The Year the Swans Came*

42323212The Year the Swans Came: Where historical fiction and fantasy collide by Barbara Spencer

Cathy read it as an: ARC

Source: Helen Hollick at Discovering Diamonds

Length: 384 pp

Publisher: Troubador

Year: 2018

The Year the Swans Came is tale of love and mystery that revolves around Margrit “Maidy” Bader and Ruth Endelbaum, their families, and the friends the two girls meet while attending college. The story takes place after the end of an unnamed war, in a village whose townsfolk are slowly trying to get back to normal after the departure of the occupied forces. When Maidy is young, she is devastated when her older brother, Pieter, unexpectedly leaves home. Years later, Pieter reappears around Maidy’s 16th birthday. With Pieter’s return comes the trials and tribulations of love and the deepening mystery of where he was and why he left home in the first place. Even more puzzling is Pieter’s connections to the mysterious Van Vliet, Zande, Jaan, and others who seemed to be a part of a small bevy of select young men.

Spencer masterfully uses detailed descriptions to bring this story to life. I easily came to respect and admire Maidy, her humble courage and her natural strength, even though she seemed to see herself as lesser than her best friend, Ruth.  Opposite Maidy’s character is Ruth, who is the girl that has it all, from money, to beauty, and to what both girls feel is the admiration of everyone she comes to meet, especially the young men at the college. Spencer also does an excellent job of weaving historical details throughout the narrative that give it a strong sense of past. Even though it is not clear as to when or where the actual story took place, the intricate details throughout the novel build wonder and curiosity as to the time period and setting.

As I followed the lives of the two girls and the connections between their families and their friends, the magical realism was not easily realized throughout the first part of the story.  Even though Spencer integrated small hints of fantasy as she thickened the plot of the love triangles and deep friendships, the tale felt more like a love tragedy with small hints of mystery. It was not until the last few chapters that the magical realism was realized. I was able to reflect back through the story to recognize how the legend of the swans was the foundation for Spencer’s story and how the subtle hits dropped throughout Maidy’s and Ruth’s journeys were a part of the magic that helped the story to unfold.

The Year the Swans Came is a tragic story for anyone who wants to become captivated by the lives of two girls who are literally polar opposites of each other.  It is a story of one girl’s love of herself and her physical world, and the story of another girl’s unconditional love for the people in her life. It is a story of passion and a story of anguish. Spencer has done a wonderful job subtly showing how magical realism is a real part of the mythologies of a culture.  

*This is a guest post by Cathy Smith.

It Isn’t Fun to Care. Do It Anyway.

In my personal life, I try to practice Stoicism. I recognize that there are many things – most things, in fact – that I cannot control or change. I let go of those things and focus instead on controlling what I can control or change, which mainly centers around my own reaction to a thing. I can’t control traffic but I can choose not to get mad about it and enjoy listening to my audiobook instead. I can’t control that it feels like living on the sun in Arizona, but I can either accept that it’s hot here, or move. Recently, though, I went to a talk given by Paul Nicklen, biologist, photojournalist, and arctic explorer. As I listened to Nicklen’s presentation, I felt my Stoicism crumbling a bit more with each word he said.

Nicklen showed us a video he had taken of a polar bear who was starving to death. The poor creature, who should have weighed close to 1,000 pounds or more, clocked in at roughly 200 pounds and was too weak to do more than stagger towards Nicklen, who had waited for several hours nearby. The bear eventually came over to some garbage cans the film crew laid out to check desperately if there was food inside. Nicklen did not tell us if the bear ever found enough to eat, though the implication was that it did not and eventually died. Attempting to be apolitical, he was careful not to connect the effects of climate change to the bear’s situation, while at the same time making sure to be clear that it was precisely because of climate change that the bear had no ice to live on, and that it was the destruction of its habitat that had caused its starvation conditions.

Nicklen discussed, too, the effects of the use of drift nets upon ocean populations. The fishing industry uses drift nets that are up to a mile long, which are opened and then set loose in the ocean. The fishing boats then come along to collect the nets to see what they caught. Often, they catch dolphins, whales, sharks, rays, seals, and other non-food sea life. Many of these are endangered animals; many are highly intelligent and sensitive. Some are caught intentionally, such as sharks for shark fin soup. We had the dubious honor of seeing footage of a shark getting its fins cut off, while still alive, for exactly that purpose, and then thrown back into the water to flail helplessly. I couldn’t blink, because blinking would have made my face leak and possibly made sounds come out my mouth.

Nicklen’s talk was not all about the wanton death and destruction of the oceans and the arctic regions. The majority of it was awe-inspiring and filled with breathtaking images he’s taken over the years. He showed us many images of what a polar bear is supposed to look like in all its huge glory. They can be silly creatures as well, for as huge and deadly as they are. One enormous male Nicklen showed us made himself a giant snowball, put it on top of his head* (he was supremely proud of himself, judging from the expression on his furry face), and then snuggled up with it in his arms and fell asleep. This delightful encounter was documented by Nicklen’s lens. He showed us what a happy seal looks like, fat and sleek, her pup a butterball of soft white fur, so full of milk it can’t stuff its tongue back in its mouth. When elephant seals are weaned, they get really lonely. If you lay down in the surf near them, they will come and want to be close to you and will lay on your lap, even though they weigh around 500 pounds. The oft-maligned leopard seal, frequently described as violent or aggressive, provided another glimpse into arctic animal life. Nicklen got in the water with a female leopard seal moments after she’d killed a penguin to eat. She charged him, nothing but gaping jaws and teeth, but he shut his eyes and curled up and after a few minutes, she settled down, confused. Then she swam off and came back a few moments later with another penguin, which she tried to give to Nicklen. The penguin got away and she retrieved it, prodding it toward him again. He did not take the penguin for fear the power dynamic would change him into a competing predator to the seal. Instead, she kept bringing him penguins, each one more wounded or weakened, until finally she brought him a dead one and literally put it on his head. During his last swim with this female seal, she turned on her back and made a sound at him that is usually reserved for their pups. Maybe she thought he was a particularly inept pup and was trying to help him. These encounters, too, were captured by Nicklen or one of his crew.

Nicklen’s purpose is to show that animals are often misunderstood and that many instances of “animal aggression” is simply humans panicking or imposing and stressing the animals out. When the animals are allowed to dictate the encounter, using a modicum of common sense of course, it is far less likely that anyone will be harmed. They have personalities and feelings, not to anthropomorphize anything. But to be careless with our actions has far-flung and devastating impact on the environment and the creatures that live in it.

I shouldn’t think this would need explaining, but there are still people who deny that humans have an impact on climate change, or who deny that we can change anything. I simply cannot fathom or condone that kind of short-sightedness. We rush to insure our homes if there is even a 1% chance that it will burn down or come to harm. Why wouldn’t we take similar precautions with our one true home, the earth? It is exhausting to care about something so much, but Nicklen made a comment that really struck me during his talk. “It isn’t fun to care,” he said. I agree, it isn’t. But do it anyway.

I realized after the talk that I can still be Stoic about this. I may not be able to control or change these people or their views. I can’t force the climate to revert to pre-Industrial Revolution clean standards with a wave of my hand. But I CAN do my part not to use things that are harmful to the land or oceans. I can help lobby to ban things like drift nets, trophy hunting, and the market for shark fins. I can drive a car that doesn’t contribute to greenhouse emissions that makes the atmosphere hotter, and melts the ice so the polar bears don’t have anywhere to live. There are things we can do, even if they are a little inconvenient. We have to consider if there really is an inconvenience when we are keeping the ecosystem healthy. We can do better, if not for ourselves then for our children and grandchildren. It isn’t fun to care, but do it anyway.

*All the photo links will take you to Nicklen’s awesome Instagram page. 

Big Damn Hero

38464992Firefly – Big Damn Hero* by James Lovegrove

I read it as a: hardback

Source: my own collection

Length: 334 pp

Publisher: Titan Books

Year: 2018

Big Damn Hero is the first of a new series of novels based on the awesome and tragically short-lived sci-fi show Firefly. This first book focused primarily on Captain Tightpants himself, Malcolm Reynolds. As always, Mal and the crew of Serenity are hustling for work and they take a job from Badger, their sometime ally and mostly opportunistic small-time crime boss on Persephone. They are to ship some very hinky and hazardous cargo for him. Mal also gets word of a possible side job they could take that is on the way to the drop off point for Badger’s cargo. Being something of an opportunist himself, he goes to meet the contact for this job, only to find it was a set-up and he gets abducted by a band of fringe lunatic former Browncoats. The rest of the crew have to figure out where he is before the Browncoats string Mal up as a traitor to their cause, deliver Badger’s cargo, and evade an Alliance patrol which is suddenly very interested in who might be traveling with Serenity.

This was a very fun book, like being in an episode of Firefly. It had all the shiny slang and random bits of Mandarin thrown in, the same action we have come to expect from the show, and the author clearly is a fan because he nailed all the characters’ voices just about perfectly.

I loved getting some of Mal’s backstory from his growing up years on Shadow. He always said he grew up on a cattle ranch on Shadow but not much more about it than that. I’m a sucker for a good backstory, and while this novel was not that, it still provided a nice glimpse into some aspects of his life that we never really got from the show, with just a couple exceptions. Adding more to the overall mythology of Firefly is always a good thing.

I think the only thing I didn’t care for was how neatly the ending was tied up, but many of the episodes were as well, and I will be a good fan and take Firefly in whatever way I can get it, so the ending didn’t bother me too much. I do think the Browncoats were a little too zealous in their bloodlust and might have given more pause to some things, but then there wouldn’t have been much of a story. I hope so gorram much that there will be books for each of the Serenity crew. It looks like there are books coming up focusing mainly on Jayne (Firefly – The Magnificent Nine) and River (Firefly: Generations), so one can only hope that we get books for Zoe, Wash, Kaylee, Book, Simon, and Inara as well. Especially Zoe because besides River, Zoe is fucking awesome.

There were several lines I loved, but my favorite was in the beginning: Is it a good life or a bad one? The answer doesn’t matter. It’s the only life we have.” Ain’t it just?

*Amazon affiliate link. Help a gal out, eh? 🙂

Margery Kempe, a Pronoun, and her Earthly Associations*

*I wrote this paper something like 15+ years ago in grad school, in one of my Middle English courses. My instructor was the amazing Dhira Mahoney, who recently passed away. I wanted to repost one of my newbie grad student papers that I wrote for her as a tribute to the mentoring she gave me and the lessons I learned, both from her and since then because of her. 

Margery Kempe, a Pronoun, and her Earthly Associations

Margery Kempe is a woman of many titles. She is a wife, a mother, a mystic. Her contemporaries termed her a nuisance, a heretic, a saint. One scholar accurately calls her ‘the woman who would not go away.’1 But how does one woman fall under so many titles? Regardless of how people regard her, it is Margery’s use of language that defines her identity to various individuals. This paper will examine how Margery uses language and tone in her dialogues between earthly men and women in her Book to define her relationship with and authority to the people in her life.Read More »

Read What You Don’t Like

I used to write for a couple different places and one of them put out a call for suggestions for some new reading challenges. “Cool,” I thought. I sent in a couple suggestions via their team meeting site and, my job done, thought nothing more of it. Imagine my surprise when I got roasted in said team meeting site for one of the suggestions I had submitted. What was this horrible recommendation I made, you might ask? I said to read a book written by a person not of your political affiliation.

Now, this place where I used to write is generally pretty open and inclusive and tolerant, so it really was a genuine surprise to me that the consensus reaction to my earnest recommendation was “Fuck you. Hard pass.” Particularly considering that they are very politically oriented and want to effect change, bring social awareness and equality, and basically make things better for everyone, not just rich white dudes. It seems logical to me that, in order to change something, you first have to understand what it is that you want to change. How else can you understand the way people think but to read about the other side, the side you disagree with?

Learning what the other side of any argument, position, religion, political party, what have you, thinks in order to bolster one’s own defenses  is certainly not a new strategy. For example, the ancient Stoic Seneca learned a great deal about the Epicureans; when asked about why he knew so much about a rival school of thought, he said, in his Moral Letters, “I am wont to cross over even into the enemy’s camp, not as a deserter, but as a scout.” He knew the value of learning what others thought, whether he agreed with them or not. Seneca was a man who valued wisdom, regardless of its source, and was not ashamed to quote from an author or source he generally disagreed with if he felt the bit of wisdom itself was valuable. That is something people today tend to forget all too frequently. I’m an atheist, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t still bits of wisdom in the Bible or Quran that I can find meaningful or valuable; I’m straight but that doesn’t mean a lesbian can’t write something meaningful to me. Dismissing something out of hand seems not only narrow-minded, but dangerous as well. To paraphrase Captain Picard, when people learn to devalue one group, they can devalue anyone. See? Just because that came from a sci-fi TV show doesn’t make it any less true or valuable. We have to be careful not to fall victim to a myopic view of the world where we only see things from one point of view – our own – and forget that there are many well reasoned and cogent arguments from the other side. When you get stuck in this kind of feedback loop, it is easy to fall victim, too, to confirmation bias in our thinking and not remain open minded or willing to learn new things.

So, because I am a liberal Democrat, I should make an effort to read books by a not!Democrat on occasion. I have a couple books below that were recommended to me by a Republican I know and trust, and who isn’t rabid like Ann Coulter. He recommended them as a good starting point for a variety of reasons and I will give them an honest read in the spirit of open debate and exchange of ideas. The notes after the titles are from my friend’s email:

  • The Conservative Heart: How to Build a Fairer, Happier, and More Prosperous America by Arthur Brooks. Brooks is the president of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. It is a fun read, and doesn’t get into name calling or demonizing. It is a thoughtful and optimistic look at what true conservatives believe. This is about as far away from Ann Coulter as you can get, both in terms of its tone and its intellectual rigor.  
  • Economic Facts and Fallacies, 2nd edition by Thomas Sowell. Don’t be scared by the title [he knows me well], there aren’t any formulas and graphs. Sowell is a brilliant thinker and takes complex issues regarding gender, race, and education explains them in a narrative style using research. He basically uses available economic data to look at some of the biggest social issues of our time, often calling out the big discrepancy between good intentions and actual results.

Since I am also an atheist, there are plenty of religious books I could read as well, but I’ve read a ton of them already. I have read the Bible four times, cover to cover, using three different editions (King James x1, New International Version x1, and Douay Rheims x2), not counting the hundreds of times I have dipped into it to look up a specific verse for writing papers and whatnot. I also translated Genesis from the Latin Vulgate when I was taking Latin in one of my college classes. So I have read the Bible more times than a lot of religious folk probably have. I’ve read the Quran once, cover to cover. I’ve read the Book of Mormon in bits and pieces but never all the way through. Maybe I’ll do that one of these days. I teach college level World Mythology, so I have read all the Greco-Roman myths, all the Norse myths, most of the Celtic myths, and various Native American, various African, various Asian, and various South American myths more times than I can count. So, since any religious text is, to me, from an opposite point of view from what I hold, I can recommend the below:

The Holy Bible: Douay-Rheims Version (I prefer this version as this is translated directly from the Latin Vulgate, translated from the Hebrew)

The Holy Qur’an

The Upanishads, 2nd Edition

Buddhist Scriptures (Penguin Classics)

World Mythology: An Anthology of Great Myths and Epics edited by Donna Rosenberg. This is the one I use in my World Myths class and it is a really good text, very diverse and it connects to modern life very nicely.

This is just the tip of the iceberg, of course. I picked politics and religion because those are two hot topics for a lot of people and I think it is easy to forget that both sides can have valuable points, regardless of whether you agree or not. So maybe try reading some books from a different point of view from your own and see what you can get out of it. What books would you recommend adding to the list?

*Post contains Amazon affiliate links

Headlong Flight

30753771Headlong Flight (Star Trek: The Next Generation)* by Dayton Ward

I read it as a: paperback

Source: my own collection

Length: 333 pp

Publisher: Pocket Books

Year: 2017

**There be spoilers below!**

Back to their mission of exploring uncharted space, the Enterprise-E is checking out a nebula in the “Odyssean Pass” when they encounter what appears to be a rogue planet. This planet seems to be shifting between dimensions – and scans show it has life signs on it. A message from the planet warns the crew to stay away for their own safety, but Captain Picard wants to help them, so he sends Worf and an away team to the surface to investigate. Of course, because it’s Star Trek and the Enterprise crew is incapable of having a normal day (and there would be no story otherwise), the planet chooses that moment to disappear with Worf and friends on the surface. Whoops. Now Picard and the rest of the crew have to figure out where the planet went (hint: not only is there inter-dimensional traveling, but time traveling as well!), but the planet has attracted the attention of the Romulans, too, who think this would make some shiny technology to bring back home. Only, which time/dimension does this lot call home? I don’t know, it’s a mystery!

This was just a good old fun Star Trek story. It was not a tie in to anything else. It wasn’t part of a grand, multi-novel story arc that you had to read a hundred books before to understand the plot. It didn’t have any bullshit social or feminist issues that make me want to scream like some of the newer Voyager novels. There was a mystery, some technobabble, an away mission gone wrong, and Romulans oh noes! I loved it. I wish all the Trek novels would go back to being just standalone, fun novels, like they used to be waaaaayyyyyyy back when they were still numbered books. I could pick one up and read it and it was like its own episode.

This had everything a good Star Trek book (or episode) should have. Action, a little mystery, and sciencey technobabble. There were parts that made me laugh, and one or two parts that made me nostalgic and a little teary, not gonna lie. Those were wonderful, heady days on the Enterprise-D.

It was interesting to see the differences the Other Enterprise-D took in its timeline. Tasha Yar didn’t die, but instead, Picard himself was lost to the Borg at Wolf-359. Riker was the Enterprise-D’s captain, but his experiences turned him from the confident and happy XO we knew to a somber, self-critical man who constantly second-guesses himself and his worth as captain. It was nice to see how he went from that back to a man more familiar by the end of the book. Similarly, it was also nice to see how Yar might have turned out, still vivacious and brave but more seasoned, if she had lived. It made her death hurt all over again because we got a glimpse of what might have been.

It was also good to see how the two Enterprise crews not only worked together but also with the Sidrac to fix the trans-dimensional shifting and time traveling. In true Starfleet tradition, they even managed to play nice with the Romulans, who initially really did not have any interest in playing nice at all.

Overall, just a fun book, very enjoyable. I wish more of the Trek relaunch novels were like this, just a standalone book.

*Amazon affiliate link. Help a gal out, eh? 🙂 

Never Waste Tears*

24354498Never Waste Tears by Glorida Zachgo

Cathy read it as an: ARC

Source: Helen Hollick at Discovering Diamonds

Length: 406 pp

Publisher: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform

Year: 2014

Set in the late 1860s, Never Waste Tears is the story of Nathaniel Jacob Carter, a young man whose desire it is to find peace after the war, a life with a woman he loves, and the companionship of the friends he meets along the way. Dated April 12, 1861, the story starts with the journal entry of a young ten-year-old Rebecca who expresses wonder as to why her home town is so suddenly somber. Thirteen-year-old Nathan’s journal entry follows with the description of how, on his birthday, his family changes forever when his father and brothers leave to join the War Between the States. Through the personal journal entries of these two characters, Zachgo builds their relationship, and the relationships with their families. The conflicts Rebecca faces and the reasons which compel Nathan to leave his home behind soon become apparent, making the story of the young couple’s journey deeply personal.   

Soon after their marriage, Nathan and Becca begin their adventures. They join a wagon train west with hopes of homesteading land in the New Frontier. Initially, the young newlyweds set Nebraska as their final destination, but after making a bonding friendship with another young couple, Carl and Hannah, Nathan decides to head for the Kansas territory instead. What awaits the young settlers turns Nathan’s life inside out. Zachgo’s use of historical facts and descriptions of the everyday joys and hardships faced by the pioneers adds to the realism of the time period and of the settling of the United States, west of the Mississippi River.

Zachgo moves the story forward through the use of journal entries of five different characters. Doing so provides a deeper understanding of the personal lives of pioneers, and the emotional bonds they form in order to survive.  While the use of personal narrative through the journal entries is an interesting method of moving a story forward, the technique was initially confusing. The confusion was short-lived since it turned the story into a page turner that prevented me from setting the book down for even a moment.

Never Waste Tears is an interesting story about the post-Civil War settlers who traveled west in search of a new life. Zachgo does an excellent job developing characters that are true to the time period and the settling of the post-Civil War American West.

*This is a guest post by Cathy Smith. 

Total Money Makeover

17591758The Total Money Makeover: Classic Edition: A Proven Plan for Financial Fitness by Dave Ramsey

I read it as a: hardback

Source: library

Length: 237 pp

Publisher: Thomas Nelson

Year: 2013

My mom occasionally listens to one of the more conservative radio stations in my hometown. That would be horrifying except they have plenty of *opinions* about 45 which are quite in alignment with my own, which is a delightful surprise given that I am…super not conservative. Anyway, this station plays Dave Ramsey every day for 2 hours and I’ve often heard his show. I have always enjoyed listening to him when I catch his show because so much of his financial advice is so common-sensical and down to earth. I like his tough love approach and how he tells people what they need to hear rather than what the want to hear. Since I have a little bit of debt – thankfully not very much at all – I decided to take a look at his book. I am glad I did because I learned a lot of things that are relevant even for people without a crushing amount of debt!

I found the book to be broken down in a clear and easy to understand format. You would think that should be a given, but nope. I’ve read other finance books and it was like, “WTF does that even mean?” I have literature degrees for a reason, folks. Anyway, Ramsey’s premise for becoming debt-free is to follow his Baby Steps. These steps are:

  1. Save $1000 for an emergency fund
  2. Pay off all debt (except mortgage) using the debt snowball
  3. Save 3-6 months of expenses in a fully funded emergency fund
  4. Invest 15% of your income in retirement
  5. Save for your children’s college funds
  6. Pay off your home early
  7. Build wealth and give

The first two steps are supposed to take the longest, especially if you have a ton of debt. Since I don’t have a lot of debt and only recently discovered Dave Ramsey, I already have well over $1000 for an emergency fund. I’m sure he would think it is an excuse, but I will never use all my money to pay off the one debt I have because I have a house and the mortgage is more than $1000 a month. But I did recently manage to make a giant payment to the one loan that I have, and am making a budget, which I’ve never done before. I will be able to get that thing paid off within this calendar year if I plan right, and then I will be able to start saving for a new car, finally, which I’ll pay cash for. I will be able to save money for my daughter’s college fund, and invest for retirement the way I want to. I want to follow a mix of Dave Ramsey/ Mr Money Mustache/ The Minimalists approach to life, because that seems the type that is the likeliest to bring the most joy and value to my life.

Is this book for everyone? Nope. If you have the attitude that the world owes you something or that certain things are just *necessary* for life when they really aren’t, or you aren’t willing to make sacrifices for a while to get out of debt, then you probably won’t respond well to this book. Ramsey is also religious and he sometimes throws in quotes from the Bible to support his financial practices. I’m as atheist as they come, but I didn’t find these to be irritating or anything; they were the common sense kind of quotes, like “Lazy hands make for poverty, but diligent hands bring wealth” (Prov. 10:4). The source here is irrelevant. The message is the same – getting out of debt and gaining financial freedom is hard work and you can’t be lazy about it. But I suppose it might be annoying to some people who aren’t able to separate their secularism from everything else.

I also learned some things that I should have learned long before now, in my early 40s, but I suppose better late than never. Like about the protections on debit cards, for example. Never knew how those worked before now. Made me feel dumb, but now I am glad to know how it works because I can use my debit card with no concerns now. It will make things easier to budget, that’s for sure!

Even though I don’t have a ton of debt, I am still really glad I read this book and will be using the steps to pay off what debt I do have, and to help me manage my money better in the future. Definitely recommended for people who are in debt and are motivated to get out, who want to manage their finances better, and who want to understand how their money works better.

Arthurian Novels Round-Up!

It’s been a while since I did any kind of round-up post, and I’ve been thinking a lot about Arthurian novels. Arthurian legend is probably my absolute go-to favorite for fantasy literature. I love a ton of different kinds of sci-fi and fantasy, of course, but if I had to pick one specific subgenre that really blows my skirt up, it has to be Arthurian. I’ll take it in just about any setting, I’ll read it without forgetting, I’ll read it at school, I’ll read it in the pool, I love stories of Arthur the King… I’ll stop. Ahem. Sorry.

Anyway, in no particular order, below are some of my favorites and I hope some are new to you!

51itaibuaqlOur Man On Earth (The Swithen Book 1) by Scott Tilek. An account based on some of the oldest extant manuscripts describing Merlin.

Black Horses for the King (Magic Carpet Books) by Anne McCaffrey. My beloved author wrote an Arthurian novel (yay!) about horses (winning!!), which is even better. All about the quest to find the perfect breed of warhorse for Arthur and his knights.

51ln1vvcazl._sx331_bo1204203200_The Kingmaking: Book One of the Pendragon’s Banner Trilogy by Helen Hollick. An historic retelling, stripped of magic and placed in a realistic medieval setting. One of the best, on par with Bernard Cornwell’s Arthurian Trilogy (The Warlord Chronicles: Books 1, 2 & 3: Excalibur / Enemy of God / The Winter King), which is also legit.

The Guinevere’s Tale Trilogy (Daughter of Destiny, Camelot’s Queen, and Mistress of Legend) by Nicole Evelina. The Arthurian legends told from Guinevere’s perspective. The tales get a fresh, feminist revision with a fierce new look at Camelot’s queen.

Child of the Northern Spring: Book One of the Guinevere Trilogy by Persia Wooley. Guinevere is a Welsh princess tomboy who was raised to become a queen.

Knight Life by Peter David. Arthur and Morgan in modern Manhattan, as told by the hilarious Peter David, whose Star Trek books I have universally loved. Especially Imzadi.

51gzvucvqfl._sx354_bo1204203200_Song Of The Sparrow by Lisa Ann Sandell. Actually, this is the story of the Lady of Shallott, told in verse, and it is lovely.

The Excalibur Murders: A Merlin Investigation by JMC Blair. Excalibur is stolen and a squire is murdered, so Merlin has to use his magic to solve the crime.

The White Raven by Diana Paxson. An historical setting of the Tristan and Iseult story, placed in medieval Cornwall. It is told from the perspective of Branwen, Iseult’s cousin and lady in waiting. Alas, I think this one is out of print, but I know you can get it from used bookstores and Amazon, because that’s how I got my copy. Just sayin’… 

The Green Phoenix

36085083The Green Phoenix: A Novel of the Woman Who Re-Made Asia, Empress Xiaozhuang by Alice Poon

I read it as an: ARC

Source: Helen Hollick at Discovering Diamonds

Length: 372 pp

Publisher: Earnshaw Books

Year: 2017

The Green Phoenix by Alice Poon is a sweeping saga of a fascinating woman, the Empress Xiaozhuang. She began as Bumbutai, a Mongolian princess who became a concubine at the Manchu court when she was 12  and later, became the first empress of the Qing Dynasty. She guided her country through political machinations, upheaval, and strife to see it become one of the most powerful dynasties on earth.

I confess that I know nothing at all about Chinese history. Going into this, I couldn’t have been more ignorant about a topic if I tried. That said, The Green Phoenix was an absolutely riveting novel, and appears to be meticulously researched. The atmosphere hooked me from the start and I simply didn’t want to put it down. I lost rather a lot of sleep over this book. The politics of court life were complex and, at times, harrowing, on par with anything the Tudors or Plantagenets could come up with. The intrigues and plots were so intricate and delicately wrought that I found myself breathless, wanting to know how this woman would make things right or take advantage of the situation. I found myself rooting for a person who has been gone for nearly 400 years – her story is over and unchanging at this point, but it was as gripping to me as if it were happening in real time.

The characters in this novel are people readers grow to care about. Some of them I hated, but I was supposed to. I admit that I did have some trouble keeping many of them straight, partly because there were so many of them and partly because I was having a hard time with the names. That is all on me, though; I wonder if it might be easier to keep characters straight if I could listen to this as an audiobook. Perhaps one day it will be available through Audible, but it seems not to be at the moment.

Poon’s use of language can only be described as elegant. I highlighted many of my favorite passages, as is my habit when reading any book, but I think my favorite was, “A kind ruler is an invincible ruler,” something many leaders even today need to learn. Hong Taiji really embraced that when Bumbutai first joined his court as a child bride/concubine. He allowed her to continue her education, something that was precious to her, and he was kind to her. It can be hard to understand, even for seasoned readers of historical fiction, a girl marrying at 12 years old. For Bumbutai to go from a child at the beginning of the book to the formidable woman she was is a treat to witness, all thanks to Poon’s masterful wordsmithing. Bumbutai was a woman of great strength, generosity, love, and humility. I would have liked to know her, and after reading this book, I felt almost like I did.

Overall, this was a captivating book, and it read very quickly despite its length. Very highly recommended!