It begins with a rumour, an exciting whisper. Anything to break the tedium of the harem for the Shah’s eldest daughter. People speak of a man with a face so vile it would make a hangman faint, but a voice as sweet as an angel’s kiss. A master of illusion and stealth. A masked performer, known only as Vachon. For once, the truth will outshine the tales.
On her eleventh birthday, Afsar’s uncle tries to molest her, and her father, the Shah, gifts her a circus. With the circus comes a man who will change everything. Inspired by Gaston LeRoux’s The Phantom of the Opera, Marion Grace Woolley takes us on forbidden adventures through a time that has been written out of history books.
Paperback: 288 pages
Publisher: Ghostwoods Books (February 14, 2015)
Publisher: Ghostwoods Books (February 14, 2015)
Afsar is the first daughter of the Shah, raised in luxury in the palace, she is indulged and adored. Whether or not this privilege and the unapologetic violence of the times nurtures the darkness inside her, it is clear she has a very cruel and sadistic side--even at the age of eleven. When the circus performer Vachon with his masked face and clever tricks appears to perform on her birthday, those proclivities are developed even further, the violence escalates, and Afsar's life begins to change. Those Rosy Hours of Mazandaran is an absorbing if not entirely comfortable read. It's made up of a cast of characters almost impossible to like. Any sympathy for Asfar's youth, loneliness, and lack of control for her future, or Vachon's disfigurement and the life he must have led, quickly dissipates due to the disturbing pleasure they take in killing. The story is told from Asfar's viewpoint and her lack of remorse for most of her actions is chilling but hard to look away from. Coupled with the author's ability to craft a visual feast for the senses when describing their world--the sounds, the colors, the aromas, flavors, and textures are fully brought to life--it makes for an enthralling and dark story. I had to keep turning the pages to see if Asfar and Vachon's love would redeem them or ultimately destroy them and those around them. This book may not be for everyone but if you like dark, exotic novels with a gothic feel and historical leaning, you will likely find it fascinating.
Author Notes: Marion Grace Woolley is the author of three previous novels and a collection of short stories. In 2009, she was shortlisted for the Luke Bitmead Bursary for New Writers. She balances her creative impulses with a career in International Development; she has worked and traveled across Africa, Australia, Armenia, and a few other places beginning with ‘A’. She is an associate member of the Society of Authors, and is currently at work on her fifth novel. Follow Marion on Twitter @AuthorMGW
There is definitely a food presence in Those Rosy Hours at Mazandaran--especially with life at the palace. Some inspiring mentions were the city market smells of fresh fish and crispy fried squid, saffron-spiked yogurt, and rice boiling in sweet milk, a breakfast of goat cheese, quince jam and sweet tea, refreshing cantaloupe juice, sesame halva, bowls of dried fruit and nuts (especially the ubiquitous handfuls of salted almonds everyone seemed to snack on), apples and honeyed dates, sweet 'baghlava (baklava) sprinkled with almonds and pistachio, dripping with honey,' sweet cardamom toffee, and vegetable ash (soup).
With all of the salted almonds being consumed, I originally thought I might do some sort of Persian-spiced nut blend to represent this book. Looking through my Middle Eastern cookbooks for inspiration, a recipe for Pistachio & Feta Dip in Persiana by Sabrina Ghayour kept catching my eye. (BTW--Persiana is a gorgeous cookbook that I will be coming back to again and again I am sure.) Persiana author Ghayour says she stumbled across the spread in a butcher shop/cafe in a back alley of Istanbul and recreated it from taste and memory. So it's not a direct inspiration from the novel but the heart wants what the heart wants, and I think it captures the sumptuousness of the book and some of the flavors and ingredients of Persia.
I made a couple of small changes to the recipe--increasing the garlic and lemon and mostly de-seeding the chili. The author recommends serving with 'hunks of pillowy bread' which would have been wonderful had I not forgotten to buy some. I did have a bag of my newest chip obsession on hand--Primizie Thick-Cut Crispbreads--gourmet pita-like chips. I served the Simply Salted version with this dip although I find that I am most enamoured with the Smoked Dutch Gouda and Garlic flavor for eating out-of-hand.
Pistachio & Feta Dip
Slightly Adapted from Persiana by Sabrina Ghayour
(Serves 8 as Appetizer)
3 1/2 oz (100 g) shelled pistachios
generous 1/4 cup olive oil
10 1/2 oz (300 g) feta cheese
handful of dill, leaves picked and coarsely chopped
2 handfuls of cilantro, leaves picked and coarsely chopped
1 garlic clove chopped (I used 2 cloves)
1 long red chili (of medium heat), seeded and roughly chopped
3 heaping Tbsp Greek yogurt
zest and juice of 1/2 lemon (I used the juice of a whole lemon)
sea salt to taste
Blitz the pistachios and olive oil in a food processor for about 30 seconds. Add the other ingredients and process for about a minute or until the mixture has a nice, slightly coarse and rustic texture. Taste and season with a bit of sea salt if needed.
Top with a bit of additional feta and chopped pistachios and a sprinkle of smoked paprika if desired. Serve with bread, crackers, and veggies.
Notes/Results: Salty, tangy, cheesy, herby, nutty, this is a fabulous dip, with a rich and elegant flavor and a little kick of spice at the end. It also works wonderfully as a sandwich spread--try it with tomato, red pepper and cucumber on pita. I may even try it with pasta, if it lasts that long. The ground nut texture gives it a pesto-like quality--although the feta and yogurt make it creamier than your average pesto. I like the pretty green color from the nuts and the herbs too. I will definitely make it again.
Note: A review copy of "Those Rosy Hours at Mazandaran" was provided to me by the publisher and TLC Book Tours in return for a fair and honest review. I was not compensated for this review and as always my thoughts and opinions are my own.
You can see the stops for the rest of this Book Tour and what other reviewers thought about the book here.