I want to be frank with you. I know the author of this book. She used to write a blog for Slow Travel A Journey of 1000 Miles... (you can find her out her new blog, Leaping Without a Net). That out of the way, I want to give you my honest assessment of The Virgin and the Griffin, maybe even too honest in an over-critical way to make up for our friendship.
The Virgin and the Griffin tells the story of Isabella, a young women of Perugia in the early 1500s, belonging to a family of weavers, during a time when women were not allowed to work (for commercial gain). The story is set against the backdrop of some potential upheaval between the noble families of the time and the Vatican (Perugia, as I learned, was under the control of the Pope). And this brings me to my first point.
The author's command of the history of Perugia Italy as well as its geography is amazing. She creates a vivid sense of place, so much so, that when I do finally get to visit Perugia, I will re-read this book in order to get a better idea of the places I want to see. Additionally, her knowledge of the textile industry at that time and the process through which the weavers work is also exemplary and presented in an interesting and easy to understand fashion.
But this leads me to a slight negative, there is so much history to impart that at times it felt as if the information became repetitive, repeating some of the back story (e.g., talking about the ruthlessness of the Baglioni or that they appeared at the top of the hierarchy of Perugia's nobles) in order to ensure the reader understood the context within which the characters lived. At the beginning, it slowed the story down a bit.
That said, once I was 30 - 40% in (again, Kindle reader here), I was hooked and did not want to put it down. The author develops her characters so well, and Isabella becomes so real that thoughts of their lives stayed with me well after the book ended. Again though this brings up three asides.
First, I doubt the author realizes this, but her main character has the same name as the main character of the Twilight series (yuck), which I had the unfortunate experience of reading (well, the first book), and every time someone spoke to "Bella" I had horrid flashbacks to Twilight and Edward Cullen - bleh.
Second, is in homage to another friend, Stephanie, I wanted more closure (Stephanie cannot stand a book without closure). I grew to really enjoy these characters (especially Letizia, who I wish we knew even more - perhaps a prequel?), and I wanted to know how the rest of their lives went. We're really only given a glimpse into maybe two years (sorry I don't have the book in front of me) of their lives and it wasn't enough.
Lastly, while I'm talking about characters, the story is told in the first person by Isabella though at times the author breaks and switches viewpoints to some of the other characters. I'm assuming (I know, bad to assume), that she does that to give us some insight into their thoughts/emotions but I think she's a strong enough writer that she didn't need to do this. I think Isabella's insights and those characters' deeds spoke loudly enough to their character and motivation.
If you like historical fiction, especially related to Italy (or specifically, Umbria), enjoy as story with good sense of place and character development, then read The Virgin and the Griffin. Personally, I'm looking forward to Sandra's second book as I still can't believe this was her first endeavor.