Amanda Eyre Ward: The Nearness of You

In this profound and lyrical novel, acclaimed author Amanda Eyre Ward explores the deeper meanings of motherhood—from the first blissful hello to the heart-wrenching prospect of saying goodbye.

Brilliant heart surgeon Suzette Kendall is stunned when Hyland, her husband of fifteen years, admits his yearning for a child. From the beginning they’d decided that having children was not an option, as Suzette feared passing along the genes that landed her mother in a mental institution. But Hyland proposes a different idea: a baby via surrogate.

Suzette agrees, and what follows is a whirlwind of candidate selections, hospital visits, and Suzette’s doubts over whether she’s made the right decision. A young woman named Dorothy Muscarello is chosen as the one who will help make this family complete. For Dorrie, surrogacy (and the money that comes with it) are her opportunity to leave behind a troubled past and create a future for herself—one full of possibility. But this situation also forces all three of them—Dorrie, Suzette, and Hyland—to face a devastating uncertainty that will reverberate in the years to come.

Beautifully shifting between perspectives, The Nearness of You deftly explores the connections we form, the families we create, and the love we hold most dear.

So here’s the deal. I almost didn’t make it past the first chapter. I even tweeted that I was fully prepared for this book to piss me off all the way through.

The premise of this book is that Suzette doesn’t want children. Her mother has a mental illness so bad that she is hospitalized (we never meet her), and Suzette also suffers from “issues.” Those issues are vague, but referred to throughout the book, and she’s deathly afraid of anyone close to her getting sick too. She was very clear on the first date with Hyland that she was not going to have children. They made a decision, she was firm on it, he seemed happy.

But after 15 years of marriage, he suddenly decided that he wanted a baby, and pretty much gaslights her into thinking she wants one too. So they get a surrogate. And then he spends the rest of the book making her feel HORRIBLE for being a successful pediatric surgeon with a busy schedule–even though she has ALWAYS BEEN a successful pediatric surgeon with a busy schedule.

This is my absolute worst nightmare–and my husband knows this–that he will suddenly decide 15 years into our marriage that he wants children. It is the cruelest thing a person could do, in my opinion–worse than cheating–to go against something so fundamental in your marriage foundation.

I know, I’m ranting, but this is all just to say that it soured my opinion of the book from the first chapter–and it only went downhill from there. I did finish it, and had that big nope in the beginning not happened…I don’t know, there were a few other things that made me go ehhhhhhhhh…

The story certainly has hooks, and I could see people liking this. But it has way more problems than good things.

NetGalley and Ballantine Books provided this ARC for an unbiased review. This post does have affiliate links.

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Elan Mastai: All Our Wrong Todays

You know the future that people in the 1950s imagined we’d have? Well, it happened. In Tom Barren’s 2016, humanity thrives in a techno-utopian paradise of flying cars, moving sidewalks, and moon bases, where avocados never go bad and punk rock never existed . . . because it wasn’t necessary.

Except Tom just can’t seem to find his place in this dazzling, idealistic world, and that’s before his life gets turned upside down. Utterly blindsided by an accident of fate, Tom makes a rash decision that drastically changes not only his own life but the very fabric of the universe itself. In a time-travel mishap, Tom finds himself stranded in our 2016, what we think of as the real world. For Tom, our normal reality seems like a dystopian wasteland.

But when he discovers wonderfully unexpected versions of his family, his career, and—maybe, just maybe—his soul mate, Tom has a decision to make. Does he fix the flow of history, bringing his utopian universe back into existence, or does he try to forge a new life in our messy, unpredictable reality? Tom’s search for the answer takes him across countries, continents, and timelines in a quest to figure out, finally, who he really is and what his future—our future—is supposed to be.

Writing science fiction always seems like the hardest genre to me–there is always a problem to solve. When done right, the reader is transported directly into an alternate universe; when done wrong, all of the focus goes on the lack of research and the awkwardness or lack of world-building. The author has to be able to explain the problems and solutions well enough for a person like me to at least grasp the concept to make it believable–and also hold up to those smart enough to pick apart the numbers and equations in their heads.

All Our Wrong Todays is science fiction done WELL. I was immediately immersed into Tom’s whorling world of time travel between 2016 and 1965–and I had previously put down two books as DNF because I could not focus on anything. I was in serious danger of a book slump when I picked up Elan Mastai’s first novel. But instead, Tom’s fictional memoir saved both me and his world from total destruction.

This book does have some problems. Everybody in the book is straight, and while there are POC, they are mostly background characters.  Also, the relationships are a little sketchy, although the narrator does acknowledge that fact. He knows he’s an awkward guy going about everything the wrong way. Still–they are a bit problematic.

I am conflicted, because I hate “mental illness as a twist”–but I don’t think that is what is being done here. The book is a legit time travel story, but it does unpack some heavy mental illness and domestic abuse issues as a part of the plot. The narrator challenges and discusses them in the text. I can’t explain further without spoiling the book, but I think the author does a really good job of writing these issues in without using them as a plot device.

At first, I thought this was going to be a really great escape book for Inauguration Weekend. And it IS a good one to dive into, for sure. But this one will hit you deep. Can a book be fun, challenging, and heart wrenching all at the same time? Because All Our Wrong Todays certainly makes the effort.

NetGalley and Dutton provided an ARC for unbiased review. This post contains affiliate links.

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Derek Palacio: The Mortifications

Derek Palacio’s stunning, mythic novel marks the arrival of a fresh voice and a new chapter in the history of 21st century Cuban-American literature.

In 1980, a rural Cuban family is torn apart during the Mariel Boatlift. Uxbal Encarnación—father, husband, political insurgent—refuses to leave behind the revolutionary ideals and lush tomato farms of his sun-soaked homeland. His wife Soledad takes young Isabel and Ulises hostage and flees with them to America, leaving behind Uxbal for the promise of a better life. But instead of settling with fellow Cuban immigrants in Miami’s familiar heat, Soledad pushes further north into the stark, wintry landscape of Hartford, Connecticut. There, in the long shadow of their estranged patriarch, now just a distant memory, the exiled mother and her children begin a process of growth and transformation.

Each struggles and flourishes in their own way: Isabel, spiritually hungry and desperate for higher purpose, finds herself tethered to death and the dying in uncanny ways. Ulises is bookish and awkwardly tall, like his father, whose memory haunts and shapes the boy’s thoughts and desires. Presiding over them both is Soledad. Once consumed by her love for her husband, she begins a tempestuous new relationship with a Dutch tobacco farmer. But just as the Encarnacións begin to cultivate their strange new way of life, Cuba calls them back. Uxbal is alive, and waiting.

Breathtaking, soulful, and profound, The Mortifications is an intoxicating family saga and a timely, urgent expression of longing for one’s true homeland.

I can’t believe it is only January 5th (when I’m writing this), and I am already sick of reading books by men.

I really wanted to like this. I don’t think I’ve read anything by a Cuban author previously, and there was some intriguing chatter about Palacio. It began well too, I finished the first quarter pretty quickly. Unfortunately, it didn’t stay this way, and I lost interest by the midway mark. I tried to keep going for a bit, but it just got progressively worse and I had to put it down. My grimace just got bigger and bigger and it just wasn’t worth continuing.

Soledad and Isabel were both solid, interesting characters. The mother, escaping Cuba during the boatlift, builds a successful life in New England for her children. Isabel, her daughter, is maybe the most complex character in the book, becomes The Death Torch–a novice nun who “helps” dying patients find peace on their way into the afterlife. I found the two main men in the story to be sort of flat and dull.

Unfortunately, this is a man’s literary fiction–and so that is the perspective we mostly get. The Mortifications is more about bland sexual relations than actual human relationships. And wow is there a LOT of sex in this book. Maybe I shouldn’t call it bland–just unrealistic. The kind of sex that if I read one of the scenes to you without telling you who wrote it, you would still know it was written by a man. I found it to be quite Oedipal and stomach churning. It wasn’t sexy at all, just wrong.

I stopped a little after the halfway point, but I have a feeling the second half of the book was going to turn even nastier. The letter leading up to it was a gaslighting mess, hinting at a direction I did not want to go.

I hate that this is such a big no, since it is a POC author and has diverse characters. But I just can’t recommend this. I am still very much interested in reading books by Cuban and/or Cuban-American authors, so if anyone has recommendations, I’d love to read them. I’m going to search for some myself, too. There are great ones out there–let’s go find them.

Blogging for Books and Tim Duggan Books provided a copy for an unbiased review. This post contains affiliate links.

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Louise Gornall: Under Rose-Tainted Skies

Norah has agoraphobia and OCD. When groceries are left on the porch, she can’t step out to get them. Struggling to snag the bags with a stick, she meets Luke. He’s sweet and funny, and he just caught her fishing for groceries. Because of course he did.

Norah can’t leave the house, but can she let someone in? As their friendship grows deeper, Norah realizes Luke deserves a normal girl. One who can lie on the front lawn and look up at the stars. One who isn’t so screwed up.

How do some books just find you at the perfect time? It seems that I’ve read bad book after bad book lately (with one or two exceptions), and then blammo, right when I needed it, this book happened. Two days after I was FINALLY diagnosed with OCD, I pick up Under Rose-Tainted Skies.

I was hooked within the first couple pages. The narrator described her obsessions almost the exact same way I had written about them in my journal the day before my therapist appointment, and I got CHILLS. So much of what she talked about rang true with me. Mine is not near as severe, and I don’t have agoraphobia, but it was incredible to have such representation in a book.

But enough about me and back to the review. There are a lot of similarities between Nicola Yoon’s Everything Everything and Under Rose-Tainted Skies. However, Norah doesn’t have to be “fixed” to have a relationship with Luke. Instead, he comes to her. He makes an effort to learn about her disorder. In the process of their relationship, she does heal some, but she isn’t magically better. It’s baby steps, or “new pathways,” as her therapist would call them. Luke helps her grow a bit out of her comfort zone.

This book is going to be triggering for some people. There is a component of self-harm, and a very traumatic scene. Norah also experiences panic attacks throughout the book–those were difficult for me to experience, as they were very vivid. Right on target, but also hard to read through if you are one who has panic attacks yourself. Representation is everything, and amazing…but just proceed with caution if you also suffer from these kinds of mental illness.

I loved this book, I found it so helpful to read about someone like me. We need so many more Own Voices books about people with mental illness in this world. Definitely put this on your list for 2017!

DiversityBingo2017:  MC with an Invisible Disability

NetGalley and Clarion Books provided an ARC for unbiased review. This post does contain affiliate links.

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Dual Review: Thelonious Legend: Sins of the Father + Childish Things

I reviewed Sins of the Father a year ago, when it was first released. I hadn’t developed my Book Dragon system yet, but I gave it a 3 on Goodreads. But it has stuck in my memory, and every time I think about it, I have wanted to go back and reread–I really did love these girls. Because he has written a sequel, Thelonious Legend contacted me and generously sent me both books, and so here is an updated review for Book 1, as well as my write up for Book 2.

Book 1:  Sins of the Father

This was going to be a special year for the Parker sisters. Eve was going to dominate in the classroom and on the basketball court. Gwen was going to make the starting five and go down in history as the greatest prankster ever. Ana was going to do as little as possible. But without warning, all three sisters gain extraordinary abilities that defy science… powers that come with a cost. Now all they want to do is make it through the school year without drawing any undue attention, while racing to find a cure before the side effects of their new abilities kill them. Eve’s temperament, Gwen’s fondness for pranks, and Ana’s predilection for money, however, are challenges they must overcome to achieve their goals. Because if they can’t, they’re dead…

My memory did not deceive me. The Parker Sisters are just as incredible the second time as they were the first. They are smart, strong, and fast–and that doesn’t just refer to their super powers, but the plot itself. I read this over Christmas weekend and kept having to put my Kindle away. I couldn’t wait to get back to the story! It is racially diverse without bringing attention to it. It simply IS diverse.

At the book’s core is a story about three black middle school girls who develop super powers and have to navigate school drama while fighting for their lives. But behind all that is also a backdrop of privilege and culture that teaches us all to look deeper than the mask people wear.

I would definitely recommend this for older middle schoolers (7th grade+) or really anyone who likes YA. There is some violence and darker themes so just be cautious with younger audiences–though I’d never discourage anyone wanting to read this.

 

Book 2:  Childish Things

Mo Powers Mo Problems! It’s a new school year for the Parker Sisters but it’s the same song and dance. Get good grades, avoid being kidnapped or killed before dinner, and don’t forget to take to out the trash. But this year there are a few new players in the game. Players who are as special as the Parker Sisters. Let the games begin.

I know I’m reading a really good book when I stop and it is way too quiet. Was I listening to music? No…the book is just THAT good.

This happened more than once while I was reading Childish Things. The action gets completely turned up in Legend’s second book. The girls are older, wiser, and more powerful. They are training harder, and are more prepared for the bad guys that are, well, badder.

Childish Things is Gwen’s story, where Sins of the Father centered more around Eve. This gives the book a very “middle child syndrome” spin, as we see her take on friends, boys, and life while constantly comparing herself to her older sister.

The social justice spin is more subtle in this second book, but it is there in the margins for those who are paying attention. I am very interested in the almost backward character development of Stacey in particular, and how Legend is using her to show white privilege and the kind of subtle unknowing prejudice we don’t realize we have.

 

Both of these books are fantastic, and ones that’ll be making my top recommendations this year. For sure add this series to your Diverse YA TBRs. I cannot wait to see what Legend does with Ana’s story next–she got quite a bit of development in Childish Things, and she’s my favorite of the three sisters. I said in my original review for Sins of the Father that Thelonious Legend would do “Legendary” things with his writing, and it may have been a pun…but I wasn’t wrong. I LOVE these books, and you will too!

Disclaimer:  The author did provide me with copies of both books for an honest review, after I had reviewed the first last year for a book tour. 

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Ted Koppel: Lights Out

In this tour de force of investigative reporting, Ted Koppel reveals that a major cyberattack on America’s power grid is not only possible but likely, that it would be devastating, and that the United States is shockingly unprepared.
 
Imagine a blackout lasting not days, but weeks or months. Tens of millions of people over several states are affected. For those without access to a generator, there is no running water, no sewage, no refrigeration or light. Food and medical supplies are dwindling. Devices we rely on have gone dark. Banks no longer function, looting is widespread, and law and order are being tested as never before. 

It isn’t just a scenario. A well-designed attack on just one of the nation’s three electric power grids could cripple much of our infrastructure—and in the age of cyberwarfare, a laptop has become the only necessary weapon. Several nations hostile to the United States could launch such an assault at any time. In fact, as a former chief scientist of the NSA reveals, China and Russia have already penetrated the grid. And a cybersecurity advisor to President Obama believes that independent actors—from “hacktivists” to terrorists—have the capability as well. “It’s not a question of if,” says Centcom Commander General Lloyd Austin, “it’s a question of when.” 

And yet, as Koppel makes clear, the federal government, while well prepared for natural disasters, has no plan for the aftermath of an attack on the power grid.  The current Secretary of Homeland Security suggests keeping a battery-powered radio.

In the absence of a government plan, some individuals and communities have taken matters into their own hands. Among the nation’s estimated three million “preppers,” we meet one whose doomsday retreat includes a newly excavated three-acre lake, stocked with fish, and a Wyoming homesteader so self-sufficient that he crafted the thousands of adobe bricks in his house by hand. We also see the unrivaled disaster preparedness of the Mormon church, with its enormous storehouses, high-tech dairies, orchards, and proprietary trucking company – the fruits of a long tradition of anticipating the worst. But how, Koppel asks, will ordinary civilians survive?

With urgency and authority, one of our most renowned journalists examines a threat unique to our time and evaluates potential ways to prepare for a catastrophe that is all but inevitable.

Every book sounds good on late night talk shows. It’s the host’s job to provide enough witty banter to make the book sound exciting and accessible to everyone. There’s a reason it’s called “The Colbert Bump.”

However, I quickly learned that Lights Out was not written for me. It’s probably extremely well-researched, informative–even interesting. I just couldn’t get into it. It just went over my head from the very beginning. You really need to have a solid foundation in military structures and acronyms to get more than 20 pages in. After that you start to lose the thread quickly. I had zero idea of what he was talking about.

I’ll put this on my shelf, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see my husband pick it up eventually. He’s way more into military nonfiction than I am, and I know he was interested in Koppel’s Colbert interview too. I’m disappointed that I couldn’t get further into this, it sounded like an interesting (albeit terrifying) theory.

This book was provided by Blogging for Books and Crown Publishing for an unbiased review. This post does contain affiliate links.

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Marie Benedict: The Other Einstein

A vivid and mesmerizing novel about the extraordinary woman who married and worked with one of the greatest scientists in history.

What secrets may have lurked in the shadows of Albert Einstein’s fame? His first wife, Mileva “Mitza” Marić, was more than the devoted mother of their three children—she was also a brilliant physicist in her own right, and her contributions to the special theory of relativity have been hotly debated for more than a century.

In 1896, the extraordinarily gifted Mileva is the only woman studying physics at an elite school in Zürich. There, she falls for charismatic fellow student Albert Einstein, who promises to treat her as an equal in both love and science. But as Albert’s fame grows, so too does Mileva’s worry that her light will be lost in her husband’s shadow forever.

A literary historical in the tradition of The Paris Wife and Mrs. Poe, The Other Einstein reveals a complicated partnership that is as fascinating as it is troubling.

I am horrifically late on this review, so I apologize to the author and publisher. I was supposed to be part of a book tour, but this completely got lost in the mess of my November slump.

First of all, can we just talk about how gorgeous this cover is? It’s hard to see in pictures, but just looking at it face on, you can’t see those equations–all you see is the woman and city. The numbers themselves are shiny, and catch the light from different angles. It’s just really well done. The inside cover is also full of the same equations. Who knew math could be beautiful? NOT ME.

I have mixed feelings about this book. If you take it ONLY as fiction, it’s a great book to read. Mileva is a captivating character, though she frustrated me to NO end. I just wanted to grab her shoulders and yell at her “YOU ARE SO SMART WHAT ARE YOU DOING.” She’s caught up in a terrible marriage with a selfish man who only cares about himself and it goes exactly as you would expect.

HOWEVER. This isn’t just fiction, it’s historical fiction. This is based on real people, which gets confusing. How much is real, how much is not? The author portrays Einstein in a very unpleasant light–but in her author’s note says that she doesn’t know what their life was really like. No one knows to what extent Mileva contributed to Einstein’s work–so to say he stole her idea is a very uncomfortable feeling to plant in a reader’s head…among other things.

That isn’t to say Marie Benedict’s theories aren’t accurate or somewhat true or could have happened. Too many women in our past worked extremely hard for our scientific advancement and went unrecognized. It’s just an uncomfortable fiction to read without knowing if it’s true.

I was swept up in the story, though, and finished it quickly. After reading so much seriousness lately, it was nice to read something not quite so intense. Also, Benedict’s book features a disabled main character, as well as touches on racial and religious prejudices.

I’d say if you like historical fiction, this is one to read this year–just know it’s definitely more on the fiction side than biographical.

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This book was provided by SourceBooks Publishing for an unbiased review. This post does contain affiliate links.

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Lindsey Lee Johnson: The Most Dangerous Place on Earth

A captivating debut novel for readers of Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You and Curtis Sittenfeld’s Prep, The Most Dangerous Place on Earth unleashes an unforgettable cast of characters into a realm known for its cruelty and peril: the American high school.

In an idyllic community of wealthy California families, new teacher Molly Nicoll becomes intrigued by the hidden lives of her privileged students. Unknown to Molly, a middle school tragedy in which they were all complicit continues to reverberate for her kids: Nick, the brilliant scam artist; Emma, the gifted dancer and party girl; Dave, the B student who strives to meet his parents expectations; Calista, the hippie outcast who hides her intelligence for reasons of her own. Theirs is a world in which every action may become public postable, shareable, indelible. With the rare talent that transforms teenage dramas into compelling and urgent fiction, Lindsey Lee Johnson makes vivid a modern adolescence lived in the gleam of the virtual, but rich with the sorrow, passion, and beauty of life in any time, and at any age.

I’ve had this book since September, sitting in my ARC queue. That’s a long time for me to have an ARC. So it’s been staring me in the face for awhile, but the publishing date was so far out, I had other priorities. I actually mistakenly scheduled 3 ARCs all for January 3rd…oops.

Hopefully, the other two only have the publishing date in common with The Most Dangerous Place on Earth.

I am assuming that the title refers to the nature of high school. Sometimes it can certainly seem like the most dangerous place on earth while you are there. However, the REAL most dangerous place on earth is simply the pages of this book.

Guys, this book is SO PROBLEMATIC that the only reason I finished it was so that I could warn you away from it. How problematic is it? Oh, just let me tell you (this is pretty gross, so skip if you’d prefer).

  1. The ONLY black person in the entire book is a sub-sub-sub character–Lance, the rehab counselor. He gets maybe two or three pages as in the background.
  2. Almost everyone is blonde. Not even kidding. I’m not even sure there are any redheads or brunettes in the whole book, because blondes are just THAT BEAUTIFUL. This is further solidified when the single (Dare I say token? It certainly seems that way.) POC MC, a Chinese boy is described as having “heavy lidded, almond eyes, sparse brows, and nose whose broadness made him a little less than beautiful.” Oh, and that scene gets worse because the description goes on to say “He was unremarkable. He had no diagnoses. No dyslexia or numerophobia or even ADHD, which at least would have earned him time-and-a-half on the SAT.” Yes, you read that correctly. HE WAS UPSET FOR NOT HAVING A LEARNING DISORDER TO GAIN CREDIT ON HIS SATs. 
  3. An English teacher apparently doesn’t like the students to use “they” pronouns because of vagueness, and so a student is trying to verify for his writing “How do you know whether to use ‘he’ or ‘she’?” The teacher’s response is: “Just look for the Adam’s apple.” Not only is this completely disgusting and harmful, it doesn’t even answer the question the student was asking. I almost put the book down here because I was so grossed out. But I made the decision to keep going so I could write up the full problematic review. I was afraid it would get worse. It did.
  4. At one point, we sing the latest OAR song while watching a father gaslight his son into fighting him–then faking injury and laughing when the boy is concerned.
  5. There’s an entire blog post devoted to slut shaming a passed out drunk girl–saying someone should rape her while she’s passed out, and that she deserves everything she gets.
  6. Lastly, there are too many weird adult/child sexual and/or romantic situations to count in this book. Some are explicit, some are just uncomfortable. 

I almost feel like the author tried to put as many problematic things in this book as possible to prove a point. Except the lack of diversity–I think that was just ignorance or obliviousness, or just something else entirely.

There are going to be a lot of people who like this book–in fact, there are already several positive reviews for it on Goodreads. The core story is interesting and the multi-POV structure would normally have been fun to read. Too bad it’s all just so gross.

Super problematic, guys. Put this on your shame list.

NetGalley and Random House provided this ARC for an unbiased review. Publish Date January 10.

Jeff Wilser: Alexander Hamilton’s Guide to Life

Two centuries after his death, Alexander Hamilton is shining once more under the world s spotlight and we need him now more than ever.
Hamilton was a self-starter. Scrappy. Orphaned as a child, he came to America with nothing but a code of honor and a hunger to work. He then went on to help win the Revolutionary War and ratify the Constitution, create the country s financial system, charm New York s most eligible ladies, and land his face on our $10 bill.The ultimate underdog, he combined a fearless, independent spirit with a much-needed dose of American optimism.
Hamilton died before he could teach us the lessons he learned, but Alexander Hamilton s Guide to Life unlocks his core principles intended for anyone interested in success, romance, money, or dueling. They include:
Speak with Authority Even If You Have None (Career)
Seduce with Your Strengths (Romance)
Find Time for the Quills and the Bills (Money)
Put the Father in Founding Father (Friends & Family)
Being Right Trumps Being Popular (Leadership)
For history buffs and pop-culture addicts alike, this mix of biography, humor, and advice offers a fresh take on a nearly forgotten Founding Father, and will spark a revolution in your own life.”

Ah, Alexander Hamilton. He has gone from historical obscurity to being our most famous founding father–as he rightly should be. It’s amazing, once you take a close look at him, how much A. Ham really contributed to every single piece of our government…for better or worse.

Hamilton really did write like he was running out of time, and he had so much to tell us. Jeff Wilser broke down some of his more prolific statements into a sort of Founding Father self-help book. It’s full of witticisms and insightful commentary, modernized of course.

It’s supposed to be the type of book Hamilton would have written if he would have had time to write such a thing. Of course, if he had…it would have been four volumes and probably would have included some kind of impossibly boring personal finance plan along with the life advice. I’m glad Wilser left that chapter out. As it is, the Guide is a funny way to take in much of the history we already know from Chernow’s massive biography, while singing along to LMM’s cast album. There’s no mistaking who the author is targeting here. Luckily…who ISN’T a fan of the musical at this point?

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Blogging for Books and Three Rivers Press provided a copy of this book for an unbiased review. This post contains affiliate links.

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Julia Baird: Victoria: The Queen

From International New York Times columnist Julia Baird comes a magnificent biography of Queen Victoria. Drawing on previously unpublished papers, Victoria: The Queen is a stunning new portrait of the real woman behind the myth—a story of love and heartbreak, of devotion and grief, of strength and resilience.

When Victoria was born, in 1819, the world was a very different place. Revolution would begin to threaten many of Europe’s monarchies in the coming decades. In Britain, a generation of royals had indulged their whims at the public’s expense, and republican sentiment was growing. The Industrial Revolution was transforming the landscape, and the British Empire was commanding ever larger tracts of the globe. Born into a world where woman were often powerless, during a century roiling with change, Victoria went on to rule the most powerful country on earth with a decisive hand.

Fifth in line to the throne at the time of her birth, Victoria was an ordinary woman thrust into an extraordinary role. As a girl, she defied her mother’s meddling and an adviser’s bullying, forging an iron will of her own. As a teenage queen, she eagerly grasped the crown and relished the freedom it brought her. At twenty years old, she fell passionately in love with Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, eventually giving birth to nine children. She loved sex and delighted in power. She was outspoken with her ministers, overstepping boundaries and asserting her opinions. After the death of her adored Albert, she began a controversial, intimate relationship with her servant John Brown. She survived eight assassination attempts over the course of her lifetime. And as science, technology, and democracy were dramatically reshaping the world, Victoria was a symbol of steadfastness and security—queen of a quarter of the world’s population at the height of the British Empire’s reach.

Drawing on sources that include revelations about Victoria’s relationship with John Brown, Julia Baird brings vividly to life the fascinating story of a woman who struggled with so many of the things we do today: balancing work and family, raising children, navigating marital strife, losing parents, combating anxiety and self-doubt, finding an identity, searching for meaning. This sweeping, page-turning biography gives us the real woman behind the myth: a bold, glamorous, unbreakable queen—a Victoria for our times, a Victoria who endured.

OOOOOH boy. This book, like Victoria’s reign, is long and never ending. Except when it does end, it happens suddenly, without warning, and you’re left with half a book left of notes and annexation.

It was interesting reading this so soon after watching The Crown. Obviously two different queens entirely, different time periods, different manners, different ideals. But the same challenges, prejudices, ageism, and misogyny. I could certainly see how the groundwork for Elizabeth’s reign was laid by Victoria’s. But that’s a different story altogether. Back to Victoria…

There’s so incredibly much to be learned here. I really knew nothing about Queen Victoria before starting this, except that there is a whole group of people and culture named after her. Who knew that her husband was the main influence of that movement–not actually Victoria herself? My reading journal is filled to the brim with the new random facts I gained by reading this.

But, that’s also my biggest criticism too. Sometimes this book doesn’t seem like much of a biography of Victoria at all. Often I wasn’t sure if she even respected the Queen, and I feel like that is kind of a necessary qualification for writing a biography about someone. It’s hard to figure the author’s motivations. Did she want to write about Victoria, but lose respect after getting into the research? Was she just super into the time period and decide the Queen would be the best base? I’m not sure. At times it almost felt more of Florence Nightingale’s commentary on Queen Victoria’s lack of feminism.

Speaking of which, let’s be clear. Queen Victoria was NOT a feminist. Which was wholly disappointing to discover–and why I wonder if the author misses the respect needed to write the biography she intended. Albert was that husband that very much dissed woman’s suffrage and even though his wife was THE QUEEN, still managed to convince her that he deserved more power over her. The work felt bitter because of it, especially when Nightingale stuck her nose in.

As an informative biography, I think it’s extremely well researched. I found the details fascinating, and as usual I loved reading about a monarch I didn’t previously know much (or anything) about. However, there definitely seems to be a bias here. I am unsure if it was intentional or if the history really was colored that way, but there’s just some weird tone that I haven’t felt in other similar biographies. Hm. I need to think on this one.

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NetGalley and Random House provided this ARC for an unbiased review. This post contains affiliate links.

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