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Thursday, April 27, 2017

Author Guest Post: Alyssa Palombo

I am very excited to welcome Alyssa Palombo, author of "The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence" here to A Bookish Affair today!

    When I first set out to write the book that would become The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence, I was in a good position, research wise, as I already knew quite a lot about Renaissance Italy. It is a subject/time period I had read about often over the years, just for my own personal knowledge, because I found it so fascinating. It’s a period of history that is rife with violence and political strife just as much as it is with art and innovation. As well, some of history’s most intriguing figures peopled the era: the Borgia family; women of power like Caterina Sforza and Isabella d’Este; the great masters like Botticelli, Michelangelo, and da Vinci; and ruthless politicians like Niccolo Machiavelli and Lorenzo de’ Medici. Figures such as these, and the events that shaped them and were shaped by them, were already well known to me when I started writing my novel.
    As helpful as this background was, though, I still had a lot of work to do. Unlike in The Violinist of Venice, my first novel, this time my heroine, Simonetta Cattaneo Vespucci, was a real-life woman. So, of course, when it came to research I started with her.
    Researching Simonetta proved to be a bit of a frustrating process. Very little is known about her; even her exact year of birth is unknown (in the year in which The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence begins she would have been either fifteen or sixteen; I made her sixteen). We know she married Marco Vespucci (a cousin of Amerigo Vespucci, the explorer who gave his name to the New World) sometime in 1469 (which is where my novel begins), but I could not confirm 100% the location of her wedding. Some sources claimed he married her in Genoa, where she was from, and then brought her to Florence; others claimed that she came to Florence and married him there. It was frustrating to not be able to know such a simple fact for certain, so in the end I just chose the scenario that I liked best and that best fit the story: that she had come to Florence and married him, and that the Medici family hosted their wedding. This may or may not have been what really happened.
    The rest of Simonetta’s life is similarly sketchy. I took the other few facts of her life that I could find – the fact that she and Marco never had children; a joust at which Giuliano de’ Medici, brother of Lorenzo, carried a banner with an image of her that had been painted by Sandro Botticelli; the fact that she was, indeed, hailed as the most beautiful woman in Florence during her lifetime; and the date and manner of her death – and built my story on that framework, along with a few other details, rumors, and anecdotes about her that I found. As I went on with the writing process what I found, though, as that having just these few facts and details could be as freeing as it was frustrating. Since so much was unknown, I could shape her life as I wanted and as best suited the heroine I believed her to be.
    And what’s the best way to find information on obscure historical women? Research the famous men around them, of course. As a result I read a lot about Lorenzo de’ Medici – who is also a character in the novel – and most of the information I did find about Simonetta was in books about Lorenzo or the Medici family in general.
    And, of course, I looked at artwork. Botticelli’s paintings – specifically The Birth of Venus, which depicts Simonetta as Venus – are at the center of this novel, and so I read about the man himself and also spent a lot of time pouring over his gorgeous paintings. In addition to becoming very familiar with the paintings I was writing about, of course, looking at paintings from the period generally was helpful in seeing what clothing and hairstyles people then wore, what buildings and interiors looked like, etc.
    I was fortunate enough to see all of the artwork described in this novel – and some of its settings, like the Medici palace – in person when I went to Florence to do further research. Seeing this artwork and these locations was, of course, invaluable and helped me bring the story to life in a way that just reading about something, I feel, never can. Just as Venice and Vivaldi’s music became characters of their own in The Violinist of Venice, I wanted the same to be true of Florence and Botticelli’s paintings in The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence – and I hope I succeeded!

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Review: The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence: A Story of Botticelli by Alyssa Palombo

Title: The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence: A Story of Botticelli
Author: Alyssa Palombo
Format: Paperback
Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin
Publish Date: April 25, 2017
Source: Publisher

What's the Story?:

From "A girl as beautiful as Simonetta Cattaneo never wants for marriage proposals in 15th Century Italy, but she jumps at the chance to marry Marco Vespucci. Marco is young, handsome and well-educated. Not to mention he is one of the powerful Medici family’s favored circle.

Even before her marriage with Marco is set, Simonetta is swept up into Lorenzo and Giuliano de’ Medici’s glittering circle of politicians, poets, artists, and philosophers. The men of Florence―most notably the rakish Giuliano de’ Medici―become enthralled with her beauty. That she is educated and an ardent reader of poetry makes her more desirable and fashionable still. But it is her acquaintance with a young painter, Sandro Botticelli, which strikes her heart most. Botticelli immediately invites Simonetta, newly proclaimed the most beautiful woman in Florence, to pose for him. As Simonetta learns to navigate her marriage, her place in Florentine society, and the politics of beauty and desire, she and Botticelli develop a passionate intimacy, one that leads to her immortalization in his masterpiece, The Birth of Venus."

My Two Cents:

"The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence" is the story of Simonetta, a woman who men fawn after whenever she walks by. At first she believes she is living a charmed life with a husband who actually adores and loves her and artists like Sandro Botticelli who want to paint her likeness. Looks can be deceiving though as we see in this latest historical fiction offering from Alyssa Palombo. 

You've probably seen pictures of Simonetta. She is the muse for some of Botticelli's most famous paintings. I know I had seen her before but her story as a muse is largely glossed over by Botticelli's talent and renown. I loved how the author was able to take the story of a women who many have seen but few know details about and create a story to introduce us to the person behind the painting. The story does really focus on Simonetta (it is told from her perspective) and not Botticelli. This is one of the great things about historical fiction to me is that it can introduce you to those "behind the scenes."

The writing of the book was good! I loved Palombo's previous book about the famous composer Vivaldi. I didn't like this book quite as much but it is still a very good read. Simonetta has a very real feeling voice and I thought that getting to see the events of the book directly through her eyes was a very effective tool in getting me engaged with the book from the very beginning. This reader can't wait to see what Palombo does next!

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Review: Slightly South of Simple by Kristy Woodson Harvey

Title: Slightly South of Simple
Author: Kristy Woodson Harvey
Format: Ebook
Publisher: Gallery
Publish Date: April 25, 2017 (Today!)
Source: Author

What's the Story?:

From "Caroline Murphy swore she’d never set foot back in the small Southern town of Peachtree Bluff; she was a New York girl born and bred and the worst day of her life was when, in the wake of her father’s death, her mother selfishly forced her to move—during her senior year of high school, no less—back to that hick-infested rat trap where she'd spent her childhood summers. But now that her marriage to a New York high society heir has fallen apart in a very public, very embarrassing fashion, a pregnant Caroline decides to escape the gossipmongers with her nine-year-old daughter and head home to her mother, Ansley.

Ansley has always put her three daughters first, especially when she found out that her late husband, despite what he had always promised, left her with next to nothing. Now the proud owner of a charming waterfront design business and finally standing on her own two feet, Ansley welcomes Caroline and her brood back with open arms. But when her second daughter Sloane, whose military husband is overseas, and youngest daughter and successful actress Emerson join the fray, Ansley begins to feel like the piece of herself she had finally found might be slipping from her grasp. Even more discomfiting, when someone from her past reappears in Ansley's life, the secret she’s harbored from her daughters their entire lives might finally be forced into the open."

My Two Cents:

"Slightly South of Simple" is the story of Ansley and her three daughters. During 9/11, Ansley lost her beloved husband and fled to her grandmother's house in Georgia that she inherited with her three daughters. It was a big change from New York City but the solace she found saved her. Her daughters are now grown with families and lives of their own. They are all fleeing back to Georgia after facing crises of their own. Will they be able to find the same solace?

This is the first book in a planned series. The story mainly focuses on Ansley, the mother, and Caroline, the oldest daughter of the Murphy family. The chapters are split between them so we can see both sides and get to know both characters. I instantly warmed up to Ansley. She has seen a lot in her years and she is trying to use her experience to help her daughters whether they want to admit it or not. Ansley is hiding her own secrets that begin to be unraveled throughout the book and only serve to endear her more to the reader.

Caroline was a harder sell for me. She spends the first part of the book being miserable, spoiled, and selfish. Yes, she is going through a very public divorce. Yes, the divorce happened when she was pregnant but she seems to drag herself into being negative at every turn at first. She is obsessed with how she looks even while pregnant and taking care of another daughter (who she seems to want to pass her own sensitivities to at every turn). Eventually we get to see some growth and realization that there is more to life than what life looks like from the outside of everything but it is a hard wrought lesson.

The relationship between mothers and daughters is an amazing relationship but it can be incredibly difficult as we see in this book. I love reading about these relationships and I love that we get to see the action in the story from both mother and daughter.

This is a light read and is perfect for when you're looking for a book with a lot of heart and a great small town setting!


Monday, April 24, 2017

Review: The Horse Dancer by Jojo Moyes

Title: The Horse Dancer 
Author: Jojo Moyes 
Format: Paperback
Publisher: Penguin Books
Publish Date: April 11, 2017
Source: Publisher

What's the Story?:

From "When Sarah's grandfather gives her a beautiful horse named Boo--hoping that one day she'll follow in his footsteps to join an elite French riding school, away from their gritty London neighborhood--she quietly trains in city's parks and alleys. But then her grandfather falls ill, and Sarah must juggle horsemanship with school and hospital visits.
Natasha, a young lawyer, is reeling after her failed marriage: her professional judgment is being questioned, her new boyfriend is a let-down, and she's forced to share her house with her charismatic ex-husband. Yet when the willful fourteen-year-old Sarah lands in her path, Natasha decides to take the girl under her wing. 

But Sarah is keeping a secret--a secret that will change the lives of everyone involved forever."

My Two Cents: 

"The Horse Dancer" is the story of Tash and Mac and their marriage that is falling apart. It's the story of Sarah, a young teenager, whose grandfather gets sick and threatens to rip apart the only thing that has given her life stability: her love of horseback writing. Told with Moyes' signature heart and memorable characters, this book will drag your heart through the mud and leave you with hope and happiness.

I'm not a horse fan but I am an animal lover. I loved the bond that Sarah had with her horse, Boo. Sarah's grandfather has been a masterful rider in his own day and he passed his love of horses on to Sarah. I really liked how committed Sarah was to Boo and everything that she went through in order to continue practice horseback riding and then on top of it, how much she goes through in order to fix things for Boo.

Moyes is a master at taking the difficult and turning into a really heartwarming story. I love how she is able to turn this on its head - this always make for a super satisfying read! There are a few continuity issues throughout the book and it gets a bit predictable towards the end but because of the ending, it is still satisfying.


Thursday, April 20, 2017

Historical Novel Society Conference 2017

If you have followed this blog for any length of time, you know that I love historical fiction. I love being a member of the Historical Novel Society, in fact, I've been named Queen of my local chapter, the Chesapeake Bay Chapter

HNS has a conference every year. One year, it's in the United States and the next, it's across the pond in England. Unfortunately England is too far away to travel right now with little kids but I have been to the past two HNS conferences in Denver, CO in 2015 and St. Petersburg, FL in 2013. This year, the conference will be in Portland, OR and I'm going again!

I've never been to Portland before and I am so excited to go! Aside from the conference, I am looking forward to visiting Powell's Books and Voodoo Doughnuts

The conference should be amazing! I will be on a panel with Jenny of Historical Editorial and Let Them Read Books and Sarah of Reading the Past talking about book reviews!

One of the events that I am looking most forward to is Hooch through History: from Mead to Martinis. "Take a look at this description: Hooch through History: from Mead to Martinis will offer a tasting flight across the centuries, from the Middle Ages to the Mad Men era of the Swinging Sixties. On Friday from 5:00-6:30, our spirit-ual guide, food and beverage historian Isobel Carr, will lead us through the whats, whys, and wheres of six different period-accurate beverages. Never tasted absinthe before? Don’t know how it’s prepared? Wonder why it was banned and whether it really is an aphrodisiac? You won’t want to miss this! Participants receive a souvenir absinthe spoon as well" Sounds fun, no?

Who else is going to HNS? What else should I do while I am there?

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Review: Schadenfreude, A Love Story by Rebecca Schuman

Title: Schadenfreude, A Love Story
Author: Rebecca Schuman 
Format: Hardcover
Publisher: Flatiron Books
Publish Date: February 7, 2017
Source: Publisher

What's the Story?:

From "You know that feeling you get watching a pompous jerk whine into his cell as he’s booted out of a restaurant? When the elevator doors slide shut just before your sadistic boss can step in beside you? There’s a word for this mix of malice and joy, and the Germans (of course) invented it. It’s Schadenfreude, deriving pleasure from others’ misfortune, and with Slate columnist Rebecca Schuman, the Teutons have a stern, self-satisfied blast at her expense.

Rebecca is just your average chronically misunderstood 90’s teenager, with a passion for Pearl Jam and Ethan Hawke circa Reality Bites, until two men walk into her high school Civics class: Dylan Gellner, with deep brown eyes and an even deeper soul, and Franz Kafka, hitching a ride in Dylan’s backpack. These two men are the axe to the frozen sea that is Rebecca’s spirit, and what flows forth is a passion for all things German (even though, as everyone is quick to remind her, Kafka wasn’t German at all). Dreamy Dylan might leave the second he gets accepted to a better college than Rebecca does, but Kafka is forever, and in pursuit of this elusive love she will spend two decades stuttering and stumbling through broken German sentences, trying to win over a people who don’t want to be bothered."

My Two Cents:

In "Schadenfreude," Rebecca Schuman examines her time as a young person studying abroad in Germany. After being bitten by the language bug and fancying herself a linguistic expert, she goes to Germany where she realizes that she may not be the savant she fancied herself. What ensues is a story of one young woman trying to find her place in the world in a totally different place that she could ever imagine.

Oh, youth! How blind you make us! This book is about the author looking backwards to see how her experience of studying abroad in Germany and studying Germany affected her life and got her to where she is presently. She is initially pushed towards learning German because she falls for a guy in high school who pushes her to read more Kafka than just "The Metamorphosis" and then she decides that she is in love with Kafka (oh, who doesn't remember high school obsessions like that). She realizes how little she knows when she is reminded over and over again that Kafka was not German. 

She paints a picture of someone who doesn't realize that there is anything or anyone outside of herself in the beginning. Slowly her eyes begin to open. She's still naive throughout much of her travels but the past is oh-so-easily viewed in 20/20 vision. The book does get a little repetitive in some places but overall, this was a funny look at an outsider's view of Germany.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Review: Purple Hearts by Tess Wakefield

Title: Purple Hearts
Author: Tess Wakefield
Format: Ebook
Publisher: Atria
Publish Date: April 25, 2017
Source: Publisher

What's the Story?:

From "Cassie Salazar and Luke Morrow couldn’t be more different. Sharp-witted Cassie works nights at a bar in Austin, Texas to make ends meet while pursuing her dream of becoming a singer/songwriter. Luke is an Army trainee, about to ship out for duty, who finds comfort in the unswerving discipline of service. But a chance encounter at Cassie’s bar changes the course of both their lives

Cassie is drowning in medical bills after being diagnosed with diabetes. When she runs into her old friend Frankie, now enlisted in the Army, she proposes a deal: she’ll marry him in exchange for better medical insurance and they can split the increased paycheck that comes with having a “family.” When Frankie declines, his attractive but frustratingly intense friend Luke volunteers to marry Cassie instead. What she doesn’t know is that he has desperate reasons of his own to get married. In this unforgettable love story, Cassie and Luke must set aside their differences to make it look like a real marriage...unless, somewhere along the way, it becomes one.."

My Two Cents:

In "Purple Hearts," Luke is trying to keep old demons at bay and wants to do something with his life. Cassie is reeling after getting a medical diagnosis that threatens to break her financially. On a whim, they join in an agreement where they'll get married so Cassie can use Luke's health benefits from the military. It's an agreement of convenience. Neither of them can imagine how much more than convenience this arrangement will become.

This book takes a very real situation and turns it into a story that explores the emotional implications of going off to war, coming back home again, and what it is like to be struck with something manageable that threatens your way of life nonetheless. I liked how real the author made this feel. In light of some of the questions in our political system recently, I thought it was interesting how the author gave a face to people who struggle with medical insurance coverage. It certainly made this book feel timely.

I really liked the realistic way that this book was written. The author has a knack for writing conversation. The book is narrated by both Cassie and Luke. I loved getting to see both sides of the story. You get a lot of insight into what makes the characters tick. I loved their relationship. Even though you see the ending coming from far away, because you get to know the characters so well, you are still cheering.

Overall, this is a good, romantic take on some very modern challenges!

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