Eager reader of history, mystery, biography, YA, steampunk, lit fic, science, scifi, paranormal, and etc. My reviews are usually positive--there are too many books I adore to finish those I don't.
With its logic-driven shape-shifting dragons, arcane saint-filled religion, and music permeated, culturally rich, Medieval-like setting, Seraphina by Rachel Hartman is easily of my favorite books of all time. I love its sequel, Shadow Scale, almost as much.
The world building continues to be among the most wonderful I’ve encountered. In Shadow Scale, Seraphina is on a quest to collect other half human/half dragons like herself, which takes her away from her homeland of Goredd and into the surrounding countryside. She travels around three human kingdoms, Ninys, Samsam and Porphyry, each with its own history, culture, landscapes, politics, traditions, and relationship with the dragons, and all so vividly imagined that I feel I’ve walked through those lands myself. Seraphina also spends time in Tanamoot, the mountainous home range of dragons, where the immense ash-scented reptiles soar through the skies and lumber on land in their natural forms.
A lot of things introduced in the first book are explained further in Shadow Scale. During her journey around the kingdoms Seraphina discovers more about the origin of the saint based religion that all the humans have some connection to, though it’s interpreted with interesting differences in the various lands she visits. She also learns more about the many forms and unique abilities of her fellow half dragons, and each of the curious beings in her mental garden plays some role in the story.
Shadow Scale opens with a Prelude you can skip if you’ve recently read Seraphina. It goes over information from the first book that readers might have forgotten, but because it’s written as if it’s by someone living far in the future, long after the events of both books, there were a few bits of implied information about how Shadow Scale ends that I would have prefered not to know, though they weren’t major spoilers.
My only complaint about Shadow Scale is I wish there was more. The resolution of the triangulated relationship between Glisselda, Kiggs, and Seraphina is bold but rushed over right at the end and not completely satisfying. I also felt that with a little more time some of the individual powers of half dragons could have been put to more use--I had hoped the soul or mind animated mechanicals shy Blanche surrounds herself with could have played more of a role in the plot. And at the end of the story I was left wanting to know more about what happens with the people and dragons back in Goredd after the resolution of the conflict, since we hadn’t spent much time there or with any of them.
Basically I love the series so much I greedily want another book. It seems almost wasteful to have imagined such a graphic dimensional world only to abandon it, but I believe the series is a duology that concludes with Shadow Scale. Perhaps Hartman wants to leave her readers with things to think about or envision for themselves, which isn’t a bad thing. Both Seraphina and Shadow Scale are so rich and immersive I know I’ll be re-reading them again and again.
Though I've already ordered my own hardback copy, I read an advanced review ebook copy of Shadow Scale from the publisher through NetGalley. Review opinions are mine.
It was a bitterly cold and snowy February here in Maryland--not as bad as Boston, but still enough to drive us all indoors. I coped with it as best I could by reading 12 books. The 10 above were new-to-me and the 2 below were re-reads--Seraphina I listened to as an audiobook.
I tried again to read a graphic novel, Aya, which only confirmed it's not a format I enjoy much--no fault of the author or illustrator.
The standouts for me are The Fires of Autumn, a gorgeous book by Irène Némirovsky, Dust Tracks on a Road, Zora Neale Hurston's lyrical and moving memoir, How to be a Heroine, Samantha Ellis's thoughtful and enthusiastic book about how reading novels has changed her life, and Some Luck, the first of Jane Smiley's family saga trilogy, which spreads out considerably from its opening on the farm fields of Iowa.
A paragraph from the NY Times that captures exactly how I felt about Spock back in the day:
Spock was mostly impervious to love, but his mother (played by Jane Wyatt) was human, which meant that he couldn’t always suppress his feelings. And that made him the most unattainable and romantic hero imaginable — Hippolytus, Euripides’ chaste and scornful warrior, or a Mr. Rochester for the sci-fi age. Naturally, some of the more memorable episodes revolve around Mr. Spock’s extraterrestrial love life.
Leonard Nimoy 1931 - 2015
I found this dual biography that sheds light on the fraught relationship between misused, determined power-seeker Catherine de Medici and her equally misused, more idealistic daughter Marguerite fascinating and its tone just right. Rich with historical detail and compelling personalities, it’s as engaging as a novel but more substantial, and it’s backed up by 24 pages of notes and an extensive bibliography.
Taking place in France during the reign of Elizabeth I, the book helped expand my knowledge of that era beyond the borders of England. Its eloquent but hair-raising accounts of arranged marriages, shifting alliances, deadly power struggles, disfiguring diseases, royal family dysfunction, and religious wars between Catholics and Huguenots kept me reading late into the night, and many interesting people of the time, including Mary Queen of Scots, Philip II of Spain, and Nostradamus make appearances on its pages.
Daughter Marguerite was forced by Catherine to marry her Huguenot kinsman Henry, King of Navarre, which went against Marguerite's strongly held Catholic beliefs, only to have her wedding celebration turn into a Huguenot slaughter orchestrated by her mother. Later Marguerite was imprisoned by her mother and her brother the king of France under circumstances that could have led her to a fate similar to that of Mary Queen of Scots, who had just been executed by Elizabeth I accross the channel, but Marguerite’s good sense, good negotiating skills, and good luck saved her neck.
One of my favorite facts from the book: Marguerite and Henry’s court at Navarre was parodied by Shakespeare in Love’s Labor’s Lost--though it wasn’t Marguerite he was poking fun at. In a time of religious power struggles, Protestant England was tired of Huguenot King Henry’s compromises with French Catholics.
Marguerite comes across as romantic but devout, as well as intelligent, self-educated, and compassionate. Her diplomacy skills helped changed the course of French history and promoted religious tolerance. Catherine was treated shoddily by her husband Henri II--his blatant affair with Diane de Poitiers humiliated her--but after his death she herself was often opportunistic, ruthless, and cruel making her unpopular during her lifetime. Her daughter Marguerite lived and died mostly beloved by the French people, but according to this author the two reputations have been somewhat reversed in the minds of many modern historians, with Catherine being portrayed as pragmatic in a difficult time and Marguerite not given credit for her achievements. Goldstone’s book succeeds at tipping the balance back a little.
Those who don’t enjoy reading may assume it’s a solitary activity, and they’d be partly correct because page turning (physical or virtual) is usually done alone. But we literature lovers crave community as much as any social animal. It’s why we join book clubs and haunt web sites like GoodReads, BookLikes, and of course Austenprose. We love to connect with other readers to share passions, recount experiences, and exchange opinions about books. And reading about reading is an irresistible meta-pleasure that’s almost as fun as getting lost in a novel. For all these reasons Samantha Ellis’s “How to be a Heroine: What I learned from Reading too Much” piqued my interest.
Her book opens on the Yorkshire Moors with Ellis and her best friend arguing about which Brontë heroine they’d rather be, Jane Eyre or Cathy Earnshaw. Ellis made what to her was the obvious choice: passionate, gorgeous Cathy. Cathy had been her role model since first reading Wuthering Heights at twelve, and Jane had always seemed too stoic, virtuous, and, well, plain to her. But Ellis’s friend shocked her by disagreeing. Jane is independent, her friend pointed out. Jane doesn’t suffer fools and she sticks to her principals. Her friend thought Cathy looked silly--always weeping and wailing, and marrying a rich boy because she’s a snob even though she claims to love Heathcliff. “Why not just not marry the wrong man?” (2%) Ellis’s friend asked her.
That question sent shockwaves through Ellis’s longtime worldview and started her on a reading quest. Ellis always pictured herself like Catherine Morland in Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey, “in training to be a heroine” (3%) by reading to find out what kind of woman she might want to be. But what if she had modeled her life on the wrong heroines? If she had been deluded about Cathy, could she have been mistaken about her other literary icons? Ellis decided to challenge her old views by re-reading every book that had been important to her, and reevaluating all her choices.
In the book’s eleven chapters Ellis scrutinizes all her favorite literary heroines and considers how they influenced her, starting with her earliest book loves, like the little Mermaid, and continuing on to the stories that captivated her in young adulthood. It’s a personal and passionate quest, so along the way readers learn a lot about Ellis herself and about the turbulent history of her uprooted Jewish-Iraqi family, who fled the Middle East for England, but still retain many traditions from their former life. A postscript contains a recipe for Iraqi Jewish marzipan called masafan, an homage to Nora Ephron’s “Heartburn”, and an extensive bibliography of every work she read for her project.
Ellis investigates many more heroines than are named in her chapter titles: The Little Mermaid, Anne of Green Gables, Lizzy Bennet, Scarlett O’Hara, Franny Glass, Esther Greenwood, Lucy Honeychurch, The Dolls (from the Valley), Cathy Earnshaw, Flora Poste, and Scheherazade. In the Anne of Green Gables chapter, for instance, Ellis wrote about imaginative Anne Shirley (who first inspired Ellis to be a writer), but also about the life and troubled marriage of author L. M. Montgomery, which shed light on the bland, even dispiriting, choices Montgomery made for Anne’s fictional adulthood. In the same chapter Ellis also considers Louisa May Alcott and her books featuring Jo March (another fictional author Ellis admired), Pollyanna (whose optimism seemed brainless compared to Anne Shirley’s spunk), Frances Hodgson Burnett’s “The Little Princess” (Sara Crewe’s dislocation reminded Ellis of her family’s forced exile) and the movies “When Harry Met Sally” and “Four Weddings and a Funeral”.
Ellis is both a playwright and a journalist, and obviously a woman who takes stories seriously. Though her scope is wide her insights about the heroines are penetrating and thought-provoking, making this an intellectually rich, emotionally moving book. Part of why it’s so compelling is how well Ellis connects her own experiences to those of her heroines. When Ellis was twelve and her friends were relating to Judy Blume’s characters, it was Lizzie Bennet she felt kinship with. Growing up in an expatriate traditional culture in which marriage was woman’s primary goal, Ellis completely sympathized with the plight of the Bennet sisters in Pride and Prejudice.
As I went through How to be a Heroine I couldn’t help thinking about the ways I’ve been influenced by my own literary heroines (for the record I always preferred Jane Eyre to Cathy.) That made reading this book like having a heartfelt conversation about life and favorite novels with an avid, well-read best friend. In the end, Ellis’s verdict on her early book loves is mixed; some heroines no longer seemed worthy of emulation. My verdict on her book however is absolutely positive; I loved it.
I received an advanced review ebook copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley. Review opinions are mine.
Originally posted on austenprose
If you enjoyed Irene Nemirovsky's Suite Française, her novel of life in France during the German occupation of WWII, I think you will be just as enthusiastic about The Fires of Autumn. It has the same kind of sweeping but intimate storyline, and the same gorgeous prose style. Written in 1940, after Nemirovsky fled Paris and two years before her death at Auschwitz, The Fires of Autumn is being marketed as a “spiritual prequel” to Suite Française because though it doesn’t have the same characters it takes takes place in France in the years before the events of the other book.
The Fires of Autumn follows a diverse but connected set of Parisian families from the days of optimistic confidence before WWI, and carries them through the despair and disillusionment of the war itself, the intoxicating moral and monetary temptations of the 1920’s, and the financial and cultural adjustments of the 1930’s. Fortunes are made and lost, affairs are begun and abandoned, and children grow up and have children of their own. The book concludes during the chaotic early years of WWII.
Though many characters are involved, much of the story revolves around the sometimes tender but often fraught relationship between Thérèse Brun, who wants to live a simple, loving, traditional life, and Bernard Jacquelain, who is cynical after his harrowing experiences of trench warfare in WWI and bent on grasping all the pleasure he can through fast living, luxury surroundings, and assignations with willing women, not caring--at least at first--about the cost.
So far I have loved everything I’ve read by Nemirovsky. She excels at painting a scene, so it’s easy to imagine the colors, ambiance, and smells of her settings. And she brings readers inside the hearts and minds of her characters in sometimes long internal monologues, but her writing is always sensually and emotionally rich, never dry. This is a compact book, only 240 pages long, but Nemirovsky makes every word and image count.
Zora Neale Hurston approaches this moving memoir like a master storyteller, with wonderfully lyrical prose that reminded me a lot of her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. Loved it.
"Ruby: The Adventures of a Galactic Gumshoe" is free for one week only using a link from the boingboing website. This is the "refreshed" version with newly updated music.
Ever wondered how to sit in a hoop skirt? It's tricky. If you go to the Two Nerdy History Girls blog post there's a link for another Jennifer Rosbrugh video that describes a how to sit in a bustle.
"Dressed for a Party", Godey's Lady's Book, September, 1860
From Buzzfeed. Here's number 3--a particular terror pf mine:
Flappers is a book that time-trips into the brave new world tempest of the 1920’s through the lives of six independent-minded and fascinating women. Their backgrounds could hardly be more different, but each of them upended conventional expectations by working hard to discard the hand they had been dealt, and all them spent time in Paris, the magnetic city that drew seekers from across the globe looking for avant-garde adventure during the lively decade sandwiched between the Great War and the Great Depression.
Lady Diana (Manners) Cooper posed nude for artists, married against her parents wishes, and worked as an actress to support her husband’s political career. Nancy Cunard, another upper class Brit, wrote poetry, ran her own printing press to publish Modernist, Surrealist, and Dada literature, developed a striking personal fashion based on African artifacts, and was muse and sometimes lover to many authors of the era. Tallulah Bankhead and Zelda Fitzgerald were southern girls and Alabama neighbors on similar quests for excitement, wider horizons, and artistic recognition. Josephine Baker, a poor black girl born in the slums of St. Louis, danced her way into the heart of Paris. Tamara de Lempicka, a Russian aristocrat displaced and penniless after the Russian Revolution, reinvented herself in Paris as an artist with a distinct and early Art Deco style--it’s her self portrait that’s on the cover of the book.
Each woman has two in-depth, sympathetic but not hagiographic, and thoroughly interesting chapters devoted to her doings before and then during the 1920’s, so their lives during the 20’s are shown in context and it’s not hard to keep track of who is who. An Epilogue sketches the remainder of their stories, from the 1930’s until their deaths. Captivating as both a group biography and a history of its time, Flappers has added several books to my TBR list because I want to read more about several of the women--all six are intriguing but Tamara, Josephine, and Nancy really charmed and captured me.
I just finished re-reading Seraphina in preparation for diving into its sequel Shadow Scale and if anything I loved it even more the second time. I would be completely happy just walking around inside the wintery, music-filled, multi-cultural Medieval-like setting of this book, with its castles, saint-filled religions, arcane philosophies, and logic driven dragons, even if it was plot-less, but on top of everything else it has a WOW of a story and a wonderful soulful heroine, half human and half dragon, who has to hide who she is.
I listened to the audiobook this time, and one big plus of that method is there is no rushing. Yes, I skim if some part of a book isn't holding my interest, but I also race when things get exciting and I don't always go back to savor the words slowly. There is no avoiding the full, in this case glorious, impact with an audiobook (unless you get distracted by driving . . .)
My original review from January 2013:
I’m not usually interested in books with dragons, but here the dragons function like another species of humans, a species that values logic as much as any Star Trek Vulcan, and they can shape shift into human form when they chose. There has been a forty year peace between the dragon and human kingdoms, but because they don’t completely respect each other it’s been an uneasy truce and is on the verge of falling apart after a beloved human prince is found decapitated in a way that looks suspiciously like the work of dragons.
Main character Seraphina lives as a human but she is in a difficult position because according to what most humans and dragons believe she’s an abomination who shouldn’t exist since her mother was a dragon who died giving birth to her but her father is human. Seraphina’s form is mainly human and her dragon ancestry is a secret she struggles to keep. She has silver dragon scales on her arm and torso that need to be kept hidden at all times and before her mother died she managed to pass on a mental box of memories which can open and overwhelm Seraphina at the most inopportune times.
It’s no exaggeration to say that the writing is gorgeous and the world building is breathtaking. Several human kingdoms with their own cultural idiosyncrasies participate in the treaty with dragons and the human religion is rich with frequently invoked patron saints. Seraphina lives in a society with queens and kings, castles and taverns, art and scholarship. She is the assistant to the gouty royal music master, and music instructor to the playful but perceptive Princess Glisselda, whose grandmother is the current ruler and the original author of the human-dragon treaty.
Though this is the first of a series, and I can’t wait for the sequels to be published, it has a an ending that satisfies and won’t leave readers tormented until the next book.
I finished 16 books in January and liked all of them (this is because I just stop reading books I'm not enjoying) but these 7 above were my favorites.
The Also Reads:
Daniel Deronda by George Eliot
A Wrinkle In Time by Madeleine L'Engle
Killer Wasps by Amy Korman
The Wizard Of Oz by Frank Baum
The Marvelous LAnd Of Oz by Frank Baum
A Monstrous Regiment Of Women by Laurie R King
Desert Shadows by Betty Webb
Her Royal Spyness by Rhys Bowen
I'm Glad I Did by Cynthia Weil
A Wrinkle in Time and Her Royal Spyness were re-reads. Her Royal Spyness and A Monstrous Regiment of Women were audiobooks.
Set in the pre-hippie summer of 1963 when Kennedy was president, the Civil Rights movement was in full swing, and the Beatles had not yet made it to America, I’m Glad I Did is an uptempo coming of age story complete with an entertaining slice of history that doesn’t avoid the serious issues of the day. Teenage JJ Green is determined to become a Carole King-like songwriter by getting a job at the famous Brill Building, but her father and Jackie Kennedy look-alike mother want her to follow in their footsteps and become a lawyer instead.
When JJ is offered a position as a music producer’s assistant, with payment being feedback on her songs, JJ’s parents reluctantly agree to a trial, but she will only be allowed to continue in the music field if one of the songs she’s written is recorded by the end of the summer. (No pressure!) Race relations, the early 60’s music scene, the payola scandal, murder and--of course--teenage romance all play a part in the story.
This is Cynthia Weil’s first novel, but she’s been writing songs long enough for Bob Dylan to consider her a master in the field. (Dylan mentioned her in his memoir Chronicles, and songs co-written by Weil with her husband Barry Mann include “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling”, “Blame it on the Bossa Nova”, “Somewhere Out There”, and “We Got to Get Out of This Place” among many others.) While the tone is lively and humorous, one of the predominant themes is justice--which when capitalized as Justice is actually JJ’s first name. (Did I mention her parents are lawyers?). Weil’s real life experiences and inside knowledge give her story the ring of authenticity. A fun time trip.
In this mystery, the setting is as integral a part of the story as the plot and characters. Written by a practicing Mormon, The Bishop’s Wife takes place in a mainstream (not polygamous fundamentalist) Utah Mormon community, which the author acknowledges will seem like a foreign country to many readers--me included--because of its distinct worldviews and unique organization.
Main character Linda Wallheim is mostly devout, but not without some troubling questions and opinions about her church’s structure, politics, and penchant for secrecy. She’s an almost empty nest mother, increasingly at loose ends, and her husband is their ward’s bishop, an honor and responsibility that rotates among member men. When he’s called to assist a family after a young wife goes missing in suspicious circumstances Linda gets deeply involved in the mystery, driven by a lingering grief from her past. Was it murder? Could there have been abuse? Or did the woman run away, abandoning her husband and child to start a new life outside the confines of the community?
There are actually two ominous and gripping mysteries in The Bishop’s Wife, one decades old and one new, and the thoughtful treatment of the subject matter gives the story more emotional depth than the average whodunit. Mormon perspectives on community, gender roles, motherhood, family, the afterlife, and life purpose are seamlessly woven into the plot and make this an extra interesting novel.
I always fall hard for the novels Miriam Toews writes and the characters she creates. A best selling author in Canada, most of her books involve individualistically inclined or exiled Mennonites balancing their traditional upbringing with the modern world in distinctive stories of personal struggle and family connection. The details about Mennonite culture and its fringes give the stories added interest and a strong sense of place, but it’s the characters that really set her novels apart.
In All My Puny Sorrows one sister has it all. Elfrieda Von Riese has always been eccentric, passionate, talented and intense--a dances to her own drummer Mennonite--and now as an adult she’s a wealthy, beloved, beautiful, world acclaimed pianist in a wonderfully loving marriage, but in spite of all that goodness Elf is determined to kill herself, somehow never having developed a tolerance for living in the world. Her sister Yolandi, in contrast, is a twice divorced now single mother, drifting in and out of relationships and perennially broke, who desperately wants to keep Elf alive. “She wanted to die and I wanted her to live and we were enemies who loved each other.”
It’s not a plotline that would normally attract me, and the story is more character than plot anyway, but Toews gives her characters such captivating, heart-piercing voices that I sank deep and only reluctantly put down this thoughtfully nuanced, non-condescending, family celebrating book. The title comes from a poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.