Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Mini-Review Roundup

Mini-Review Roundup

I read and loved The Wicked and the Just, and so I was expecting something similar here. I both did and didn't get it, but I'm very happy overall. In TW&TJ, things were brutal. I appreciated that level of in-your-face brutality that drove home the situation and made it feel palpable. This book is much more middle grade and so it wasn't nearly as brutal.

Instead, what this evoked was Little House on the Prairie, and I mean that in a good way. It had adventure and the excitement of traveling into the untamed unknown. It had the warmth of family, friendship, dreams, and belonging. It had the hardscrabble disappointments and learning how to live in a new environment. It had scenery and a sense of place. It had so many things I love and I'm so glad I read it.

I loved the first book in this series, put down the second one (I'll finish it, it's just... Henry III is annoying) and so I thought I'd jump ahead to this book and learn more about one of my favorite kings (Edward I), one of my least favorite kings but exciting time periods (Edward II), and a king I know little about (Edward III). I got about as much as I was expecting: A fun and engaging narrative from an author I like a whole lot.

The Edward I part was fun, but left me wanting as it focused far more on William Wallace and the Scottish squabbles and not nearly as much as I wanted on Edward the man and his family. That's to be expected, but ever since reading (and absolutely loving) Cashelmara I've been pining for another book that focuses on the people.

The Edward II part was also to be expected. Solid. The Edward III part was interesting and gave me a lot more insight into The Black Prince, who has always been this figure of legend and not much substance to me. Joan the Fair Maid of Kent, John of Gaunt, and Alice Perrers all made appearances, naturally, and they all took on a little more shading and depth than my cursory knowledge up to this point. It also, of course, gave more insight into Edward III himself, though he still feels more shadowy. I almost feel like I know the other players more. Perhaps I'll try to find a historical fiction book that puts some personality into his character.

I still wasn't sure if I was going to continue with this series right away, but it tugged at my mind and I decided to continue on with the third book. It was...mostly as good as the first two. This one felt a little disjointed. The first part of the book was the same pattern as the first two books and I enjoyed it. Then she finally went to America and I lost steam. The new group of characters didn't grab me the way the old bunch did and I couldn't help but feel like her whirling adventure around the US was a distraction from what I really wanted to read, which was her life with her family, friends, and foes in England. It wasn't bad, but I wasn't nearly as into it as I was previously and it was easy to put the series down after this book. I still want to read the final book, but I don't feel the need to do so any time soon.

The Lady of the Lakes: The True Love Story of Sir Walter Scott

I absolutely adore Kilpack's book A Heart Revealed. I keep reading her other books in the Proper Romance series hoping to hit gold again, but every other book I've read has been just okay. This one included. I did not really like the main character and the story with his love interests was predictable and tortured in the execution. I mean, it wasn't bad and I think if a reader clicks with Walter then they'll enjoy it more than I did. It wasn't badly written, but I really disliked Walter and Mina and their parts were so long and so predictable. I did like Charlotte, but even her charm couldn't balance out the Walter and Mina parts enough to save this one for me. I own a print copy of this book, but I'll be passing it on.  

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Mini-Review Roundup

Mini-Review Roundup

I liked these books. They're short reads and each chapter is about a page or two long. So, they're super easy to read. I read them in the background, so to speak, where I might pick it up, read a chapter or two, and put it down again for a few days. I return to it when I want a moment of peace, rest, or to re-find my composure. For that, they're nice. Not every chapter is profound and sometimes they don't really stick, but often enough they do and they give me something to ponder or something that causes me to stop and pause or shift my mindset.

Elizabeth Norton has long been on my TBR bu this is the first book of hers I've read. It won't be my last, but...I'm not rushing out to read more of her books either. The pros? When she got into the groove, her writing was easy and enjoyable to read. I got into it. I liked reading about the queens I knew just as much as reading about the queens I didn't know, which tells me that her narrative style was accessible and provided enough information that I was entertained even if I was already familiar and enough information that I could follow along even if I'd never read about the queen before. That's all good and why I would read another one of her books.

Now, the downsides? First minor quibble: typos. A few times Henry VI was used when it should have been Henry V, or vice versa or similar. Not a big deal if you know the history, but super confusing if you don't.

More importantly, there was too much repetition and telling and not enough showing. The "thesis" of this book is essentially that history blames strong women and unfairly judges them for actions that are justifiable and wouldn't have been considered wrong if a man had done them. Okay. A little annoying, but fine. I could have gotten on board with this had the author focused on giving examples of what the women did and let me come to my own conclusions that they were 1) badass, 2) justified, and 3) wrongly maligned (which I would have determined on my own had she made a strong case in the examples for 1 and 2).

Instead, the author glossed over the examples so I could only sort of come to these conclusions on my own and she used more page time just repeating the tired thesis. The chapters fell into a similar pattern of: State thesis, give brief overview of queen's life that somewhat demonstrates her strength and how her actions were justified, and then repeat thesis...a few more times. Had these repetitive "telling" parts been removed, it would have been a solid, if not amazing, book.

I wasn't sure if I was going to continue with this series right away, but it tugged at my mind and I decided to pick up the second book. It was just as good as the first. Same quirky style, same funny and relatable situations, and the characters continued to grow on me. Not much else to say except if you liked the first book, then definitely pick up the second. 

Please Don't Eat the Daisies

I stumbled on this through Goodreads while looking up Shirley Jackson's Life Among the Savages (below). It was reviewed well and only 142 pages so I figured, why not? And started reading it right then and there. It was...okay. It was worth reading to the end, I guess, since it was so short. There were some funny parts. I didn't really like the narrator though, and the whole thing had a mean edge to it that I think was supposed to be funny but didn't appeal to me. The humor sometimes hit the mark exactly, but more often than not I felt like I was supposed to find it funnier and wittier than I actually did. 

While quite a departure from the Shirley Jackson I'm familiar with, I may even like this side of her writing more. At least, it hit the spot. This is another one of those "humor through commenting on mundane life" types of books, but unlike Please Don't Eat the Daisies, this one felt nice and relatable. I didn't feel like the author was sneering at me, rather, I felt like we could sit across a worn kitchen table together sipping sub-par coffee and splitting a chocolate bar. It was a quick read and ended nicely, so while I don't need to read the sequel right away, I'd like to pick it up soon.

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

June's Reads Reviewed- Part 1

June's Reads Mini-Review Roundup

This was a quick read about a time and people I don't know much about, and so for those reasons I enjoyed this book a lot. I'm sure much was skipped over, but that's okay. I got the highlights, and I got them in a way that I could follow along with events without feeling lost while also forming attachments with the characters.

Well, maybe "feelings" is more accurate than attachments. I learned that I don't like Anne of Holstein very much. She came across as stubborn and silly, and while I sympathized with her plight regarding her children, I don't love the way she went about handling that situation. I  also don't love all the ways she undermined and went against her husband and the story didn't give me any justification to make me get on board with Anne (nor did a few hours of internet research after finishing the book). I did discover a newfound respect for James I that I hadn't appreciated before. In my reading prior to this book, James I has always been a name waiting in the wings, a peripheral shadow to Elizabeth I's story. In this book, he came alive and his struggles in Scotland and then in England made me feel for him.

While I wasn't blown away, I enjoyed this book enough to want to check out more of Lynda M. Andrews' books. Another bonus? While she wrote James's dialogue phonetically and usually I hate that, the author actually pulled it off pretty well.

I've been enjoying the diary-style book lately because they tend to be quick, easy reads that make me nod along in kindred spiritedness. So, I looked for more of this type and came across the Provincial Lady series. It did not disappoint. Super short chapters and a relatively low overall page count made reading a breeze. The Provincial Lady is always somewhat stressed, which makes this not quite the relaxing escape Elizabeth von Armin's diary books provide, but the very mundane nature of her escapades and annoyances makes for a charming read. I definitely don't blissfully wish I was her and I'm not noting down Words of Wisdom, but the Provincial Lady seems like just the kind of lady I'd enjoy getting a coffee with and kvetching about mutual acquaintances and irksome social gatherings.

Anne BoleynAnne Boleyn by Norah Lofts

Let's get the not-so-good out of the way first: the author gives Anne a likely 6th finger. I know, it's not a big deal, but for some reason this always annoys me. Okay, moving on. Everything else was wonderful. I'm not bothered by the author's references to a "whiff" of the witchy and supernatural surrounding Anne and Elizabeth Woodville. Okay, so maybe this isn't exactly serious, but I find it a fun twist to indulge in mentally (like "believing" in ghosts for the sake of enjoying a good ghost story...while not actually believing in ghosts).

The Wars of the Roses: England's First Civil War

I've owned this book for about five years, so I'm glad I finally read it. It starts all the way back with Richard II, which was on one hand nice because I'm less familiar with Richard II, Henry IV, and Henry V, but on the other hand less nice because when I read Wars of the Roses books it's because I want the drama and flair of Margaret of Anjou, Margaret Beaufort, Edward IV, Richard III, Elizabeth Woodville, Warwick the Kingmaker, and the treacherous Duke of Clarence. So, I "slogged" through about 250 pages of history I wasn't particularly interested in reading about.

On the bright side, it wasn't actually a slog. I enjoyed the way Trevor Royle covered the Richard II - Henry V years and I found myself caught up in the narrative. The writing was easy to read, though on the drier side of things. Not because the content was boring or went on tangents, but mostly because it lacked heart. It was easy to pick up and read a chapter, and then just as easy to put the book down for a few days.

Disappointingly, when I finally did get to Henry VI, the whole pageant of characters fell flat. This was one of those history books with a male-focus, which is fine except I felt robbed of getting to read about Margaret of Anjou, Margaret Beaufort, and Elizabeth Woodville. They're such dynamic characters in history and here they were covered, but largely skimmed over and with no sense of drama, passion, or excitement. While more time was spent on the men, even they suffered from this soulless approach.

Perhaps that's a better, more serious approach to history? I don't know, but I do know that I'm the type of reader who likes my history in technicolor. So, overall, okay and a good overview of the time that goes into enough depth that this isn't a skim, but it lacks heart.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

May's Reads Reviewed

May's Reads Mini-Review Roundup

I had such high hopes for this book, but ultimately it was just okay. Probably forgettable. Nothing was wrong, but it failed to grab me and make me invested. I didn't feel strongly in any way when reading this. It was just...pleasant. Nice enough to keep reading. Easy enough to put down.

The characters were all okay. The "mystery" wasn't much of a mystery but the story was nice enough to follow along with. The thwarted and achieved romances were all mildly emotive, but more like in a shrugging kind of way-- sure, that thwarted romance was sad *shrug* sure, that achieved romance was nice *shrug*.

The three different authors writing three different time periods about three different but mildly related character sets was done seamlessly, so that's good. It's a good vacation book when you don't want to get so invested that you don't pay attention to your vacation setting, but not so bad that you wish you had brought an alternative with you. Just...nice. Overall though, after reading Kate Morton and loving Karen White's Tradd Street books, I was hoping for more.

Since I own a pretty paperback copy, I now have the dilemma of "do I keep it?" If I didn't already own it, I would feel no need to buy a copy. Since I already do own it, I'm torn between "sure, keep it, it's pretty and was good enough" and "I'm never going to reread this and do I really want to use shelf space and moving boxes for it?" But...I already have it....ugh.
Secondhand CharmSecondhand Charm by Julie Berry

I have a hit-and-miss history with Julie Berry. I loved The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place but I was pretty meh on The Amaranth Enchantment. This book falls more on the meh side of things.

The thing is, Julie Berry has this tongue in cheek style that can often veer into zany and weird. That worked for Prickwillow because the whole book felt like satire of a genre. Amaranth and Secondhand Charm don't have that satirical edge--they're straight MG/YA fantasy, and so the zany just comes across eye-rollingly weird.

The characters are also pretty thin and hard to feel much about, which again works for satire, but not so much here. Finally, it felt like the audience age was off. In some cases this felt MG or on the younger side of YA (think the sweetness of a Jessica Day George book) and in other places it felt like it had an edge or darkness that made it seem older. This clashed and made for an unsettled feeling. The charms also felt like they were thrown in and not very well fleshed out, which, yes, that's another thing I didn't like about Amaranth-- it felt like too many things were thrown into the mix but it was jumbled and unfinished (but that worked in Prickwillow).  Another meh.

Peace of Mind: Becoming Fully PresentPeace of Mind by Thich Nhat Hanh

I've been making my way slowly though this author's books and I think this may be my favorite so far. The others are more short paragraphs or a page that focuses on an idea and gives you something to think about. I love them. This one is similar, but different. The book takes you on a sequential journey and helps you build a pathway toward a calmer and more present state of being. The author's voice came through a little more in this way, like you're having a conversation over time rather than getting different pieces of advice. Both are good approaches and I like both types of his books, but this one seems like it had a stronger impact. The sequential, building approach pulled my focus back more effectively and this book felt like a refuge and a motivator. I think I'll reread it.

Fast And LooseFast and Loose by Edith Wharton

I'm still making my way through Edith Wharton's novellas and it's such a pleasure. They're so easy to read, but I find they stay with me long after they're over and call to me (I foresee rereads in my future). She's so good at creating vivid characters and intriguing, thought-provoking situations. In some ways I almost prefer her novellas because they let her shine a spotlight on these things and let the reader sit with them for just enough time to really focus on them, but not find them tiresome (which is a fine line, because her characters can be easily intriguing but just as easily tiresome).

Fast and Loose had shades of Francis Hodgson Burnett's The Making of a Marchioness in that it felt like a cross between the manners and romantic entanglements of Jane Austen and the Gothic drama of Emily Bronte, but shorter and more lighthearted and fun like Burnett's. But, it's also Wharton, so there's still some heft underneath the fluff and you can easily spend a lazy afternoon musing over the different angles of the situation and what you might do if you were to find yourself in such an entanglement.

This is the review I wish my past-self had read, as it would have saved me a whole lot of time and irritation:

Skip it. Trust me. I know the storyline is right up your alley: Egypt, dual era, mystery, yes, yes, I know. I know Egypt especially is calling to you and you want to spend some time with the romance and adventure of Victorian Egypt. I also know you think you're prepared for the hefty page count because you read The Ghost Tree last year and while you didn't love it, ultimately you thought it was a pleasant enough read and you loved the super short chapters. I know the first chapter seems like it's well-written. I know.

But you won't get any of that here. The chapters are long and the writing takes a serious dive after that reader-bait opening.

What you will get are awful characters. Every character is a trope pulled from the 1990s, including the painful love triangle where the main character is never quite sure which potential love interest is the misunderstood good guy and which is a villain (and both do awful things). The main character is at turns weak, bitchy, flighty, irrational, naive, and straight up stupid. The historical sections were better, and while those characters were easier to like, they were also insipid.

At nearly 500 pages with these characters, it's a wonder I didn't quit. But, I didn't like the characters much in The Ghost Tree so I thought I'd keep going...until I started to realize that this book is one big rinse-and-repeat, and by that point I was so far in that I wanted to just see it through to the end hoping that would at least make it all worthwhile. The historical story does advance, albeit in a slow and not particularly interesting way, but the modern portions are just the same contrived situation done over and over again without any plot advancement.

But the final "toss the book across the room" moment came at the end when the conclusion of the historical portion petered out to a disappointing end and the modern day portion stopped right in the middle of a scene. Now, granted, the scene probably would have been the same old shtick, but ending it this way made me feel like I was stuck in some Sisyphean hell doomed to repeatedly follow these loathsome characters through this contrived and, really, boring situation. Save yourself. Read something else.

In closing out a rather hit-and-miss month, I'm relieved to say that this was a solid hit. Many people will disagree. This is the most fictiony non-fiction book I've ever read. Talk about author bias! And the writing shifts from non-fiction to straight up fiction storytelling (and romantic, blousy writing at that) from paragraph to paragraph. But I loved it.

Catherine is portrayed as her infamous bad self with all the dirt presented as fact, but it's done in such a way that I couldn't help but like and admire her anyway. Kind of like Megan Follows' interpretation in the equally ridiculous but fun TV show Reign. Really, pretty much everyone gets this treatment (Francis, Mary, Elizabeth, etc.). (Actually, for fans of Reign looking to learn a little more about the characters, this would be a fantastic book to start with).

I think the best way to approach this book is to imagine you're watching a gossipy docu-drama with colorful reenactments and salacious commentary from legit historians who aren't above a sleepover party approach to learning about history. It's non-fiction...but it ain't gospel, and it comes with a bucket of buttery popcorn and tooth-curling cotton candy. I wish I could get my hands on more of her books.

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

April's Reads Reviewed

April's Reads Mini-Review Roundup

Elizabeth and her German GardenElizabeth and her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim

This book is perfect. I love Elizabeth. She'd prefer to spend her days in her garden, alone, and I can definitely relate to that. This book is written in diary format with Elizabeth recounting the mundane daily activities of her life as a wealthy Englishwoman in Germany during the latter part of the 1800s. It's subtle, but my god this book is funny.

Much is left unsaid but the reader can still pick up on it, like Elizabeth's loving marriage (with her husband with gentle ribbing and good-natured fun referred to as The Man of Wrath) and her doting relationship with her charming children. Elizabeth is perfectly imperfect. I loved Arnim's The Enchanted April for the tranquil escapism and lovely characters, and all of that is here again but with a main character who is even more of a kindred spirit and definitely more humor.

The Secret KeeperThe House at Riverton by Kate Morton

While I liked The House at Riverton a whole lot, The Secret Keeper is even better. It's another doorstop with fairly large chapters, but I flew through it despite all that. The mystery kept me guessing, and just when I thought I had it figured out, some new bit of information changed things up again.

The historical part had me enthralled. It had a great sense of time and place. I loved two of the characters, but one of them I tried to like but couldn't fight off the creeping dread that I really didn't like them. That wasn't a bad thing at all though. Ah, and the romance was lovely. The modern story follows Laurel-- a hardened 66 year old cigarette smoking woman who, while not as developed, was still likable and I was caught up in her sleuthing. She wasn't the typical young lead with a romance, and while I love that trope, it was nice to have a different kind of character to follow.

Morton did a particularly fantastic job of keeping up the tension and mystery between the modern parts and the historical parts. It's hard to describe, but the way she scattered the clues kept me constantly on my toes and voraciously collecting the pieces from the past and present to try to weave together the mystery of the past. It was gripping, and the ending was worthy of the journey. 

The World According to Mister Rogers: Important Things to RememberThe World According to Mister Rogers by Fred Rogers

This is another book that I read over time. Each chapter is about 1-3 pages and focuses on a story, life lesson, or thought from Fred Rogers. I felt like I was sitting on the set of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood and chatting with Fred. He felt like a mentor. I learned so much about him, his show, and child psychology, which was unexpected but wonderful. Every time I'd open the book I'd get this sense of calm and love. The book has the subtitle of "Important Things to Remember" and that's very apt. I think I'll open it again from time to time and reread passages. They are important things to remind oneself of again.

The Solitary SummerThe Solitary Summer by Elizabeth von Arnim

This is the second book in the "Elizabeth" series, and everything I said about the first book is true for this second book. I think you could probably read this book without having read the first one, but why would you want to miss out?

The Forgotten GardenThe Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton

I can't decide if I like this one more or The Secret Keeper. It's a tough call. For about the first quarter of the book I thought that this was good, but I was impatient because I felt like I had it all figured out already and that I was going to spent the next several hundred pages waiting for the main character to get there too. While I was right in guessing that aspect of the mystery, thankfully the main character figured it out about a quarter of the way through as well and then the rest of the book opened up even more mysteries that I happily paced along the main character in unraveling.

I was also pleasantly surprised to find there are short stories/fairy tales interspersed throughout. I think there are about five of them and each one is a fantastic story in its own right. All of the characters were fun to follow and I appreciated the romances a lot. There were a lot of bittersweet and sad events that tugged at my heart. The parts with Nell and young Cassandra reminded me of my own grandparents who have recently passed, and so that was personally bittersweet as well. The final, final discovery was a little disappointing, but all in all it was very well worth the read.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

March's Reads Reviewed

March's Reads Mini-Review Roundup

Echo the Copycat (Goddess Girls #19)

Echo the Copycat by Joan Holub and Suzanne Williams
Calliope the Muse by Joan Holub and Suzanne Williams

These books are consistently good. I don't have much more to say about them than what I've already said. They're short enough to fit in quickly, but long enough to have substance. There's always a sweet element of humor and the characters are just straight up nice. These are feel-good books and I'm glad the new stories are still being published.

The House At RivertonThe House at Riverton by Kat Morton

First, let me get this out of my system: FINALLY!!! Ahem, okay, so I've had Kate Morton's books on my shelves for, oh, over eight years and I've never read them. Why you might ask, when these books seem so right up my alley? Well, because they're long and I had this impression in my head that they would fall into that "rewarding in the end but a slog to get through" category. Where I got that idea I don't know, but firmly set in my mind it was and so I longingly and shamefully looked at their beautiful spines for years.

Until January 2019, when I picked up The House at Riverton and got about 50 pages in before putting it down again. It seemed nice enough, but it just hadn't grabbed me. I vowed to pick it up again...someday.

That someday came just over a full year later when in March 2020 after tentatively toe-dipping back into reading I somehow decided NOW was the time. And it was.

This may be a hefty book (almost 500 pages) and the chapters aren't super short, but I sped through it. I didn't really like any of the characters and the plot wasn't what I'd call fast, but this is the kind of book that has a deceptive slow burn where it feels like not a whole lot is happening but I feel utterly gripped anyway. Then in the final quarter all of the threads started coming together, building and building toward the absolutely face-smacking conclusion. And then that final piece of the puzzle...ah, what a punch in the gut. It's weird to say that a gut-punch is a good thing, but in this book it made me do the mental equivalent of sitting down suddenly in shock with my jaw dropped to the floor. I loved it!

How to Love (Mindfulness Essentials, #3)
I started reading this book years ago, picking away at it a little at a time. It's a short book with tiny chapters-- each only about a minute or so to read. Each chapter focuses on a different aspect of love and mindfulness and I read it slowly because I wanted to let each lesson sink in. Not every chapter was profound or mattered to me right now, but every few chapters were. Those were the chapters that made me pause, think, and sometimes change my approach. I love the simple, approachable way this book is written.

SanctuarySanctuary by Edith Wharton

My dabbling in Edith Wharton's short novels/novellas continued and for the next foray I chose Sanctuary. This one felt a lot shorter than Bunner Sisters with the characters reading more like sketches. The first half of the story follows Kate, a young woman soon to be married to a man who has recently come into a fortune. Shortly before their wedding, Kate discovers something about her husband that irrevocably changes their relationship. The situation unravels with Wharton presenting a thought-provoking moral dilemma that left me mulling over the possibilities and wondering "What would I do?" Had the story ended here, it would have been an interesting short story.

But, of course, it didn't end there. The choice Kate ultimately made (which I thought was absurd) guaranteed that Wharton had to write the second party of the story. This is that part that left me lukewarm. The bones of the story are good. The writing and characterization is strong in the way I've come to expect from Wharton. The dilemma mirroring the dilemma in the first half was interesting and kept up a "What will he do?" tension, thickened by what the reader, but not the character, knows happened in part I. A dozen conversations could be sparked by this story and I would happily chat for hours over the different angles of the story (nature versus nurture, morality, so on). While I appreciated the short length, it might have been nice to have the second part fleshed out a little more, and maybe even told from Dick's point of view.

And yet...I couldn't shake an icky feeling throughout the whole second half. Kate's relationship with her son felt...wrong. I can't say more without spoiling things, but it's this relationship that leaves me slightly unsettled with the story, even though I loved everything else.

Okay, almost everything else. Kate is so righteously annoying. But, I don't read Edith Wharton books for her lovable characters.

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

The Women of Chateau Lafayette by Stephanie Dray

Cover Reveal & Author Interview


An epic saga from New York Times bestselling author Stephanie Dray based on the true story of an extraordinary castle in the heart of France and the remarkable women bound by its legacy in three of humanity's darkest hours.

Most castles are protected by powerful men. This one by women...

A founding mother...

1774. Gently-bred noblewoman Adrienne Lafayette becomes her husband's political partner in the fight for American independence. But when their idealism sparks revolution in France and the guillotine threatens everything she holds dear, Adrienne must choose to renounce the complicated man she loves, or risk her life for a legacy that will inspire generations to come.

A daring visionary...

1914. Glittering New York socialite Beatrice Astor Chanler is a force of nature, daunted by nothing--not her humble beginnings, her crumbling marriage, or the outbreak of war. But after witnessing the devastation in France and delivering war-relief over dangerous seas, Beatrice takes on the challenge of a lifetime: convincing America to fight for what's right.

A reluctant resistor...

1940. French school-teacher and aspiring artist Marthe Simone has an orphan's self-reliance and wants nothing to do with war. But as the realities of Nazi occupation transform her life in the isolated castle where she came of age, she makes a discovery that calls into question who she is, and more importantly, who she is willing to become.

Intricately woven and beautifully told, The Women of Chateau Lafayette is a sweeping novel about duty and hope, love and courage, and the strength we find from standing together in honor of those who came before us.

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What made you fall in love with Adrienne Lafayette and why do you think readers will fall for her as you did?

Thanks to a popular musical, the Marquis de Lafayette is known to a new generation as "America's Favorite Fighting Frenchman"--and there's good reason for that. He's easily the most lovable of our Founding Fathers, and his wife, whom he called his dear heart, is just as lovable if not more so. Adrienne was our French Founding Mother, so right up my alley as a heroine, but at first I worried she was too sweet, devoted, and forgiving. In short, too gentle for a novel. Little did I realize that more than any other historical heroine I've ever written, Adrienne fought and sacrificed for her principles, courageously threw herself into danger, confronted tyrants, and endured trials that would have broken lesser mortals. She truly humbles me, and when I talk about the Lafayette legacy, I think of it as every bit as much hers as it is his.

How long did it take you to write this book? Did the story evolve as you researched, or did you always know you wanted to take on the lives of these particular women?

I was always interested in Lafayette--an interest that grew as Laura Kamoie and I co-authored America's First Daughter and My Dear Hamilton. I think I had the germ of the idea for a Lafayette novel at least seven years ago, but I had other projects in the way. And I was always in search of an angle that would be fresh and unique. That came to me when I discovered that Lafayette's castle in Auvergne, which had been purchased and renovated by Americans, served to shelter Jewish children from the Nazis. Knowing how deeply the Lafayettes both felt about religious freedom, I knew this would have pleased them, and it touched me. I was then determined to know which Americans had purchased the chateau, and when I found out, yet another glorious chapter in the Lafayette legacy was born. That's when the story took shape for me about one special place on this earth where, generation after generation, faith has been kept with principles of liberty and humanity. I find that very inspirational, now more than ever.

The book is centered around Lafayette’s castle, the Ch√Ęteau de Chavaniac, and the pivotal role it played during three of history’s darkest hours—the French Revolution and both World Wars. If you could have dinner with any three people (dead or alive) at Chavaniac, who would you choose and why?

Believe it or not, this is actually a difficult choice because so many incredible men and women passed through those doors. I'd have to start with the Lafayettes--though I hope they would not serve me pigeons, which were a favorite at their wedding banquet. To join us for dinner, I'd choose the colorful stage-star of the Belle Epoque, Beatrice Chanler, because she was a force of nature without whom Chavaniac might not still be standing. Actress, artist, philanthropist, decorated war-relief worker and so-called Queen of the Social Register, she was as mysterious as she was wonderful, and even after all the startling discoveries I made researching her larger-than-life existence, I have a million questions about the early life she tried so hard to hide. I can't wait for readers to meet her!

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

February's Reads Reviewed

February's Reads Mini-Review Roundup

The Time-Traveling Fashionista and Cleopatra, Queen of the NileThe Time-Traveling Fashionista and Cleopatra, Queen of the Nile by Bianca Turetsky

For purely aesthetic reasons, these books are a joy to read. Illustrations are peppered throughout, the pages are thick, and there are additional flourishes for the chapter headings and page decorations. I usually prefer e-books, but when I read this series, I make sure to read the print versions. I also love that the chapters are super short. I fly through these books.

But, what about the actual story? Well, it's okay. The main character is nice enough and even though she exudes a miasma of blah with a tinge of dreary, I do actually like her. I love all of the historical settings of these books, and the Cleopatra book had the unexpected but wonderful pit stop to the film setting of Elizabeth Taylor's movie Cleopatra, which was like a mini-bonus destination. All good things.

Also good, is that the books are sprinkled with good historical tidbits, including fashion bits from the times, which is what I really love. I do feel like you can actual learn from these books. But....they're also much less meaty than I would have liked. The Titanic book spent more time really digging into the history and spending time there, but the Marie Antoinette book was more like an overnight visit instead of a week-long vacation, and the Cleopatra book was more like a day trip. I wanted more.

The series kind of petered out, which is a shame because I love the concept, love the presentation, loved the zany old-lady sidekicks, and loved the unexpected heft of the first book. I really wish the author had put in the depth of the first book into the next two and I wish she had continued on writing the series. Had she done that, this would have been one of my favorite auto-buy series, but instead it just kind of trickled away into nothing. Very sad.

Bunner SistersBunner Sisters by Edith Wharton

I've been on a real Edith Wharton kick lately and she's rapidly becoming one of my favorite authors. Her books are beautifully but accessibly written, describe an era I love (turn of the 20th century), feature memorable characters that are likable despite their flaw, and stories that pull me in and stay vividly in my mind long after they're over.

But, ah, they are often gut-punchy and sad and The Bunner Sisters is no exception. This is not a happy book. Things just go from bad to worse and at the end when you think the final nail has been hammered into the coffin and you're done and lying on the ground beaten and you've cried mercy and you've been left alone to catalogue your cuts and bruises...Edith turns around and gives you one final kick in the stomach for good measure.

I know that doesn't sound appealing at all, and I am not the kind of reader that likes depressing books. I'm actually the kind of reader that runs screaming from depressing books. But there's something about Edith Wharton that just makes me like her books in spite of this.

It does also help that The Bunner Sisters is a quick read. It's one of Wharton's over 100 pages but under 200 pages books (though in some printings they're under 100 pages), and I'm really enjoying working my way through them (she has a lot). I'm not sure if you'd call them novellas or novels and I think depending on the definition you use and who you talk to they're both. I think of a novella as around 60-80 or so pages, but Wikipedia has a bunch of examples of novellas that I'd personally consider short novels so what do I know? Whatever you classify it, Edith Wharton is really good at writing evocative, immersive stories in a short amount of pages.


I was sick for a lot of February and stressing a lot watching the spread of the virus and wondering what was going to happen. This, unsurprisingly, took a toll on my reading and I only managed to get through two books in February. But, the books I did read were both enjoyable in their own way, and both check "goal" boxes as being series/authors that I enjoy, a book I own, historical fiction, and a "classic" author.

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

January's Reads Reviewed

Mini-Review Roundup

So, I'm trying something a little different this year. Instead of focusing on single-review posts, which, let's face it, I haven't been doing much of lately, I'm going to try mini round ups. Maybe that will work? We'll see.

Sword of Destiny (The Witcher, #0.75)Sword of Destiny by Andrzej Sapkowski
After enjoying the first book, I decided to keep going with this series until I didn't want to read it anymore. See, I'm still having commitment issues, and that makes no sense considering I actually really like these books. This collection of stories focused far more on Yennifer and Geralt's relationship and had a mix of stories that were included in the show and a few that weren't. All were good and added depth to the characters and stories that the show just glossed over. I liked the show a lot more before I read the books and saw how much better things could be.

I warmed up to Yennifer much more than I did in the TV series. See, in the series she's kind of awful, but I didn't get the impression that we were supposed to think that. I got the impression that we were supposed to think she was an awesome badass and her yearning for children and anger at the sorcerers who "stole" her ability to have children (after, you know, demanding they do it) was supposed to be righteous.  In the books she's even more awful, but it's very clear that you're supposed to think that. She's flawed and nuanced. As a result, she has depth and I actually care about her and her relationship with Geralt becomes both tragic and epic. That I can get on board with.  

The Other Tudor Princess: Margaret DouglasThe Other Tudor Princess by Mary McGrigor
I started reading this in September 2018, put it down at 55% in October and didn't pick it back up again until January 2020. In the year in between readings my knowledge of the main players (Margaret Douglas, Elizabeth I, Mary Stuart, etc.) has grown significantly (Leanda de Lisle's excellent Tudor was the perfect prereq).

I remember putting the book down in part because I was having trouble keeping track of everything and everyone. Picking it up now, I was able to follow everything much better. It's a short book, and maybe it's a little too short for the reader with very little knowledge of the time period. A lot is glossed over in order to keep that page count down, and that combined with so many people with the same name makes this perhaps not the best introduction to the era. Another reason not to read this without pre-knowledge? There are a surprising number of silly errors like referring to Anne Boleyn as Catherine Howard's aunt (she was her cousin) or calling Henry VII Margaret Tudor's grandfather (he was her father).

However, go into this with some background knowledge and it's a great, quick review that hits all the high points while adding a lot of extra tidbits to keep things interesting. Chapters are super short, the writing is pleasant to read, and I cared about Margaret. I like these quick overview types of books as they help me make connections between the individual components I've gone more in depth with (or have heard about in passing through some of those in-depth excursions, like Arbella Stuart). We also got to go more in depth with Margaret Tudor, which provided nice background.

Breakfast at Tiffany'sBreakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote
So, this was nothing like I was expecting. I had images of a posh Audrey Hepburn and high society ritzy glitz. Clearly, I haven't seen the movie. Or maybe the movie does give that impression. I don't know, I haven't seen the  movie. Anyway, that's probably a good thing because I don't think I would have liked this book at all if I had seen the movie first.

The book isn't uplifting. Holly is a mess, and while this contributes to her charm and attracts men left and right, it's also pretty tragic. She's a fascinating person in that rubberneck at an accident kind of way and if this story had been longer I don't think I would have liked it as much. As it is, it's the perfect length to draw me in, keep my interest, leave before overstaying its welcome, but leave a lingering impression. I'm glad I finally read this one.

I wasn't planning on reading the three short stories also included in my copy, but I'm very glad I did. Each had that same fascinating draw-you-in vibe of the first, but in three very different ways. The first was intriguing in a way I can't quite put my finger on, the second was sad and had an old west vibe even though it took place in a prison, and the third is easily my favorite: a Christmas memory of a young boy with his grandmother.      

Empire of the Summer Moon: Quanah Parker and the Rise and Fall of the Comanches, the Most Powerful Indian Tribe in American HistoryEmpire of the Summer Moon by S. C. Gwyne
Loved this. Immersive writing, quick pace, chapters were a little long for me, but that just goes to show how interesting it was that the large chapters didn't deter me. I tend to shy away from this subject because it's hard to find books that focus on the facts of history and don't color things with the perspectives of the present. Thankfully, this was a brutally honest take with no villains and no heroes- just straight up history. Though, I have to say, I loved the Texas spirit.  

MinetteMinette by Melanie Clegg
Ah, it's so hard to read historical fiction that ends on a high note when you know it doesn't ultimately end that way.

Anyway, that aside, I loved this book. Well-drawn characters, good pacing, immersive history. I felt for Minette and I loved the characterization of her mother. The focus on how these two women felt in the aftermath of the revolution and how these events shaped them was well done...and heartbreaking. Not much insight into Charles II or Louis XIV, but that's okay. Melanie Clegg is a historical author to watch.

The Tudors: The Complete Story of England's Most Notorious DynastyThe Tudors by G. J. Meyer
Well, G. J. Meyer clearly is not a fan of Elizabeth I. He didn't sing Henry, Edward, or Mary's praises either, but their sections were a lot more balanced. Elizabeth, not so much. Apparently, she didn't do anything right and anything good from her era was either propaganda or someone else's achievement.

That aside, this was a nice overview of the Tudor era and worth reading. I liked Leanda de Lisle's Tudor more, but this one is still worth reading. While his Elizabeth section was clearly biased, it was still interesting to entertain that point of view and reexamine the popular narratives.

Chapters alternated between the chronological history (larger chapters) and historical asides (shorter chapters) that often took a deeper look at a particular aspect of the narrative covered in the prior chapter. Sometimes these asides gave insight into a minor player, more often they gave more general historical depth to one of the major issues of the time like corruption in the church, the history of Lutheranism, the Tower of London, Parliament, and so on.

I looked forward to these chapters. They added something to the book that let it stand apart from all the other Tudor books. I also appreciated how they were paired with the greater narrative. Some books just focus on these broader topics (Life in Tudor England type books) or take a whole book to focus on one of those topics, but this combination of royal narrative and supplementary asides helped root them in the larger context, making both sections better as a result.


Two books I put down earlier and picked up again only to quickly polish them off. Four historicals, three of which are non-fiction. One print copy owned since 2019. One classic. One fantasy. All adult. Engaged with all of them. All winners.

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

Year in Review: October through December

I made a really big list

I'm slower this time around in getting my year end review in order, so I'm totally thrown off. It's May 2020, but I'm looking back now on October through December 2019. Oh well, guess I'm just going to go with the flow?

I started making these lists because I'm a list kind of person, but they've become so much more. I've found myself returning to them time and again almost like a scrapbook. It's been a nice way to reflect, remember, and reminisce.

 The Time-Traveling Fashionista at the Palace of Marie Antoinette The Time Traveling Fashionista by Bianca Turetsky
I was still in the grip of my September-induced Motivation to Meet All My Yearly Goals and so I decided to pick up this book: on my shelves since 2017. I was surprised by how much I loved the first book and I was looking forward to this second installment even more because of the Marie Antoinette focus. I adore Marie Antoinette. Unfortunately, I don't think Bianca Turetsky does. Add in a meh love interest, considerably less time spent in the past, and another time-traveling fashionista with a bit of an attitude and consider me disappointed. So disappointed, in fact, that I decided to break up the series and give away my beautiful print copy. I guess I just can't abide someone dissing MA. 

Stormy PetrelStormy Petrel by Mary Stewart
I've heard Mary Stewart's last three books were different from all her others. They're supposed to be softer, quieter, sweeter. That's exactly what I was looking for and now I've read all three. Sadly, Stormy Petrel is perhaps my least favorite of the three. Or, maybe it's tied with Rose Cottage for number two. Or maybe slightly above Rose Cottage. I don't know. Either way, it's not my number one (that would be Thornyhold), but it's also pretty darn good. I can definitely see myself rereading this, and forgetting enough of it that rereading will be a delight.

The Orange Trees of Versailles (Les Orangers de Versailles, #1)The Orange Trees of Versailles by Annie Pietri
I can almost say the same thing about this as I said about The Mozart Girl: This is such a little book but still managed to pack in so much. I loved the mix of perfumery and French royal history, though I could have wished for a little more detail on both fronts. Still, for such a short book, I can't complain. Athenais has been a villain for me ever since watching Versailles and seeing her played to perfection by Anna Brewster, so I liked the Super Evil version presented here. While the climax is not at all historically accurate, it does draw from a similar enough accusation that ultimately led to her downfall and I'm surprisingly not bothered by it. 

The Christmas Spirits on Tradd StreetThe Christmas Spirits on Tradd Street by Karen White
It felt weird reading this in October rather than December, but I didn't set the blog tour schedule. Still, the days were getting darker and colder and it was certainly starting to feel like winter, if not Christmas. I'm learning that I don't do well with this time of the year, so it was nice to spend time with some early Christmas festivities and old favorites and this helped me feel more cheerful than I otherwise might have felt. Is this mind over matter? Perhaps. 
Heart of Darkness 

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad
I really love this cover. I actually owned a dingy mass market paperback of this book years ago that I had long since given away because it just seemed like such a drag. And boring, oh god, so boring. I also somehow mentally mixed Heart of Darkness with Paradise Lost and so I had this mental image of European colonialism, African jungles, Satan, and moralizing gloom.

But then someone I know started referencing Heart of Darkness as a (not very nice) description of some people we know and after feeling both lost and curious through the course of several conversations I looked up Heart of Darkness, saw it was only 166 pages and figured, "Why not?" I'm glad I did. (Also, those references? Spot on.)

The Ghost-Feeler: Stories of Terror and the SupernaturalThe Ghost-Feeler by Edith Wharton
I love October because I love Halloween and Halloween means ghost stories. I spent the last two weeks of October savoring these stories, turning the final page at the start of November. Edith Wharton played around with different styles and approaches and she excelled at all of them. I was pretty convinced that I liked Edith Wharton a whole lot after reading Ethan Frome and Age of Innocence, but after The Ghost-Feeler she entered into Favorite Author status.

The Glimpses of the MoonThe Glimpses of the Moon by Edith Wharton
Well, after that Favorite Author realization I wasn't about to abandon her. The thing about Edith Wharton, though, is that she doesn't exactly write uplifting books. I wanted something light and romantic, but also, you know, Edith Wharton. After combing through Goodreads and trying not to read spoilers, I finally found The Glimpses of the Moon, which was supposed to be exactly what I wanted--and it was! I feel like Glimpses is to Wharton what Northanger Abbey is to Jane Austen, and NA is my favorite JA. Perhaps because of its lighter tone and happier ending, Glimpses isn't quite as memorable for me in the details as some of her other stories (she's so good at vivid scenes), but that will only make it all the more enjoyable when I reread it.

The Enchanted AprilThe Enchanted April by Elizabeth Von Arnim
I wanted to continue in a similar vein-- uplifting, calm, historical but not *too* historical and so I sought out a whole slew of classics that fit the bill. I decided on The Enchanted April, and not only because it's a pretty short one (though, yeah, that was a big draw). I loved it. I was really starting to settle into this pleasant bubble of gauzy white dresses, lovely gardens, gigantic houses, and lives of leisure and luxury. It helped stave off some of the doldrums of dark November.

The Making of a Marchioness, Part I and II (Emily Fox-Seton #1-2)The Making of a Marchioness by Frances Hodgson Burnett
And another. This one was off the rails. It started out like a super saccharine version of a Jane Austen novel. Imagine Persuasion minus the earlier rejection but with an extra heaping of Old Maid and starring an even more angelic Jane Bennett-esque lead. Then transition into the slapstick Gothic thrills of Northanger Abbey with a cameo from an exotic witch-doctor Mrs. Danvers ala du Maurier's Rebecca and the Ridiculous dial cranked up to 11. It was a blast!   

Marie Antoinette: Princess of Versailles, Austria - France, 1769 

Marie Antoinette (Royal Diaries) by Kathryn Lasky
I think I needed a break from the low-grade classics after that last whirlwind. I had also been reading a lot of e-books and with the end of November looming I was starting to feel the pressure of Unmet Goals. This book got me a double dose of box checking: owned since 2014 and historical fiction. I was woefully behind on my goal for reading historical fiction, particularly historical bio, and I wasn't too happy about that. I make my reading goals because I know reading those books makes me happy, so I wanted to make sure I was actually doing the things that make me happy. And this book? It made me happy.

The BorgiasThe Borgias by Christopher Hibbert
Historical and owned since 2013. Check and check! Christopher Hibbert clearly adores Cesare, and while he definitely sung his praises, that didn't stop Hibbert from detailing out Cesare's flaws as well. And, oh god, I learned far more about Cesare's experiences with syphilis than I was ever expecting to know. I was in the middle of a rewatch of the Showtime series of the same name and so this was a nice parallel.

A True Home (Heartwood Hotel, #1)Heartwood Hotel: A True Home by Kallie George
Owned since 2017--check! December started and I had some ground to cover. This was short, short chapters, adorable illustrations, and MG. I tore through it and loved every second. It was so heartwarming. I just wanted to hug it.

The King is Dead: The Last Will and Testament of Henry VIIIThe King is Dead by Suzannah Lipscomb
Well, the heartwarming reprieve was over and I dove back into historical murder, mayhem, death, and disease. While short, this was a powerhouse of a book. I felt a little like I was reading Lipscomb's dissertation, but I mean that in the best possible way. There was a youthful eagerness, an excitement, curiosity, and investment in the topic that came through every page and that made this a joy to read. I enjoyed the way Lipscomb approached the topic, focusing on the final decade, year, and month of Henry's life, piecing together how the events during these times all shaped how he wrote his will and his hopes for his son's reign. I've seen a number of Suzannah Lipscomb's historical TV shows (so good!) and reading this book felt just like listening to her talk, which is a very good thing.

Heart's BloodHeart's Blood by Juliet Marillier
The year was winding down, my goals were almost met, and I felt Heart's Blood pulling me to it again. Though I first read this book in the summer of 2015 and though the book takes place across a summer, for some reason this feels like such a winter book to me. I guess it's the Beauty and the Beast storyline where everything feels bleak, dark, and cold like an abandoned garden in the dead of winter...and then slowly but comes back. That's a good message for me to read in the doldrums of winter! 

1536: The Year That Changed Henry VIII1536: The Year That Changed Henry VIII by Suzannah Lipscomb
After the smashing success of The King is Dead I couldn't stop myself from diving into this book (they're both so short!). I liked it. I did. But I think Suzannah Lipscomb did a better job convincing me that it wasn't just the events of 1536 that changed Henry, but rather the events leading up to and then culminating in 1536 that profoundly impacted him. 1536 didn't just happen in a bubble; there was over a decade of events that all stacked together and took Henry to this final climax of horror...and then set him on the path he would follow until his death. So, I don't ultimately agree with her conclusion, but I loved the journey she took me on to get there.

The Winter of the Witch (Winternight Trilogy, #3)The Winter of the Witch by Katherine Arden
Now this is a winter book. I love so much about this series. I cried at the start, I cried at the end. Vasya's relationships with the Winter King, the Bear, her brother, and sister, the magical creatures, and, of course, the horses...I don't even know what to say. I love them all. I love how these books feel like Russian fairy tales mixed with Russian history, both timeless and old. They feel palpable and the imagery...ah I feel like I'm in the pages of Laurel Long illustrations or those Russian lacquer boxes. Breathtaking, heartbreaking, beautiful.

The Last Wish (The Witcher, #0.5)The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski
I picked this up after watching the Witcher series on Netflix. Yeah, I know, me and everyone else. I was surprised by how much I liked these stories. It feels weird going back to my fantasy roots...and the ingrained flood of knee-jerk excuses for actually liking fantasy books. Interesting. I guess it really has been a while since I've felt guilt or shame for reading what I like.

Elizabeth the GreatElizabeth the Great by Elizabeth Jenkins
This book took me flipping forever to finish. I started reading at the end of September (the day I bought it, go me) and I didn't finish until the penultimate day of the year. This wasn't because I didn't like the book. I loved it. It's because it's a print book and I couldn't find an e-book version to read. The font was tiny, the book was awkward to hold, I didn't have that nifty "X number of minutes for this chapter" thingy that I have on my e-reader. Yeah, ok, I'm a total e-book convert.

But, whatever, I read it and I loved it. Between this book and Susan Kay's Legacy you can consider me an Elizabeth I convert, too. It took me a while to warm up to her, and I still think she's crazy as all get out, but I feel for her now.

Mary, Bloody Mary (Young Royals, #1)Mary, Bloody Mary by Carolyn Meyer
Was I going to be able to squeeze in one final book to make a cool, round 80 books read in 2019? Ha, yes, it's all about choosing the right book, and I knew Carolyn Meyer would have my back. Also, book I owned since 2014 and historical bio. Nailed my goals.

I liked reading this book right next to the book about Elizabeth I. Seeing the two sisters side by side, and so soon after immersing myself in Suzannah Lipscomb's Tour of Henry's Horrors, really brought home how terrible their situations were and how much blame can be laid at the feet of their father. It was also interesting to see how these first two queens of England blazed the trail. Their experiences were so similar and so different, and their personalities were shaped in ways that make perfect sense given their history. I find both of their stories so tragic, and it's made even sadder by the fact that they were not able to form a positive relationship with each other.

So often historical figures are shrouded in History's Mysteries and we can only guess at what they must have thought or felt or even what their personalities might have been like. Sure, we're doing the same thing with Elizabeth and Mary, but they feel much more real, nuanced, and understandable.


Well, that's it for 2019. October through December continued very happily and I was able to redirect my reading to happy escapes rather than letting the darkness of winter plunge me into the depths of despair (I use that Anne of Green Gables reference whenever I can and no one ever gets it so they just look at me funny and think I'm terribly dramatic).

I need to remember this moving forward. I noticed this quarter that I didn't quite focus on and immerse myself in the books I was reading as much as I did over the summer, and that's a shame since I read some wonderful books. Squandered opportunity, and I want to take that lesson learned to heart and focus on my book fully and completely in the moment. Whatever's on my mind can wait.

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