Earl of Huntingdon

42551630Earl of Huntingdon (Outlaw’s Legacy Book 3)* by NB Dixon

I read it as an: ARC

Source: Helen Hollick at Discovering Diamonds 

Length: 418 pp

Publisher: Beaten Track

Year: 2019

Earl of Huntingdon is the third in the Outlaw’s Legacy series, a reimagining of the Robin Hood legend by NB Dixon. In this installation, Robin of Huntingdon, formerly of Locksley, is an earl, a former outlaw pardoned by King Richard for his lawless ways. He had married Marian, the heiress of Huntingdon, though his heart was given to one of his companions, Will Scathelock. Now, years later, Robin is facing an old enemy from his Crusading days, Roger of Doncaster, who had been promised to Marian in his youth and never forgave her or Robin for coercing her marriage to Robin instead. Roger is determined to do all he can to destroy Robin, whose only solace now is in the arms of the man whose heart he broke.

The action begins with a new group of outlaws in Sherwood. The difference here is that these outlaws are truly bad people, raping, pillaging, and plundering from the innocent. The new sheriff of Nottingham, Matthew Picard, is as inept as Guy of Gisbourne ever could have been, and does nothing to stop them. Robin takes matters into his own hands and dispatches the outlaws himself with the aid of his loyal men…and Will Scathelock. However, the outlaws were connected to a spy in Robin’s midst working with Roger of Doncaster to bring Robin down and killing the outlaws sets in motion a chain of events neither Robin nor his men could have anticipated.

This was an utterly unstoppable read. While I confess I’ll read just about anything labelled “Robin Hood,” that doesn’t mean all such are actually well written or entertaining; Earl of Huntingdon, however, is both. I enjoyed the rich historical details, such as the training the men did in the lists and at the tiltyard, or the ways in which castles could be besieged. Adding in the historical details in this way make these novels which are based on legend spring to life, making it seem that much more possible that people like Robin Hood really could have existed.

The characters were all interesting and well developed. I loved how very human Robin was – he was conflicted in wanting to do right by Marian and by what I think was his genuine affection for her, but also his desire for Will and wanting to be with the man he truly loves. He isn’t a perfect person, and never tries to be, and it makes him that much more believable.

Marian is not always likeable and her reasons are understandable. She’s endured many losses and suffered a lot of heartache, which makes her rather shrewish at first. We get to know her more as the book goes on and I grew to like her more. Having Marian be less likeable than she often is in more traditional versions makes this novel compelling and more relatable – it reminds readers that she is a woman of her time and subject to the whims of the men in charge of her, and yet she has endured it all as best she can.

All the secondary characters – Will, John Little, Tuck, John’s wife Daphne, Alan a Dale, and so on – have distinct personalities and foibles of their own. Daphne in particular is a woman to be reckoned with. She’s awesome, even though her role in this novel was relatively minor.

Roger of Doncaster is a complex antagonist. He is so incredibly hateful towards Robin that, without having read the previous books, I am left to wonder if he is supposed to have been closeted. He hates Robin and other gay men so much, and bases his hatred for them in his religious devotions, that it makes me wonder if the hatred isn’t really supposed to be a projection of his own self-loathing. That possibility wasn’t really addressed in this book, but it did make me wonder as I was reading.

My only quibble, and it is minor, is that a couple of the secondary antagonists are a little stereotypical. Picard, for example, is very good at being a stupid fop and not much else. It makes him a rather boring antagonist because he is one-dimensional. There didn’t seem to be much else going for him. Again, this is a minor issue and didn’t detract from the rest of the plot overall, other than it made a few things a little predictable.

I loved the queering of the Robin Hood legend. It’s always fun to read a reimagining of any beloved story, and to see it done in a way that is socially relevant is a treat. It brings new discussion into the mix and raises a lot of interesting new questions to the traditional story everyone is familiar with. The chemistry between Robin and Will is unmistakable and fierce, but not over the top. As a non-reader of romance in general, I appreciate it when the romance isn’t actually smacking me in the face. The romance and sex in this novel were, I felt, very nicely done for both the gay and hetero couples.

I do feel I would have enjoyed the book even more had I read the previous two in the series. However, I do not feel like I was lost, plot-wise, for having missed them. Enough of the backstory was given so that any gaping plot holes were filled in, though I do feel like I missed out. I enjoyed the book enough that I went and purchased the first two in the series, and will quickly remedy that deficiency. Even without having read the first two in the series, I still happily recommend this book even as it is, and am looking forward to reading the whole series in order.

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The Salt Roads

61nvaeyynml._sl500_The Salt Roads* by Nalo Hopkinson

I read it as an: audiobook

Narrator: Bahni Turpin

Source: my own collection

Length: 13:15:00

Publisher: Tantor Audio

Year: 2003

This is the story of a fertility goddess, Ezilie, sometimes called Lasiren, and the women whose bodies she possesses. The main point of view characters are Mer, a healer and slave on a plantation on the island of St. Domingue, what is now Haiti; Jeanne Duval, the Haitian mistress of Charles Baudelaire; and Thais or Meritet, a Nubian slave and prostitute in Alexandria, Egypt, who later becomes known as Mary of Egypt. In nonlinear timelines, the narrative follows the lives of these women as Lasiren inhabits and influences them. Mer is tasked with clearing the salt roads, the connections between Haitian slaves and their African gods. She tries to do so through peaceful means, even though a violent rebel called Makandal is rising in power and urging slaves to revolt against white slave owners. Mer knows her duty is to heal all the Ginen people. Jeanne Duval’s narrative focuses more on economic freedom. She is trying to support herself and her mother, who is ill and can’t afford medicine. To do so, she becomes a stage dancer in hopes of catching the eye of a rich man who will take her as his mistress and set her up in comfort so she can care for herself and her mother. Thais’s story comes pretty late in the book overall, but I think it can represent freedom from sexual slavery, since she was a prostitute and relied on that for survival before Lasiren began interacting with her, driving her to wander the desert. Her interactions with Lasiren eventually resulted in her sainthood.

At first, I admit I didn’t quite get this story. I really enjoyed it, but it took a few days of really thinking about it for me to find the threads that bound it together. I really love that, when a story makes me think and I don’t get it right away. Maybe I still don’t have it right, but this is what I’ve come up with. The various forms of freedom are, I believe, the overarching theme. The salt is the common element which binds women around the world together, through blood, sweat, tears, birth fluids, and sex.

I really enjoyed the way the lives of these women were linked throughout the story. They were so very different, but they each had their own struggles for freedom which bound them together, and Lasiren teased out their desires and eventually managed to bring comfort to them all, even if it was a long time coming.

Each setting was vivid and complex, containing rich cultural details. I hadn’t known, for example, that Makandal was a real man and that he did actually instigate a rebellion on St. Domingue. I learned as well that the Ginen is the Haitian name for the ancestral home of enslaved Africans, and that it referred to the slaves on St. Domingue. I didn’t know that Charles Baudelaire had a Haitian mistress. I had never heard of Mary of Egypt. Now I have so many new things to read about in more depth because of this book!

The narrator, Bahni Turpin, did a stellar job, as she always does. Her accents really bring the characters to life and she dramatizes the story without being melodramatic. She is one of my favorite narrators.

This is definitely one of the most unique books I’ve read ever, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I highly recommend it and am looking forward to reading more by Nalo Hopkinson.

 

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The Column of Burning Spices

43458335The Column of Burning Spices: A Novel of Germany’s First Female Physician (Hildegard of Bingen)* by PK Adams

I read it as a: digital book

Source: my own collection

Length: 370 pp

Publisher: Iron Knight Press

Year: 2019

The Column of Burning Spices is the second in PK Adams’s duology about the renowned medieval holy woman, Hildegard of Bingen. This picks up right where the first book left off and covers the latter part of Hildegard’s life, when she was writing and creating the works for which she is most well known.

Where the first book had given Hildegard an interesting background and a plausible history that filled in gaps in the historical record, this second book continued with what is known of her and fleshed her out in a human way. I don’t feel that there was quite the depth of character as there was in the first book, but I think this is simply because there was so much that Hildegard did in her life that it is impossible to capture it all in the scope of one novel. Authors have to make a choice – are they going to focus on her music or her scientific writing? On her struggles with the men of the church or on her charitable work? Adams is no different, and she did exceedingly well with what she chose to include. I thought the details were sufficient for Hildegard fans like me while also serving to whet the appetite of readers who may not be as familiar with her, hopefully inspiring them to go out and learn more about her.

How Hildegard dealt with the troublesome men of the church was handled deftly, and accurately. One of my favorite parts of the book, as well as actual events of her life, was how she handled the question of the burial of a man who had been excommunicated and then forgiven. He was buried, then the canons demanded that he be exhumed and reburied in unconsecrated ground. Hildegard refused because she said his sins had been forgiven. The canons told local authorities to exhume the body, so Hildegard and her nuns went around and removed all the grave markers from the cemetery. I love that so much. She sounds like my granny, a salty old crone. The canons placed Hildegard, her nuns, and the abbey under interdict, so no Mass could be performed and, worse for Hildegard, no songs could be sung. But eventually, she won and they could have their Mass and music back.

I enjoyed how the relationships between Hildegard and others were developed. Volmar, who was her confessor in real life, was given a deeper place in her life. It is not part of the historical record, but the way it was written in the book was believable and still within the scope of acceptable behavior for a Benedictine nun, and raised a poignant “what if” for them both. Similarly with Ricardis, Hildegard’s personal assistant. The two women had a close bond in real life, prompting some scholars to speculate that Hildegard was actually a lesbian. Maybe she was, but I also think that is a stupid assumption; she lived almost entirely in the company of women from the time she was 8 years old and most of the men of her acquaintance were her adversaries. It is no wonder that she formed her closest bonds with other women. It should have no bearing on her sexual preferences. I disagree, however, with how the author handled Ricardis leaving the convent. There is no indication in the historical record that she left because she’d been spying on Hildegard to Abbot Helenger or that she was in the church only to advance her family’s standing. If that had been the case, I doubt very much Hildegard would have continued to write to her after she left, asking her to come back, which she did several times. That part of the novel required too much of a suspension of disbelief, and didn’t fit with the existing historical record, for me to buy.

Overall, the duology was very pleasing – Hildegard of Bingen is hands down my favorite medieval holy woman, and favorite medieval woman second only to Eleanor of Aquitaine. The first installment was stronger, and I would rate it 4.5 stars, but the second still offered a solid performance and I would rank it at at 4 stars. I heartily recommend both books to anyone interested in this fascinating woman, or to anyone who has never heard of her and would like a starting point to learn about her.

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The Best Books about Anne Boleyn

On May 19, 1536, an English queen was executed. She really hadn’t done anything wrong, other than failing to give her king the son he craved. So, in order to get rid of her, some trumped up charges of adultery – treason at the time – were thrown at her and she was executed by beheading. The queen was, of course, Anne Boleyn.

668,Anne Boleyn,by Unknown artist Unknown artist

People may think of many different things when they think of Anne Boleyn. I tend to think primarily “mother of Elizabeth I” and “she was framed.” Others may see her as a victim (yes, indeed), as a homewrecker (no, read more history), an advocate for Protestantism (certainly, and likely the catalyst for Anglicanism, having owned copies of Tyndale and showing them to Henry at the right moment), generous to the poor (yes), and many, many other things. She was a skilled musician, dancer, and linguist. She was a genuine Renaissance woman. I think her full impact on history may never be fully understood.

Anne was born at her family home in Blickling probably in 1507 (some scholars say 1501) and grew up at Hever Castle in Kent. When she was about 7 years old, she went to Austria at the invitation of Margaret of Austria to study with her wards. In 1514, she went to the court of Queen Claude of France, where she stayed for several years. In early 1522, she returned to England, where she became a lady in waiting to Katherine of Aragon and caught the eye of Henry VIII. The rest, as they say, is history.

There remains a fascination with Anne Boleyn, and rightly so, in my opinion. By most accounts, she dazzled. She was witty and enjoyed dancing, riding, and hunting. She enthralled a king, and then she died for it. It’s hard not to be fascinated by her. Other people would seem to agree, if we take the many books written about Anne as evidence. Below are a few of my favorites.

Nonfiction:

31088The Rise and Fall of Anne Boleyn: Family Politics at the Court of Henry VIII (Canto) by Retha Warnicke. Warnicke was one of my college professors. She is a little crazy, and some of her theories about Anne are not really mainstream. But she is a fierce defender of Anne and for that, I have a soft spot for Warnicke.

The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn by Eric Ives. Ives and Warnicke had disagreements. A lot of them. I approve of academic nerdrage.

Anne Boleyn: Henry VIII’s Obsession by Elizabeth Norton. This is a relatively short, accessible scholarly work by one of my favorite historians.

18111981In the Footsteps of Anne Boleyn by Sarah Morris and Natalie Greuninger. This is a really cool book which informs readers not only about Anne, but also about the places she lived and traveled. It tells about each home, manor house, church, chapel, castle, abbey, and so on that Anne ever went to. It shows each room of those places, as much as is possible to do so now. It really helps bring Anne to life in ways that simply writing about her cannot, because it shows up the places where she lived and laughed and grieved. An absolute must-have. I wish more books like this existed for other historical figures.

Fiction:

The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn by Robin Maxwell. It’s been years since I read this one, but I still remember it as the one that really sparked my interest in the Tudors.

10108The Autobiography of Henry VIII: With Notes by His Fool, Will Somers: A Novel by Margaret George. Not about Anne Boleyn, per se, but she featured prominently, of course, and Margaret George is awesome. There are few authors who can tell such a terrific story while also being accurate.

The Last Boleyn: A Novel by Karen Harper, about Mary Boleyn, the other one. Published about 20 years before the other book about Mary Boleyn that most people seem to know about, and which I’m not mentioning because it was awful, this one is nice because it gives readers the big events but entirely through the POV of Mary. None of the major characters we know – Anne, Henry, Katherine of Aragon, Cromwell, etc – appear unless it is when Mary encounters them. I liked it, too, for its more optimistic tone.

Brief Gaudy Hour: A Novel of Anne Boleyn by Margaret Campbell Barnes. One of the older books, but still super interesting. This is not one of the most accurate books you’ll ever read, but it does do a fantastic job of giving Anne a rich internal life, something that not all historical novels really do, oddly. Well worth a read despite the quibbles with the accuracy.

13540943The Queen’s Promise: A fresh and gripping take on Anne Boleyn’s story by Lyn Andrews. This one focuses on Anne before she met Henry, and the love affair she may have had with Henry Percy, Earl of Northumberland. Told primarily from Percy’s perspective, readers get a version of this familiar story from an entirely different angle than we usually do.

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. I’m a little torn at including this one. Too many people use this as an example of how things really were, but Mantel herself has said no, it is her perception of how Cromwell might have viewed things, which makes sense since it’s from his POV. But it is a terrific read and it’s my blog, so I’m adding it because I liked the book and I want it on the list.

There are sooooooooooooo many other books, both fiction and nonfiction, I could have added here, but I had to rein it in or this would just get out of control. These are just a small handful of my favorites. Are there any others you would recommend?

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The Greenest Branch

40331955The Greenest Branch: A Novel of Germany’s First Female Physician (Hildegard of Bingen)* by PK Adams

I read it as an: ARC

Source: my own collection

Length: pp/time

Publisher: Iron Knight Press

Year:  2017

In the early 12th century, a young girl was given as a tithe to the church with the intention that she would be enclosed as an anchoress at the abbey of Disibodenberg. That girl was Hildegard, known to history as Hildegard of Bingen. This novel tells the story of her early years at the abbey of Disibod and attempts to fill in a gap in the historical record.

Author PK Adams does a lovely job bringing a young Hildegard to life with her clear and elegant prose. The setting of the medieval Rhineland is well described and gives readers a vivid image of life during the Investiture Controversy. The conflicts brewing between the Church and secular authorities were complex and distressing to people at the time, and Adams captured these emotions plainly in her characters.

I have, at times, railed against authors of historical fiction who take liberties with historical fact for the sake of telling a story. I think if they can’t tell a good story without embellishing the facts then they aren’t good storytellers. However, Adams has found a sweet spot with regard to Hildegard’s story, and she’s run with it. Little is known about Hildegard’s life after she initially entered the abbey until Jutta’s death. Adams uses that gap in knowledge and creates a detailed and plausible version of her own, enhanced with excellent and accurate details of medieval life. We may not know about what Hildegard’s life was really like for a number of years, but this novel presents us with a viable option for consideration.

Adams wove in many lyrics from Hildegard’s songs, which was a nice touch. A vital touch, in my opinion. I don’t think one should write about Hildegard without including some of her songs, given that she wrote SO MANY of them. I do wish there had been more about herbology, such as recipes she might have used, but that’s just because I am super interested in herbalism. There was enough on that front to appeal to most readers who aren’t as interested as I am, I believe.

The characters are nicely developed overall. I would like more development with Helenger; right now, he just seems like the flat archvillain, mean just for the sake of being mean. I would also like more development with Volmar, particularly since he played such a large role in Hildegard’s real life. Maybe that will be in book two. The issue with Jutta and her bodily mortification left me a little wanting – I wanted to know more about Hildegard’s thoughts behind it. But overall, these were minor issues and didn’t impact my enjoyment of the book as a whole.

I am excited that I don’t have to wait to read the next in the series – thanks, Netgalley! It will be interesting to see how the next book handles the later parts of Hildegard’s much more well-documented life. Hopefully, Adams will continue Hildegard’s story with the same eye for detail as she has begun.

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Black Death

44597455Black Death (A Tudor mystery featuring Christopher Marlowe)* by MJ Trow

I read it as an: ARC

Source: Netgalley

Length: 224 pp

Publisher: Severn House

Year: 2019

Robert Green and Christopher Marlowe are not friends. But when Green believes someone is trying to kill him, he sends a desperate letter to Marlowe, behind for his help. When Green is found dead, Kit believes it is his duty to discover who murdered Green and so undertakes the investigation. At the same time, stage manager Ned Sledd is wrongly taken to Bedlam in lieu of an escaped inmate just days before the opening of one of Marlowe’s new plays. Marlowe has to find the connection between all these events and help his friend. And also, the Spymaster, Robert Cecil, is taking an inordinate interest in things. And there’s plague. What could go wrong?

This is a short, quick read and like other MJ Trow novels I’ve read, it is a fun and witty tale as well. The plot is full of twists and turns and not all is as it appears. The characters, especially Marlowe, are all multidimensional. I really love the little digs at William Shakespeare (spelled here as Shaxper) throughout and the subtle shade thrown on the authorship of his works. There are many literary gems hidden in these pages that appeal to any Anglophile.

The descriptions of Elizabethan London are also vivid and gritty. So much of that period is romanticized but here, we get the more realistic portrayal of what it might have actually been like – dirty, smelly, and depressing. Oh, and don’t forget the plague!

A fun and fast read, highly recommended for any lovers of Marlowe, Shaxper :-), or Elizabethan English history in general.

Age of Saints

43925261Age of Saints: Druid’s Brooch Series: 7* by Author

I read it as a: galley

Source: Helen Hollick at Discovering Diamonds

Length: 240 pp

Publisher: Tirgearr Publishing

Year: 2019

Connall had promised his father that he would take care of Lainn, his little sister. Then his father went away and Connall, despite his best efforts, failed spectacularly in every way to uphold his promise. He and Lainn endure an abusive stepfather; a neglectful mother; starvation, terror, imprisonment, and torture in the land of Faerie; and literal insanity in both human and fey realms. Connall tries to draw on the power of a magic brooch, passed down through his family for generations, to help him and Lainn survive, but in doing so, is he saving them or only delaying the inevitable?

This is the seventh book in Christy Nicholas’s Druid’s Brooch series, and as with the others, it can be read as a standalone. I have read most of the others in the series and with each installation, I appreciate anew how well Nicholas crafts her characters. Each one has depth and vision to them, even minor characters who are only on the page a moment.

Equally appreciated is Nicholas’s deep understanding of Irish legend and lore. Her books are rich with these, and they bring the culture and people within the pages to brilliant life. This novel features the early days when the old ways of the Druids and the new ways of the Christians were still able to live together peaceably, though by the end of the book, the two religions were showing the strain. The Age of Saints refers to the 5th and 6th centuries when the Church was working especially hard to convert the Celtic countries, often using converted Celts to do so, such as St Patrick or Columba, who is referenced in this novel. It was interesting to see the interplay between the two cultures in this way.

I also loved the theme of protection that wove throughout the book. Connall cares for and protects Lainn as best he can, even when he fails utterly. He tries to keep his father’s words in mind as a way to protect himself as well, because at the end of the day, Connall is still a very young man, still in need of protection himself in a variety of ways. He learns how to protect himself, but also how to accept it from others when needed. The raven companion provides protection of a sort as well, and teaches a hard lesson. Connall protects his mother even when he doesn’t really want to. Even though most of the hardships in the book were because of a bad decision he made, Connall was still a sympathetic figure. He honestly did what he thought was best, or at least tried to. He never did anything out of maliciousness, just out of simple naivety or lack of experience, and he never whined about it, unlike some characters in other books. He Had his issues and his flaws, and he had an epic meltdown at one point, which I think was entirely understandable, but he was not an unsympathetic figure at all. He just needed someone to protect him but he had no one to do that, and so he did the best he could.

I also liked the exploration of his sexuality here, and how he was concerned about how Christians would think of him as sinful or unnatural to want to lie with another man, but the Druids had such members within their ranks and thought nothing of it. The conflict in him didn’t feel forced, like Nicholas was just trying to do something new or make a point. It was nicely done and flowed well within the narrative of the story.

One of the things I really love about this series is that it works in reverse time – the books begin in a more recent time and are gradually working back toward a time when the magic is newer and closer to the surface. I hope that, in the final installment of the series, readers will finally understand the genesis of the story, the event that caused the brooch to be given to the humans from the fey, and to see the full circle of all the novels in the series thus far. It has been a finely crafted series to date and I look forward to reading more. Highly recommended.

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Acre’s Orphans

43457902Acre’s Orphans: Historical fiction from the Crusades (The Lucca Le Pou Stories Book 2)* by Wayne Turmel

I read it as an: ARC

Source: Helen Hollick at Discovering Diamonds

Length: 222 pp

Publisher: Achis Press

Year: 2019

This is the second novel featuring protagonist Lucca le Pou (Lucca the Louse), but it can easily function as a standalone novel. It opens very shortly after the Battle of Hattin in which Salah-adin’s forces defeated the Crusaders and forced them to surrender vast portions including Jerusalem, and executing many Knights Hospitallers. Lucca, one of the titular orphans of Acre, has lived his entire life in Acre and has little desire to leave the city when Salah-adin takes control. However, his nominal guardians at the leper house where he lives convince him to go to Tyre, taking along Sister Marie-Pilar, a leprous nun, and Niheda, another orphan girl who attached herself to Lucca. Lucca is determined to go to Tyre to find Count Raymond, whose name is being slandered in Acre and accused of being a traitor, setting him up to be murdered. Lucca is to find the Count and deliver a message to him from his allies still in Acre, avoid being captured by Salah-adin’s forces, keep Sister and Nahida safe, and somehow return home again in one piece.

At first, I thought this was a YA or even a children’s book because of the young age of the protagonist. However, the more I read, the more obvious it became that this is not a children’s book. It is a nicely written adult novel, replete with rich historical detail, which just happens to have a 10-year-old protagonist. The themes the book covers are not ones most children would want to read, and the violence, disease, and general human misery on display would make it unsuitable for many younger readers.

Despite the somber topics the book covers – the Crusades, leprosy, children surviving horrors on their own – Turmel does a really excellent job of keeping it appropriately light. The bits of humor that shine through in Lucca’s personality lift what could otherwise be a very grim read and instead bring in genuine laughter and a sense of adventure rather than doom.

The cast of characters is pleasingly diverse. I appreciated that the bad guys were not automatically the Muslim characters. There is enough Othering that occurs in both literature and real life as it is, so to see a book that includes a wide range of people as main characters and which doesn’t automatically pigeonhole those characters into revolting stereotypical roles is a really nice change of pace. This seems particularly true of novels set during the Crusades; one website that has the biggest list of historical novels I’ve ever encountered still only has about 15 books on the Crusades as told from the Muslim point of view, and not all of those are even written by Muslim authors. This book still doesn’t tick all the boxes for me in that regard, but I’m hard to please, and it is nevertheless a delightfully well-rounded story.

Lucca is a boy I wouldn’t mind knowing in real life. I would want to bring him home and feed him up and throw him in the tub because he needs a mother to look after him. Nahida is a girl I want to hold and protect from the world, same as with my own daughter, and keep them all safe. The giant Knight Hospitaller Gerhardt reminds me of a dear friend of mine and Sister Marie-Pilar is the fierce and protective auntie or grandmother everyone should have. These characters breath life from every page and made me care about what happened to them.

Highly recommended.

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. 

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!