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review 2017-01-25 22:53
A Portrait of Emily Price by Katherine Reay
A Portrait of Emily Price - Katherine Reay

Art restorer Emily Price has never encountered anything she can’t fix—until she meets Ben, an Italian chef, who seems just right. But when Emily follows Ben home to Italy, she learns that his family is another matter . . . Emily Price—fix-it girl extraordinaire and would-be artist—dreams of having a gallery show of her own. There is no time for distractions, especially not the ultimate distraction of falling in love. But Chef Benito Vassallo’s relentless pursuit proves hard to resist. Visiting from Italy, Ben works to breathe new life into his aunt and uncle’s faded restaurant, Piccollo. Soon after their first meeting, he works to win Emily as well—inviting her into his world and into his heart. Emily astonishes everyone when she accepts Ben’s proposal and follows him home. But instead of allowing the land, culture, and people of Monterello to transform her, Emily interferes with everyone and everything around her, alienating Ben’s tightly knit family. Only Ben’s father, Lucio, gives Emily the understanding she needs to lay down her guard. Soon, Emily’s life and art begin to blossom, and Italy’s beauty and rhythm take hold of her spirit.

Yet when she unearths long-buried family secrets, Emily wonders if she really fits into Ben’s world. Will the joys of Italy become just a memory, or will Emily share in the freedom and grace that her life with Ben has shown her are possible?

Amazon.com

 

 

Art restorer Emily Price is sent on a business trip to Atlanta, Georgia to help an Italian family revive some of their family heirlooms. It's there that she meets Benito (Ben) Vassallo, the nephew of her clients, newly arrived from Italy. He's temporarily staying with his aunt and uncle while he helps them try to breathe life back into their restaurant, which has quietly but steadily losing business of late. As their respective areas of work have them frequently running into each other, they find themselves caught up in a whirlwind romance with each other. Ben spontaneously proposes to Emily, she agrees with equal spontaneity, and within hours they're on a patch of grass getting married by the nearest justice of the peace they could find!

 

The newlyweds fly off to Benito's hometown of Montevello, Italy (back cover synopsis mistakenly has it as "Monterello") where it doesn't take long for some of the luster to fall off the rose.  Sure, Emily found almost immediate love & friendship in the arms of Ben, but it won't be so easy when it comes to his family. She quickly starts to feel very much out of her element. Though Emily tries to make herself as amiable and helpful as possible at every turn, it just seems like anything she attempts she royally ruins. Ben feels bad for her, things are not unfolding quite as he envisioned either... but he has his own special blend of stress, being caught in between a sense of loyalty to his family as well as to his new wife. Even outside of the shock of Ben coming back married, the family has additional sources of stress and strife they're all trying to work through. It's a rocky homecoming all around!

 

Emily becomes concerned with her developing feelings of alienation from the rest of the family. That is, until she finds herself surprisingly bonding with Ben's quiet father, Lucio. But is having one ally other than her husband enough to make forever work?

 

This is only the second of Katherine Reay's works that I've picked up. I was surprised to find how deep some of the themes in this one got, as I remember the first book I tried -- The Bronte Plot -- was cute but as far as meat in the story, didn't really get too deep past surface level coziness & fluff.

 

Ben was quite the charmer and will likely have the "hopeless romantic" type readers of all ages swooning, even if just a little bit. :-) I liked that Ben had layers to his character. He could be a charming flirt one minute but the next could just as easily show some serious emotional turmoil, trying to hold the family together. It was also nice to see that his love for Emily was not rash or merely physical, he was honestly always about her well-being, making her as comfortable and appreciated as possible at all times. Who's not going to want to get to know a character like that! I also awwed over the relationship between Ben's parents, Lucio and Donata. Donata could be a fiesty one, a bit of a prickly exterior, but around Lucio? A big ol' bowl of melted butter. And Lucio always seemed to know just how to round off her sharp edges when Donata had her claws out. The sense of warmth, patience and love that radiated between them was a real joy to experience. 

 

The symbolism of the sunflowers was the standout take-away for me. I love the idea of the field of girasoli (Italian for sunflower), where Ben explains to Emily that one has to allow them to turn to the light on their own. If you force it, you snap the stem and potentially kill the flower. 

 

"Girasoli - Piovene Rocchette, Vicenza" by Renzo Pietribiasi

 image from Trek Earth

 

 

All in all, I'd deem this a fun read for lovers of Italian food, culture or landscape. Author Katherine Reay does a nice job having her characters make connections between the layering of art and the layering of culinary flavors, as well as the overall importance of always coming back to that strong family bond. You're bound to have a good time getting to know Ben's clan! :-)

 

 

FTC Disclaimer: TNZ Fiction Guild kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book & requested that I check it out and share my thoughts. The opinions above are entirely my own.

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review 2017-01-19 05:13
The Confessions of X by Suzanne M. Wolfe
The Confessions of X - Suzanne M. Wolfe

Before he became a father of the Christian Church, Augustine of Hippo loved a woman whose name has been lost to history. This is her story. She met Augustine in Carthage when she was seventeen. She was the poor daughter of a mosaic-layer; he was a promising student and heir to a fortune. His brilliance and passion intoxicated her, but his social class would be forever beyond her reach. She became his concubine, and by the time he was forced to leave her, she was thirty years old and the mother of his son. And his Confessions show us that he never forgot her. She was the only woman he ever loved. In a society in which classes rarely mingle on equal terms, and an unwed mother can lose her son to the burgeoning career of her ambitious lover, this anonymous woman was a first-hand witness to Augustine’s anguished spiritual journey from secretive religious cultist to the celebrated Bishop of Hippo. Giving voice to one of history’s most mysterious women, The Confessions of X tells the story of Augustine of Hippo’s nameless lover, their relationship before his famous conversion, and her life after his rise to fame. A tale of womanhood, faith, and class at the end of antiquity, The Confessions of X is more than historical fiction . . . it is a timeless story of love and loss in the shadow of a theological giant.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

Between the years 397 - 400 AD, St. Augustine of Hippo released his multi-volume memoir Confessions. Within the pages of the early passages, he makes mention of a woman who was quite important to him prior to his church life, but the woman remains unnamed except for when he calls her "Una" -- The One. In The Confessions of X, Suzanne Wolfe imagines who that woman might have been, what she might have been like, and what might have transpired to have this mystery female part ways with Augustine.  

 

In this novel, the woman remains officially unnamed though she is given nicknames by some, such as her best friend Nebridius. Their first meeting was at the town creek when they were small children, so he gives her the nickname Naiad (Greek for "spirit of the river") while she calls him Nereus (jokingly meaning "wet one" but also name of a Greek god of the sea).

 

Augustine and his special lady meet when they are 17, both being friends of Nebridius. They have a whirlwind romance but their relationship faces a major roadblock. Augustine is from a privileged family and heir to a great fortune while X is the daughter of a humble mosaic artist. In fact, X's father has her living with his sister since he struggles with drinking and gambling addictions. Tough sell for a man in Augustine's position, but he feels true love for X so he presents her with the best situation he can offer her -- no official marriage, but instead a position as his concubine.

 

It had cost me nothing; it was to cost me all.

 

In that era, the role of concubine was a little different than what we imagine when that word comes up now; back then it was more like vowing yourself into a common-law marriage via commitment ceremony... spiritually powerful but not as legally binding. In fact, under the concubine arrangement, in the case of a break up, the man would automatically get full custody of any children he sired, while the woman would basically be out on her rear. 

 

X bears Augustine a son and they have many content years together. Neighbors seem stunned at just how cozy & lovey-dovey the couple remains as the years continue to pass. But there is a restlessness to Augustine's spirit that X cannot seem to calm. X packs up their home and moves the family from Carthage, Africa to the bustling city of Rome, hoping Augustine's heels would cool once he got settled into a more academically satisfying community. Hard as she tried though, nothing seemed to answer his need quite enough. When she overhears one of his colleagues whispering that X may be playing a part in Augustine being held back professionally, she makes the choice to exit out of his life at the age of 30, returning to Carthage so that he might make a advantageous and official marriage with someone within his class. But as history buffs know, Augustine goes on to choose the church over another woman. 

 

I'm new to the writing of author Suzanne Wolfe, though she's had a few books out prior to this one. This novel though... WOW. Her descriptions of this world are so palpable! This is one of those books you have to be willing to take slow because there is A LOT of detail to take in and while you might feel a little worn out in the process taking it all in, it's all worth it. There's one heck of a story here! I can't imagine processing the kind of painful decisions X was pushed to make multiple times over the course of her life. I just picture this woman with a shattered heart that never found a way to entirely heal but somehow she pushes through and carries on.

 

Although the roots may be in darkness the flower grows toward the light. Root and flower are one, not separate.

 

The story isn't all heartbreak though! There are some loving scenes between Augustine and X that are alternately beautifully deep and sometimes tragic but also sweet, adorable, even hilarious in parts. I had a good laugh over one scene where X is talking with her friend Neith, the mother of a large herd of children. X just has her one son. Neith hypothesizes that X's love of books is just a band-aid for her pain, an odd side effect from struggling to conceive again, shrugs it off with "you'll soon be cured." The reader is then given a glimpse into X's inner thoughts, the memory of how the birth of her son very nearly killed her, making her think that maybe she doesn't WANT to be cured of reading! X-D

 

This gorgeous bit of historical fiction gave me a glimpse into a time & place I've admittedly read very little about -- the Romans in Carthage, Africa. Weird how it's hard to think of Romans outside of Rome but this novel reminded me of the true scope of the Roman Empire. History aside, I also fell in love with all these unique characters -- not just Augustine and X but also all their friends, neighbors and colleague who had small but important influences on their day to day life decisions. These characters were wonderfully alive and I eagerly look forward to exploring more of Wolfe's work! 

 

FTC Disclaimer: TNZ Fiction Guild kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book & requested that I check it out and share my thoughts. The opinions above are entirely my own.

 

_____

 

Extras

 

A couple of new-to-me vocab words I took away from this novel:

 

 

Anchorite = a religious recluse

 

Suborn = to subhorn is to bribe someone to commit a crime

 

"The Latin word that gave us suborn in the early part of the 16th century is subornare, which translates literally as "to secretly furnish or equip."

~ from merriam-webster.com

 

 

 

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review 2016-10-15 00:15
Galileo's Daughter by Dava Sobel
Galileo's Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith and Love - Dava Sobel

Inspired by a long fascination with Galileo, and by the remarkable surviving letters of his daughter Maria Celeste, a cloistered nun, Dava Sobel has crafted a biography that dramatically recolors the personality and accomplishments of a mythic figure whose early-seventeenth-century clash with Catholic doctrine continues to define the schism between science and religion-the man Albert Einstein called "the father of modern physics-indeed of modern science altogether." It is also a stunning portrait of Galileo's daughter, a person hitherto lost to history, described by her father as "a woman of exquisite mind, singular goodness, and most tenderly attached to me." Moving between Galileo's grand public life and Maria Celeste's sequestered world, Sobel illuminates the Florence of the Medicis and the papal court in Rome during the pivotal era when humanity's perception of its place in the cosmos was about to be overturned. During that same time, while the bubonic plague wreaked its terrible devastation and the Thirty Years' War tipped fortunes across Europe, Galileo sought to reconcile the Heaven he revered as a good Catholic with the heavens he revealed through his telescope. Filled with human drama and scientific adventure, Galileo's Daughter is an unforgettable story.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

Likely you're already pretty familiar with the name Galileo Galilei, but if not, here's a rundown for you. Galileo is now known as being one of the most famous (possibly THE most famous?) astronomers and mathematicians of the 17th century. His work and studies also earned him the titles of physicist, inventor, and professor (teaching courses in mathematics and military architecture at various Italian universities, even teaching some of the Medici children for a time).

 

 

What Galileo might be more well known for now is him being placed under indefinite house arrest after being so bold as to come out and proclaim that the universe might, in fact, NOT revolve around Earth. He goes on to say that not only Earth but all the other planets rotate around the sun! GASP! We can laugh now, having centuries to benefit from being privy to astounding advancements in the field of astronomy, but back in Galileo's day, his statement was considered full on heresy. Funny thing though, he wasn't even the first guy to put forth the idea! In the year 1600, just a year before Galileo's first daughter, Virginia (the daughter referenced in Sobel's title), was born, Friar Giordano Bruno posed the same idea. Know what happened to him? BURNED AT THE STAKE. Church was not having your new fangled scientific theories back then.

 

In Galileo's case, he was a deeply devout Catholic, but he was also a firm supporter of the ideas of Copernicus, one example being when Galileo took on Monsignor Francesco Ignoli, Secretary of the Congregation of Propogation Of The Faith (imagine trying to order letterhead for that office!). In a letter addressed to Galileo, Ignoli relentlessly bashed all of Copernicus' major points. At first Galileo chose to not respond. Not wanting to "feed the trolls" as us in the online crowd commonly like to call it, he initially didn't see much point in offering a comeback. But when he started to notice that his silence was being interpreted as acceptance of Ignoli's views, THEN Galileo felt compelled to set the record straight. 

 

from Galileo's response letter to Monsignor Ignoli

 

Galileo sent off his 50 page "Reply to Ignoli" to friends and family in Rome in October of 1624. Curiously, because of lengthy delays caused by changes Prince Cesi and other Roman colleagues wished to insert for prudence's sake, the "Reply to Ignoli" never reached Ignoli himself. A few manuscript copies circulated cautiously around Rome, however, and the pope was treated to at least a partial private reading in December. No explosion erupted from Urban in reaction to the "Reply". Indeed, His Holiness remarked on the aptness of its examples and experiments. And therefore, no apparent obstacle stood in the way of Galileo's expressing the same ideas in a book, which he now envisioned as a playlike discussion among a group of fictional friends, with the working title "Dialogue on the Tides"

~ from Galileo's Daughter by Dava Sobel

 

By June 1630, Dialogue on the Tides was approved for publication, but with stipulations. Galileo was informed that the pope disliked the working title, and the preface and ending must be altered to reflect the pope's philosophy on science which meant that Galileo's text needed to have a more obvious lean toward "the mysterious omnipotence of God", as Sobel phrases it. Didn't matter what Galileo was proving or disproving with scientific fact. The back and forth on the stipulations caused the actual publication of Galileo's book to be delayed until February 1632. Nearly 2 years of haggling! Even with negotiations, being approved for publication, all of that... the Vatican was not pleased with the final product. In fact, they were so upset, by September of 1632 an order was sent out for the book to cease being sold and Galileo got summons from his local Inquisition panel. Galileo's health was extremely frail during this time, his doctors even advising that he not be moved from his home, but the Vatican's response to the news was that either Galileo show his face willingly or prepare to come in in shackles. Seeing no other choice but to submit, Galileo made his travel arrangements but not without first making sure his will was up to date!

 

During his Inquisition interviews, Galileo admitted that he went back and read over the text after publication and found holes in some of his reasonings, areas that lacked sufficient scientific proof. (BTW, Sobel's book here includes a transcript of Galileo's actual testimony during those interviews). Even so, the then 70 year old and sickly Galileo was still charged with heresy and given indefinite house arrest. Interestingly though, even with this verdict, there were three men on the deciding panel who REFUSED to sign their names to the written verdict! It is rumored that Galileo muttered "but it still moves" under his breath after signing his own name to the affidavit, but Sobel argues that Galileo wouldn't have been so stupid as to say such a thing in front of a group of men who held such power over his life at that moment (though I have to admit, if it DID happen, that would've been pretty badass of the guy!).

 

As for the book itself, Dialogue of the Tides (the "working" title stayed put through all this) was placed on the Index of Prohibited Books in 1664 and remained there for nearly 200 years. Still, copies of the work traveled through various black markets across Europe (an English translation was even printed up in 1661). Though under house arrest, Galileo continued to offer tutoring / mentorship services within his home and went on to write more books on theories of motion and mechanics. The Two New Sciences was published in 1638. It was weeks before he was sent his own copy but by then his struggles with cataracts & glaucoma had become too much of a problem for him to be able to read much of anything. It's been speculated by some historians (going by the scientist's surviving correspondence where he describes struggles with constant pain) that in his later years he may also struggled with gout, rheumatoid arthritis, kidney stones, hernia issues, chronic eye infections and insomnia (probably as a result from all the physical pain!) before finally succumbing to death in January 1642.

 

All this on Galileo, why haven't I mentioned the daughter yet? Well, truthfully I have a bit of an issue with this book having the title Galileo's Daughter because in actuality much of what I read was just about the man himself; scenes of the daughter being interjected here and there but not as strongly as one might presume judging from this title. In fact, Sobel barely references the daughter in this title  -- except to mention her birth and taking her convent vows -- until about 100 pages in. We get to know her a bit and then she frequently pops back out of the spotlight except through excerpts of her letters to her father from time to time. But here is what I gathered about this woman largely lost to history (but less so than her siblings!): Galileo's eldest daughter, born Virginia, was the eldest of three illegitimate children Galileo fathered. Because Galileo never married Virginia's mother, Virginia herself was deemed "unmarriageable", so it was decided she would join convent life. Thanks dad!

 

  

 

It's all good though. Virginia actually took quite well to the nunnery, being placed with the Florentine order of the Poor Clares at the age of 13; the Poor Clares being a sisterhood of voluntary extreme poverty. Extreme even by "took an oath of poverty" standards. Not only were their habits made of the roughest material, but their meager pantries were kept to only what was absolutely necessary for survival. It was not uncommon for sisters to be bordering on starvation in order to feel closer to God. In the days of Sister Clare herself, the Vatican actually feared the woman WOULD starve herself to death!

 

Virginia took the name Sister Celeste as a nod to her father's work and general love of stars, which she greatly admired. The strong bond between Galileo and his eldest was largely due to Celeste being the most curious and intelligent (in his opinion) of his children. Another of Galileo's daughters, Livia, also joined the same convent shortly after her sister, taking the wickedly cool name Sister Arcangela, but had much more of a struggle acclimating to the environment. Many of Celeste's letters in this book make brief mention of Livia's somewhat morose attitude most days, one letter plainly stating "Livia is already displaying a morbid tendency to melancholy and withdrawal that would shade her adult personality." Livia's struggles made me feel for her and also made me more curious about her in general but sadly Sobel doesn't go into much detail about this daughter, perhaps just because there's even less about her than Celeste.

 

While I found Celeste's letters interesting, I was surprised at how few were actually included in this book, seeing as how the synopsis references how Sobel "crafts a narrative from 124 surviving letters between father and daughter." Sister Celeste seemed like a woman with a good bit of depth too her but I also felt like she was sometimes WAY too hard on herself, in some letters referring to herself as someone of "meager intelligence" or writing to her father to profusely apologize for things that struck me as insubstantial errors or wrongdoings. Humility is admirable, but not when it starts to border on self abuse. 

 

Overall, for the amount of information Sobel covers in this dual biography of sorts, while I didn't find the writing style itself consistently, 100% engaging, the approach I would say is definitely accessible to the average reader. It's a solidly entertaining and educational read for those interested in Galileo or the time in which he lived. There is also an element to Galileo's life story that can inspire thinkers and dreamers of today's world. Think about it -- the guy was willing to challenge not only his own religious upbringing and beliefs that went against his research, but also fellow scientists who were comfortably stuck in their ways, in order to unlock the mysteries of the natural world. His life's work is proof that the naysaying of "haters" as we label them today is based in fear and discomfort with the unknown. Was he always in the right? No, not always, but at least he was brave enough to branch out and challenge himself and others! 

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review 2016-04-16 00:16
Review | Abroad by Katie Crouch
Abroad - Katie Crouch

The old Etruscan city of Grifonia swarms with year-abroad students―thousands of them from all over. Ostensibly, they've come to study. But really they are here to reinvent themselves, to shuck their identities and buck constraints far from the watchful eyes of parents and others who know them too well. There's a reason Henry James's young ladies went to Europe with chaperones. Today's young ladies don't.
In Abroad, the bestselling novelist Katie Crouch tears a story from international headlines and transforms it into a page-turning parable of modern girlhood, full of longing and reckless behavior. As the heroine (and the reader) of Abroad will soon discover, Grifonia is a city filled with dangerous secrets of many kinds: ancient, eternal, infernal.

Amazon.com

 

 

 

Tabitha, aka "Taz" Deacon is a 21 year old Irish-Israel forensics student who comes to Grifonia, Italy through a study abroad program. She unexpectedly meets up with an old classmate, Jenny, from back home who seems to have worked herself into all the most influential social circles in Grifonia. Jenny invites Taz into her inner circle, which includes two other girls -- Anna and Luka -- the four of them collectively going by the name The Brit Four, or B4 for short. Taz, the only one of the bunch who has a decent grasp on conversational Italian, serves as the group's translator. An invaluable skill, Taz soon sees, as the other girls repeatedly get themselves in sticky situations Taz has to smooth over.  

 

Taz's life in Grifonia starts out innocent enough, but as time passes she becomes more and more entrenched in shady, sometimes even illegal scenarios -- sometimes willingly, sometimes not. To complicate matters more, Taz goes against her roommates' warnings about getting involved with the guys who live in the apartment downstairs. She starts up a summer fling with one of the local Italian boys living in that apartment, but quickly has her first taste of innocence slipping away. The relationship gets a little unhealthy and messy, when Taz and her guy have an experimental night with another couple. Whenever she takes a minute to step back and take stock of her life at any particular moment, she's taken aback at how out of hand she's let things get, between the sordid side business B4 gets her involved with or her guy's urging for her to dabble in drugs and free love. And she thought she was just coming for the culture and history! 

 

Periodically scattered in between the modern-day story of Taz, there are little 1-2 page interludes that reference historical periods, both AD and BC, that involve the unexpected deaths of young women, either through ritual killings or as victims of war or crime. The stories all seem to have a link to a society called the Compagnia, who throughout the centuries have been secretly called in by others to perform "good deaths", aka mercy killings. When it seems like death is unavoidable for a loved one, you call the Compagnia to carry out the sentence before the enemy does it for you. As the reader, it's not clear early on how these tie in to Taz's story, but I promise there is a connection. 

 

It's a dangerous thing, to be wanted.

 

I was already a fan of Katie Crouch's writing, after reading her Southern Fiction novels Girls In Trucks and Men & Dogs (she also has a YA duology out that I have not read yet). This novel felt like a complete 180 from her previous works, and I loved it! I'll give you a heads up though, this one is a sloooow burner mystery. It's got edge and creep factor but you definitely have to be patient with this one and let it work its magic on simmer. One thing I really loved is the subtlety to the writing here. It's just a word or phrase dropped here and there that serve as blink-and-you-miss-it clues to what's ahead. Crouch's foreshadowing is SO quiet but has just enough presence to make your skin crawl with anticipation. In the earliest chapters, the wording the narrator uses hints that the story is being told in retrospect after something either tragic or criminal has happened, but it's Chapter 12 that really took me by surprise. Just two words in that chapter smack you in the face (again, quietly) and change the whole perspective of the rest of the novel! 

 

I'm still not sure how I feel about the ending. It was satisfying in that there were no blatant loose ends...though there were some questions it left in my mind. And while it was intense, something makes me feel like it could have gone even farther. It was juuuust short of "seriously, what just happened?!?" for me. Also, the wrapup for the characters, everyone was given a closing story but after what went down it was a little odd to see such calm scene closers for all involved. How did everyone not end up way more messed up?! Don't get me wrong though, I still really loved the story! 

 

According to Crouch, this story -- as far as specifics in plot points, characters, all that -- was entirely from her own imagination. BUT she also says it was loosely inspired (maybe just inspired the initial story concept) by an actual crime she heard about that happened in Italy in 2007, where a student on a study abroad program was murdered. 

 

 

Note To Readers: This novel does contain a spoiler for the novel Daisy Miller by Henry James. 

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