Book review: The Second Empress by Michelle Moran

The Second Empress: A Novel of Napoleon’s Court by Michelle Moran

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Michelle Moran is one of my favorite historical fiction authors. She does impeccable research, and the historical characters come alive in her books. This book is no exception, even though it isn’t my favorite historical period. There has been so much written about Napoleon (and, to a lesser extent, Marie-Louise) that I find the era somewhat over-chronicled.
That being said, this was an excellent book. Since it was not written from Napoleon’s perspective, it was interesting to see his character formed in the reflection, as it were, of the people surrounding him. That was a clever touch and made the book (and the character of Napoleon) much more interesting.
If you enjoy the Napoleonic period, this is a must read. And for fans of excellent historical fiction, you just need to add Michelle Moran to your list of must read authors.

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Book review: Cleopatra’s Heir by Gillian Bradshaw

Cleopatra’s Heir by Gillian Bradshaw

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve enjoyed Gillian Bradshaw’s historical fiction for many many years. This book has an interesting premise: if Cleopatra and Julius Caesar’s son survived after Cleopatra’s defeat and death, what might have happened to him? Would he have tried to take his throne back? Would he have been content to live like a normal person? How might he have done that?
The author explores this premise, exploring the possible mindset of Caesarion as a privileged (in the non-21st century meaning of the word) member of the royal family to someone with no family, no money, and in danger of his life. The book is charmingly written (as is all of the author’s books) and informative about life in the Egyptian court. If there is any criticism, it is that there is a little too much teenage drama and angst from Caesarion. But perhaps that is more about my impatience with and intolerance of teenage angst than it is a criticism of the book. 🙂
The book also takes an interesting perspective on Octavian, Cleopatra, and Mark Anthony and makes them more human than legend has made them. I liked the angle.
In the end, as the Author’s Note made clear, Caesarion was almost certainly killed by the Romans. But this book fascinates with the “what if” alternative. It’s definitely a worthwhile read!

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Book review: A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Jim recommended this book to me a while back, and he never recommends fiction. His recommendation was well-merited. This is a simply amazing book. The plot involves a Russian aristocrat who is sentenced to house arrest at a Moscow hotel. But the book is so much more than that. It chronicles the massive societal change from the Russian monarchy to post-Stalin Soviet Union. It is a commentary on life and the twists it can take. It deals with love and loyalty and sacrifice. It addresses the complexity of friendship. And it is an intricately plotted and lyrically written book. All of these sentences accurately describe the book, and yet none of them do. All I can say is I rarely give five stars to a book, and I didn’t even hesitate after reading this one. If you haven’t read this book yet, you are missing out (and at 500 pages, it’s an excellent quarantine read!).

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Book review: The Good Lord Bird by James McBride

The Good Lord Bird

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have to admit I was unenthusiastic about reading this book, as it was an assigned book for our son’s 11th grade English class. (Assigned reading is about as appealing to me now as it was when I was in high school.) That being said, I was pleasantly surprised by this book. The book takes place during the events leading up to John Brown’s ill-fated raid on Harper’s Ferry. Henry Shackelford, a slave, is mistaken for a girl by John Brown and his army, and it is from Henry’s perspective that we witness the various events leading up to Harper’s Ferry. Topics such as gender roles, slave vs free, abolitionists vs pro-slavers are all deftly explored in a spirit of genuine curiosity and open-mindedness. The author makes no heavy-handed proclamations but weaves the historical events and characters (including visits with Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass) together seamlessly with the protagonist’s personal journey of growth and self-knowledge.
The end is well-known, of course, but the book is filled with depth, emotion, and a love for humanity that makes it well worth the read.

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Book review: Devil’s Brood by Sharon Kay Penman

Devil's Brood (Henry II & Eleanor of Aquitaine, #3)Devil’s Brood by Sharon Kay Penman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sharon Penman is one of my favorite authors (she ranks up there with Jane Austen and J.R.R. Tolkien) and certainly my favorite author of historical fiction. Devil’s Brood describes the internecine warfare and deteriorating family relationships of the sons of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. (The Plantagenets make the Kardashians look like a stable and wholesome family.)
Every good historical fiction author does impeccable research and brings to life real life characters. What this author does that is head and shoulders above the rest is to imbue each character–whether primary, secondary, or tertiary–with a sense of believability and humanity. The characters are accessible, heroic, and flawed. You come away from reading this book knowing this version of events is how history actually unfolded and that truth has emerged from the author’s pen.
For those interested in medieval British history or historical fiction in general, check out Sharon Penman’s works. The Plantagenet saga is best read in order.

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Book review: Everything Under the Heavens by Dana Stabenow

Everything Under the Heavens (Silk and Song Trilogy, #1)Everything Under the Heavens by Dana Stabenow
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I bought this book because it is uncommon to find English language historical fiction books about China. This book takes place in 14th century China, at the end of the reign of Kublai Khan (the grandson of Genghis Khan). The main character is the granddaughter of Marco Polo and, due to a variety of reasons, leaves her home to find her grandfather’s people. She is accompanied by various friends and relatives.
The historical period is interesting enough, and the historical detail is well integrated throughout the book. But I found the writing flat and without depth. And the characters were not interesting enough for me to be deeply invested in their fate. In fact, the story ends on a cliffhanger (which also annoyed me because even in a series, each book should be self-contained enough to stand on its own), but even that is probably not enough for me to read the next one in the series.
I say this with some disappointment, as I was truly hoping I would like the book. And I did enjoy it–it was a fast and easy read of an interesting historical time. Unfortunately, the book just wasn’t compelling enough to entice me to read the next one in the series.

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Book review: Lords of the North by Bernard Cornwell

Lords of the North (The Saxon Stories, #3)Lords of the North by Bernard Cornwell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the 3rd book in the Saxon series (I know–I am way behind), and this one is my favorite so far. (Which is not to say that I disliked the other ones.) But by book #3, Uhtred’s personality is well-established as one where he knows perfectly well what he should do but often ignores it in favor of what he wants to do. (Trust me, so far there is no moral lesson to be derived from Uhtred’s behavior.) He continues to be snarky and sarcastic and irreverent, and I love him.
This book also deals very little with Alfred. Alfred the Great is one of my favorite characters in history and so I’m not always thrilled with the treatment he gets in this series (suffice it to say that Uhtred is not a fan). That being said, I like the fact that the author is willing to go against the commonly held conceptions about Alfred even as I cling to my illusions.
As always, the book is quintessential Cornwell. It is gritty and violent and gory, with no attempt to prettify the historical context. You can almost hear the grunts and screams of the men in battle and feel their swords slice into flesh.
If you haven’t read this series, I highly recommend you do so (but do it in order). I very much look forward to reading the next installment!

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Book review: The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

The Song of AchillesThe Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I first realized a few pages into this book that Achilles was going to be the hero of this particular novel, I did a mental eye-roll (I may have even done a physical eye roll). Achilles has never struck me as being anything but an arrogant, petulant and sulky “hero” during the Trojan War who got his comeuppance too late as far as I was concerned.
That the author managed to convince me that there may be more to this Achilles fellow than I had previously given him credit for is a testament to her writing, her imagery, her characters, and (possibly) her imagination.
The plot isn’t much of a surprise, but the characterizations are the author’s own, and it’s a testament to her detailed writing and her passion that they are convincing. The author’s writing is lyrical and vivid and a complete pleasure to read. I strongly urge you to read this, if you have any interest in Greek mythology at all, and I very much look forward to her next book!

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Book review: The Far Pavilions by M. M. Kaye

The Far PavilionsThe Far Pavilions by M.M. Kaye
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have long been a fan of M. M. Kaye’s books and had an opportunity to re-read this one, as it recently became available in e-book form. I had forgotten how beautiful a book it is. The author’s experience living in India gives the book a ring of authenticity. The book is a lengthy one and traces each main character’s back story before pulling all of the disparate threads together in one story. And what a story! The main character is Ash Pelhem-Martyn, who is pulled in two directions as a member of the British upper class who grew up thinking he was Indian. The author is knowledgeable about Indian life and customs and interweaves the romance with the British rule in India and Afghanistan. The novel has an epic narrative sweep without the sensationalism that often accompanies those types of novels, and the author’s prose is compelling and readable.
I rarely give 5 stars for a book, but I give that rating to this book without hesitation. If historical fiction is a genre you appreciate, I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Read it now! 🙂

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Book review: The Forever Queen by Helen Hollick

The Forever Queen (The Saxon Series, #1)The Forever Queen by Helen Hollick
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“The Forever Queen” is the first book of two about Emma of Normandy, who married Aethelred of England (known as the Unready) and slowly transforms from a shy and timid girl into a woman of confidence and self-assurance who knows what she wants. And what she wants is to be Queen of England and to do the best she can for her adoptive country. Book #1 is the transformation of Emma with secondary characters including her first husband, her stepsons Aethelstan and Edmund Ironside, her sons Edward, Alfred, and Hardecanute, and her second husband, Cnut. Also starring in a prominent role is Earl Godwin, a stalwart ally and friend.
The events covered in this book are not well known–most know British history starting with William the Conqueror. The book is well-researched, and the author does not shy away from the violence of the time (although it is never gratuitous, it is often graphic).
In some ways, Cnut is the most fascinating character in this book, as he evolves from a Danish savage to a strong and respected English king. But the book is Emma’s story and her single-minded devotion to the well-being of England. I highly recommend this fascinating read!

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