Posts Tagged ‘books’

Brown’s latest Book

Inferno by Dan Brown; page count 480

Dan Brown has produced another fast-paced book about conspiracies with trails of historical clues. I’m not going write too much about this book. If you like Brown’s work, you’ll pick this book up anyway. If you have already written him off as a no-talent hack, then you wouldn’t dream of reading this title anyway.

As for me, I appreciate that he writes history-riddled action books with intriguing ideas. I certainly think there are better writers in the world, but his books are usually fun reads. If it helps, this one was a lot better than his last offering, The Lost Symbol.

If I can make a suggestion, I recommend borrowing this from your public library. They are bound to have a copy or two. I read it in two days and I’m not even a very fast reader. I am unconvinced this is worth the cover price of $29.95.

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Archer Action

Agincourt by Bernard Cornwell; page count 451

I just breezed through this book, but then it was exactly what I wanted to read, exactly when I wanted to read it. I had just seen Olivier’s Henry V on DVD (talk about melodramatic!) and I wanted to read an action-centered historical fiction. So this title really hit the mark. (hehehe! I just had to indulge in some archer humor somewhere in this post.)

The story follows a young man, Nicolas Hook, as he goes from beloved bastard to outlaw and then archer. He ends up taking part in one of the most famous battles in Britain’s history.

Even though I really liked this book, I’m not going to pretend it is spectacular literature or without flaws. Cornwell for no discernible reason has a pair of saints talk to and warn Hook away from danger sporadically  throughout his adventures. I found this to be unnecessary and distracting. He writes the final battle sequence from several characters’ viewpoints, but he has up until that point only really followed Hook. It would have been better if the other characters were followed prior to Agincourt.

Generally, I did enjoy the book. I would certainly recommend it to anyone who wanted more action in historical fiction. Although, fair warning, some of the writing did get a bit bloody. I may even in future pick up another of Cornwell’s books.

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So-so Steampunk

A Conspiracy of Alchemists by Liesel Schwarz; page count 338

This is the first steampunk novel I’ve read. I read some short stories and seen a few movies, but this is my first actual novel. Admittedly, I am not entirely sure if a steampunk work fits within the scope of our usual historical fiction blog here. I take the chance because surely there will be some overlap of readers, and it is a new book released this March.

Schwarz ConspiracyThis is the first in a series, Chronicles of Light and Shadow, with two more guaranteed to follow and talks of more to come. The book follows the plight of dirigible pilot Eleanor “Elle” Chance. Chance is asked to hold and ship a box from Paris back to London. However, shortly after taking the box she is beset and dangerous, world-changing events are set in motion. Almost immediately we meet a fairy (whose narration is jarringly in first person unlike the rest of the book) and the love interest, handsome and mysterious Mr. Marsh.

The story moved at a good clip, and there was enough intrigue to keep me reading. However, I’m fairly certain this will be my only foray into the series. I found Eleanor Chance to be lacking as a heroine. She seems contrived. There are too many inconsistencies in her character that could have been easily hammered out. For example, she wears jodhpurs and flies to Paris by herself, but blushes at the slightest look from Marsh and was only brought to flying by a man, despite being surrounded by machines and brought up by her father. *SPOILER ALERT* I also am not fond of how Schwarz handles Chance’s powers. Surely, even an untrained oracle should have some premonitions or gut feelings that are accurate. *SPOILER OVER* Honestly, a couple of tweaks by a slightly better writer could have solved most of my issues with her character and the book in general

Even though Schwarz has not converted me to one of her followers, she did succeed in making me more curious about other steampunk writing. I generally like the steam aesthetic anyway, and now I may pick up another steampunk novel if I happen across one.

If you are a devoted steampunker (I’m sure there’s a word for that I am not aware of) then you should probably give this book a try. It’s certainly being pushed by the publisher, and may go a long way to convince The Man that steampunk is worth the investment. Otherwise, I’d be fairly hesitant to recommend this title.

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Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies by Ben Macintyre; page count 360

This non-fiction work tells about a British espionage network, the Double Cross Team or XX or Twenty Team (the roman numerals for double Xs) during World War II. (I will never look at one of my favorite beers the same again.) This team worked on capturing Nazi spies in Britain and turning them to work for the Allies.

double cross macintyreIt follows five of the main spies who made the landing at Normandy not a total bloodbath and disaster. The first is Dusan Popov or Agent Tricycle, a playboy and entrepreneur with several contacts in Germany. Then there is Juan Pujol Garcia or Agent Garbo, a Spaniard with an excellent imagination who developed his own network consisting of dozens of fictitious sub-agents. There is also Lily Sergeyev or Agent Treasure, a White Russian former aristocrat and fanatical dog lover. Roman Czerniawski or Agent Brutus was a Polish freedom fighter then French resistance leader, who when arrested by Nazis in France convinced his captors he would become a spy only to turn against them for the Allies. And last but not least we have the gambling, bi-sexual socialite Elvira de la Fuente Chaudoir, Agent Bronx. You also learn a great deal about the British men and women (alright, just one woman) who run the agents, as well as some of the side agents and subplots.

I really liked this book. Granted it has everything I like in a book: daring deeds, espionage, far away destinations and life hanging in the balance. However, Macintyre’s writing style is particularly pleasing. He did not burned with footnotes (don’t worry they are at the end for the more studious readers.)He also has this brilliant English dry humor running throughout the book which makes the sometimes amusing scenarios very funny.

I would recommend this book to anyone who would like a lighter take on Word War II, or to anyone with an interest in true espionage stories. Honestly, I don’t think this book would disappoint anyone who happened to pick it up.

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Her Royal Spyness

As I mentioned in my previous blog post, I have a new-found obsession with Audio Books. While baking Christmas cookies this past Christmas I had the overwhelming desire to listen to Lauren Willig’s The Mischief of the Mistletoe. I knew I couldn’t read and bake, but I so desperately wanted to delve into that fun, lighthearted story. So, I found myself on Amazon.com signing up for Audible.com and becoming a member. Fast forward a few months later, and I get an email from Audible telling me about a member sale. I had two unused credits, and I randomly selected two books to purchase with those two credits. One was Her Royal Spyness, the first in the Royal Spyness series by Rhys Bowen. I can now officially say I’m obsessed.

The story takes place in England in the 1930s and follows Lady Victoria Georgiana Charlotte Eugenie, 34th in line for the crown. However, Lady Victoria Georgina Charlotte Eugenie (better known as Georgie), is flat broke, despite her royal connections. Her father gambled away their family’s money before killing himself, and her brother Binky’s stingy wife has made it very clear that Georgie is not welcome in the family home in Scotland, so off to London she goes. In order to survive she starts a cleaning business of sorts, but then she finds a drowned man in her bathtub. When the police accuse Binky of murder, Georgie must do what she can to clear his name.

Along the way several recurring characters are introduced, a wonderful blend of real historical figures and fictional characters. Besides the royal family and “that horrible Simpson woman,” there is Georgie’s mother, an actress before her marriage to the Duke, and now a world-class flirt and bed hopper; Belinda Warburton-Stoke, Georgie’s best friend from school and destined to follow in Georgie’s mother’s footsteps; Grandad, Georgie’s cockney grandfather from her mother’s side; and my favorite, The Honorable Darcy O’Mara Irish Rogue and Georgie’s confused love interest.

Due to my obsessive need to keep myself in the story (Book 5 in about 2 weeks), I have listened to the books and read the print version. While both have their strong points (while reading it is much harder for my mind to wander, which it has a tendency to do while listening, but I cannot read while cataloging or running), I have to mention Katherine Kellgren’s narration. I absolutely love her characterizations, specifically the Cockney and Irish accents of Grandad and Darcy respectively. It also makes me wish I had the crisp, clear, upper-class British accent. It sounds so refined!

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meh* debut

The Map of Lost Memories by Kim Fay; page count 336.

This debut novel by Kim Fay follows an Irene Blum as she goes from under-appreciated assistant to the museum curator to an adventuress. Set in the 1920s, Irene is passed up for the position of curator when her longtime boss steps down. She is handed a diary from her mentor and father figure which points the way to a discovery of the ages: the lost history of the Khmer people in Cambodia. Quickly, Irene sets off to retrieve the scrolls and bring them back to win herself a place as director of a museum.

map of lost memoriesThis was very impressive for a first novel. However, I’m still going to have to rate this “OK.” Like most first attempts, there seemed to be a lot of long-winded exposition and flowery descriptions, but despite  some of the more laborious passages, the writing was generally good. I enjoyed the female characters, but I was a bit disheartened that neither of them mentioned any historic significance of the plight of women in 1920s despite being surrounded by it and frequently reminded of it. There were also a lot of coincidences and ever-so-convenient occurrences in the novel. I mean, a lot.

I do have two major points of contention:

  1. The first 2/3 of the book is much better than the last third. I think because by the time you get to the last third you realize how this is all going to play out and it seems like it is just dragging to get to the inevitable conclusion.
  2. The romantic leads just sort of magically fell in together. It wasn’t exactly love at first sight, more like comfort at first sight, and it was not very believable. The man is a widower, and I have a really hard time being convinced that a man who lost his first wife and presumably had several love affairs in between would just automatically fall for and do anything for a woman he has known a total of 3 hours give or take.

Basically, if you read the description and think you might like it, I say go for it, but maybe get it from the library or wait for paperback. It’s certainly not worth a venture into new territory. On the other hand, I’ve read much worse, and I did finish the book.

*”meh” as in that sound you make when something is only alright.

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Favorite Willig so far

The Seduction of the Crimson Rose by Lauren Willig; page count 385

I’ve been slowly (very slowly) reading my way through the Pink Carnation series by Lauren Willig. Generally, unless the series is uber-compelling I’ll let some time go by before reading the next book in a series. (To date there have only been two series which I read straight through: Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. Sorry, but my bar is pretty high.)

This fourth addition to the Napoleonic spy/romance series follows the cynical Lothario, Lord Sebastian Vaughn and the cynical temptress Mary Alsworthy as they trade barbs while attempting to track down a deadly French spy, the Black Tulip. There’s also several chapters devoted to a PhD history candidate Eloise, who is attempting a dissertation on the Pink Carnation as well as attempting to snag a particular man, Colin.

This is by far my favorite because of the two main characters. Miss Alsworthy and Lord Vaughn are fantastic together! These two do not mince words and spare no one’s feelings. I love Vaughn’s clever cuts and Alsworthy’s witty retorts. They do tend more toward the gooey side near the end of the book, but generally they stay true to their shrewd ways. It’s like reading a slightly more cut-throat Cary Grant zing and be zinged effortlessly by his main squeeze. (It’s reminiscent of this scene from His Girl Friday.)

Also, I figured out why I don’t like the modern part of the book: I don’t like Eloise. Don’t get me wrong, if she existed as a real live human being, we might be friends, but I don’t like being in her head. The Eloise parts are written in a stream-of-consciousness style. She’s meant to be an intelligent woman abroad, but she comes across much more ditzy than intelligent. Yes, I understand that intelligent women can have some seriously dingy moments. However, I do not particularly like reading a blow-by-blow of her inner-head ditziness. I find it difficult to believe that a woman who is working on a dissertation from an Ivy League school would mistake a marble statue of Hercules for a museum attendant. (Yeah. That happened.)

I would still recommend these books whole-heartedly to others despite my distaste for the Eloise bits. It’s a fluffy, no-brainer, rom-com of a book series, but that’s nice now and again, isn’t it?

My library has the audio of the next book, and after Indigo’s review, I might just give that a shot.

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To Marry an English Lord by Gail MacColl & Carol MacD. Wallace; page count 416

Bristol. Tyntesfield Manor

Tyntesfield Manor in Bristol, UK

Really? Do you want more of a review than the title of this post? Yes? Alright then.

This book gained fame by being the inspiration for Cora, Countess of Grantham from the hit TV series Downton Abbey. I am only surprised it was not more popular before the show. This book is awesome!

The book tells the various stories of wealthy American heiresses who traveled across the Atlantic in order to find a husband with a British title. The first women to cross the pond did so because they were not accepted by the stuck up and slightly puritanical dowagers of New York society. Soon, however, the sport of catching a “peer” became fashionable.

Besides being both humorous and fact-filled, this book dishes the dirt on the scintillating scandalous details of the mid- to late-nineteenth century upper crust. Plus, it’s fully illustrated! I just love that this book is page after page of lovely photos.

I gave a copy as a gift to our very own Sapphire, and much to my joy and surprise received a copy myself! (Don’t tell Sapphire, but I considered keeping her copy for myself since I wanted to read it.) I do highly recommend this book, especially if you enjoy Downton Abbey or you like reading about historical socialites. If you are a celebrity magazine fan and normally do not read “heavy” books, this would be your best dip in the rewarding world of non-fiction.

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Willig Audio Review

For me, 2012 was the year of running. I’ve flirted with running off and on for several years, but this is the first time I stuck to a consistent running schedule and logged more miles than ever before. I even ran two half marathons! Okay, one was technically in 2013 (Jan 1) but all my training happened in 2012. When I started running I listened to music, like everybody else. Slowly I learned that music does nothing for me. I can tune that out and think about what I’m doing and how much it hurts or how I want to go home and eat ice cream. So, I switched to audio books. I started with the Harry Potter audio books, and they were amazing. However, I found myself listening to them when not running–while cataloging, while in the bathtub, while cooking–and I soon went through all seven books. So, I started over. But, you can only listen to the same books so many times, and I began my search for new running audio books. I considered The Hunger Games but its high demand, and my need for immediate gratification, brought me to the library browsing the audio book shelves. Lo and behold I saw The Deception of the Emerald Ring one of my favorite Pink Carnation books. I immediately snapped it up, and began my quest for all Willig audio books.

I couldn’t find a good picture of the audio version, but here’s the print version!

Narrator Kate Reading is amazing! I love her vocal inflections and I love how each character has a distinctive voice. Although, do our American accents really sound that obnoxious? I always cringe a little when the chapters change from historical spy story with British characters to modern American grad student story. It’s jarring.

I found that my favorite books of Willig’s in print also translated to my favorite books in audio. Sometimes I get so caught up in a story that I forget to pay attention to the writing. I realized this the first time when my mom and I listened to a Dan Brown novel during a long drive. Well that didn’t last long… Dan Brown cannot write! As a listener you cannot skip words or skim various parts. You are forced to listen to poor dialogue or odd descriptions. While listening to Willig’s novels I felt there weren’t any of these situations that pulled me out of the story.

The plot is detailed and exciting enough to keep me running, but it’s not over the top. While I’ve never listened to The Hunger Games I have a feeling that I’d miss parts. It’s so fast paced (from what I remember of the book) and while running there are other things to think about–like not getting run over. Willig’s books have just enough action to keep me going, but not so much that I get super distracted and stop paying attention to the road, putting myself and others in danger. Well, that’s not true. When I first listened to Emerald Ring I was at the romantic bedroom scene and I must have gotten a little too involved, mentally, because I didn’t see the uneven sidewalk and fell flat on my face… That was embarrassing.

While the books weren’t so fast paced that I lost track of my surroundings (usually), they sometimes made me think. For example, I think I’ve finally figured out how The Temptation of the Night Jasmine relates to the rest of the series (aside from it being about Henrietta’s friend) and how the whole spy plot wraps up. The end of that book always confused me, partially because the Indian names are so different to me and therefore harder for to keep track, but also because it is a more complicated ending. It’s not x is spying for y who wants z. There are far more players, some who appeared in the previous book. While the complicated ending originally dropped the book in my ratings I now find intriguing and it has definitely risen in the ranks. It doesn’t hurt that Alex is one of my favorite heroes.

I will say that the Eloise parts continue to annoy me. In the print versions I read them because I want to know what happens, but when I re-read them I always skip those chapters. I do the same in the audio versions. It’s a bit more work, but the modern portions aren’t as exciting and I find that running while listening to those bits is a lot harder.

Overall though, I’d highly recommend the audio versions of Lauren Willig’s books to anyone who likes the print versions, or the genre. It’s great for running and general listening! Plus, I learned the British pronunciation of a few more words, which is always fun.

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I do love me some tea

Thomas Smillie

None of the guys in the book. This is just the most relevant copyright-free picture I could find.

For All the Tea in China: How England Stole the World’s Favorite Drink and Changed History by Sarah Rose; 252 pages. 

I received this book as a birthday present from my fantastic mother.

The book tells the story of botanist Robert Fortune who travels to China in order to steal the tea plant and drow it in India for the infamous East India Company. China basically had sole control over tea before Fortune’s espionage in the mid-nineteenth century. Most experts even thought that green tea and black tea came from different plants. We now know it was a different processing technique.

While I did enjoy this book, it is certainly only for a niche group. If you are interested in travel writing or the history of tea or the east India Company, then you should probably pick up this title. The writing was quite good; although, not as thrilling as to be on par with Erik Larson.

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