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Mailbox Monday: The Post-Christmas edition

image of an old-fashioned post office with the words Royal Mail.

I’ve been a rather negligent blogger this past year, and although I expect I’ll be busier than ever during the first third of 2013 as I juggle a full-time job in my chosen field with finishing the last course of my graduate degree (by distance), I still hope to become more active on here.

As I’ve said before, I love the idea behind Mailbox Monday, which serves as a weekly gathering place for readers to share their newly acquired books. Originally created by Marcia at Hooked by a Book (formerly The Printed Page), it is now being hosted on a monthly basis as the ‘Mailbox Monday Blog Tour’ and can be found at Lori’s Reading Corner during the month of January. Although I rarely receive enough reading material in one go to merit devoting a post to it, Christmas is the exception as I was recently supplied with more than enough books to keep me occupied!

The Devlin Diary by Christi Phillips shifts between Restoration-era London ( a new favourite time of mine to read about) and present- day Cambridge in a historical mystery.

Gillian Bagwell’s The Darling Strumpet is also set in Restoration England. After reading about the famous actress and mistress of Charles II Nell Gwynn in Priya Parmar’s novel Exit the Actress, I was eager for more. I look forward to reading a different take on Nell’s rise from orange girl to royal mistress.

Jumping ahead to 1850s London, The Agency series by Y.S. Lee was recommended to me by a close friend, who enjoyed the banter and interesting female protagonist. A Spy in the House is the first novel in this YA series about an orphan instructed at a school that also happens to be a front for an all-female investigative unit.

Those three have been on my wishlist for awhile so I look forward to diving into them. Although the next two are new to me, they come highly recommended as well. I’m familiar with John Green, of course, and attended grad school with at least one “nerdfighter”, but have never read any of his works. The Fault in Our Stars will be my introduction to the author. As a historical fiction novel, Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein, is perhaps closer to my preferred genre. It tells the story of a pilot and an undercover spy who are forced to endure capture in Nazi-occupied France during WWII.

When I first saw the fantastic HBO miniseries John Adams several years ago I loved Abigail and John, but was perhaps most captivated by Stephen Dillane’s portrayal of the complicated Thomas Jefferson. I’ve been looking for a good biography on the man for awhile, and was extremely pleased to receive Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham for Christmas, particularly as I am hoping to visit Monticello later this year.

Although I was the one doing the gifting, I should also mention Veronica Roth’s Divergent, which I bought my mother for Christmas, idly started flipping through and before I knew it was halfway through! I stole borrowed that one back for a few days to finish it off and now have the sequel on hold at the local library.

The Devlin Diary by Christi PhillipsDarling Strumpet by Gillian BagwellA Spy in the House by Y.S. Leethe Fault in Our Stars by John GreenCode Name Verity by Elizabeth WeinThomas Jefferson: The Art of Power by Jon Meacham


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The Burning of Parliament

the Burning of the Houses of Parliament painting by JMW Turner

The Burning of the Houses of Parliament by J.M.W. Turner

On October 16th, 1834, the UK Houses of Parliament were engulfed by flame. The fire began when two underfloor stoves that were  being used to burn the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s stockpile of old tally sticks, wooden sticks with notches in them to indicate value that were used to keep the national accounts until the late 1780s, ignited panelling in the Lords Chamber. The fire quickly got out of control, destroying many buildings, including the House of Commons. The devastation was witnessed by painters Turner (see above) and Constable.

In an inventive and educational turn, ParliamentBurnsLive is using twitter to livetweet the accounts of what happened in real time. You can follow the events of the Burning of Parliament through the account @ParliamentBurns, or by following the hashtag #ParliamentBurns.

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September 19th is International ‘Ask A Curator Day’!

Following a successful ‘Ask a Curator’ event in 2010, experts from around the world are participating in a unique question and answer session that gives the public a chance to ask curators questions about museums and galleries.

Institutions from 29 countries will be participating, including the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, The British Museum, and the Château de Versailles. Canadian museums and galleries taking part in the event include the Art Gallery of Ontario, Canadian Museum of Nature, the Royal Ontario Museum, and the National Gallery of Canada.

The event will be hosted today on twitter, with questioners asked to use the hashtag #askacurator. Click here to follow the event on twitter.

More information is available at, including lists of the participating museums and galleries by subject (such as Tudor England, Literature, or Science), and by country.

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Leonardo’s Swans

Leonardo’s Swans by Karen Essex. Broadway, 2006.

Leonardo’s Swans is the story of two sisters, Isabella and Beatrice d’Este, who lived during the Italian Renaissance. Both daughters of the important Ferrara family are engaged to be married, and when refined older sister Isabella meets her fiance Franceso Gonzaga, the handsome Marquess of Mantua, she believes that she has made the better match. Her wild younger sister Beatrice would rather ride horses than be engaged and her future husband Ludovico Sforza, known as Il Moro, is old and more interested in his mistress than in his young bride-to-be.

But when she finally meets Il Moro, Isabella finds common ground in their shared love of the arts, and a mutual attraction develops. There is one other thing Isabella desires of her sister’s husband – to have her portrait painted by Leonardo Da Vinci – and as Da Vinci’s patron, this is within Ludovico’s power. The desire causes a rift between sisters though as Beatrice comes into her own and the birth of her son secures her husband’s legacy.

One of the interesting questions posed by Leonardo’s Swans is whether or not Il Moro murdered his nephew Gian Galeazzo. Gian Galeazzo was seven when his father was assassinated and he came into power with his mother Bona of Savoy acting as regent. Just four years later, Ludovico forced her to resign and gained complete control. When Gian Galeazzo reached maturity he continued to be no more than a figurehead and was described as sickly, frivolous, and an “incompetent nonentity”. Although there isn’t solid evidence that Ludovico did kill his nephew, contemporaries certainly believed that he had. As depicted in the novel, Gian Galeazzo fell ill and died in 1494 after the birth of Il Moro and Beatrice’s son Ercole. In his La Historia di Italia historian Francesco Guicciardini wrote:

The rumor was widespread that Giovan Galeazzo’s death had been provoked by immoderate coitus; nevertheless, it was widely believed throughout Italy that he had died not through natural illness nor as a result of incontinence, but had been poisoned… one of the royal physicians…asserted that he had seen manifest signs of it. Nor was there anyone who doubted that if it had been poison, it had been administered through his uncle’s Ludovico Sforza machinations.

After his death, the Dukedom should have gone to Giangaleazzo’s four-year-old son, with widow Isabella of Aragon serving as regent, but Ludovico seized the Dukedom himself and was declared Duke even before his nephew was buried.

Leonardo’s Swans also discusses Leonardo Da Vinci’s horse statue “Il Cavallo” and how the bronze that had been set aside to cast it instead went to make cannons used in Milan’s battle against the French. The horse was commissioned in 1482 in order to honour Il Moro’s father and took Da Vinci seventeen years of research, but when the clay model was ready to be cast, the bronze was needed for war and the clay statue was destroyed by French soldiers. A fascinating article can be found here detailing how the plans to cast a bronze horse, previously thought to be technically impossible by engineers, was feasible after all.

Isabella and Beatrice d’Este were such fascinating women that I’m actually surprised they aren’t a more common subject for historical fiction writers. When I first learned about the d’Este sisters in a Renaissance course, I was impressed that such well-educated and powerful women lived in such a male-dominated age and Karen Essex does a great job of capturing the sisters. Other reviewers have noted that Leonardo’s Swans is ‘heavy on the history’ and that’s probably what I enjoyed most about it. The novel includes a great deal of information about events that occurred and a lot of research has clearly gone into this book.

Where Essex excels is in the loving description and analysis of several works of art. It’s fortunate that we live in the Internet age because I often found myself wishing that I had an image of the paintings she discussed in front of me. Also interesting were the parallels drawn between contemporary and renaissance art and the process of the artist who is caught between commerce and imagination.

The one problem I had with this novel was the author’s use of tense. The work is written in present tense, possibly to create a feeling of action, but switches to past tense in flashbacks. While I certainly don’t mind the use of flashbacks in a work, the shifts in tense were so jarring here that they drew me out of the story, which is a pity because there is a good story here.

The other nitpick I have is Essex’s use of excerpts from Leonardo’s notebook, often at the beginning of chapters. The excerpts are interesting, but I often felt that they didn’t add anything to the story and interrupted the flow of the novel.

Verdict: Well worth a read for the interesting subject matter and loving depictions of art, but the style can be distracting and it sometimes drags in the middle.


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Mystery March at Truth in Fiction

One of the great pleasures of blogging is that you get to share books and thoughts with others. Ideally the blogger not only enjoys writing about a subject that interests them, but others learn from, enjoy, or are inspired by their posts. I haven’t progressed very far in my chosen reading challenges yet, but I have been inspired by other people’s blogs, and by books that I have discovered through these challenges. While scrolling through other January reviews at the Year of the Historical Reading Challenge, I found a series of mysteries featuring playwright Oscar Wilde as a sleuth. Earlier that month I had become intrigued by the Historical Novel Society’s review of an Abigail Adams mystery. Much to my surprise, there are a number of mysteries that recast famous historical figures in the role of amateur detective. Finding it hard to pass up the alliteration, an idea was born for “Mystery March”, a month of mystery and history. Throughout March I’ll be taking a look at some of these historical mysteries and their famous detectives.

Having signed up for the fabulous Ireland Reading Challenge over at Books and Movies, I’ve also decided that March is the perfect month to jump in and explore Irish history. Although I’ve always had an interest in history, it was a wonderful professor and a course on Irish history that really sparked my passion, so Irish history holds a special place in my heart. Over the course of the month I’ll be reading and reviewing some Irish fiction and non-fiction and sharing interesting tidbits on the history of the Emerald Isle. I’ll also be introducing a new feature called “The Historical Tourist”, in which I’ll take a look at the history behind some of the tourist attractions I’ve been fortunate enough to visit.

I look forward to sharing my interest in Irish history with you!


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Sunday Spotlight:

Whether you’re looking for possible entries in one of the many historical reading challenges now under way or simply searching for a new book, should be your first stop. This historical fiction reader’s dream boasts “over 5000 historical novels organized by time and place”, but also includes a blog with author interviews, book reviews, and news on the latest historical novels to be nominated for and win awards.

A note from the site creator sums up the reasons why so many of us are captivated by historical fiction. She writes:

“It is often said that those who do not read history are doomed to repeat it. By blending history and fiction, a good historical novel lets us do more than simply read history: it lets us participate in the hopes, fears, passions, mistakes and triumphs of the people who lived it. It gives us an emotional as well as an intellectual understanding of the past.”

Although there are many wonderful book blogs out there, is set apart by its listing of historical novels categorized by time period and geographical region. Many with a love of history are interested in a diverse group of eras and places but I believe that most of us are especially drawn to one period. Whether your interest lies in Napoleonic France or Roman Britain the detailed listing allows you to find novels set in that favourite era. This comes in handy for anyone working towards a reading challenge goal.

Each broader category is further divided. For example, The Renaissance heading has sub-categories for Young Adults, The British Isles, Mysteries, and The Continent. Novel listings include the author, book title, year of publication, and a brief summary of the work.

For younger readers there is even a special section dedicated to Young Adult historical fiction. In my experience it is harder to find historical novels geared at a younger audience so this is a wonderful feature. Like the rest of the site, Young Adult fiction is broken down by time period into Ancient History, Medieval, and Renaissance.

Blogger Margaret Donsbach writes on the home page that her “goal is to enrich your appreciation of historical fiction by helping you find books that thrill you, move you, disturb you – but above all, awaken your mind and imagination.”

Certainly in my case she has succeeded. can be visited here.


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An Evening with Elizabeth Kostova

Recently I had the opportunity to attend an author talk at the local library featuring historical fiction writer Elizabeth Kostova. Her first book The Historian was published in 2005 and became the first debut novel to enter the New York Times bestseller list at #1. It went on to win the American Booksellers Foundation’s Book Sense award for Best Adult Fiction and Kostova took home the 2005 Quill Award for Debut Author of the Year. In town to promote her latest novel, Kostova read a chapter from The Swan Thieves and answered audience questions with warmth and humour.

Reading from chapter twelve, she shared the story behind it of the unusual first meeting of her friend’s parents, who met at the bottom of an escalator in Nebraska when she threw up on his shoes. It was a meeting she had always wanted to use in a book.

Kostova went on to answer audience questions, discussing her particular love of nineteenth century writers. Her favourite among those is Henry James, but she also mentioned noted Victorian novelists Thomas Hardy and Wilkie Collins. Unlike many historical fiction writers, who set their stories in one era from start to finish, Kostova prefers to incorporate periods of history into novels with a more contemporary setting to look at the impact that history has, or doesn’t have, on individuals in the present.

Asked about her historical method, she mentioned researching for The Swan Thieves by reading letters written by artists in the nineteenth century. These gave her an idea of voice. She also researches in libraries and talked to a longtime resident of Istanbul (who had lived there during the fifties) for The Historian, a novel about the search for Vlad Tepes, the historical Dracula. Kostova even tried some of the dishes sampled by her characters in The Historian in order to accurately describe their flavors! Historical accuracy is important to her and it shows.

Sharing the story behind her title The Swan Thieves, Kostova talked about a condo building near her that had a grand fountain. While sitting in a neighbouring cafe she’d commented to a friend on the absence of swan statues from the fountain. When the novelist friend said that they had been stolen, Kostova asked who would steal swans? To which her friend replied, “Why, swan thieves of course!”

But the best part of the evening for fans of Kostova’s works was the news that she began work in November on a new novel. Unfortunately, we’ll have to wait and see which historical period and region she tackles next.

Both the author and the event were throughly enjoyable and the Oakville Public Library did a fantastic job of planning and carrying out the evening. For those interested in hearing more from Ms. Kostova, a podcast of the evening should be available on the Oakville Public Library website soon.

I haven’t read The Swan Thieves yet, but I intend to use it as an entry in the Art History Reading Challenge in the future. I did enjoy The Historian, particularly Kostova’s gift for describing so many diverse locales. Too much detail about landscapes can bog a novel down, a criticism I have of Thomas Hardy’s famous Tess of the D’Urbervilles, but Kostova uses descriptions so effectively that she draws the reader in, making them believe that they are in an Istanbul library or a small town in Romania. With Helen Rossi and Paul she creates distinct and likable characters, although Kostova’s use of multiple narrators may make it difficult to discern whose memories the audience is following. The Historian is a thoughtful new twist on the vampire myth based in its historical origins, and is well worth a read.


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