The Red Necklace

I enjoyed Sally Gardner’s I, Coriander (winner of Nestle Smarties Gold Award in 2005), a children’s novel set in London during the Puritan Commonwealth, an interesting blend of historical fiction, fantasy, and a little bit of romance. Her next novel, The Red Necklace, came out a couple of years later, and I got myself a copy, and then, typical of me, forgot about it until I dug it out of my TBR inventory during Holy Week.

I took it with me during our company outing to Bohol last month, and because the flight was delayed, I managed to finish it before our plane landed.

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Hearing Voices

I like good, strong voices in fiction. I like characters that ring true, make a distinct impression, and keep me engaged in the story.

In the past week, I read The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides and The Lacemaker and the Princess by Kimberley Brubaker Bradley. These two novels each offered a unique point of view: one from the outside looking in, and the other from inside looking out.

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Of Bucino and Fiammetta

In the Company of the Courtesan by Sarah Dunant
Book #31 for 2009

I love reading historical fiction, especially those that deal with Renaissance painters and their art.

Sarah Dunant’s The Birth of Venus was one of the first novels I read in this genre, and was one of the reasons I got hooked — I loved the tapestry of themes Dunant weaves: romance, art, religion, and politics, set in the vibrant backdrop of the Renaissance.

I’ve had In the Company of the Courtesan for over a year now, and I figured it was time to finally read it.

This time, Dunant chooses Venice as the setting for her story and I have no complaints — I love stories set in Venice, with its colorful people, flurry of activity, and air of romance.

In the Company of the Courtesan revolves around an unlikely duo — the beautiful courtesan named Fiammetta Bianchini and her right-hand man, a dwarf named Bucino Teodoldi.

The story unfolds as the pair flees from the sack of Rome in Renaissance Italy, escaping into Venice to rebuild their life from scatch.

The dwarf and his mistress struggle to get back on their feet, and eventually manage to enter Venetian society and reestablish Fiammetta as an in-demand courtesan, but troubles continue to brew, as Venice’s cast of characters pose threats to their partnership, from an overzealous lover who opens Fiammetta’s eyes to real romance and passion; an enterprising Turk who is eager to add Bucino to his Sultan’s menagerie; and the blind and crippled healer La Draga, who breaks the peace pf the household and leaves them to face seriouse consequences.

Sarah Dunant is a master at recreating history and fleshing out nameless faces of the past.

In the Company of the Courtesan was a bit more challenging to read than The Birth of Venus, probably because it is written from the point of view of Bucino, who is not as companionable as Alessandra at first, but grows on you as the story progeresses.

Bucino makes an interesting, if outlandish persona, as he is an outcast that has gained the grudging respect of society because of his ties to the great Fiammetta.

The novel also features another artist — Titian, this time — for whom Fiammetta serves as a muse.

In true Dunant fashion, In the Company of the Courtesan is another page-turner, offering a glimpse into the role of courtesans in Renaissance society, seamlessly incorporating themes of loyalty, friendship, and religion in a portrait of 16th century Venice.

Sarah Dunant’s other novels seem to be all contemporary after this, I do hope they are as well-written as her historical novels.

My copy: hardcover with dustjacket (upgraded from trade paperback)

My rating: 4/5 stars

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

“Few things leave a deeper mark on a reader than the first book that finds its way into his heart. Those first images, the echo of words we think we have left behind, accompany us throughout our lives and sculpt a palace in our memory to which, sooner or later – no matter how many books we read, how many worlds we discover, or how much we learn to forget – we will return.”

This is one of my favorite lines from the book The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, which has definitely found its way into my heart — from cover to cover!

Set in the heart of post-war Barcelona, The Shadow of the Wind is an exquisite blend of elements I love in books: literary mystery, horror, romance, and even some swashbuckling action!

In The Shadow of the Wind, 10-year old Daniel Sempere‘s life is changed forever when his father, a bookseller, brings him to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books (“Every book, every volume you see here has a soul. The soul of the person who wrote it and of those who read it and lived and dreamed with it…”).

In the tradition of this labyrinthine repository of obscure tomes, a first-time visitor must choose a book and take care of it forever, making sure it stays alive and never disappears. Daniel is immediately drawn to a handsome volume entitled “Shadow of the Wind,” by a little-known Spanish writer Julian Carax. The mysterious book sets off Daniel’s curiosity about Carax and he embarks on a quest to find out more about the author, whose life gets more and more entwined with Daniel’s as the story progresses.

The beautiful language is lush and wordy, rich with descriptions that just bloom with life — exactly the way I like it. And I like the fact that very few people (well outside of the FFP circle) have heard about it, and that it’s not that easy to find at the book store — it has this word of mouth success that doesn’t need the hype to make it a bestseller.

And the characters — they seemed to jump off the page. Fermin was my favorite — he had the best lines! I loved it when he said:

“Look, Daniel. Destiny is usually around the corner. Like a thief, like a hooker, or a lottery vendor: its three most common personifications. But what destiny does not do is home visits. You have to go for it.”

I also felt really sad for the gay watchmaker Federico Flavia, who was persecuted for his flamboyant lifestyle. I like Daniel too, as a protagonist. He is young and impetuous, but is charming and believable, and I think I fell in love with him too.

I’d have loved to write a longer review, but it’s been around nine months since I read the book, and it’s due for a reread this year. But I would have to say that it’s one of the best novels I have ever read, and I loved every bit of it; reading it was one of the best experiences I’ve had with a book — I laughed and cried and seethed and shivered and gushed throughout it all, and I couldn’t put it down. Sigh.

I can’t wait for the prequel, Angel’s Game, due in September 2009.

My copy: Phoenix trade paperback, mooched from Triccie. I want a hardcover. And an illustrated edition.

My rating: 5/5 stars!

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.

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