Reviewed: “The Lost Tudor Princess: The Life of Lady Margaret Douglas” by Alison Weir

59.jpgI love Tudor history.

I love reading about the women who lived in the Tudor era.

I have read other books by Alison Weir about the Tudor era, so I was excited to be able to read The Lost Tudor Princess… and then I remembered the trouble with reading Alison Weir’s books about the Tudor era… they are long and they have a tendency to read sort of like Weir found old lists stuffed in faded books in dusty libraries and turned them into paragraphs. Which is probably a part of what happens when writing about someone this far removed from modern day history and not as well known as, say, Anne Boleyn.

However, pages upon pages of what kind of fabric Henry VIII sent to his niece for Christmas after Christmas and how much he paid for them is, while interesting, not the most exciting thing to read about. Especially not when Lady Margaret Douglas was a very interesting figure who did not necessarily live a life wholly consumed by clothes and jewels. She was involved in countless intrigues, some of which would seem to make Anne Boleyn pale in comparison. Weir does write about those… she just has a tendency to drift back into “and the curtains were purple” or other such things that, while describing life in Tudor England, seem vaguely out of place in what she wants to be the biography of a daughter, niece, cousin, sister, and mother-in-law to the kings and queens who ruled England and Scotland.

I tried to read this book for six weeks. I am giving up now because… maybe it’s me or maybe it’s the moment, but I just can’t do it. I’ll probably go back to it eventually, because it is a good, incredibly well-researched book. When I get over my fear of lists of fabrics…

I received a copy of The Lost Tudor Princess: The Life of Lady Margaret Douglas through NetGalley and Random House – Ballantine in exchange for an honest and original review. All thoughts are my own.

Reviewed: “Classical Ornament” by C. Thierry

52CLASSICAL ORNAMENT is just that, drawings of classical ornamentation on ancient, classical tombs, buildings, and other items. There are no words save for the captions that cite some locations of the ornamentation. I flipped through it all in one night. The detail in the drawings, which were done in the 1860s, is to be admired and it was interesting to see how many classical, ancient things we use in our art and even in our slogans and logos today.

(I received a copy of CLASSICAL ORNAMENT through NetGalley and Dover Publications in exchange for an honest and original review.)

Reviewed: “The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend” by Katarina Bivald

48.jpgI love books about books. Not non-fiction critiques and essays on the importance of classics in a modern world. Those are fine. But what I love are books about ordinary people living ever so slightly extraordinary lives because they, like me, love books.

Katarina Bivald’s THE READERS OF BROKEN WHEEL RECOMMEND is just such a book.

It’s a little bit fantastical, in the sense that I dream, dream of being able to do as Sara does in the book and up and travel to a tiny town in a foreign country for two months just because… well, books. It’s also a little bit real, in the sense that Sara from Sweden is just a girl looking for the place where she belongs, even if she doesn’t quite realize she doesn’t belong.

I feel like Sara’s kindred spirit, to quote Anne Shirley in L.M. Montgomery’s ANNE OF GREEN GABLES – something I think Sara would like, because I’m happiest with my nose in a book and the easiest friends to make are the ones on the pages of my books. But like Sara, I’ve met amazing people because I love books. I’ve met them online, like Sara and Amy do in Bivald’s novel. They aren’t people I ever would have known were it not for the modern convenience of instant global communication and the ancient convenience of words printed on paper to tell a story.

What Sara does, travelling from Sweden to Broken Wheel, Iowa, is brave and courageous. The stuff the heroines in the books she loves would be proud of. She goes alone and is even more alone when she gets there. But it doesn’t stop her from effectively taking Broken Wheel under her wing and fixing what she, and Amy, agreed needed to be fixed. She doesn’t really see herself as something that needs fixed but Broken Wheel sees otherwise.

And “fixing” isn’t even the right word. I don’t know what the right word is. Sara would probably know. What I’m trying to say is that Sara and the residents of Broken Wheel see the hidden best in each other and, once they realize it’s hidden, they work hard to bring it out so that each of them can flourish.

It is a feel-good story, it is maybe chick lit, it is an easy read. But all that’s selling it short. It’s a story about people, fictional of course, who bond over fictional people, actual fictional people – if that makes sense, and are better for it.

That’s my kind of book!

(I received a copy of THE READERS OF BROKEN WHEEL RECOMMEND through NetGalley and SOURCEBOOKS in exchange for an honest and original review.)

Reviewed: “Wolf Winter” by Cecilia Ekback

45.jpgIt took me a little while to get into Cecilia Ekback’s WOLF WINTER. I think this can be explained by the simple fact that you need to be in the right mood to read a book set in 1717 and placed on a remote mountain Sweden when you’re a 21st century reader more used to immediate understanding and fast plots. But once I got in the right frame of mind for WOLF WINTER, it hooked me in a heartbeat.

The story of Maija, mostly, and her daughter, Frederika, WOLF WINTER is the fairly epic tale of a Finnish family – Maija and Frederika along with husband Paavo and younger daughter Dorotea – who move to a remote Swedish mountain when they are basically forced out of their village under suspicion on witchcraft. The mountain, named Blackasen, comes with it’s own set of darkness, as Frederika and Dorotea find out when they discover a badly mauled body while herding goats.

The discovery happens in summer and the story weaves it’s way through the dark and foreboding “wolf winter” that sees the dozen or so villagers on the mountain overcome by paranoia and fear as Maija, a sort of healer-midwife, proves that the man was killed neither by wolves nor by anything supernatural associated with the Lapps but by one of them. The newcomer should never be the accuser, some might say.

WOLF WINTER pulls so many threads together in synchronicity; the newcomer Finns, the native tribes, the aristocrats of the mountain, the uneducated villagers, the ones accused of other sorcery, the pull of the powerful church… that it is impossible not to want to turn the page and peel back another layer of the story. There will be many times that you think you know the answer but, I promise, that you do not. And that does not mean you will be unhappy with the answer. It is incredibly well done.

(I received a copy of WOLF WINTER through NetGalley & Weinstein Books in exchange for an honest & original review. All thoughts are my own.)

Reviewed: “The Witches of Cambridge” by Menna van Praag

44THE WITCHES OF CAMBRIDGE is about, without spoiling anything, witches in Cambridge, England. In Menna van Praag’s world, there are witches in Cambridge. They are a retired professor of women’s studies and literature, a professor of advanced mathematics, a professor of art history, an art history student, a bakery owner, and… I forget now if van Praag ever specifies exactly what the single man in the group does. But he is associated with Cambridge University, just as all the professors and the student in the bunch.

There is even, not surprisingly, a secret society of said witches who meet monthly atop one tower or another on the campus where they hover in the air and discuss whichever book they read that month. So it’s essentially a witches’ book club.

Which is fine because Heloise, her daughter Amandine, sisters Kat and Cosima, new girl Noa, and George don’t actually do that many witch-y things. They have supernatural abilities and they use them as much as they are burdened by them; feeling emotions from others, baking spells into baked goods, blurting out the absolute, most secret truths of everyone she meets… but there isn’t much magic, save for the sexy, mysterious, and eventually incredibly dark Santiago who seems to be an antagonist in the story because everybody else is inherently good.

The women, and George (whose biggest secret, when revealed, is sort of a cliche), are essentially ordinary women with the problems of ordinary women who just happen to have less than ordinary ways that they can deal with their problems. Not that it always works out for the better.

I think I would have loved the book if it had more magic, more witchcraft. I liked the book because the witches are relatable and I do understand. I finished it, because it was just interesting enough, but I can’t say that I’m going to read it again. Maybe.

Note: THE WITCHES OF CAMBRIDGE has an expected publication date of February 9, 2016. This is a review of an advance copy.

(I received a copy of THE WITCHES OF CAMBRIDGE through NetGalley and Ballantine in exchange for an honest and original review. All thoughts are my own. Review cross-posted at NetGalley, Goodreads, and on my blog.)

Reviewed: “All We Had” by Annie Weatherwax

Annie Weatherwax created a curious world when she wrote the story of Ruthie and Rita Carmichael in All We Had. I’m going to start by saying I was absolutely sure Ruthie is the daughter in the story, but I just looked up the mother’s name and their last name. That being said, knowing the names aren’t necessary to enjoying the story, even in it’s quirky moments.

When the story begins, it is 2005 and Ruthie is twelve. That’s what the words on the page say. But some of the descriptions made me think of earlier years, the mid-1990s maybe. I kept having to remind myself that it was later than 2005 and that she starts the story as a pre-teen. Keeping time is tricky with the story. It’s a fairly novel, as novels go, but it manages to cover 2005, age 12 to sometime after Ruthie took a really long time to finish high school and apply to Harvard. Time skips are central to the story.

Which would be fine but it’s sometimes hard to tell that Ruthie is aging. Because of the background Weatherwax gave her; a mostly homeless girl who’d seen her mother raped and slept in the street among other, worse things, Ruthie is essentially a grownup in a child’s body when the story starts. And she’s the same when the story ends. It’s clear that Rita is her best friend, more than mother-daughter traditional relationship, but she’s starting higAll We Hadh school on page, being driven around by her mother, and she’s a junior on the next page, still falling asleep while her mother drives. It’s just… a stretch sometimes.

The best part of the story, though, is the realness of it.

There is no doubt in my mind that mothers and daughters in America have gone through this; a rootless existence that moves from one bad situation to the next never really knowing a settled life and, when the chance for one comes, having it ripped out from under them through absolutely no fault of their own. For that reason, more than any other, this book is important to read. It’s believable, it’s real, and it will open the eyes of anyone who chances it and tries it.

(I received a copy of All We Had through NetGalley and Scribner in exchange for an honest and original review. All thoughts are my own. My review is cross-posted at Goodreads, NetGalley, and on my blog.)

Reviewed: “The Revenant: A Novel of Revenge” by Michael Punke

The RevenantTrue story: I read some books because they’re going to be movies (always read the book first, people) and I watch some movies because someone particular is going to star in it. I am not ashamed of this.

That being said, when I read that Leonardo DiCaprio is starring in an adaptation of Michael Punke’s THE REVENANT I read a summary of the movie and decided I wanted to read the book. The movie isn’t out yet but I’m well on my way to it being an excellent idea all around.

A historical novel based on the real life experiences of 1820s fur trapper Hugh Glass, it really does an excellent job of making the world of fur trappers on the unexplored prairie and further west real. I lost track of the number of times I tapped words on my screen that I didn’t know and saw that they were archaic and of the period. That made me trust the story more and trust is important with historical fiction based on real events. If the language of a historical novel, especially one set so long ago, seems too modern there’s hardly a reason take it seriously.

This is a book I can take seriously. And I knew that even before I read the author’s notes at the end that laid out what he based on fact and evidence and what he created for the sake of a novel. The two things mesh perfectly to create a story that is vivid, intriguing, and easy to read without any superfluous dialogue or description.

It feels like an expedition into the American west.

In researching more facts and semi-facts in the novel, I’ve also discovered that the 1971 Richard Harris film “Man in the Wilderness” is based on the life of Hugh Glass so I plan to watch that and the new movie when it comes out and then compare all three.

I love history and this is a period of history I haven’t read much about. Punke, though the fictionalization of this not very well documented period of American history, makes it come alive and makes me want to know more.

THE REVENANT is available for purchase now.

I received a copy of THE REVENANT: A NOVEL OF REVENGE from Macmillan-Picador through NetGalley in exchange for an honest & original review. My review will be posted at NetGalley, on Goodreads, and on my blog.

Reviewed: “The Deep End” by Julie Mulhern

The Deep EndJulie Mulhern’s “The Deep End” is billed as one of “The Country Club Murders” and there are more to come in this series. I don’t think I’m interested in reading further murder stories set in country clubs.

It’s not that Mulhern’s creation in “The Deep End” – Kansas City in 1974 isn’t intriguing and well laid out, because it is. It’s more that her characters are sort of one-note and flat, and that makes them unlikable – especially the ones I can tell I’m meant to like.

Ellison Russell is both the main character and the main example of this. She’s an artist from a filthy rich family who lives a privileged life and is very perturbed, and that really is the best word for it, when things get in the way of her life running smoothly. She reacts in much the same way to finding a dead body in the country club pool (and on her doorstep and in her driveway) as she does to the mere revelation that her husband is having an affair. It’s all a personal offense to her and yet she is absolutely dedicated to protecting the people who make her life hell. It’s clear that she’s perfectly happy with the life she complains about endlessly.

Somewhat naturally, the most likable person in “The Deep End” is the odd man/woman out of the cookie cutter world. This person turns out to be the “bad guy/bad girl” but this person is the one you understand the most. I get why s/he did they things that occurred in the book. I wouldn’t do them myself, because it’s absolutely horrible, but the motivation is fairly easily understood.

It’s probably not a good thing when the best character in the book is the “bad” one. It might be different if it were more a case of the character you love to hate, but even this character will be forgotten in a day or two.

“The Deep End” is available for purchase now.

(I received a copy of “The Deep End” through NetGalley in exchange for an honest & original review. This review will be cross-posted on my blog, on Goodreads, and at NetGalley.)

Reviewed: “Of Bone and Thunder” by Chris Evans

Of Bone and ThunderChris Evans’ “Of Bone and Thunder” bills itself as a cross between “Apocalypse Now” and “Lord of the Rings.” Having been a little disturbed by the first and never having finished the second, this probably wasn’t the best book for me to attempt.

I only read about a tenth of the book before I gave up.

Copying Vietnam type things into a world of passenger dragons and crossbows just doesn’t work for me. I tried, I did. But the different types of people and their different allegiances and their rambling soliloquies was just too much.

Maybe if there’d been less crammed into such a small space I would have last longer. I don’t know. Maybe it just wasn’t for me.

I’m sure it’s the book for many people.

It’s available for purchase now.

(I received a copy of “Of Bone and Thunder” through NetGalley in exchange for an honest & Original review. My review will be cross-posted there, at Goodreads, and on my blog.)

Reviewed: “Meadowlands: A World War I Family Saga” by Elizabeth Jeffrey

MeadowlandElizabeth Jeffrey’s novel set at Meadowlands – the family estate of the Barshams in rural England – during the span of the First World War is a splendidly intricate portrayal of a family and their servants.

The book is likely classified first as historical fiction but there are so many sub-genres to the story that it’s almost hard to know where to begin. History, war, romance, family, friendship, drama, love, women, men… Jeffrey has managed to cover it all with “Meadowlands.”

The war is the over-arching theme to the story. It colors every action that Sir George, Lady Adelaide, Miss Gina, Miss Millie, James, Ned, Polly, Tom, and so many more take in the story. It’s not an overly long, epic sort of book so some of them are minor, supporting characters but it does not make them any less nuanced and individual from one another where it may have been easier to make the common things they share define them.

The primary focus on “Meadowlands” falls on Gina Barsham and Polly Catchpole. The story is told in relation to how it effects and alters them. Gina is the privileged daughter on the family estate – one who tolerates her mother’s antiquated ideas on upper class and lower class while founding a soup club to feed the poorest war wives, widows, and children in the nearby town. Polly is the daughter of the Meadowlands estate manager who goes to work as a maid, and later ladies maid to Lady Adelaide, in the house. She does her work the best she can – including being integral to the soup club the town, and most of England, so badly needs – and lets it distract her from the nearly lifelong love she’s felt for James Barsham, the second son of the estate – someone she believes she can never have.

With the focus on Gina and Polly, two entirely likable and relatable characters in large and enjoyable canvas, the novel could be considered one of friendship first and foremost. The two don’t want the same things from life and they don’t need the same things but neither ever lets the other down, even if it means incurring the anger and frustration of Lady Adelaide for mixing classes of people into her rarefied world.

“Meadowlands” is, in the end, a story of heartbreak and hope, of love and loss, of perseverance and pride. It is fantastic.

“Meadowlands: A World War I Family Saga” will be available for purchase April 1, 2015.

(I received a copy of “Meadowlands” from Severn House Publishers through NetGalley in exchange for an honest & original review. This review will be cross-posted on NetGalley, my Goodreads account, and my blog.)