New Read: Peach Blossom Pavilion

Several years ago now, I snapped up this exotic, historical fiction, Peach Blossom Pavilion by Mingmei Yip, when it was being offered for free on Amazon (UK). However since then it has sadly lay neglected on my Kindle, even though I was excited to read it! That was until now, as taking part in the What’s in a Name 2018 reading challenge encouraged me to finally pick it up.

On doing so I was swept back to China, at the turn of century, where young Xiang Xiang’s father is falsely accused of a terrible crime by a powerful war lord and is brutally executed. The dishonour forces her mother to enter a Buddhist nunnery, so Xiang Xiang is left in the care of a distant relative, who takes her to the Peach Blossom Pavilion. There she is well fed, clothed and schooled in music, literature, painting and calligraphy, but also, to her innocent surprise, the art of pleasuring men. For the beautiful Pavilion is in fact an elite house of prostitution. Now to repay all that care and training she must sell her skin and smiles to the filthy, rich chou nanrens.

From a sunny California apartment, this riveting story is revealed as Xiang Xiang, now an old lady, is questioned by her great-granddaughter and her fiancée about how she rose from a childhood of shame to become Precious Orchid: one of the richest, most celebrated Ming Ji or “prestigious courtesan” in all of China. And it is a tumultuous tale unlike any they’ve heard before… Filled with deceit, abuse, friendship, suffering, love, loss, politics, danger and daring escapes. Through it all though Xiang Xiang/Precious Orchid never gives up on her dreams to escape; be reunited with her mother; avenge her father’s death and find true love.

In Xiang Xiang/Precious Orchid the author, Mingmei Yip, has created a well rounded and believable heroine – I just had to feel for this sweet, naïve young girl, who through so much heartache and hardship grows into a clever, strong woman. Though there is a selfish streak to her, it was forgivable as it was a product of her treatment. And through her eyes Yip was able to beautifully evoke China of the 1900s and the life at the Pavilion, with its sensual silk gowns; mouth-watering food; traditional tea service; the opera, arts and festivals; faith and the start of western influence.

All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed getting lost in the exotic setting and heart breaking tale of Peach Blossom Pavilion. After reading this I would be interested in reading more by Mingmei Yip. Good read.

Have you read this? Or any other historical fiction set in China?

I have included this book in my What’s in a Name 2018 reading challenge, as a title with a fruit or vegetable in it. (2/5)


New Read: Queen of Hearts, Volume 3: War of the Cards

I really can’t believe that it was back in 2014 that I read the fantastic Volume 1: The Crown and Volume 2: The Wonder of Colleen Oakes’ twisted YA Wonderland re-imagining, Queen of Hearts. Finally, three years, a new publisher and republications of the earlier two volumes later, we have the concluding part, Volume 3: War of the Cards! (Warning: this will probably contain spoilers for the earlier volumes).

In this final volume, we re-join Dinah, the exiled princess of Wonderland, as she marches her fractious army of Spades and Yurkei warriors on to the palace of Wonderland. Where her father, the cruel King of Hearts, and his deadly army of Hearts await for a final, bloody showdown. Although gripped by fear and doubt, Dinah is propelled on by a burning rage that seeks revenge for the brutal murder of her beloved brother Charles and to claim the throne which is rightfully hers. But an inner battle rages within Dinah too – with such all-consuming love and fury can she be the ruler the kingdom needs? Or will her tumultuous nature bring Wonderland to its knees?

Through-out this trilogy, I have been fascinated to watch our young, head-strong and rebellious protagonist grow and survive through so many harsh trials and tribulations. Now she is a strong, brave woman with such high expectations on her shoulders to be a strong, wise and victorious leader. I couldn’t help but to continue to pity her in this book. However Dinah is an imperfect character. In particular, in this conclusion, there is one absolutely horrific incident, which, while I could sympathise with how she came to feel so hurt and angry, I could never condone her terrible reaction. If only she could hear me shouting stop!

Although if Dinah didn’t have a darker side to her, she wouldn’t be a very convincing Queen of Hearts now would she! And I do have to praise Oakes’ better fleshed out and more realistic take on the quintessential characters of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, such as Cheshire, the royal advisor; the Caterpillar, a Yurkei witch-doctor and Charles, the Mad Hatter. Also I loved Oakes’ clever twists on the classic elements of the cards, magical food and the Jabberwocky. Even though I went into this knowing what should become of Dinah, Oakes was still able to generate tension, throw me some real curve balls and leave me with a hopeful note.

All in all, I thought War of the Cards was a fitting and very satisfying ending to this clever and refreshing re-imagining of Wonderland. It was worth the wait! After enjoying this and her Wendy Darling series, I am interested to see what Oakes will do next. Great read.

Thank you to the publishers for providing a copy of this book via NetGalley in exchange for my honest opinion.

Have you read this? Or any other re-imaginings of classic tales?

I am also including this book towards my What’s in a Name 2018 reading challenge, as a title with a shape in it. (1/5)

New Read: God’s Smuggler

As a practicing Christian, I like to read Christian literature to help with the growth of my faith and I am very lucky that my church has it’s own book club to help me with this. In February, we read The Case for Grace by New York Times bestselling author Lee Strobel. Next up was a classic of Christian literature, God’s Smuggler by Brother Andrew (with John and Elizabeth Sherrill).

First published here in the UK back in 1968, God’s Smuggler tells the inspiring tale of a young, poor Dutchman, Andrew van der Bijl, who following the rise of Communism after WWII finds himself called to help the Christians trapped behind the Iron Curtain. As a child he dreamt of being a spy, as a man he worked undercover for God: smuggling first a few, then hundreds, then thousands of Bibles across dangerous borders into needy hands. Relying not on his own ingenuity or luck, but on the miraculous ways of God to provide and protect him. At certain points, this true story reads more like a page-turning thriller! I was left in awe of his exploits and tremendous faith.

In the six decades since Andrew’s solo mission to Communist countries of Eastern Europe and China, covered in this book, his vision grew to become the organisation Open Doors, that is still serving millions of persecuted Christians in over fifty countries to this day. Following the success of this book Andrew found himself blacklisted from Communist countries and so he expanded his mission out to the Middle East, Africa, Asia and India, which is discussed in the epilogue by Al Janssen in my 60th anniversary edition.

When my church’s book club met to discuss this there was a general feeling of awe and inspiration from reading it. Although one member shared that Andrew’s courageous adventures made him feel like an inadequate Christian. However if you feel like this too, I would say that in this story there were also many more Christians who – while not physically going out in the mission – provided money, support, encouragement, resources and prayer without which Andrew’s mission could never have happened. I think God has a specific role, best suited to all of us, and all roles, big or small, done in the name of Lord are important.

Overall, I thought God’s Smuggler was an inspiring and thrilling tale of one man’s truly awesome faith and mission, which also made for a wonderful discussion point at my book club meeting. Our next read is Vanishing Grace by Philip Yancey. Great read.

Have you read this? Or heard of Brother Andrew, his mission or Open Doors?

New Read: The Red Queen

After loving The White Queen about Elizabeth Woodville last year, I was very eager to continue reading Philippa Gregory’s popular Cousins’ War series. In which, Gregory retells the bloody rivalry between the Houses of York and Lancaster, what we now call the War of the Roses, through the eyes of the indomitable women caught up in it all; and in this book, The Red Queen, Gregory switches sides to Margaret Beaufort, the Queen Mother of Henry VII.

As a Lancastrian and the heir to the Beaufort fortune, Margaret becomes the prized child-bride of Edmund Tudor, the half-brother of Henry VI. But after becoming a young widow and mother, Margaret goes on to endure, with unwavering faith and determination, two more love-less marriages, the dramatic downfall of her house and the rise of her enemies: the Yorks. Whilst feigning friendship, firstly for the golden Edward IV and then his usurper brother Richard III, she secretly plots to restore her only son, Henry Tudor, and thus the Lancastrian line to their rightful place on the throne of England.

I love that Gregory has chosen to tell this series from the perspective of the women: the secret, often silenced but no less important players in these wars of men. And boy was Margaret a big player in this game of politics, war and rivalry, with her wily, secret machinations, plotting and changing alliances. However, while I found this all absolutely fascinating to read about, I found Margaret to be a thoroughly unlikeable character! So unlikeable that she made me feel sympathy for the deeply proud and ambitious Elizabeth Woodville, who seemed to genuinely hold out the hand of friendship to her.

Of course I started with much sympathy for the strikingly pious little girl, who, as a disappointing female heir, is packed off to marry a stranger twice her age. Only for her to be widowed and pregnant a year later at just thirteen years old! It is only Margaret’s strong faith in God and the belief she has been specially chosen by Him that sees her through all this. While I would usually find such piety admirable, Margaret’s faith is portrayed as the hypocritical, ‘holier than thou’ sort, which sees her care nothing for who is hurt or killed to see herself raised to the position she believes she deserves.

Which again cleverly gives Gregory an opportunity to explore the mystery of ‘the princes in the Tower’? In this book, Gregory fully airs her well-educated conjectures that Margaret and her self-serving third husband, Lord Stanley, had the opportunity, the motive and perhaps the most to gain from this despicable deed. So there is definitely more dark than light in this portrayal of Margaret, but at the same time I had some begrudging admiration for her. Simply because a weaker, gentler woman wouldn’t have survived to see her son to adulthood, let alone placed a crown upon his head, so hat’s off again to Gregory for another strong, completely believable character.

Overall, I thought The Red Queen was another brilliantly written and researched piece of historical fiction, which, while it lacked the romance and magic I loved from The White Queen, it did grip me from beginning to end!  I look forward to reading the next book in the series: The Lady of the Rivers, about Jacquetta Luxembourg, the mother of Elizabeth Woodville. Great read.

Have you read this? Or anything else by Philippa Gregory?

New Read: Hazard of Shadows

Finally, I got round to reading Hazard of Shadows by Mike Phillips, the second book in Phillip’s Chronicles of the Goblin King series, after I read the first book, The World Below a couple of years ago now! (While this is the second book I think you could read this as a stand-alone book, as there is plenty of throwback information from the first book).

This book returns us to a world where enchanted creatures of legend still exist, hidden away from an age of camera phones and government labs in a secret, rubbish-tip metropolis, in caves and tunnels below the human streets. After over-throwing the nasty Baron Finkbeiner, Lady Elizabeth’s champion, Mitch Hardy is the new leader of The World Below, where he hopes to introduce law, order and democracy. However unbeknownst to them all, the ancient faerie, Lord Stokelas and his minions seek to revenge the death of the Baron and recover the mysterious Blade of Caro. Soon Mitch and his friends will be fighting for their lives and freedom against a pack of hellish monsters.

I really enjoyed catching up with Mitch, Elizabeth and the cheeky goblin crew, who are still up to their funny tricks. Most of the story is still told from Mitch’s perspective, but also intermittently from the point-of-view of a new character, Simon Beene, who is a dangerous faerie recently escaped from Lady Elizabeth’s splinter world prison for him. While Beene is not a very pleasant fellow, it is interesting to read about his creepy antics. On top of that we also have a fun, colourful cast of other characters, including: trolls, ogres, minotaurs, weres, vampires and of course a few oblivious humans!

Again, like The World Below, I thought this was written in a fun, edgy style with some good magical elements and creatures; and while there were still some small typos issues they were far less frequent than before. However something new I noticed – and not in a good way – was how the author felt the need to describe the size of every female characters’ breasts! Which I could understand coming from sleazy Simon Beene, but it seemed to bleed over to every male character, including good guy Mitch! Fortunately I was invested enough in the story and characters to read on.

Overall, I thought Hazard of Shadows was another fun and light adventure in a magical world below our feet, but if the odd, new breast obsession continues I am unsure whether I would read the rest of the series. Okay read.

Thank you to the author for providing a copy of this book in exchange for my honest opinion.

Have you read this? Have you enjoyed other urban fantasy books?

New Read: This Side of Paradise

Some years ago now I won a beautiful set of Alma Classics’ reprints of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s four novels. Since then I have slowly worked my way through them. Starting with, undoubtedly the most famous, The Great Gatsby, followed by Tender is the Night and The Beautiful and Damned. Having struggled with the generally unlikeable characters, it was with some trepidation that I picked up the final book in my set: This Side of Paradise.

Fitzgerald’s debut novel, This Side of Paradise, was published in 1920 and was an instant critical and commercial success. It charts the life of Amory Blaine, an ambitious young man loosely based on the author himself, who grows up in a well-heeled Midwest home, boards at St Regis’ and then goes on to study at Princeton, where he starts frequenting the circles of high society as an aspiring writer. However as Amory experiences failure and frustrations in his college work, love life and his career, his youthful enthusiasm gradually descends into disillusionment, cynicism and a life of idle dissolution.

Unfortunately my fears were proved to be correct: Amory Blaine is not a particularly likeable character… From the start he is an odd, lonely and aloof child, due a lot to his unusual relationship with his mother, who he is always refers to as Beatrice. When a kindly professor at St Regis’ tries to advise him on making friends he scornfully refuses his help, because he sees himself as above his peers. Then in Princeton his egotistical traits just flourish! However during this time he does make friends with the outgoing Kerry Holiday; Kerry’s hardworking brother Burne, and the diligent writer Tom D’Invilliers.

Sadly many of his friendships dwindle and disappear, as Amory can’t seem to make decisive decisions and refuses to believe he may need to change or adapt. This is much the same reason for his doomed love affairs too. First with the vacuous Isabelle; then the virtuous Clara; next the spoilt Rosalind and finally, the rebellious, maybe a little unhinged, Eleanor. Although I must admit I found it all quite gripping – particularly by the genuine love that Amory shared with Rosalind and the terrible choice that she had to make for both their sakes.

Of course there is reason for our unlikeable Amory, his heartache and his feckless, high living: Fitzgerald was writing a critical account of the era he was living in. While to us looking back the Jazz Age is a time of glamour, glitz and hedonism, Fitzgerald digs deeper under the thin, superficial veneer to the darker side beneath. Here are the themes of disillusionment, addiction and depression that would go on to feature in all his major works. All of which is brought to life in some beautiful prose, but for me to love it I just needed a little ray of hope. Instead I reached the end to find no real hope or resolution for poor Amory!

In conclusion, I thought This Side of Paradise was a beautifully written, sometimes gripping, satirical portrait of the golden Jazz Age. While I don’t think Fitzgerald’s work is really for me, I am glad I persevered because these are important works of literature and social commentary. Okay read.

Have you read this? Or any of Fitzgerald’s other novels? Fan or not?

This is book 1/50 for my Classics Club II reading challenge.

New Read: Katherine of Aragon, The True Queen

Back in March, I finally got round to reading Six Tudor Queens: Katherine of Aragon, The True Queen, the first book in an ambitious six-book series from bestselling author and acclaimed historian Alison Weir, in which each novel will chronicle the lives of each of Henry VIII’s six wives.

In this captivating opening volume, Weir takes us back to 1501 to start the tumultuous tale of Katherine of Aragon: Henry VIII’s first, devoted wife. Who was sent to England, at the tender-age of sixteen, by her powerful parents, Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, as a prized-bride for Henry VII’s son and heir, Arthur. But tragically five months later Arthur is dead and Katherine is left a young widow and stranger in a foreign land. Although Henry VII quickly betroths her to his younger son, Henry, she must wait eight agonising years for him to come-of-age, during which time she is a virtual prisoner at the mercy of an ambitious, fickle and penny-pinching king.

So I rejoiced with her when, on the death of Henry VII in 1509, her patience is rewarded as the young, handsome, celebrated Prince Henry takes the throne and comes to claim her as his wife. Saving her from deprivation and raising her to the exulted position of Queen of England. The affection between them is genuine and they are happy for a good fifteen years, but multiple heart-breaking miscarriages, still births and infant deaths takes a huge toll on their marriage. Then Henry falls in love with the bewitching Anne Boleyn and to have her he is prepared to rend asunder his marriage, the church and even his country.

I have always felt sorry for Katherine, but reading this I also felt some awe too. Till the bitter end she loves her husband and refuses to step aside or to renounce their marriage or daughter as illegitimate. Instead she bravely holds to that her marriage to Arthur was never consummated and so she is Henry’s only true wife and queen. Enraged Henry banishes Katherine and devastatingly parts her bit-by-bit from all she loves. I was on the verge of tears, when she finally passed, quietly and peacefully, knowing she had done all she could for her conscience. And it is a telling testament to her character that her servants and the English people loved and never forsook her.

In bringing this emotional-rollercoaster of a story alive, Weir has kept closely to historical records, but of course has had to take some dramatic licence to flesh out minor characters and fill in any gaps. As always though Weir’s research and imagination meld seamlessly to create a completely believable tale. And through the eyes of Katherine we are given a very personal and intimate perspective on the lost Tudor world of splendour, power, brutality and courtly love, which Weir has evoked perfectly through all the sights, textures, sounds and smells of the age.

Overall, I thought Katherine of Aragon, The True Queen was a powerful tale of a courageous woman, that completely immersed me into tumultuous Tudor England. Now I can’t wait to read volume two: Anne Boleyn, A King’s Obsession, especially as Anne, not surprisingly, wasn’t painted favourable in this first volume. Great read.

Have you read this? Or any of Alison Weir’s other novels?