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Tuesday, January 24, 2017

The Velvet Hours by Alyson Richman: Paris at the dawn of WWII

I feel that I had to fight to finally read The Velvet Hours by Alyson Richman. Let me begin by saying that Alyson Richman is one of my favorite authors. I've read four of her books previously with The Lost Wife my favorite book of the last five years. The delay was all my fault.

After I read The Lost Wife I couldn't wait to tell my book club about it. After my review, several requested to borrow it. My neighbor, Dee, was first to request it, so the book went to her. My copy had my many exclamation points and underlined passages smiling up at the lucky reader. It took Dee several weeks to get the book back to me. When she did, it wasn't MY book but a new copy. "Why," I asked concerned for my baby.

"I was reading it while I was cooking, and spilled shrimp juice all over it. Fresh shrimp juice." Now, if you know anything about shrimp juice, you know that it can start smelling after a time. So Dee, being very conscientious, bought me a new copy. Gone were my highlighted areas, exclamation points, and hand written comments. I was devastated. I accepted the new book. Graciously? I still miss No I.

Then, along came The Velvet Hours.  I immediately put my name on the list for checkout at the library. Weeks went by. I couldn't wait, so I ordered a copy. While waiting for delivery, I received a note that I could pick up the book at a branch library. Not wanting to deprived others of the joy of reading the book, I told them to pass it on to the next person on the list.  A few days later my paperback copy arrived. I grabbed my highlighter and sat down to read. The print! My goodness, the print was so small, or else my eyes are failing, that I couldn't read it. I seriously thought of contacting Alyson and asking if the print was 11 pt. or smaller. For me it was unreadable. My husband, tired of hearing about it, ordered me a Kindle copy knowing that I could manipulate the size of the text.

Within the first few pages I wanted to highlight a section but knew I might never find that passage again, so I decided to copy it. Wonder of wonders, I was able to copy and post the desired part to myself on Facebook. I've never done that before, but it is wonderful. Now I have favored passages in a spot I can get to easily.

So, we get to the book. For background, here's the blurb from the book:

"As Paris teeters on the edge of the German occupation, a young French woman closes the door to her late grandmother’s treasure-filled apartment, unsure if she’ll ever return.An elusive courtesan, Marthe de Florian cultivated a life of art and beauty, casting out all recollections of her impoverished childhood in the dark alleys of Montmartre. With Europe on the brink of war, she shares her story with her granddaughter Solange Beaugiron, using her prized possessions to reveal her innermost secrets. Most striking of all are a beautiful string of pearls and a magnificent portrait of Marthe painted by the Italian artist Giovanni Boldini. As Marthe’s tale unfolds, like velvet itself, stitched with its own shadow and light, it helps to guide Solange on her own path.

Inspired by the true account of an abandoned Parisian apartment, Alyson Richman brings to life Solange, the young woman forced to leave her fabled grandmother’s legacy behind to save all that she loved."

How did I like the book? I was slightly, just slightly mind you, disappointed. Don't get me wrong, it is still beautifully written and the characters come to life, but I was not enraptured. I am probably to blame because I have already read two books on this same subject, the recently discovered time-capsule of a courtesan's apartment in Paris.

In Alyson's fictional hand we are given backstory and family history. We come to care about the granddaughter and her past and future. We meet a valuable supportive character, Marthe's maid and caregiver. Even the lover is a sympathetic character as he divides his time between home/wife/son and Marthe. We see how the other half of Paris lives through the story of the fabric of life in Paris for Jewish families during WWII. And we care. About all of them.

Alyson's interest in art of all kinds provides vivid descriptions of the apartment, the granddaughter's apartment, and the Jewish community so different that the courtesan's world. Words and phrases are a treat to read.

Do I recommend the book? Without hesitation, especially if you are just being introduced to the apartment. Read Alyson's book first, then others. Is it her best book? Not in my opinion, but it is still a worthwhile read.

Some of my highlighted quotes from the book:

"I now knew the language of caresses, the music of escalated breath."

"Her pen rolling over the paper as smoothly as skate on ice."

"His voice, almost always clinical now took on a traceable sense of fear in it. I could hear it like an out- of- tune musical note."

"If you only show the top layer of beauty, it becomes flat and two dimensional."

If you do not know Alyson Rickman's books, I highly recommend that you get to know her.

Other books that I have read  by Alyson Richman:
The Lost Wife,
The Garden of Letters
The Rhythm of Memory
The Mask Carver's Son

Don't forget to read The Lost Wife

Sunday, January 15, 2017


When I received this novel from Netgalley for review purposes, I did not know that it was written by the creator of the PBS/Masterpiece series, Victoria. In fact, I did not know there was a PBS series about Queen Victoria planned. Now, I cannot wait until tonight when it premiers in America.

From the books blurb:
"Early one morning, less than a month after her eighteenth birthday, Alexandrina Victoria is roused from bed with the news that her uncle William IV has died and she is now Queen of England. 

The men who run the country have doubts about whether this sheltered young woman, who stands less than five feet tall, can rule the greatest nation in the world. Surely she must rely on her mother and her venal advisor, Sir John Conroy, or her uncle, the Duke of Cumberland, who are all too eager to relieve her of the burdens of power.

The young queen is no puppet, however. She has very definite ideas about the kind of queen she wants to be, and the first thing is to choose her name.
"I do not like the name Alexandrina. From now on I wish to be known only by my second name, Victoria.” 

Everyone keeps saying she is destined to marry her first cousin, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha, but Victoria found him dull and priggish when they met three years ago. She is quite happy being queen with the help of her prime minister, Lord Melbourne, who may be old enough to be her father but is the first person to take her seriously."
Victoria is so well written and engaging that I was unsure of its historical authenticity. That's when I researched the author and learned of her extensive research for the PBS/Masterpiece series. Her work translates beautifully into this novel. 
The characters were so well drawn that there were times I wanted to shake the young queen and times I wanted to shake everyone around her. The dialogue and descriptions were light and easy and moved the story along without effort. 
I was especially curious about her attachment to Lord Melbourne. I knew, of course, that Victoria married Albert, 'the great love of her life,' but Melbourne seemed to forever be in the way of this happening. Perhaps it was all fatherly love and concern and returned the same way to him. Perhaps not, but I was often irritated by both of them and their attachment to each other. But, all was well in the end.
Amanda Foreman sums it up beautifully when she writes, "Victoria is an absolutely captivating novel of youth, love, and the often painful transition from immaturity to adulthood. Daisy Goodwin breathes new life into Victoria's story, and does so with sensitivity, verve, and wit."
Daisy Goodwin, the author, drew from Victoria’s diaries, which she first read as a student at Cambridge University. She has since added extensive research. She is  the author of the bestselling novels The American Heiress and The Fortune Hunter as well as creator and writer of the new PBS/Masterpiece drama Victoria. She effortlessly brings the young queen richly to life in this novel.
The book's publication date is November 22, 2016 from St. Martin's Press. I highly recommend this work.