Michelle Moran: Cleopatra’s Daughter

At the dawn of the Roman Empire, when tyranny ruled, a daughter of Egypt and a son of Rome found each other…

Selene’s legendary parents are gone. Her country taken, she has been brought to the city of Rome in chains, with only her twin brother, Alexander, to remind her of home and all she once had.

Living under the watchful eyes of the ruling family, Selene and her brother must quickly learn how to be Roman – and how to be useful to Caesar. She puts her artistry to work, in the hope of staying alive and being allowed to return to Egypt. Before long, however, she is distracted by the young and handsome heir to the empire…

When the elusive ‘Red Eagle’ starts calling for the end of slavery, Selene and Alexander are in grave danger. Will this mysterious figure bring their liberation, or their demise?

I’ve previously read and enjoyed two of Michelle Moran’s historical fictions, and after the last one I added most of her collection to my Goodreads. Her stories are so rich and detailed that I feel I’ve been transported right into the ancients. Granted, they aren’t perfect–and they are very fictional–but extremely fun to read. And you get a fantastic look at the world from a woman’s view at the famous people we hear about in history, which were typically men.

Cleopatra’s Daughter shows us what Rome looked like during Octavian’s rule from Kleopatra Selene’s perspective. She is terrified when forced to leave Alexandria after her mother and father commit suicide, and her world is thus turned upside down. Through her eyes we see war and gladiator battles and slave riots and court judgment–everything Rome is famous for, but from an outsider looking on horrified.

There are a couple things to look out for. There are a few mentions of rape, especially when it comes to the female slaves. And speaking of slavery, there is a multitude of it. The attitudes are mixed–some are for, some are against. There’s a revolt happening and a rebel is trying to stage an uprising in the Senate to free them–there are some interesting conversations happening, but I’m not sure as much care was spent on those sensitive conversations as could have been. The biggest problem I noticed was that blue eyes/blonde hair was the MOST BEAUTIFUL AND COVETED ALWAYS–even though the Romans had conquered Gaul and taken them as slaves. The Romans still had a preference for those blue eyes and that blonde hair–it was mentioned at least every other chapter.

It isn’t the most problematic book I’ve ever read–just some things to be aware of while you’re reading. Keep your eyes open. Selene is not a woman I could ever say I want to be. But it was certainly fascinating being in her shoes for a few hundred pages.

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Jennifer Ryan: The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir

“Just because the men have gone to war, why do we have to close the choir? And precisely when we need it most!”

As England enters World War II’s dark early days, spirited music professor Primrose Trent, recently arrived to the village of Chilbury, emboldens the women of the town to defy the Vicar’s stuffy edict to shutter the church’s choir in the absence of men and instead ‘carry on singing’. Resurrecting themselves as “The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir“, the women of this small village soon use their joint song to lift up themselves, and the community, as the war tears through their lives.

Told through letters and journals, The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir moves seamlessly from budding romances to village intrigues to heartbreaking matters of life and death. As we come to know the struggles of the charismatic members of this unforgettable outfit — a timid widow worried over her son at the front; the town beauty drawn to a rakish artist; her younger sister nursing an impossible crush and dabbling in politics she doesn’t understand; a young Jewish refugee hiding secrets about her family, and a conniving midwife plotting to outrun her seedy past — we come to see how the strength each finds in the choir’s collective voice reverberates in her individual life.

In turns funny, charming and heart-wrenching, this lovingly executed ensemble novel will charm and inspire, illuminating the true spirit of the women on the home front, in a village of indomitable spirit, at the dawn of a most terrible conflict.

After all the super intense books I’ve been reading lately, I was in some pretty desperate need for something light and fluffy. And while war is never exactly fluffy…stories about it can be kept light and romantic. That’s how The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir is–some big action written into a lovely easy read that would be welcome alongside a cozy fire or on a sandy beach.

There are some interesting characters in this book, for sure–and as with most WWII novels, some pretty strong women. There’s a few men around, but mostly the ladies run the show and all are incredibly unique. That said, there isn’t much actual diversity in this book, which is disappointing. The only attempt at a diverse character is one homosexual soldier, whose only real role is to further the moral curiosity of one of the leads. I liked that soldier…but he wasn’t in the book enough to really count as more than a diverse prop–not what we are going for, authors.

That’s really the only criticism I can give, and while that is a big one, I did enjoy reading the book. It was a nice, pleasant read. I’m not bouncing off the walls wanting to hand this to everyone, but it was a good way to spend two days. I feel refreshed and ready for something that requires more digging.

NetGalley and Crown Publishing provided an ARC for my unbiased review. This post contains 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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Heidi Heilig: The Girl From Everywhere

Nix has spent her entire life aboard her father’s ship, sailing across the centuries, across the world, across myth and imagination.

As long as her father has a map for it, he can sail to any time, any place, real or imagined: nineteenth-century China, the land from One Thousand and One Nights, a mythic version of Africa. Along the way they have found crewmates and friends, and even a disarming thief who could come to mean much more to Nix.

But the end to it all looms closer every day.

Her father is obsessed with obtaining the one map, 1868 Honolulu, that could take him back to his lost love, Nix’s mother. Even though getting it—and going there—could erase Nix’s very existence.

For the first time, Nix is entering unknown waters.

She could find herself, find her family, find her own fantastical ability, her own epic love.

Or she could disappear.

BOOK SLUMPS ARE HARD.

I went back and forth so many times on this one, and it took me three days to read it! But, I suppose that is why I put my blog on hiatus, so I wouldn’t have to rush, right? Forgive me for these off reviews, I’m clearly not myself right now. Still, for the sake of consistency, I want you know what I’ve read and what I thought while I read them. My brain won’t let me do otherwise. Just take these with a grain of salt, k? I’ll let you know once I catch up to myself when all this is said and done.

The @KeepItDiverse book club chose The Girl From Everywhere for their October read. Can I first of all just say that I love living in a small town because I’m able to get book club reads right away now? No more waiting two months for popular books. Woot!

Anyway, this was a bit of a slow starter, but it may have been because I was a bit hesitant. It reminded me straight off of Passenger by Alexandra Bracken, which I could not get into, and I was afraid this was going to be the same way. I gradually started falling into the story and it picked up speed. I like the idea of popping in and out of history, seeing different events happen.

There’s a love triangle here that is very confusing. It never really resolves itself. Which, on one hand, allows you to ship (pun intended) any way you like. But it is frustrating because there are so many unresolved feelings! Perhaps it’s building up to a sequel?

Another plot hole that really bothered me was the dragon. She got this dragon from her aunt at the beginning of the book–it eats pearls and has to live in salt water. Special mention was given to the bucket it lives in:  it can’t rust, had to have a handle so she could throw it over the side and be refreshed occasionally. And then the dragon disappears for most of the book. The bucket makes a short appearance later, but it just really doesn’t play much of a role, and seemed like a big detail that meant nothing. Maybe I missed something but it seemed odd to me.

Overall, the book was entertaining. There were lots of details about Hawaiian culture–where the author is from. The jokes about those damn Victorians made me laugh. It wasn’t my favorite book ever, but right now, I don’t think anything is my favorite thing ever, so if you like time travel, don’t count this one out.

 

UPDATE–Oh MAN this review is rough. I definitely need to go back and reread this book when I’m in a better mental state. Heidi is such a fantastic person, her activism is incredible. Please don’t count her book out just because of this slumpy review. If/When I read it again, I will be sure to update this. Leaving this up for authenticity, because I was going through a really hard time when I read it. But I did want to give this disclaimer because I admire the author quite a lot, for other reasons besides just her writing.

 

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Alison Weir: Innocent Traitor

I am now a condemned traitor . . . I am to die when I have hardly begun to live.

Historical expertise marries page-turning fiction in Alison Weir’s enthralling debut novel, breathing new life into one of the most significant and tumultuous periods of the English monarchy. It is the story of Lady Jane Grey–“the Nine Days’ Queen” –a fifteen-year-old girl who unwittingly finds herself at the center of the religious and civil unrest that nearly toppled the fabled House of Tudor during the sixteenth century.

The child of a scheming father and a ruthless mother, for whom she is merely a pawn in a dynastic game with the highest stakes, Jane Grey was born during the harrowingly turbulent period between Anne Boleyn’s beheading and the demise of Jane’s infamous great-uncle, King Henry VIII. With the premature passing of Jane’ s adolescent cousin, and Henry’s successor, King Edward VI, comes a struggle for supremacy fueled by political machinations and lethal religious fervor.

Unabashedly honest and exceptionally intelligent, Jane possesses a sound strength of character beyond her years that equips her to weather the vicious storm. And though she has no ambitions to rule, preferring to immerse herself in books and religious studies, she is forced to accept the crown, and by so doing sets off a firestorm of intrigue, betrayal, and tragedy.

Alison Weir uses her unmatched skills as a historian to enliven the many dynamic characters of this majestic drama. Along with Lady Jane Grey, Weir vividly renders her devious parents; her much-loved nanny; the benevolent Queen Katherine Parr; Jane’s ambitious cousins; the Catholic “Bloody” Mary, who will stop at nothing to seize the throne; and the Protestant and future queen Elizabeth. Readers venture inside royal drawing rooms and bedchambers to witness the power-grabbing that swirls around Lady Jane Grey from the day of her birth to her unbearably poignant death. Innocent Traitor paints a complete and compelling portrait of this captivating young woman, a faithful servant of God whose short reign and brief life would make her a legend.

Is there anything like a good Tudor story for a bit of drama? Methinks not.

The history of Lady Jane Grey begins when she was a child in Henry VIII’s court, and extends into Edward’s short lived reign. Her family tries to grasp power any way they can…as courtiers always do, by arranging secret marriage plots. Daughters are good for that.

There aren’t exactly chapters in this book, but instead it is divided up by multiple POVs that switch every page or two. This does require you to pay close attention, and there were a few times that I got lost in who was speaking–but as long as you watch the headers, you will be ok.

Rub your hands together and settle in for all the gossip and scandal you can stand. This is historical fiction as it SHOULD be written–the kind where you forget that it is fiction because you are reading from the perspective of the actual person and not some made up sub-character. There’s a huge difference, and this is the kind I want!

Lastly, I don’t go into a book like this expecting a lot of diversity. There SHOULD be some…but there usually isn’t. We need to change this, historical fiction authors.

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Review: The Shadow of the Wind

Barcelona, 1945: A city slowly heals in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, and Daniel, an antiquarian book dealer’s son who mourns the loss of his mother, finds solace in a mysterious book entitled The Shadow of the Wind, by one Julián Carax. But when he sets out to find the author’s other works, he makes a shocking discovery: someone has been systematically destroying every copy of every book Carax has written. In fact, Daniel may have the last of Carax’s books in existence. Soon Daniel’s seemingly innocent quest opens a door into one of Barcelona’s darkest secrets–an epic story of murder, madness, and doomed love.

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This book reminds me of Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose, in that it feels a lot older than it actually is. It was written in 2005, but as I was reading it, I thought it was actually written decades ago. Of course, it makes sense later, when the epilogue skips to 1960–but the text reads like much older literature than this millennium for sure.

The story itself is extremely complicated, with layers upon layers that build until the climax at the end. I’m not going to go into a lot of detail because there is just too much to discover here on your own, but it’s definitely one of those stories you have to focus on. It doesn’t hurt to take notes either. You never know when something insignificant might come back up again!

These historical fiction mysteries are always good for a brain workout. Goodreads has this listed as Fantasy too, but I don’t see how that is an applicable genre for this book. Definitely interesting, though, and one to pick up if you’re looking for something dark and thrilling, without being gory or overly scary.

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The Kingmaker’s Daughter

The Kingmaker’s Daughter is the gripping story of the daughters of the man known as the “Kingmaker,” Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick: the most powerful magnate in fifteenth-century England. Without a son and heir, he uses his daughters, Anne and Isabel as pawns in his political games, and they grow up to be influential players in their own right. In this novel, her first sister story since The Other Boleyn Girl, Philippa Gregory explores the lives of two fascinating young women.

At the court of Edward IV and his beautiful queen, Elizabeth Woodville, Anne grows from a delightful child to become ever more fearful and desperate when her father makes war on his former friends. Married at age fourteen, she is soon left widowed and fatherless, her mother in sanctuary and her sister married to the enemy. Anne manages her own escape by marrying Richard, Duke of Gloucester, but her choice will set her on a collision course with the overwhelming power of the royal family and will cost the lives of those she loves most in the world, including her precious only son, Prince Edward. Ultimately, the kingmaker’s daughter will achieve her father’s greatest ambition.

I knew that Game of Thrones had been based on The War of the Roses, but I had no idea just how closely it followed it. From the very moment I started reading The Kingmaker’s Daughter, it was impossible not to compare the two–even though one is complete fantasy, and one is based on real history. It really shine a whole new light on the series.

But, this review isn’t about GOT. So that’s enough about that.

Since I love British history as much as I do–especially Tudor history–it’s impossible not to love Philippa Gregory. I’m pretty sure I have every one of her books on my Goodreads TBR. She is pretty much THE historical fiction author of our time. Her stories are thick with passion and drama, and she goes super deep into the lives of the women who lived in those castles and magnificent dresses. She reminds us that it SUCKED to be a woman back then–our idea of “princess”  today is not exactly accurate.

The Kingmaker’s Daughter takes us into a story of a relatively unknown queen, and through her eyes we see it all–war, treason, childbirth, witchcraft, and everything else a woman had to deal with while the men battled for power. Gregory writes the game of chess magnificently.

It’s been awhile since I’ve picked up a Philippa Gregory novel, and now I’m rehooked. Be warned. I know where her section of the library is now! If you love historical fiction, or you just finished GOT and are asking yourself “WHAT DO I READ NOW?”–this is a good choice! It’s also part of an overall Cousin’s War series, so there are more!

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Jailbird

Jailbird takes us into a fractured and comic, pure Vonnegut world of high crimes and misdemeanors in government—and in the heart. This wry tale follows bumbling bureaucrat Walter F. Starbuck from Harvard to the Nixon White House to the penitentiary as Watergate’s least known co-conspirator. But the humor turns dark when Vonnegut shines his spotlight on the cold hearts and calculated greed of the mighty, giving a razor-sharp edge to an unforgettable portrait of power and politics in our times.

I don’t know what to say about this. Kurt Vonnegut is one of those authors that “everyone” loves without question. But I really have no idea what I just read.

When I could keep the thread, it was really good. It was an interesting, historical fiction commentary about the Watergate scandal and greed in America.

But it was SO HARD to keep the thread. Vonnegut jumps all over the place, his thoughts are far from linear–more like a scatterplot than a linegraph. I want to take scissors and cut out everything that makes sense and piece it all back together again. This is just a weird, weird book.

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The Imperial Wife

Two women’s lives collide when a priceless Russian artifact comes to light.

Tanya Kagan, a rising specialist in Russian art at a top New York auction house, is trying to entice Russia’s wealthy oligarchs to bid on the biggest sale of her career, The Order of Saint Catherine, while making sense of the sudden and unexplained departure of her husband.

As questions arise over the provenance of the Order and auction fever kicks in, Reyn takes us into the world of Catherine the Great, the infamous 18th-century empress who may have owned the priceless artifact, and who it turns out faced many of the same issues Tanya wrestles with in her own life.

I’m pretty sure when I requested this, I did so based on the cover and the title–and the fact that it was recommended to me as Historical Fiction. I probably skimmed the blurb, but I don’t tend to read them in depth, just grab the key idea to see if I’m interested, request, and move on. I mean, I read most anything, and historical fiction is just my bag.

This is not historical fiction. I mean…there is a tiny big of historical fiction IN the book…but it’s not a historical fiction novel. I’d relate this more to An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin (which is amusing, because he makes a cameo at one of the events). The story flashes back to the 18th century every few chapters, but just enough for you to be disappointed to find yourself in the present again. It’s like someone is waving bites of cake in front of you, but just as it reaches your lips, they pull it away and you only get a crumb.

Truth be told, I didn’t make it to the halfway marker on this. I want the cake. I’d much rather read the story about Catherine the Great (or at least find out who the heck Sophie is), instead of another mediocre book on marital troubles. Can I have the story that goes with the cover, please?

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NetGalley and Thomas Dunne Books provided this ARC for an unbiased review.

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Tallgrass

During World War II, a family finds life turned upside down when the government opens a Japanese internment camp in their small Colorado town. After a young girl is murdered, all eyes (and suspicions) turn to the newcomers, the interlopers, the strangers.

This is Tallgrass as Rennie Stroud has never seen it before. She has just turned thirteen and, until this time, life has pretty much been what her father told her it should be: predictable and fair. But now the winds of change are coming and, with them, a shift in her perspective. And Rennie will discover secrets that can destroy even the most sacred things.

Based on a real Japanese internment camp in Colorado, Sandra Dallas shares a story of racism versus acceptance, hatred versus forgiveness, war versus friendship. Tallgrass is one of those poignant books that makes you examine your own values and prejudices.

Usually when we read a book from WWII, we see the perspective of those directly suffering:  the soldier, a family living near the front, Jews in a German concentration camp. Instead of writing from inside Tallgrass–a point of view she knew she would have a harder time understanding–she wrote from the side of the white people looking in. The result is a story of a rural farm people fighting ignorance. Some of the town is flat out racist, a few try to be accepting of a culture they do not understand in an environment where they are told that “Japs are the enemies and un-American.”

One thing I really found interesting was that the townspeople were jealous of those living in the camp. They wished their sons were forced to be interred instead of drafted because at least then they would have a roof over their heads. Meanwhile, the Japanese-American boys wanted to enlist willingly. Just such a difference.

Tallgrass is a great example of WWII historical fiction. We don’t get too many strong American stories from the war (compared to European ones), and this is certainly one to add to your list.

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