Labyrinth by Kate Mosse

People think that when they’ve read the Da Vinci Code, all other Grail mysteries will pale in comparison. Surprisingly, the Labyrinth holds up its own quite well, probably because of the difference between the two books.

I love the fact that Labyrinth is a female grail adventure, weaving a story between two female characters that live 800 years apart. Just recently Janeh and I were discussing the difference between male and female authors, and how they focused on different things (males plot driven, females detail-driven), and this novel is a good example.

In present day (2005), Alice Tanner stumbles into a hidden cave while on an archeological dig in the mountains of southwest France. She discovers two skeletons and a labyrinth pattern engraved on the wall and on a ring, which triggers visions of the past and propels her into a dangerous race against those who want the mystery of the cave for themselves.

This narrative alternates with the story of Alaïs, in the year 1209, a plucky 17-year-old living in the French city of Carcassone, a sort of free country (under tolerant Cathar Christians) that welcomes all religions, that has been declared heretical by the Catholic Church. The Crusaders siege the city, and Alaïs’s father, entrusts her with a book that is part of a sacred trilogy connected to the Holy Grail, but evil forces, including her sister Oriane, are out to get this sacred book for their own ends.

The stories are interwoven, with events mirrored in different situations experienced by the two women in their time.

There are some gory bits, surprising from a woman writer, and a lot of adventure — a medieval battle and a modern-day chase, all in one book! There’s even a love story, although I must commend how Mosse integrated into the story without it seeming contrived.

Mosse also skillfully spins out her yarn bit by bit, disclosing details a bit at a time, never fully revealing anything until the end of the novel, making it a page-turner to the very end.

Finally, I love her take on the Grail mystery, because it’s a refreshing point of view, a unique take on the Grail legend (ergo, without the conspiracy spin: she doesn’t claim it’s the truth, unlike Dan Brown, although she does come up with a lot of daring premises) that makes it an extraordinary read.

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My copy: originally a mass market paperback, upgraded into a hardcover with dustjacket, mooched from the US

My rating: 5/5 stars

photo courtesy of http://hopeeternal.files.wordpress.com/2007/07/mosse-kate-labyrinth.jpg

The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant

After I enjoyed reading Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, I decided to get The Birth of Venus because Amazon listed it as a similar book.

The Birth of Venus is a historical novel, similar to Girl with a Pearl Earring in its themes of sensual awakening and art, although it goes into more detail, especially on history and politics (from the death of Lorenzo de Medici to the rise and fall of Savonarola), with a bit of Dante thrown in.

Set in 15th century Florence, it is the story of Alessandra Cecchi, precocious and artistic daughter of a well-to-do cloth merchant. The story unfolds with Alessandra’s coming of age at 14, forcing her to sacrifice her dreams to fulfill the expectations of womanhood amidst the turmoil around her, with Savonarola threatening to snuff out the influence of the Medicis, and the pending French invasion. The Florence she has known and loved is changing, and with this, Alessandra carves out a life she can call her own, and finally explore the passions she’s kept at bay.

Like Griet in Girl with a Pearl Earring, Alessandra is intoxicated with art, and falls in love with a painter. I love how these two books explore art and love in a similar fashion. Maybe it’s the artist in me, but it’s a heady combination. The richness of detail paints a very vivid picture — you can almost hear the fine scratching of Alessandra’s chalk on the wooden board, or smell the paint as it’s being mixed to the right shade…

The second half’s full of surprises, especially Part IV, where things you didn’t expect to have any significance fall into place, and tie the whole story into a very strong piece: a charming novel that’s hard to resist.

***
My copy: trade paperback upgraded into hardcover with dustjacket, thanks to Triccie and Babing

My rating: 5/5 stars

Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier

Some stories are driven by their plots; Girl with a Pearl Earring is driven by the sensory experience it provides the reader.

16-year old Griet is a Dutch girl who comes to serve as a maid in the house of the painter Johannes Vermeer. Her keen perception and artistic sensibilities allows her access into Vermeer’s inner sanctum: his painting studio, where she eventually becomes the master’s assistant.

On top of her work inside the studio, Griet must contend with household duties and serve Vermeer’s temperamental wife Catharina, his shrewd mother-in-law Maria Thins, the maid Tanneke, as well as Vermeer’s growing brood of children.

Griet is on the brink of becoming a woman, and has to deal with growing attentions of the local butcher’s son and Vermeer’s patron van Ruijven. And as Griet becomes more intimate with the master Vermeer, disruption and jealousy erupt within the household, and ripple in the world beyond.

I was fascinated by the novel because aside from the typical coming-of-age elements (discovery of sensuality, angst, etc), it deals with artistic awakening. Griet was innately artistic, with her predilection for arranging vegetables by color. She had an eye for art, as Vermeer noticed himself. Thus she was promoted from mere studio-cleaner to artistic assistant and eventually to Vermeer’s sitting model. And she learns to see how Vermeer sees, and understands how a real artist doesn’t paint something according to how the rest of the world sees it…

Because Griet has a real eye for detail, the imagery is so rich that you can picture so much in your mind: Griet’s favorite tile, the blood caked between the butcher’s fingers, the scalloped edges of a tortoiseshell comb, Vermeer’s gray eyes, the meat market on a busy day… It’s terrific how a book can transport you to a different world, and make you see it in Griet’s eyes.

She develops an attraction to Vermeer, and I love the way she doesn’t come right out and say it, but you can read through her thoughts and feel it. There’s a part in the novel where he’s teaching her to mix paint, and you can practically reach out and touch the electricity crackling in her…

Sigh, what else can I say? Art is the best romance.

***
There’s a movie version, starring Scarlett Johansson and Colin Firth, and it’s every bit as good as the book. Excellent cinematography!

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My copy: originally an old creased trade paperback bought at Book Sale, replaced with a second trade paperback in better condition, then upgraded to a hardcover copy (with dustjacket), mooched from the US

My rating: 5/5 stars

My Father Had A Daughter by Grace Tiffany

My Father Had A Daughter is a wonderfully inventive fictionalized memoir of Judith, William Shakespeare’s daughter.

Since they were young, Judith and her twin brother Hamnet, have been in awe of their father, who told them stories about fairy queens and the playhouses in London. Judith and Hamnet are inseparable, and have a world no one else understands (Hamnet and Judy playing A Midsummer Nights’ dream evoked memories of our 6th grade play in St. Scho)… But tragedy strikes as Hamnet accidentally drowns In a fantastic game Judith creates out of her wild imagination, and Judith is stricken with grief.

One day, Judith uncovers a new play in her father’s wastepapers — Twelfth Night, which to her horror uses her grief as a springboard for the plot. Enraged, Judith decides to storm off to London to sabotage her father’s play, under the guise of street urchin Castor Popworthy, and she rediscovers her theatrical self.

I liked this book because it was charming, and Judith Shakespeare seemed to really come to life. The earlier parts of the book, when Hamnet was still alive, reminds me of The Thirteenth Tale and its concept of “twin-ness,” and how a twin is never the same once “untwinned.”

The highlight of the novel is when the spunky Judith becomes a girl acting as a boy acting as a girl right under her father’s nose — The whole London adventure was hilarious!

It’s also great how Judith’s relationship with her parents evolved, how she gained respect and affection for her mother, and how her relationship with her father evolved from hero worship, to disillusion, to finally, an understanding of her father’s character.

***
My copy: a well-worn trade paperback bought at Book Sale (P70)

My rating: 4/5 stars

photo courtesy of Barnes and Noble (http://images.barnesandnoble.com/images/18690000/18696089.JPG)

The Bartimaeus Trilogy by Jonathan Stroud

I finally finished the trilogy last night and I can’t get over the fact that it’s over, and I am posting a review in the attempt to get some closure (sniffle sniffle).Deathly Hallows spelled the end of an era for me and millions of Harry Potter fans, and I’ve long been in search of something else to sink my teeth into, but it’s often a disappointing experience (e.g. The Inheritance Trilogy [Eragon], the Charlie Bone series). The Inkheart Trilogy by Cornelia Funke was a great discovery, but it’s a different kind of fantasy, with a different feel to it, not to mention that we’re still waiting for the third installment and a final release date for the movie, for crying out loud. The Darren Shan Saga is great, too, it was even recommended by Rowling herself, but veers more towards blood and gore (not for the weak of heart and tummy!).

On a whim, I picked up The Amulet of Samarkand back in January using my 40% discount on Powercard Plus birthday blowout (thank you Powerbooks!), and then got The Golem’s Eye for a birthday present (thank you Andrea!)… And then I chanced upon a hardbound Ptolemy’s Gate at the Powerbooks VIP Sale (yahoo!)

I finally got to read the series recently, Amulet about two months ago, and then Golem’s Eye and Ptolemy’s Gate in the last few days because I simply couldn’t stop reading, even though I was supposed to be reading Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World for our discussion on Saturday (now I have to cram that).

Anyway, enough with the long intro and let’s get on with the good stuff (no spoilers, I promise).

The Bartimaeus Trilogy is a British fantasy series about an alternative London, a present-day London that is ruled by magicians, a blend of centuries-old magical tradition and modern technology. At the heart of the series is Nathaniel, a young magician; his wisecracking five thousand year old djinni Bartimaeus, and a renegade named Kitty Jones, and the forging of an extraordinary bond between these three characters.

Consistent with British magical lore (if you’ve read Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, you’ll enjoy the Bartimaeus trilogy because it’s about twenty times more exciting), the book touches on magical apprenticeship, summoning magical creatures, political wars won with magic, the importance of birth names, and a host of magical creatures – imps, foliots, djinn, afrits, marids, and golems). It’s a bit darker than Harry Potter, and politics is a major theme, and there are lots of entertaining historical references, but everything ties together well with the story.

The Amulet of Samarkand starts out with Nathaniel’s apprenticeship, extraordinary magical aptitude, and his need to prove himself. Together with Bartimaeus, Nathaniel sets out to foil a government conspiracy involving the Amulet of Samarkand, with a few setbacks engineered by Kitty Jones and her team of ruffians. It’s an excellent introduction to the series, with the narrative between the perspectives of Bartimaeus and Nathaniel.

The Golem’s Eye sees Nathaniel rising in the ranks of government while Kitty Jones continues to thwart him, as her renegade group, the Resistance, wreaks trouble in the city. The second book is more transitional – it happens two years after Amulet, introduces Kitty’s perspective and establishes her as one of the central characters in the story, reveals a larger conspiracy that is a prelude to book 3, and lays out Nathaniel’s transformation into a ruthless and ambitious politician, John Mandrake.

Ptolemy’s Gate, which is easily the best of the three books, happens another couple of years later. Nathaniel is now London’s most powerful magician, and Kitty has changed her identity and apprenticed herself to a magician in her quest to learn more about Bartimaeus. Here the sinister conspiracy reveals itself, and Kitty, Nathaniel, and Bartimaeus must all overcome their personal differences and work together to save London and set things right. The book reveals a large part of Bartimaeus’ story, gives the wake up call that Nathaniel needs to regain his old self, and explores the relationship between human and djinn, building up to a thrilling climax that effectively concludes the saga.

It’s a perfect blend of all the right elements – humor, history, politics, ambition, adventure, excitement, survival, and compassion, and a great story that is contained completely within the three books, with a sense of finality to it, even though you want it to go on and on. I kept rereading the last few chapters because I couldn’t believe it was over, something that I haven’t done with a book in a long time.

Ok, now someone else should go read it already so I can pour my heart out. Waah.

***
My copy: Book 1 paperback upgraded into a hardcover with dustjacket (mooched from the US); Book 2 paperback upgraded into a hardcover without a dustjacket (mooched) then into a hardcover with a dustjacket (mooched again); book 3 hardcover with dustjacket from Powerbooks VIP sale. All US edition (Hyperion/Miramax). Paperback copies of Books 1 & 2 will be passed on to a moocher in Japan (wired_lain!) and the naked hardcover to Flipper friend Cecille.

My rating: Book 1, 5/5 stars; Book 2, 4/5 stars; Book 3, 5/5 stars. Series, 5/5 stars