Starship Grifters

starship grifters

Starship Grifters by Robert Kroese

Genre: sci-fi

I read it as a(n): audiobook

Narrator: Kate Rudd

Length: 7:26:00

Her Grace’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars

We’ve been lucky to have a ton of sci-fi space opera to read, and recent additions to the canon have been both full of action as well as making some astute social, religious, or political commentary amid various interstellar adventures and cosmic battles. Robert Kroese’s Starship Grifters is another refreshing and hilarious addition. This satirical space opera combines elements of classic science fiction tropes with a witty narrative that grabbed my attention (almost) from the start. I had a moment where I wasn’t in the mood for sci-fi the way I thought I was, and so it took me a little bit to get into this story. Once it got me hooked, though, all I wanted to do was listen to it.

I think the character development is a strength of the book. The protagonist, Rex Nihilo, is a lovable scoundrel with an insatiable appetite for trouble. Kroese skillfully crafts Rex as a charming yet flawed character (actually, he might be kind of a sociopath. I’m not entirely sure), whose resourcefulness and smart mouth often lead him into outrageous situations. As the story progresses, Rex just keeps landing himself in a series of progressively crazier calamities. At the same time, he also shows some surprising layers of depth beneath his initially superficial exterior. He’s still mainly superficial and does things that are the best for him, but he managed to surprise me on several occasions.

The supporting characters in the novel are equally memorable. Sasha, Rex’s robot sidekick, adds a touch of practicality and grounding to their escapades. She is the voice of reason that Rex decidedly ignores at every opportunity. Kroese infuses each character with unique traits and motivations, making them each well-rounded and fully-realized. The interactions between the cast are lively and entertaining, creating a dynamic ensemble that kept me interested in them and their adventures.

The setting overall is a delightful blend of futuristic technology and retro aesthetics. Do you remember that movie The Rocketeer? Sort of a steampunk/mid-century/detective noir aesthetic? This book was kind of like that, but in space. Kroese constructs a vivid universe filled with bustling spaceports, eccentric alien species, and advanced gadgets. The author’s attention to detail creates an immersive experience in this universe. It was pretty easy to visualize the places described and see the story as though I were a character observing from a distance. The world-building is done in a way that embraces the absurd and eccentric elements sometimes (but not always!) associated with science fiction, complementing the overall tone of the book.

Speaking of tone, humor permeates every page of Starship Grifters. Kroese combines witty banter, situational comedy, and clever wordplay to great effect. The narrative tone is lighthearted, and the author’s comedic timing shines throughout the story. That timing is further enhanced by Kate Rudd’s masterful narration. She nails Sasha’s dry tone perfectly and that deadpan delivery made for more than one laugh out loud moments. The humor is not only used for entertainment purposes but also as a vehicle for social commentary, poking fun at various aspects of human nature and society. This satirical approach adds an additional layer of depth to the story and elevates it beyond a simple space adventure story.

Going back to the audiobook and narration, as soon as I finished this book, I wanted to go and get the next one to listen to. Imagine my supreme disappointment when I discovered that Kate Rudd does NOT narrate the rest of the series! What the fuck? Why would you change a narrator from a good one to a not good one? The sample of book two wasn’t too promising and my skepticism regarding the skill of the new narrator seems to be borne out by many, many reviews saying that the story of the next two books are fun but the narration sucks. So unless the next books are ever an Audible daily deal or something, it is not very likely that I will bother listening to them. Maybe I’ll buy the print versions, though my self-imposed moratorium on buying new books is putting a crimp in that idea. 

All told, Starship Grifters is a highly enjoyable space opera that combines character-driven storytelling, an imaginative setting, and a comedic tone. Robert Kroese’s skillful development of the protagonist, engaging supporting cast, and the vibrant universe they inhabit make this novel a standout in the genre. Fans of science fiction with a penchant for humor will find themselves thoroughly entertained by this intergalactic romp. The main caveat I have is, if you are inclined to listen to the audiobooks, just know that Rudd won’t be narrating them all. You might want to steer clear of starting an audio series without knowing about the change in narrators. I wish I had known before I got this one.


Anne Boleyn’s Little Neck

Of all the Queens throughout British history, one of the most infamous surely must be Anne Boleyn (c. 1501 – May 19, 1536). Painted throughout history as a temptress, seductress, traitor, and worse, Anne Boleyn has gotten a seriously bad rap. But where does this image of her really come from? Was she really these things? The answer is probably no, not really. Possibly the truth is somewhere in the middle, or maybe we will never know the truth at all. Many historical novelists have had their own interpretations of Anne over the years, and depending on their perceptions, readers are presented with very different people.

A very quick history lesson:

  • Much of our basis for how we view Anne Boleyn comes from the letters and documents of Eustace Chapuys, the ambassador for the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V.
  • Chapuys’s job was literally to report what he heard at Henry VIII’s court, including about Anne, much of which came from her enemies. His actual letters reported others’ words, not necessarily his own.
  • The Holy Roman Emperor was Catherine of Aragon’s nephew, so he was naturally inclined to dislike Anne based on her replacement and treatment of his aunt. Often, he referred to Anne as “the Concubine,” which was recorded in letters to and from Chapuys.
  • Chapuys didn’t like Protestants or the French. At all. Anne was both Protestant and had French mannerisms, so it’s easy to see why historians think he hated her.
  • Chapuys and another man, Pedro Ortiz, exchanged a lot of letters in the course of their duties and the two might have become conflated over time. Ortiz was Catherine of Aragon’s proctor in Rome. HE REALLY loathed Anne, and his letters do actually prove it. Chapuys’s letters are fairly unbiased.
  • Chapuys only met Anne once, in April of 1535. All his other information about her came from other sources, including her enemies.
  • Chapuys was one of the only people who publicly stated that he thought Anne was innocent of the charges brought against her and was a victim of political machinations.
  • Regardless of politics, Anne was unpopular. Her failure to have a son gave Henry VIII the impetus he was looking for to have Thomas Cromwell charge her with adultery, incest, and treason.
  • Adultery, when one is married to the king, is high treason, punishable by death.
  • Five other men were charged with Anne and executed.

One scene that is often seized upon by authors occurs during Anne’s tenure in the Tower. While she was held in the Tower, both before and after her trial and sentencing, she was attended by Mary Kingston, the wife of the Tower constable, Sir William Kingston. The conversations Sir William recorded and reported to Cromwell were used at that time to seal Anne’s fate, as well as that of the five other men who were executed with her. Today, Kingston’s letters are considered among the most important bits of evidence that Anne and the others were totally innocent. In a letter written May 19, 1536, the morning of Anne’s execution, Kingston wrote:

 This morning she sent for me, that I might be with her at such time as she received the good Lord, to the intent I should hear her speak as touching her innocency alway to be clear. And in the writing of this she sent for me, and at my coming she said, ‘Mr. Kingston, I hear I shall not die afore noon, and I am very sorry therefore, for I thought to be dead by this time and past my pain.’ I told her it should be no pain, it was so little. And then she said, ‘I heard say the executioner was very good, and I have a little neck,’ and then put her hands about it, laughing heartily. I have seen many men and also women executed, and that they have been in great sorrow, and to my knowledge this lady has much joy in death. Sir, her almoner is continually with her, and had been since two o’clock after midnight.

 This statement serves as the focal point for many interpretations of Anne’s behavior in various novel, TV, and film adaptations. On a surface reading of Kingston’s letter, we might assume that he thought her actions to be aberrant, considering that he noted other condemned prisoners had displayed “great sorrow” at their impending demise, but Anne instead had “much joy in death.” However, a closer look indicates that he isn’t actually offering a commentary on Anne’s state of mind. He is merely observing what his charge is doing, as his job requires, like a doctor charts a patient’s progress. There is no judgment in Kingston’s letter. To the contrary, the letter implies he is a compassionate jailer. He attempts to calm her fears about any pain she will face during her execution, which he didn’t have to do. Perhaps he was kind to her because he believed she was innocent. We may never know, but writers certainly have their views on the matter. Two popular historical novelists, Margaret George and Alison Weir, have each tackled this scene, with very different results.

In Margaret George’s novel The Autobiography of Henry VIII, the scene in the Tower is unsettling to Kingston, who is distracted by preparations he must oversee for the executions. Kingston is on the verge of exhaustion, frazzled by the multitude of administrative functions he has to fulfill, and is perturbed by the lack of instructions from Henry VIII about Anne’s coffin. “Dawn came before five, and Master Kingston was already exhausted from the tasks of the day ahead. …[H]e naturally had many details of both practicality and protocol to attend to. … He was running late. … But still no word about the coffin!” (George 542). Kingston, when he goes to Anne’s rooms to deliver news of her delayed execution, is relieved by it because it gives him more time to carry out his other duties. When he speaks to Anne, he’s obviously in two places at once and has to force himself to pay attention to her. When she speaks, Anne’s dialogue is consistent with Kingston’s description in his letter to the king. Upon learning of the delay, Ms. George describes Anne as disappointed and sad. Anne goes on to comment that she thought by noon to be past her pain. But then she grabs Kingston’s arm and whispers frantically to him that she is innocent. Abruptly, she has another mood swing and asks him fearfully if her death will be painful. Her volatile swings in mood make her seem mentally unstable, which at that time in history would also imply her guilt. This version of Anne is worried about how big the executioner’s axe is: “I have a little neck. … But the axe is so thick, and rough” (George 542). Upon learning that she was to be beheaded by a swordsman, she laughed, saying that Henry was ever a good and gentle sovereign lord. That, friends, is what I like to call sarcasm. Her laugh is described as “that hideous, raucous laughter” (George 542), like a witch’s cackle, and Kingston is thoroughly unnerved by it. Anne’s laughter again starts up when she jokes to Kingston that she will be known as Queen Anne Lack-Head. Here, George describes Anne’s laughter as “shrieking” (543) and Kingston is actually frightened by it, all but fleeing her Tower chambers. The overtones of witchcraft, overlaid with her added comments about Henry making her a martyr, underscore the implied mental instability implicit in the text, neatly tying up the issue of her unsuitability to be queen. All told, her mannerisms combine to create a character that is unsympathetic, severing any lingering tender feelings readers may have had for her. Given that this novel is told from Henry’s perspective, it makes sense for Ms. George to make Boleyn a character that readers no longer like at this point. We are seeing her through his eyes, and by now, he truly believed that she was guilty and had wronged him grievously.

In Alison Weir’s novel, Anne Boleyn: A King’s Obsession, readers get another interpretation of Anne’s famous “little neck” comment. Right away, the novel has a decidedly favorable tone towards Anne, whereas George’s novel did not. From the moment Anne arrives at the Tower, concessions are made to her rank as queen: She was given the same rooms she had used before her coronation, she had several ladies attending her, she ate with Sir William and his family. Her clothes were richly described, and pomp and ceremony were seen to more so than in other novels. Kingston is referred to as the “Gentleman Jailer” (Weir 527), making him sound as though he is a courtier there to wait upon her and lending more dignity to Anne’s imprisonment than it would have had otherwise. After her sentencing, Kingston was more forthcoming with Anne and was very gentle, taking time to talk with her and answer any questions she asked of him, acting very much the gentleman indeed. When he informed Anne of the time of her execution, she was relieved, for she had just been forced at Henry’s order to watch from the Tower the executions of the other five men. Kingston showed no hint that her relief was aberrant, as in other interpretations. Here, Anne is described as “agitated and panicky” (539) when her execution is delayed. This seems the more natural reaction in the two novels. Who among us hasn’t been agitated and panicky over facing something that we are dreading and have no choice to go through with? Hysteria and inappropriate reactions seem the most logical explanation. Anne has spent days dwelling on the fact that she’s going to die by having her head cut off. She is asking a normal question to a person who is a logical choice, having witnessed many executions in his line of work. Anne says, as we know, that she had hoped to be past her pain, because she’s been brooding about it and the suspense is eating her alive. Kingston is quick to reassure her it will be painless. When Anne says, “I have heard you say the executioner is very good, and I have a little neck” (593) she gives a nervous laugh afterwards. Of course she is nervous. She’s beyond nervous; she’s petrified. But she is also acknowledging Kingston’s role as a figure who has given her succor, because he was the one who told her about the swordsman from Calais, and that he was skilled and humane. Kingston went out of his way to try to calm her, without judgment. She explains to him that she wants to die now but her body “shrinks from it, so I am heartily glad it will be over quickly” (540) and Kingston assures her it will be, and squeezes her hand kindly. This is a very human moment for both of them, the most poignant and touching of the entire book, to be honest. This is a woman who went from being a queen to taking comfort from the man who will lead her to her execution. More so than any other scene, this is truly the full circle moment for Anne.

There is a reason why novelists continue to write about the Tudors. Yes, in part it is because the books will sell. But more than that, there is still a deep current of compassion we feel towards the people then, a desire to understand their motives and thoughts, and to better understand ourselves through them. Anne Boleyn remains a tragic figure – hated by some, beloved by others, mysterious in many ways to all. Her story encompasses so much depth that it is hard to look away, regardless of how one views her. Nearly 500 years after her death, the lingering controversy, intrigue, and curiosity surrounding Anne Boleyn may be the best elegy she could have asked for.



Bordo, S. (2012, May 6). When fictionalized facts matter. The Chronicle Review, retrieved from

George, M. (1987). The Autobiography of Henry VIII, With Notes by His Fool, Will Somers. St. Martin’s Griffin: New York.

Mantel, H. (2012, May 11). Anne Boleyn: witch, bitch, temptress, feminist. The Guardian, retrieved from

Mantel, H. (2012). Bring Up the Bodies. Henry Holt and Co: New York.

McKay, L. (2016, May 6). Did Eustace Chapuys really despise Anne Boleyn?, retrieved from

Weir, A. (2017). Anne Boleyn: A King’s Obsession. Ballantine Books, New York.


Books for the Kentucky Derby

I am not a sports fan. Like, at all. I don’t understand sportsball in any way. No offence to any fans out there – you do you, friends. But to me, sportsball involves watching grown men in tights chase a ball around, then pat each other on the ass, while the rest of the world pays to applaud. I just don’t get it. But I do LOVE horse races in general.* I love ponies. They run fast. I can pretend they’re unicorns. The epitome of the American racing world is the Kentucky Derby, held the first Saturday in May. This year, of course, that means it will run on May 6, 2023. 

Since its inception, the Kentucky Derby has grown and changed, but it remains one of America’s favorite sporting events. Like I said, I can’t stand most sports, but I’ll be glued to the Derby Day coverage from start to finish. They have ponies! I never know anything about the horses because I don’t follow racing in general, so if there is a jockey I know riding that day, like Pat Day (aww, Pat Day. He retired several years ago) or Gary Stevens (he also retired, and to give an idea of why, his nickname is “Bionic Man” because he’s had so many joint replacements. Riding is hard on the joints, yo), then I cheer on his horse. If I don’t know any of the jockeys, I cheer for the horse I think is the prettiest and/or who has the longest odds. Then, whichever horse actually wins the Derby is the one I cheer for to win the Preakness and Belmont, because Triple Crown! It’s a really scientific method, you see. After the Triple Crown is over, I’ve hit my critical mass of sports for the year and I don’t bother again until the next first Saturday of May. 

I’m sure you all know the usual Derby things – mint juleps, bourbon balls, ladies in ridiculous hats, most exciting two minutes in sports, and so on. But here are some things you might not have known:

  • The first Kentucky Derby was run in 1875. It is the longest-running sporting event in the US. It continued even through horrible things like two world wars and the Great Depression, when other major sporting events were put on hold. 
  • The racetrack, Churchill Downs, was founded by a partnership between Meriwether Lewis Clark (his grandad was the Clark of Lewis and Clark exploratory fame) and his uncles, John and Henry Churchill, who gave him land for a racetrack. Meriwether Clark wanted to start a racing club after he had traveled to England and saw the famous Epsom Derby. Once he got the land for the track, he got a jockey club going and named it the Louisville Jockey Club, which fundraised the money for the actual track. The track didn’t get named Churchill Downs until 1883. 
  • The very first Kentucky Derby winner was a 3 year old stallion named Aristides, who ran its original distance of 1.5 miles. The distance was shortened to 1.25 miles in 1896 because experts thought 1.5 miles was too long for a 3 year old to run in early spring. 
  • Regret was the first filly to win the Derby in 1915. You go, girl!
  • In 1919, Sir Barton was the first winner of what will eventually become the Triple Crown – The Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes.
  • Diane Crump was the first lady jockey to ride in the Derby in 1970. Her mount, Fathom, didn’t win, but she helped put another crack in that glass ceiling. 
  • In 1973, Secretariat won the Derby, and went on to become the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years (since Citation in 1948). He won the Belmont by 31 lengths in 2 minutes 24 seconds, both records that still stand. That amazing race can be seen here: Secretariat, Belmont Stakes June 9, 1973. When he was put down in 1989 because of a debilitating hoof condition, Secretariat was buried whole at his home farm of Claiborne Farm, which is a rare honor. Most winning race horses only have their heads, hearts, and hooves buried. 
  • Seattle Slew won the Derby and went on to win the Triple Crown in 1977. His win is unique because he was the only horse to win the Triple Crown while also undefeated in any of his other races. 
  • The filly Eight Belles came in second place in the 2008 Derby, but was immediately euthanized on the track due to grievous compound fractures of both her front legs. The fractures were the same as those suffered by the 2006 Derby winner Barbaro, who died after getting the same injuries in one front leg after the Preakness in 2006. These injuries have renewed controversy among the racing industry about the conditions of the tracks as well as the care of the horses. 
  • American Pharoah is the most recent winner of the Triple Crown, taking that title in 2015. 

If you want more about the Kentucky Derby, or just about horse racing in general, check out some of these books: 

Man o’ War: A Legend Like Lightning by Dorothy Ours. Man o’ War never ran in the Derby. His owner didn’t believe in running 3 year olds 10 furlongs. Instead, he won the Preakness and then smoked the competition in the Belmont, winning that race by 20 lengths. But this is a great biography of one of horse racing’s most famous horses. 

Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand. It’s hard not to be fond of a horse named Seabiscuit, really. This is the most popular book about Seabiscuit. Also, sea biscuits, AKA sand dollars, are super cute, squishy little things when they’re alive. By all accounts, the horse Seabiscuit also had a super cute and squishy personality as well. He wasn’t named for the sand dollar critters, he was named for the hardtack food sailors eat because his sire’s name was Hard Tack, but I like the squishy little critters. 

The Prince of Jockeys: The Life of Isaac Burns Murphy by Pellom McDaniels III. Isaac Murphy Burns, who had been born into slavery, was a star jockey of the late 1800s. He was the first jockey to win the Kentucky Derby three times. At one point, he was the highest-paid jockey in racing. He has a documented win record of 34.5% (his own account states it was 44%). Whichever number is correct, they are both still unmatched today. He was eventually forced out of racing when Black jockeys were excluded from racing. This book details not only Murphy’s life but the social, racial, and political issues Black jockeys had to deal with. 

Riding for My Life by Julie Krone. The biography of one of racing’s leading female jockeys. She was the first woman to win a Breeder’s Cup race as well as a Triple Crown race, which she won while riding Colonial Affair in the Belmont in 1993. 

Lord of Misrule by Jaimy Gordon. A National Book Award winner (2010) about a down on its luck racing stable in West Virginia. Told from the perspectives of several different narrators, readers get a picture of what racing was like in a small stable in the 1970s. 

Horse Heaven by Jane Smiley. A literary fiction with multiple narratives about the world of racing. The horses know what they are doing and what they want; it’s the humans who are really struggling to figure things out. I love the animals in this book and how Smiley characterizes them without anthropomorphizing them. I hate when authors do that. 

The Scorpio Races by Maggie Steifvater. Because it’s like the Kentucky Derby, but with water horses, which are different from seahorses. This is a reimagining of the Scottish fairy tale of the kelpie, and leads up to a race in which riders might live if they are lucky. The race itself isn’t the main focus of the novel, but I wanted to include it here because it is like a YA fantasy version of the behind the scenes stuff happening at the racetrack. 

*Yes, there is a lot of controversy surrounding horse racing, the ethics involved, the safety and wellbeing of the horses, and so on. Activists have steadily worked to increase the safety of racing for both the horses and the people involved. An NPR article titled “Horse racing is on the cusp of major changes in the U.S. after years of scandal” details many of the upcoming changes to the racing industry that will soon be federally mandated. It is a start, at least.

Snow and Poison

Snow and Poison

Snow and Poison by Melissa de la Cruz*

Genre: fantasy

I read it as a(n): digital galley

Length: 288 pp

Her Grace’s rating: 2 out of 5 stars

De la Cruz’s lush retelling of Snow White is set in 17th century Bavaria. The central figure is Sophie, the Duke of Bavaria’s daughter, and her love interest is Phillip of Spain. They meet at her debut ball, which is also the marriage of her father to a woman called Claudia, who hails from a remote region of Bavaria. Events are set in motion that will test the strength of Sophie’s resilience as well as the bond between Sophie and everyone she loves.

There were many things to like about this book. In particular, the relationship between Sophie and Claudia was delightful; it’s always refreshing when an author makes a traditionally negative character into one worthy of love and respect as she did with Claudia. She turned the trope of the wicked stepmother on its head. 

There were several drawbacks to the novel as well, though. The pacing was generally poor. The first three-quarters of the book were a straightforward historical story; one wondered when or if there would be any elements of the Snow White tale. I had actually wondered if this was perhaps the first part of a duology or trilogy. Then, in the last quarter of the book, the dwarves’ and the wicked witch’s characters were introduced and the whole rest of the fairy tale proceeded from there in a very rushed manner. Mostly because of the inconsistent pacing, the characters in general all lacked development, and a couple of them who had the potential to be honestly fascinating were more or less glossed over in favor of concluding the story. Many unanswered questions remained as a result of the pacing deficiencies.

The novel should appeal to younger teens or established fans of de la Cruz, but I think it would disappoint older teens or adult YA readers.

*This review was originally published with the Historical Novel Society

The Black House

the black house

The Black House by Peter May
Genre: mystery
I read it as a(n): Kindle book
Length: 401 pp
Her Grace’s rating: 3 out of 5 stars

The Black House by Peter May is marketed as a mystery that will leave readers spellbound. Set on the isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, the book brings Detective Inspector Fin MacLeod back to his hometown to investigate the murder of a local man. MacLeod finds himself on a journey into the heart of darkness, where secrets and mysteries are closely guarded by the insular community.

I say it was marketed as a mystery because I didn’t think there was really all that much mystery to it. Yes, there was a murder being investigated. But except for a couple scenes interviewing people and a thoroughly described autopsy, the main part of the story focused on the villagers of Lewis and their connected past. That is actually a-ok with me, as I was far more interested in the culture of the Outer Hebrides than I was in the murder. I actually learned a lot and am curious to visit, though I am in no way strong enough to live in a place like that.

May’s writing is atmospheric – he includes vivid descriptions of the island’s rugged landscape and the harsh realities of life in the remote community. The characters are complex and nuanced, with their own secrets and motives that are slowly revealed throughout the book. I learned that the Outer Hebrides is primarily where Gaelic is spoken today, and it is still actually the primary language. So now I’m on a mission to visit so I can hear it in the wild, so to speak.

One of the things I really liked about The Black House is the way May weaves together multiple storylines and perspectives. He did so in a way that meshed together seamlessly, creating a tapestry of intrigue and suspense throughout. The pacing might be slow for some readers but I liked the greater focus on the Hebridean culture more than the actual mystery portion anyway. I did not figure out who killed the man on Lewis or why until it was revealed in the story. When it was revealed, I thought it was rather rushed and not believable. However, there was another tangent that MacLeod missed entirely and he was surprised when he learned about it. I am guessing a woman would not have been surprised and probably would have figured it out right quick.

Overall, The Black House is an interesting bit of storytelling, combining beautiful scenic descriptions, complex characters, and a mostly ok plot into a quick read.

The Bird and the Sword

the bird and the sword

The Bird and the Sword by Amy Harmon
Genre: fantasy
I read it as a(n): audiobook
Narrator: Trina Nishimura
Length: 10:57:00
Her Grace’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Set in a world where certain people possess magical abilities, referred to as Gifts, The Bird and the Sword tells about a Gifted young woman named Lark. Her Gift is the power to control words: she can come up with a rhyme and manipulate creatures, objects, and other people. However, in order to remain safe, her mother, who was also Gifted, put a spell on Lark that she must remain silent and never speak. As a result, Lark is mute and cannot even write because in their world, Gifts are seen as wicked and the Gifted are objects of hatred and persecution, outlawed by the king himself.

I loved the discussion about the power of words in this book. That concept has been explored in literature forever. Authors from antiquity to Shakespeare to modern-day novels have recognized the impact that language can have on our lives. The whole purpose of writing is to manipulate words and reality. So I liked that play on, well, words woven throughout the novel.

The new king, Tiras, takes Lark as a hostage to ensure her father’s compliance, but doing so has a far greater impact on their lives and the political landscape of their entire kingdom. As Lark navigates the political machinations of Tiras’s court, she discovers the true extent of her power. Her ability to control objects and beings is not limited to spoken words but extends to the written word as well. She can change reality just by altering the words on a page.

Through Lark’s experiences, Harmon highlights the immense power that words hold. They can be used to create and inspire, or they can be used to destroy and manipulate. In the hands of those who understand their power, words can change the course of history.

Related to that, the book also examines the responsibility that comes with possessing such power. Lark’s silence is a reminder of the danger that comes with speaking carelessly. Her ability to manipulate words also puts her in a position of great responsibility. She must use her power for good and resist the temptation to use it for personal gain. If ONLY certain U.S. politicians could grasp that very basic concept! The idea of words holding power is certainly not a new one, but The Bird and the Sword offers a fresh take on it. Harmon’s use of a fantasy setting allows her to explore the theme in a unique way, creating a world where the power of language is literal rather than metaphorical. Once again, this helps prove my point that sci-fi and fantasy are the perfect genres in which to examine social, political, religious, scientific, or other topics that people might object to if they were set in a realistic and recognizable world. 

The world-building in the book was vivid and imaginative. I was able to get fully immersed in the story. I always appreciate a well-planned and richly political story, and this checked those boxes. I think it is interesting to see how differently we can imagine various worlds or ways of managing a government. The character development was pretty good, though Tiras and Lark were the most developed of the cast. Some of the other characters were flatter or seemed there more to fill a role than to be a wholly-realized person. 

I listened to the audiobook version, narrated by Trina Nishimura, rather than eyeball reading this one. Nishimura’s performance was ok. I didn’t think it was the best, but it was certainly not the worst I’ve ever heard. Her voice isn’t as low or rich as some women’s voices are who narrate other books, so she sounded a little shrill sometimes. I am also firmly convinced that she should never, ever narrate a book with a lot of children characters. Her child’s voices were obnoxious and I’m glad there were only a couple short bits with children speaking. Overall, she did fine and it wouldn’t stop me from listening to another book if she were the narrator. She’s just not one of my favorites, and that’s ok. 

Overall, The Bird and the Sword is a fun and fast-paced read that offers an insightful commentary on the power of words. It serves as a reminder that words can be both a tool and a weapon and that we must use them wisely.

Book Pairing: The Island of Doctor Moreau and The Daughter of Doctor Moreau

The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells/ The Daughter of Doctor Moreau by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Genre: sci-fi/fantasy

I read it as a(n): audiobook (Dr. Moreau)/ hardback (Daughter of Dr. Moreau)

Narrator: Jason Isaacs

Length: 4:21:00 hours/ 306 pp

Her Grace’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars /3 out of 5 stars

islandofdrmoreau original cover

The Island of Doctor Moreau is a fun, quick story that encapsulates much of Victorian thinking in one spot. The plot is straightforward – Edward Prendick is the survivor of a shipwreck who is rescued by a fairly ridiculous shit and then unceremoniously dumped off on a random island. On the island are strange creatures and only two other people, a gentleman called Montgomery and Dr. Moreau, an exiled London biologist who turns his considerable scientific skills toward vivisection. Prendick learns that the strange creatures he sees are a result of Moreau’s twisted experiments to turn animals into thinking creatures, or into hybrids with other unrelated species. 

Wells tackled an absolute shitload of themes in this little story including medical ethics, the superiority of humanity, evolution, identity, and religion. Obviously I haven’t read every book ever but I think Wells was among the earliest to write about the effects of trauma on the human psyche. Of course, he didn’t write it in those terms. We didn’t have the term PTSD officially until its inclusion in the 1980 3rd edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Trauma and PTSD as we now understand them still seem to appear in literature dating at least as far back as whenever the Book of Job 7:14 was written. It says, “You scare me with dreams and terrify me with visions.” Prendick certainly seemed to have what we now call PTSD. I reckon being shipwrecked, floating around alone at sea, and then getting rescued by a drunken lunatic can do that to a person.

Prendick expressed abject horror at Moreau’s “House of Pain” where he conducts his experiments. The Island of Doctor Moreau was partly a denunciation of the practice of vivisection which was in use during the Victorian Era. The concept of the mad scientist also had its genesis in Victorian literature and was based largely on the idea that science would destroy society. Because religion certainly doesn’t do that all on its own at ALLLLL…Right. Wells, a determined atheist, helps to explain why it is ridiculous to think that science is bad through his rendition of Moreau, who in some ways is almost Spock-like in his adherence to logic. Spock, though, would recoil at the idea of vivisection or any other kind of animal cruelty. It is not logical to bring unnecessary pain and suffering to other beings. Anyway, Moreau’s character highlights the Victorian fears about science. I’m not really sure what to make of the fact that Moreau’s “Beast People” revert to wild animals once the doctor is dead and no longer able to continue their treatments. Nature won out over science and religion both, which shows that human-made social constructs like religion are weak, and even science is subject to the laws of nature. I could talk for days about possible interpretations of this, so I’ll just say that it posed a very interesting thought experiment for me while I was figuring out what to write for this post.

All of that, of course, is a lead-in to discuss what it means to be human and to be civilized. Plenty of smelling salts were needed when Darwin’s book was published, saying that humans evolved out of animals. Darwinism, it was feared, would mean the death of religion and society and family and it’s the end of the world don’t teach me new things wE’rE aLl GoInG tO dIe! That clearly didn’t happen, though the death of religion would solve a very great number of lingering socio-political problems. This story shows the many ways in which civilization and civility are just veneers and that the line between human and beast is incredibly thin. The Beast People adhere to The Law that Moreau creates for them and they seem to really embrace it for most of the story. It is the humans who are beastly in their actions and hypocrisies. Manners, it seems, are there to hide our animal nature and make it less obvious that humans are really just more upright apes. 

It brings to light also the ways in which religion is used to oppress and dominate people. Anyone who has studied even a minute of history can see that, but Wells takes it and runs with it. He uses religion to hammer the idea of obedience and avoiding their animal instincts into the Beast People. The Law they follow is very much a sort of fucked up list of Commandments: 

Not to go on all-fours; that is the Law. Are we not men?
Not to suck up Drink; that is the Law. Are we not men?
Not to eat Fish or Flesh; that is the Law. Are we not men?
Not to claw the Bark of Trees; that is the Law. Are we not men?
Not to chase other Men; that is the Law. Are we not men?

And yet, religion is the excuse for suppressing their instincts in the first place, making them conform to the image of humanity against their nature. Moreau is very much a god-figure on the island and Prendick becomes so by the end as well. That shift shows how it is possible for one to initially be tolerant of and sympathetic towards a group of people, as Prendick was towards the Beast People, and then get a little taste of religion or power and then it all goes to shit.

In a nutshell, there was just so much Victorian angst in this book. It was delicious. What was also delicious was Jason Isaacs’ narration. He does different voices superbly and has impeccable timing. I am not sure that it is easy at all to make Wells funny, but Isaacs managed it in more than one spot. Plus, his voice. It is dead sexy. I would listen to him read the phone book if that’s all there was. 

daughter of dr moreau

All this leads me into The Daughter of Doctor Moreau. This novel by Silvia Moreno-Garcia is a lovely retelling of Wells’s classic. The author shifts the setting from an unnamed island in the South Pacific to the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. It’s a dual POV story, alternating chapters between Carlota, the titular character, and Montgomery Laughton, Dr. Moreau’s assistant who is finally given a last name. 

There are some intriguing changes to this novel, naturally, mainly in shifting the setting to 19th century Mexico. It is set against the backdrop of the Caste War of the Yucatan, which informs some of the social mores and political discussions in Moreno-Garcia’s novel, though the war itself is not a main focus. Including it, though, lays the groundwork for the conflicts in the story: the rich hacendados wanted to hire laborers to work their haciendas and help to guard them against the indigenous Mayan groups who were warring with them, the Mexican, European-descended, or mixed race people who held higher social status than the Indigenous peoples. This is where the author explores the issues of colonization and social class, themes that she explores in almost all of her works. For more information, visit Silvia Moreno-Gacia’s webpage for the novel, which has more more discussion about this point. The Caste War is not a historical event I know anything about, other than that it happened and lasted for like 50 years. That alone shows the sheer stronghold colonialism had on many parts of the world, and still does today. But using it as her novel’s backdrop makes this book richer, feel even more real, than it would have done if it were more of a fantasy setting. 

The themes of identity and what it means to be human are both carried over from Wells’s original story. In Moreno-Garcia’s hands, these take on new depths and meaning. The Beast People here are referred to as hybrids, which seems like a kinder way to call them. They are still as monstrous as the ones in Wells’s story, but that monstrosity isn’t as visceral as in his. Montgomery, upon seeing the hybrids, flips the fuck out but not because of any kind of inherent racism against a group of people. Rather, his temporary separation from sanity was because of his horror at the results of meddling with nature in what he thinks of as unethical ways. He’s not wrong. He is, though, horrified at what he thinks has been done to humans. It seems to matter less to him that the doctor is trying to elevate animals. It begs the question of why it makes a difference. Suffering is suffering, whether it is human or animal. 

I had a sense that Montgomery wouldn’t object much if Moreau was trying to find a cure for diseases with his hybrids. Instead, though, he is trying to make more laborers for the hacendados, in particular Mr. Lizalde, the man who funds Moreau’s research. Oh hi, worker exploitation! Again, I don’t think it should matter if the hybrid are people with animal parts or animals with people parts, but the fact is that it addresses a variety of thoughts on social and cultural identity. People are tribal apes with access to nukes, so it isn’t all that surprising that we can Other any group there is, regardless of their origin.

The experiments in this novel could be read in terms of current medical research. Plenty of people still are up in arms against stem cell research, for example, or animal testing of medical treatments. We can clone things, grow organs in petri dishes, transplant organs, keep micro-preemies alive. All of that because of experimentation. In Moreno-Garcia’s book, it is implied that Moreau’s experiments are the only reason Carlota is still alive, as he made use of some of his hybrid experiments to create a cure for her blood disease. So experiments aren’t always a bad thing despite what some might think. 

I like the way the author plays with identity and what makes us human throughout the novel. Montgomery, after his initial freak-out, quickly becomes attached to the hybrids and treats them no differently than he does anyone else. Probably better than he treats most others, frankly. So does Carlota, who has grown up with two hybrids in particular as close friends, almost as siblings. To her, they are no different than any other person. 

Carlota herself also brings a discussion on what it means to be a woman, particularly in 19th century Mexico. It is a travesty that most of the issues she faces in the book are still issues women today have to deal with. Moreau coddles her like she is still an infant. I suppose that, at least, is understandable since she is his child. A lot of parents have a hard time seeing their children as adults. That might be even more true when the child was so sick in the early years of their lives, as Carlota was. She is seen as an object or possession by Eduardo Lizalde, the son of the rich man funding Moreau’s research. She has limited choices, is expected to marry into a rich family so her father can continue his work, and is generally treated as inferior because she’s a woman. 

I just really love how the lines between human and animal are so thoroughly blurred in this novel. That line is a lot fuzzier than it was in Wells’s original story. In that, it was very clear that the Beast People were not considered human, that they were decidedly inferior. That is not the case in Moreno-Garcia’s novel. She has the hybrids living mostly alongside the Moreaus, working with them in the house or the gardens, treated generally as longtime friends or family. By the end of it, it is very easy to forget that the hybrids aren’t actually human, whereas the Lizaldes and their men are the barbarous ones. 

All in all, I really enjoyed this book pairing. I love old sci-fi because we get to see what people used to think and what came true, or even if some things have changed at all. Moreno-Garcia’s books have all been a delight to read, though I haven’t read them all yet. But they make me think about a lot of different topics, which is always a sign of a good book for me.

The Heavenly Sword

the heavenly sword

The Heavenly Sword by Alice Poon 

Genre: fantasy

I read it as a(n): digital ARC

Length: 390 pp

Her Grace’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Alice Poon delivers the first of a duology epic fantasy based in Chinese mythology and kung fu. In this first novel, Sai’er is a simple village girl training in the ancient arts of kung fu. Thanks to a helpful sprite, she learns she is the reincarnation of the goddess Chang’e. She must go on a quest to stop the wicked Sky Wolf, who is reincarnated as the Ming Dynasty Emperor Zhu Di. Aided by her foster brother Binhong and several other friends, both mortal and supernatural, Sai’er embarks on an adventure rivaling any in the fantasy genre. 

I enjoyed this, as I did Poon’s earlier books. She does a terrific job of blending fantasy, mythology, and real history all together to make a credible story. I would almost categorize this book magical realism rather than fantasy simply because the elements of magic are so closely woven into the factual parts of the story. They just…belong. Of course Sai’er has a sprite friend. Of course she is an immortal sent to earth. It could be no other way. There isn’t any suspension of disbelief while reading this, it’s just the way things are in Sai’er’s life. So that is particularly well done on the author’s part.

I did have a little trouble, mostly in the earlier parts of the book, with the pacing. This is a very fast-paced story (which is fine, it adds to the kung fu feel of the plot for me), but sometimes I felt like I overlooked something when, for example, I thought we were in one place and then the narration kicked us over to a different place. For example, Sai’er and Binhong were traveling and one minute they were on a very steep staircase carved into a cliff and the next they were surrounded by imperial guards and there was a courtyard. The text hadn’t indicated any other setting prior to that so it was a little jarring to change settings like that. But then I got used to the pacing and it was fine after that.

I think for someone like me, whose experience with wuxia/kung fu extends to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and a handful of Jackie Chan films, this is a very good introduction to the genre. Poon talks about her lifelong love of wuxia (Chinese martial arts/kung fu novels), and references Jin Yong. I had never heard of him before so now I am tempted to read some of his works. Apparently, he’s big in the genre… I never would have learned about him had I not read this book. I always appreciate a book that teaches me something! 

I don’t think this necessarily has to be an adult novel, either. Yes, there’s some sex and gore, but I don’t think it was gratuitous or anything inappropriate for a teen to read. Maybe that’s just my Gen X showing. My parents had no clue what I was reading – or where I was, really – most of the time. So maybe take it with a grain of salt, but this read-all-of-Stephen-King’s-and-V.C.-Andrews’-then-published-works-by-the-time-I-was-12 GenXer thinks it’s totally fine for teen readers as well.

The Ides of March

vincenzo_camuccini_-_la_morte_di_cesare“Beware the Ides of March.” There are few among us who don’t know this phrase, uttered by a soothsayer to Julius Caesar before his assassination, made famous by Shakespeare’s pen. But what IS the Ides of March (what ARE the Ides? What is an Ide?)? Welp, originally, the calendar used to be more lunar. The earliest Roman calendars, in use around 753 BCE, had ten months and each month used three lunar marks: Kalends, Nones, and Ides. Kalends was the new moon, the first day of the month. Nones was the first quarter moon, usually around the fifth-seventh day. Ides was the full moon, usually around the 13th-15th. March 15th used to be the new year and was a time of celebration. Julius Caesar himself was the one who changed the Roman New Year from March to January. He consulted with astronomers, then added ten days and a leap year and thus was born the Julian calendar. People liked the new year being in March; maybe changing that holiday was the straw that broke the camel’s back and Caesar made his own bad luck. Probably not, but you know. I had to wonder. 

So the Ides weren’t originally associated with anything bad or doom and gloom. It was just part of the old calendar. I rather like it, myself. I have a dear friend whose birthday is on the Ides of March. It was after Caesar’s assassination that the date acquired its darker connotations, and mostly only after Shakespeare’s play. Other things have happened on March 15 that contributed to the date’s bad reputation: the classification of the SARS virus as a global health threat in 2003; Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1939; a bigass blizzard in North Dakota in 1941, which occured without warning; and, probably the worst thing, online chat rooms debuted, triggering the demise of grammar across the globe…way back in 1971. Holy shit. I am an old. Not as old as ancient Roman stuff, but sometimes I feel like it. 

Here are a couple books I’ve enjoyed about the Roman Empire, either in a general sense or which were set specifically during Julius Caesar’s time. 

Roman coin

SPQR by Mary Beard

A great history of ancient Rome by one of the premiere Classicists of our time. This is a big book but it was a quick read nonetheless.

Calendar: Humanity’s Epic Struggle to Determine a True and Accurate Year by David Ewing Duncan

Really this is here because it has a great section on the Roman calendar and how it got changed from the old system they used to the system Caesar implemented. Also, the idea of a microhistory about time has a pleasing irony to it.

The Gallic War by Julius Caesar

I figure a list of books about Julius Caesar ought to include something by the man himself. Gird your loins for some serious megalomaniacal commentary. His ego may have put Trump’s to shame. The difference is that Caesar was literate. 

The Memoirs of Cleopatra by Margaret George

As the title suggests, this focuses more on Cleopatra. But her story and Caesar’s are so entwined it is hard to imagine one without the other anymore, which is a little sad since Cleopatra was very much her own person, separate from any man. 

Caesar Against the Celts by Ramon L. Jiménez 

This makes for a good read-along with The Gallic Wars. 

Imperium by Robert Harris

A novel about Cicero, told from the first person point of view of Tiro, his real life scribe. Tiro really did write a biography of Cicero, which is now tragically lost to us. I would read the absolute shit out of that. I thought that was clever of Harris, because it lets him write his books as though Tiro is the author. I quite enjoyed this series. 


Staff writers. “What Are the Ides of March?”, 12 March 2014,

Stezano, Martin. “Beware the Ides of March. But Why?”, 13 March 2017,

The Lido

the lido

The Lido by Libby Page

Genre: contemporary fiction

I read it as a(n): hardback

Length: 310 pp

Her Grace’s rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Kate is a young woman living in the Brixton neighborhood of London, working at a local newspaper. She isn’t in charge of any important articles – mostly ads for lost pets and new restaurants – and seems to be struggling to launch. Rosemary is an 86-year-old widow who has never traveled outside of Brixton and has a lifetime’s worth of experience. The two should never have crossed paths, until Kate is assigned to interview the people of Brixton who have lived much of their life around the Brockwell Lido, an outdoor swimming and rec area. Kate decides to learn more about the lido and help to prevent it from being paved over for tennis courts by a developer for luxury apartments. Rosemary decides she’s never met anyone more in need of a swim than Kate. Friendship ensues.

This was such a sweet book. It sort of had the same feel as A Man Called Ove in that there were several generations of people making unlikely friends with each other. Kate finds her stride over the months she works to interview the people who have put the lido at the center of their community, and she becomes friends not only with Rosemary but with several other members of the Brixton community. She learns that she can do hard things and do them well.

Rosemary sees Kate as a last hope of saving her beloved lido, where she has swum daily since it opened in the 1930s, where she met and fell in love with her husband George, and where she places her sense of self even more so than at her home. She learns that there is still a lot of life left to live even if George is gone and possibly her lido as well. 

I read this for my book club and I’m glad this is the one that was selected. It was a sweet, fast read that had all the warm fuzzy feels and a couple face leaks. 

Favorite quotes:

  • Kate felt more comfortable in her books than she does in real life. She liked to reread her favorite stories: knowing what was going to happen made her feel calm, as though she was directing the story herself (29). 
  • There are no cubicles free in the communal changing room so Kate peels off her clothes behind her towel. Fear of being seen naked brings out flexibility she didn’t know she had (44). 
  • …she will tell him about the protest and the ducks and how proud she felt standing with her friends underneath the banner and the lido clock. How she felt like she was a somebody (185).