny ability to find the right piece of music for anyone who comes in need of musical solace or inspiration. Frank’s encyclopedic knowledge of music came at the knee of his unorthodox mother ‘Peg’ who taught him to heartfully and soulfully listen to music.

Frank’s store lacks the order of other record stores; boxes and cartons abound and it is only Frank that knows the order to the chaos. He would pair Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata and the Beach Boys Pet Sounds together as he felt the  soul of the music was similar. For the reader who wants to enhance their appreciation of an eclectic range of music, Frank is a gift!

Frank is steadfast in his refusal to sell CD’s which is a testament to his love of the pure sound that can only be found on vinyl. In spite of the many obstacles that record companies put in his way, Frank remains adamant but soon discovers that bucking the music giants can and will backfire.

Frank and his motley crew of friends and fellow neighbourhood business owners have created a real sense of community in their run-down neighbourhood and in spite of many attempts to have them removed from the area, they support each other  and fend off interlopers.

Frank’s calm and carefree existence is shaken when a woman, Ilse Brauchmann, faints outside his store. This singular event turns Frank’s world upside down catapults him into an unending spiral of self-doubt and overwhelming agitation especially after the woman asks him to share his vast knowledge of music with her. And so begins a tumultuous journey of pain and healing for both Frank and Ilse as they both learn that they are more than their secrets. Unfortunately, neither is prepared for the complexity of the emotional journey on which they have embarked.

The writing is easy yet generous and you just can’t help but be drawn into the stories of these wonderful characters! A great read!!!

— Nancy C.

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