Wednesday, 29 December 2021

Books I read in 2021: Part 4

Today I'll be sharing an overview of the books that I read between October and December 2021. I read a total of nine books that were, for the most part, considerably different from each other. Unsrprisingly,  historical fiction was again the most common genre that I read but there were also a few books with a magical realism or fantastical theme. I also finished a biography about Violette Szabo, an SOE agent during WW2. As has now become my habit, I will share a little bit about each book and hope you will find a few to add to your own 'to be read' list.


The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein by Peter Ackroyd

This book is narrated from the point of view of  Victor Frankenstein, the creator of the monster, or creature as he is called in this book, that was fist made known to the world by Mary Shelley in her epic novel Frankenstein

In a deserted pottery in Limehouse, Victor carries out experiments on newly-dead corpses in the hope of resurrecting them. The result of his experiments is the creature that is famously, though erroneously, known as Frankenstein.

Sincerely Loree: The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein by Peter Ackroyd
This book was just not for me.The author brought early 19th century London to life perfectly but that's probably its only redeeming feature. The male characters (Frankenstein, Shelley and  Byron) were detestable (except for Frankenstein's young servant Fred) and the only interesting personality was the 'creature' who was forced into this world by a man intent on fulfilling the role of creator. Shunned by the rest of humankind for his grotesque appearance, the creature becomes an outcast intent on destroying the man who created him. Like the original, this book encourages the discussion of how far Man should manipulate nature to replace God but it left me cold. I suppose that once a story is told its retelling will never be quite up to par.

Genres: science fiction. horror

My rating: 2 


Leopard At The Door by Jennifer McVeigh

This story is told from the perspective of Rachel Fullsmith who returns to Kenya after spending six years in a boarding school in England. She finds the country much changed and feels like an outsider in the only place she considered home. As the story progresses we see that her sympathies clash with those of her immediate family and that her outlook is very different from that of the previous generation.

I definitely needed to read this book because it took me outside my usual comfort zone (books set in Western Europe and North America). This book about colonial Kenya and the Mau May revolts in the 1950s gave me a lot to think about, especially by considering the different perspectives and ideologies of the characters. Jennifer McVeigh was able to effortlessly transport me to a place I have never been. I could almost feel the heat of Africa rising through the soles of my feet.

⚠️ Attempted rape, violence, death of a parent, casual racism

Genres: historical fiction, Africa

My rating: 4


The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

In the autumn of 1686, Nella Oortman arrives in Amsterdam to begin life as the wife of the wealthy trader Johannes Brandt. Johannes is kind but distant and seeks to make up for this by giving Nella a cabinet-sized replica of their home. To furnish her gift, Nella engages the services of an elusive miniaturist whose tiny creations soon start to mirror their real-life counterparts in eerie and unexpected ways. 

Sincerely Loree: The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

I feel rather ambivalent about this book. I didn't love it or hate it. I thought that the descriptions of late 17th century Amsterdam were well done and it is clear that the author has researched this time period well, which is always a bonus. This novel had a good sense of place, it was fast-paced and there were enough secrets and hints of mystery thrown in to keep me reading on. The first two parts of the book were intriguing and definitely drew me in. But after that it went a bit downhill as there were too many loose ends. I've learnt that there is no be a sequel so it could be that many of my questions will be answered if I decide to read it and that may change my overall opinion of the story. 

Genres: fiction, mystery, fantasy

My rating: 3.1


The Secret  Life Of  Bees by Sue Monk Kidd

Lily Owens has grown up believing she accidentally killed her mother. Her father is abusive and she only has one friend: Rosaleen, a black servant with a sharp exterior and tender heart. In the Sixties in South Carolina, segregation was still practised and racial tensions explode one hot summer afternoon. Rosaleen is arrested and beaten and Lily helps her to flee from jail. Now fugitives from justice they find sanctuary in the home of the Boatwright sisters who are beekeepers but also so much more.

This book is a wholesome, if rather slow, read. I would have liked it more if I could have identified a bit better with Lily Owens. But I'm not fond of liars, even in fiction. And Lily is a pathological liar alsmot until the end.

August Boatwright definitely kept the book going for me and, in spite of her faults, I was glad that there was a happy ending for Lily. I enjoyed all the facts about the bees and have decided that everyone needs someone like August Boatwright in their lives. The Secret Life Of Bees borders on fantasy in many places, which is fine for me, but other readers may find they have to suspend their disbelief to make the story work.

Genres: coming of age, fiction

My rating: 3


Violette Szabo: The Life That I Have by Susan Ottaway

A comprehensive, if sometimes dry, biography of SOE agent Violette Szabo. Susan Ottaway clearly did a lot of research to write this book about one of WW2's most famous heroines and, in doing so, has shed new light on aspects of Violette's life and work that may not be so well known. She has also righted some myths surrounding Violette that have persisted for decades. However, there were times when the author kept going off at a tangent, describing events and people that had little to no connection to Violette, and this somewhat marred my enjoyment of this book.

Sincerely Loree: Violette Szabo: The Life That I Have by Susan Ottaway

Violette Szabo (born Violette Bushell) was a British-French Special Operations Executive (SOE) agent during the Second World War. On her second mission into occupied France, Szabo was captured by the German army, interrogated, tortured and deported to Ravensbrück concentration camp in Germany, where she was executed on 05 February 1945 at the age of 23. She was posthumously aware the George Cross, the Croix de Guerre and the Médaille de la Résistance.

Genres: non-fiction, biography, WW2

My rating: 3


In The Company Of The Courtesan by Sarah Dunant

Bucino Teodoldi, a dwarf, and his mistress, the beautiful courtesan Fiammetta Bianchini, escape the sack of Rome in 1527 and settle in Venice. With very little money and no friends, except for the enigmatic healer known as la Draga, they must use their wits to establish themselves in this city on the water.

This story is narrated by Bucino and, unfortunately, there are pages and pages when we are inside his head. Bucino is not just a pimp but a philosopher and, although I initially found him endearing, in the end it was all a bit too much. I was very much intrigued by Fiammetta and she made the story come alive but the author chose to focus on Bucino leaving Fiammetta very much in the background and I think the plot suffered because of this because she seemed like a highly interesting character. For example, I would have loved to learn more about the dynamics between Fiammetta and La Draga and the friendship that developed between them but we only ever get to see the healer through Bucino's eyes and his opinion is often not very kind. I enjoyed the first two parts of this book but the third veered off into a totally unexpected direction that I am not sure worked very well.

Genres: historical fiction, Italy

My rating: 3


The Collector by John Fowles

Frederick Clegg collects butterflies and takes photographs. He is reclusive and is obsessed with young art student Miranda. Frederick abducts Miranda and locks her up in his cellar, hoping she will eventually grow to love him. Miranda does try to understand him and even feels compassion for him but, inevitably, things do not end well.

Sincerely Loree: The Collector by John Fowles

There's a lot to say about this book but I'll try to keep it brief. It's dark and shocking and definitely not your average read. But there's a lot to think about and much to discuss. It made me feel uncomfortable and claustrophobic, which is probably what the author was aiming for, and Frederick Clegg is perfectly portrayed as utterly despicable. We're inside his head for more than half of the book so it's not a pleasant read. But it's definitely an interesting one - although not for the faint-hearted.

Genres: thriller, fiction, horror (psychological)

My rating: 3.6


Dark Aemelia by Sally O'Reilly

Aemelia Bassano, the daughter of a Venetian musician, is a favourite of Queen Elizabeth I. She had a love of  poetry and learning and develops into a beautiful woman with a sharp mind and quick tongue. Aemelia becomes the mistress of Lord Hunsdon until her path crosses that of the impetuous young playwright William Shakespeare and they begin a passionate but ill-fated affair,

I enjoyed this book that was inspired by Shakespeare's 'Dark Lady'. It is a fantastical tale in which magic, the supernatural and superstition abound and the narrative manages to intertwine the lives of Aemelia and Will with the bard's notorious Scottish Play. Aemelia Bassano Lanyer is an intriguing figure. Maybe she comes across as a little bit crazy at times but I genuinely cared about her.

The whole story is based on supposition as there is no historical evidence to suggest that Aemilia was, in fact, Shakespeare's ' Dark Lady' but I never look for facts in a work of fiction. I thought that this novel was entertaining and that it really brought to life early 17th century London. The squalor and disease leap off the pages, as does the low esteem in which women were held. It was heartbreaking to realise what few rights women had and how they were pretty much the property of their fathers or husbands. Aemelia did not fit into this mould very well and chafed against it but was close to helpless to do anything to change it. Dark Aemelia is an unusual book that will probably not appeal to everyone due to some of its subject matter.

Genres: historical fiction, fantasy, supernatural, romance

My rating: 4


My  Name Is Eva by Suzanne Goldring

Evelyn Taylor-Clarke, now in her 90s, lives in a care home and pretends to have dementia to cover up some past actions that are about to catch up with her. I found the whole premise that the novel is based on to be very flimsy. The story leaps back and forth through multiple timelines but we only ever get to see Evelyn's point of view through a series of flashbacks and various letters to her dead husband, Hugh.

Sincerely Loree: My Name Is Eva by Suzanne Goldring

Young Evelyn seems pleasant, if rather naive, but her actions later on in life are extremely questionable. Older Evelyn, with her constant insistence on how she is outwitting everyone, eventually becomes rather tiresome. Throughout the book I could do nothing to suspend my disbelief in the plot. Unfortunately, I didn't really care for Evelyn and just felt sorry for her as it did not seem like she had a very fulfilling life: no friends and no family, except for a niece she disliked, and all because she wanted to exact revenge on Stephen Robinson, the man who she felt was responsible (without any actual proof) for the death of her husband during WW2. Undeniably, Robinson was a nasty piece of work but I thought that her actions only put Evelyn in the same league as him.

I suppose I wanted Evelyn to be a heroine but all I got was a caricature of a person that I couldn't connect with. There are many people who have enjoyed this book and my opinion seems to be in the minority. Maybe this book was just not for me.

Genres: historical fiction, WW2

My rating: 2.2 


With that I've summed up the list of books that I read during 2021. They were a diverse kettle of fish with The Collector and Dark Aemelia standing out in the fiction category due to their subject matter. I now have 22 books already waiting for me to dig my teeth into in 2022 (what a coincidence, 22 in 22). In the meantime, I am passing the time reading a couple of books from the Narnia Chronicles since I think that this time of the year is made for easy reading, especially when you're stuck in quarantine like we are. 

I would like to take this opportunity to wish all the readers of this blog a very happy new year. May we all pull together to defeat this microbe that has been wreaking havoc with our lives since 2020. Wishing you all health and joy. I will be back with more to say in 2022 and I hope you will be here to read it.

HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Thursday, 23 December 2021

Merry Christmas, Everyone

I didn't mean to be so absent from the blog throughout December. Indeed I had several posts planned. In my head, at least. But then, life happened. Things got stressful at work and, in spite of having the tree up by the 1st of December, I didn't get my act properly together until this week. So the blog went on the back-burner. I now have a week off and will hopefully post something. Or I might wait until the new year. 

How are you all holding up? I've taken my booster shot but the numbers are exploding here. Trying to take each day at a time and praying we will all be safe.

I'll leave it at that for today. Wishing you all a very merry and blessed Christmas. 



Tuesday, 30 November 2021

Monteriggioni: Small but Mighty

Monteriggioni is small. So small that, if you're in a hurry, you can see the whole place in fifteen minutes. But I would suggest to savour this fortified town because it is quite enchanting and it one of the best-preserved medieval towns in Italy.

Sincerely Loree: Monteriggioni, Tuscany

Sincerely Loree: Monteriggioni, Tuscany

A very brief history of Monteriggioni

The hill on which Monteriggioni is located was fortified by the Siennese in 1203 with a ring-shaped wall that follows the natural contours of the land. Due to a dispute with Florence over the surrounding territory, a ware broke out between the two cities and the Siennese were victorious. In 1260 they extended the fortifications and strengthened the walls with fourteen towers. The town finally fell to Florence in 1554 and the following year Siena and all its territory was taken over by the Medici family.

Sincerely Loree: Monteriggioni, Tuscany

Monteriggioni's walls and towers

Sincerely Loree: Porta Franca, Monteriggioni, Tuscany
Monteriggioni's towers captured the imagination of Dante who, in the 14th century, compared them to horrific giants who surround the deepest pit of hell. But there's nothing hellish about Monteriggioni. 
Sincerely Loree: Monteriggioni, Tuscany

Sincerely Loree:  Monteriggioni, Tuscany


Sincerely Loree: Monteriggioni, Tuscany

It is a pretty town with mostly medieval and some Renaissance architecture and a jaw-dropping view of the surrounding Chianti region. 
Sincerely Loree: Monteriggioni, Tuscany

Sincerely Loree: Monteriggioni, Tuscany
The town hasn't changed much over the centuries and its ten-metre high city walls, that are almost circular in design, are still intact. The town has two gates: the Porta Franca (facing Rome) and the Porta di San Giovanni (facing Florence) that are connected by the main road, via  I° Maggio.
Sincerely Loree: Porta Franca, Monteriggioni, Tuscany

Sincerely Loree: Porta San Giovanni, Monteriggioni, Tuscany

Sincerely Loree: Porta San Giovanni, Monteriggioni, Tuscany

Sincerely Loree: Piazza Roma,Monteriggioni, Tuscany


Just inside Porta Franca is Piazza Roma that was used as a vegetable garden in times of siege. The Romanesque church of Santa Maria Assunta, which was built between 1213 and 1235, is located in this square.
Sincerely Loree: Church of Santa Maria Assunta, Monteriggioni, Tuscany

Sincerely Loree: Church of Santa Maria Assunta, Monteriggioni, Tuscany

Sincerely Loree: Church of Santa Maria Assunta, Monteriggioni, Tuscany

Sincerely Loree: Church of Santa Maria Assunta, Monteriggioni, Tuscany

The via Francigena

Sincerely Loree:  Monteriggioni, Tuscany
We saw signs for the via Francigena all over Tuscany and were rather intrigued to learn that it is a medieval pilgrim trail that stretches from Canterbury Cathedral (England) to Rome. Along the way it passes through France, Switzerland, northern Italy and Tuscany, winding its way through picturesque countryside and connecting many monasteries and abbeys along its route. Monteriggioni was (and still is) a major stop on this pilgrim trail. The first person to walk the via Francigena is said to have been Sigeric the Serious, Archbishop of Canterbury, in 990 AD. Since then thousands of pilgrims have followed the route which is becoming more popular with the advent of slow travel. The via Francigena measures more than 2000 km and takes over 90 days to complete.

Sincerely Loree:  Monteriggioni, Tuscany

The quirkiest shoe shop in town

Sincerely Loree:  Monteriggioni, Tuscany
There aren't too many stores in Monteriggioni but there is one particular store that shouldn't be missed. Pratesi has been making shoes since 1857 - and oh what wonderful shoes they create! I have never seen a shoe store like the one in Monteriggioni in all my life. It's not a very big space but it is crammed with such a wide variety of shoes, in so many colours and quirky styles, that it took my breath away. I didn't know where to look first. It felt like shoe heaven and I was so spoilt for choice that I didn't end up  buying anything. Have you ever been so overwhelmed with beautiful shoes that you didn't know which pair to choose and ended up walking out of the store empty handed? Well, that's what happened to me. I couldn't make a decision and, since we couldn't spend half the day, there I walked away empty handed. But, the store does have a website Pratesi Shoes and you can also find them on Etsy. The good news is that they ship their genuine leather, handmade shoes worldwide.

Sincerely Loree:  Monteriggioni, Tuscany

PRATESI

Via I° Maggio, 15, 53035 Monteriggioni SI, Italy

I hope you are enjoying my 'Tuscan Series'. Since we're not too far away from Christmas I will try to share posts that are more in tune with the season. I will resume my 'Tuscan Series' in the new year.

Sincerely Loree:  Monteriggioni, Tuscany

Tuesday, 23 November 2021

Giving thanks

 It is Thanksgiving this week in the US and, with an American in the house, we also celebrate the day - although not quite in as big a way. But we have family over, try to cook a nice supper and give thanks for our many blessings.

Sincerely Loree: Autumn leaves

This year I thought I would be nice to give thanks publicly (sort of like giving the acceptance speech at an awards ceremony) to all the people I am grateful to have in my life and which I sometimes take for granted. So a big fat thank you from the bottom of my heart

  • to my husband for being more patient with me than I deserve and for rubbing my feet (nearly always) whenever I ask.
  • to my son who, at fifteen and around a foot taller than I am, still loves to spend time with his old mama and who has a generous and kind spirit.
  • to my parents who, to this day, go out of their way to help me in any way they can.
  • to my best friends, Sylvana, Debbie and Liliana, for all the laughs and memories that only 45 years of friendship can provide.
  • to my best friends from college, Corinne, Etienne and Jurgen for having been there through thick and thin during some of the most difficult times of my life.
  • to  my blogging and Insta buddies, especially Elizabeth (The Vintage Contessa), Debbie (View From Harmony Hills) and Gattina (Writer's Cramps) for supporting this blog for so very long and taking the time to comment on nearly all my posts.
  • to all those that stop by to read my (sometimes erratic) thoughts: your visits are always appreciated.

    Sincerely Loree: Autumn leaves
And, while I'm at it, I'm also thankful for
  • books and the authors that write them
  • vaccines and the scientists that work so tenaciously to make them
  • being able to travel again
  • our proximity to Italy and its beauty
  • Europe and its diverse cultures, languages and history
  • the sea that surrounds us and that calms all my moods
  • the fleeting beauty of these leaves*
  • life and nature and sunshine and rain
  • the promise of tomorrow.
I wish all of you a very Happy Thanksgiving.
Sincerely Loree: Autumn leaves

* I spent a good 45 minutes trying to capture the beauty and colours of these leaves. They were hanging on, tenuously, to the trees that grow on the slopes of the town of Montalcino. I did not have a tripod so I tried to balance my camera as best I could on the top of the metal railing that was all there was to stop me from plunging into the valley below. We don't get the fall/autumn colours here so I was really happy to have the opportunity to spend some time immortalising their beauty.

Sincerely Loree: Autumn leaves
I will be back with more adventures from Tuscany next week before I take a break to concentrate on some Christmas posts. I'll continue gushing about this gorgeous region of italy in the new year (i can't believe 2022 is almost on our door step!!)

Tuesday, 16 November 2021

Pretty Pienza: A Pope's Legacy

I knew I was going to love Pienza the moment I set foot out of the car and we took the scenic walk into the old city, which was just five minutes away. 

The first thing we came across was a convent with the most beautiful view I have ever laid eyes on. It was a warm autumn day and the nuns were selling their produce in their enormous garden under a cluster of cheerful beach umbrellas. 

Sincerely Loree: Val d'Orcia from Pienza, Italy

Sincerely Loree: Val d'Orcia from Pienza, Italy

Then, a little old lady walked past with a small bunch of flowers in her hand (a la` Under The Tuscan Sun). She was headed towards the Church of Santa Caterina and I wondered whether the flowers were for a departed loved one or to place in front of the niche of a favourite saint. I hoped it was the latter. 

And just before we crossed the street to enter the historical centre, I spied the house of my dreams. And it was for sale. I think I must have sighed out loud with longing but I'm not Frances Mayes and taking such a huge leap into the unknown is not really consistent with my character. 

Sincerely Loree: My dream home, Pienza, Italy

Anyhow, I'll continue to dream but, for the moment, let's take a short stroll around Pienza.

A short history of Pienza

Pienza, or Corsignano as it was originally named, dates back to the 9th century. In 1300 parts of the village became property of the Piccolomini family. Enea Silvio Piccolomini was born in Corsignano in 1405. After a long period of Humanist studies he had a successful career as a diplomat and politician. After a short stint as Archbishop of Siena, he was elected pope in 1458. Now known as Pius II he made plans to rebuild the village of his birth as an ideal Renaissance town and named it Pienza (the town of Pius).

Sincerely Loree: Main gate, Pienza, Italy

Pienza's landmarks

The most important sights of Pienza are all located on its  main square, Piazza Pio II. These are the Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta with its Germanic-inspired tower, Palazzo Piccolomini, Palazzo Comunale and Palazzo Vescovile. The latter was built by the notorious Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia who later became Pope Alexander VI and it now houses the Diocesan Museum.

Cattedrale di Santa Maria Assunta

Sincerely Loree: Cattedrale di Santa  Maria Assunta, Pienza, Italy

Palazzo Piccolomini
Sincerely Loree: Palazzo Piccolomini, Pienza, Italy

Palazzo Comunale
Sincerely Loree: Palazzo Comunale, Pienza, Italy

Palazzo Vescovile (Borgia Palace) - in the foreground
Sincerely Loree: Palazzo Vescovile, Pienza, Italy

Pienza's claims to fame

In 1996 Pienza was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site as it represents the first application of the Renaissance Humanist concept of urban design and it played a major role in subsequent urban development in Italy and beyond.

Sincerely Loree: Pienza, Italy

Pienza is also famous for its pecorino cheese and a festival is held in the town every first Sunday of September to celebrate this world-famous cheese that I happen to love so much. There are several shops selling Pecorino cheese in  Pienza and I was sorely tempted to buy a whole round of it but decided that even I might have some difficulty eating all that cheese.

Sincerely Loree: Shop selling pecorino, Pienza, Italy
Sincerely Loree: Shop selling pecorino, Pienza, Italy

This pretty town was chosen by director Franco Zeffirelli  to film the hauntingly beautiful 1968 version of Romeo and Juliet, starring a very young Olivia Hussey as Juliet and Leonard Whiting as Romeo. If you've seen the movie you might recognise the well below (Pozzo dei Cani).

Sincerely Loree: Pozzo dei Cani, Pienza, Italy

What I loved about Pienza

Pienza ia very compact and it doesn't take very long to see the whole town (unless you're prone to stopping every 5 seconds to take photos). Like most hilltop towns in Tuscany, Pienza's streets are narrow and winding, flanked on both sides by pretty, well-kept buildings that are 2 or 3 storeys high. 

Sincerely Loree: Pienza, Italy

In contrast to some other places we visited, Pienza is relatively flat, making walking easier as there are no steep hills to navigate. A number of its streets lead towards the walls from where the magnificent colours of the Val d'Orcia assault your senses like a fireworks display on the 4th of July. It's the type of view that I could have stared at for hours on end but which I eventually had to leave to continue exploring this pretty town.

Sincerely Loree: Pienza, Italy

Sincerely Loree: Pienza, Italy

Sincerely Loree: Pienza, Italy

Since the buildings in Pienza are not very high the whole town feels light and airy as it doesn't seem to be weighed down by too much stone. Many houses are very prettily decorated with pots of flowers and, although there were some visitors (like us) roaming around, the place was not crowded at all.  It also has some very romantically named streets like Via dell'Amore (Love Street) and Via del Bacio (Kiss Street) that I thought was really sweet and made me wonder whether the residents live some type of enchanted life.

Sincerely Loree: Pienza, Italy

Sincerely Loree: Pienza, Italy

Sincerely Loree: Pienza, Italy

Sincerely Loree: Pienza, Italy

I really felt at home in Pienza (although I rarely feel out of place in Italy) and would have loved to spend more time there even though we saw most of the town in the time that we had. Being there just felt right somehow and I know that I've placed it on my list of places to revisit. 

Sincerely Loree: Pienza, Italy

Sincerely Loree: Pienza, Italy

It is probably difficult to describe Pienza's attraction to someone who is looking for flamboyant architecture or world-known attractions but what I love most about it is its simplicity coupled with gorgeous Renaissance architecture, charming dwellings, its proximity to wide open spaces and the surrounding landscape of the Val d'Orcia that is more stunning than anything I could ever have imagined.

Sincerely Loree: Pienza,  Italy Sincerely Loree: Pienza,  Italy Sincerely Loree: Pienza,  Italy

Sincerely Loree: Pienza,  Italy Sincerely Loree: Pienza,  Italy Sincerely Loree: Pienza,  Italy
Sincerely Loree: Pienza,  Italy Sincerely Loree: Pienza,  Italy Sincerely Loree: Pienza,  Italy

Location: Pienza, Italy
October 2021

My Instagram

Sincerely, Loree. Theme by STS.