Saturday, May 28, 2016

The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas

genre: historical fiction

In a France of the 1600s, there lived a band of men who worked and fought at the will of the King.  Their dedication to the gentlemanly arts, good food and excellent swordplay was only surpassed by their loyalty to the king and to each other.  As Cardinal Richelieu, advisor to the king, hatches plots and dispatches assassins, some few fearless men are needed to undermine his devilry.

Athos.  Porthos.  Aramis.   They are the Three Musketeers.  And while they are absolutely crucial to the plot of this epic novel, our real hero is the fourth musketeer: d'Artagnan.  d'Artagnan, a brave and intrepid young man who comes to Paris to hopefully join the musketeers and change his stars.  Of course, his fiery temper and impulsive nature mean that he is always getting into scrapes and falling deeply in love with women who can hardly bring him true happiness.  His great companions Athos, Porthos and Aramis not only aid him in his antics but also have their own schemes that D'artangan's intrigues both compliment and complicate.

I did it!  I read this really long book! I've had it in the back of my head to read for ages, ever since my kids were small and my husband would make up stories about these four adventurers.   I found it a highly entertaining read.  Parts were laugh out loud funny - those musketeers are delightful caricatures but not in an annoying way.  Their whims and duels, their sensibilities and quirks - so much of this book is the interactions between these men.  I love their loyalty and their "all for one and one for all."  I actually really do love that, the scenes where they back each other up no matter what are some of my favorites.  Also one in which one man must run through the streets of Paris in naught but a ladies dressing gown.  I loved that scene too.

There is all kinds of adultery (which apparently was acceptable at the time?) and devious deeds - and the worst of the enemies, even worse than the Cardinal is a woman.  This mysterious woman is evil incarnate and sometimes her portrayal bothered me, as a woman, but I'd imagine that at the time when it was written no one would've seen it as strange.  It read quickly except for about five chapters near the end that really dragged - if I hadn't already known it was a serial, I would've guessed it at that point.  I had to skim.  But the ending wrapped things up in a consistent way and I am so pleased that this novel is a solid presence in my mind now.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Secrets of a Charmed Life by Susan Meissner

genre: historical fiction

Emmy Downtree knows exactly what she wants in life.  Living in London as World World 2 is just beginning, she wants to design bridal gowns and NOT end up like her mother.  Except, of course, war picks up our dreams and tosses them into the air and we don't get to choose where they fall, and as the Blitz turns one choice into a life-altering heartbreak, dreams have to take a backseat to a very harsh reality.  

Set in the 1930s-50s but bookended by the modern day, this story read really quickly for me.  I loved and was completely engaged in Emmy's life, her hopes and devastation as war takes away so much of what she holds dear.  I believed in her teenager-ness and her choices felt as passionate and misguided as a real teen's.   The storyline was complex and engaging and in the end, I believed almost all of it. At one point the story switches narratives and that part felt a bit less set in the time period - some questions were answered in a way that made sense but others felt rushed and I did see the ending ahead of time.  But the overall conclusions I really liked - about how one decision can change everything, for good or bad, but that doesn't mean it can't resolve in a way that we can be at peace with later.  About how we can only make choices based on the options handed to us in any given moment, and about how we can only do our best to find happiness when we've solved everything we can possibly solve.  A few parts made me feel emotional, in a powerful and good way, so even though I'd have liked the book to feel more "British," and a few things stretched my imagination a bit,  I did enjoy it a lot.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

The Mater Butchers Singing Club by Louise Erdrich

genre: historical fiction

With only a suitcase of sausages and his butcher knives, WWI veteran Fidelis Waldvogel arrives in America from Germany. Knowing he must set up a life for Eva, his wife, and young Franz left in Europe, he makes a home for himself in Argus, North Dakota - an unremarkable town that becomes the backdrop for this story of immigrants and soldiers, drunkards and circus performers.  Argus is also the home of the capable and complicated Delphine, and when Eva makes a place in her life for Delphine, their stories intertwine until Old and New World mesh and create a friendship that changes not just both of them, but Fidelis too and even Argus itself.  

I love immigration stories, first of all. It is such a huge decision to pick up one's life and give it a go somewhere else, the ebb and flow of the foreign-born parents and the "American" children is so interesting.  Fidelis is a complex human being in some ways, having seen the horror of World War I and sorting through the loss of his homeland as he chooses to come to America.  But he's also passionate and easily satisfied with his knives and his songs.   His relationships with those he loves are as complex as he is and as nice as it is to just read "typical" love stories, I believe in this type of of story too, a story as real and convoluted as life can be, especially in times of depression and war.

The writing is lyrical, so lovely.  I liked the arc of Delphine as a woman, as a daughter and as a friend, I believed her as she took sides and made a world for herself as she sorted through all of the hard situations that came her way.  It's not a particularly happy novel - there is war and murder and people make poor decisions whose consequences ripple into the lives of others.  But somehow I became so invested in Fidelis, Eva and Delphine that I wanted to know what happened to them wherever the path took, knowing that real life is not always pretty.  A few anachronisms caught my attention and while I didn't love how things wrapped together in the end, I wasn't unsatisfied.  I like Erdrich as an author and would read her work again.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Queen of Always by Sherry D. Ficklin (Stolen Empire Series Book 3)

genre: young adult historical fiction

With the Empress's health failing and her relationship with Peter on the verge of catastrophe, Catherine soon realizes that her troubles are not only within her own court.  There are those outside that want Peter off the throne of Russia, which puts both Catherine and her young son in danger. Soon Catherine is going to have to decide if she is strong enough to wield her own power among so many she cannot trust.  Amid wars and plauge from without and conniving and hatred from within, there is really only one way she can win - the questions is if she is willing to sacrifice what it will take to get there.

Catherine's love life has always been an important part of the books, which I understand, and this one is no different.  But this one was my least favorite, especially after she threw a very unrealistic threesome into the mix.  It felt very unbelievable and like the author was just trying to be scandalous. The plot is fast-paced, again, and I believed in her political frustration, ambition and lack of options, Catherine's choices were always made with such high stakes and the lack of morality among all the characters was sometimes frustrating - Elizabeth, especially, would stop at actually nothing.  It entertained me and wrapped things up well enough but I didn't love it.  What it did make me do is go and learn more about the real story and I do appreciate that the author did base a lot of big happenings on fact, more or less.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Queen of Tomorrow by Sherry D. Ficklin (Stolen Empire Series book 2)

genre: young adult historical fiction

Catherine did it: she married Peter and is settling in as the wife of the future emperor.  While navigating the tense political landscape,  treaties are made and broken with kingdoms to the west and war breaks out, Catherine's main goal is to remain useful and thus in power.  Her strained relationship with the ever-more-volitile Peter means that she must look elsewhere for happiness and soon even that is called into question when the need for an heir appears to trump anything that Catherine wishes for herself.

There is domestic abuse, here.  Strategizing and the use of the bedchambers as a political weapon call Catherine's own morals and heart into question.  She does what she pleases when it seems like that will help her get what she wants - but she also can deal with a LOT and she puts up with a LOT if it seems like that is the best way to her desired result.  She's an intriguing character who makes hard choices (some of them unwise in my opinion) and who suffers a lot of heartache.  Again, this installment is very readable and the plot moves fast - nothing life changing here but good entertainment.  It, again, has a lot of "romantic" scenes and while not graphic at all, sex is at the heart of this book in many ways as Catherine negotiates her husband and her lover.  I have no idea how much of it is factual (I'm thinking maybe not a huge amount) but it has made me interested in the real Catherine and I care enough about the story that I'll read the final book.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Capture: Unraveling the Mystery of Mental Suffering by David A. Kessler, MD

NOTE: I read this book as part of a Book Tour via TLC Book Tours

genre: non-fiction

What is the root of mental illness - that continuum of afflictions that affect so many people in some degree? How are these illnesses related and can knowledge of that root somehow be used to stimulate change?

As someone with my own issues who also interacts daily with those using medication to help stem the tide of the pain of mental illness, I was interested in this book because I hoped it would give me some insight into the minds of these people that I love. I think I approached it in the wrong way - I was looking for Answers and the reality is that as advanced as science is, there are not really very many Answers to be found yet when it comes to the roots of Depression, Anxiety, Bi-Polar Disorder, etc. We know what medicines can sometimes make a big difference in terms of symptoms but the mind is so complex that something more than measurable chemicals is needed to help us understand what is going wrong in a mind that's struggling.

 What this book discusses is the idea of "capture," which was a bit hard for me to wrap my head around and I'm still trying to process it. My super basic understanding is that when a stimulus (a thought, something we see etc) somehow gets our attention and our behavior changes because of it, that's "capture." This book is not only a history of mind-theory (my made-up phrase) but also a series of case studies and stories about the different ways this capture can manifest itself - for both good and bad outcomes. The historical part got pretty deep for me, truthfully, in several sections I did have to do a little skimming.

I found the stories of people whose mental illness impacted either themselves or, just as tragically, others around them and the deconstruction of their thinking very interesting. I also think that this book gave me some concrete thoughts about how my own mind works, I've already found myself looking back at some ideas I highlighted as I think over it all.

The idea is capture is powerful because I feel like it empowers those struggling with mental illness to try and exert some influence over their unhealthy thoughts. Yes, medication and therapy are essential for a lot of people, but even when medicated, I know, unhealthy thoughts can make life very challenging. I almost wish there was a "junior novelization" of this book, or a cliff notes - where I could ingest more easily the big ideas in a condensed form.

Some of Capture was slow-going and some parts required a lot of brain power while other parts seemed not as relevant to the subject but in the end, I'm glad I read it. The storytelling sections are very readable and it's important for me to give myself time to think about this topic and I have some new ideas in my head. And that matters.

Purchase Links: HarperCollins | Amazon Barnes & Noble

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Queen of Someday by Sherry D. Ficklin (A Stolen Empire Novel)

genre: young adult historical fiction

When Sophie arrives in Russia, she's innocent enough to believe that her noble German upbringing prepared her for the scandal and intrigue that is the St. Petersburg court of Empress Elizabeth and her ruthless nephew Peter. As she slowly tries to maneuver herself into a crown, Sophie soon learns that true happiness will require a level of trust that may be difficult to obtain. She will be in need of all her energy and wits to make a place for herself and hopefully find love in the process.

This is some juicy YA historical fiction - really I'd call it historical romance. It's not explicit but there are romantic scenes, to be sure. It read really quickly for me and I enjoyed spending time in a Russia that didn't belong to the elusive Anastasia Romanov. This earlier Russia is just as dangerous of a place, though, and the action moves quickly (sometimes a little too quickly for my taste, I occasionally needed a little more detail to flesh relationships out to make them super believable). The ending was an interesting jumping off point for book two and while there isn't a lot of "moral" decision-making amongst the characters, I was definitely entertained.

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz

genre: young adult historical fiction

As fourteen year old Joan imagines her future on the farm in Pennsylvania in 1911, all she can see is more backbreaking work without acknowledgement or affection.  Intelligent and curious, she uses her diary as an outlet for her fears and ambitions as she decides that this sort of life isn't enough.  As a seed of hope sprouts, Joan takes her life into her own hands and she dares to go out into the world to become a Hired Girl.

Set mostly in Baltimore, Joan's experiences in the city force her to grow up quickly.  Aware of her own mind, Joan's thirst for knowledge leads to her own religious explorations while her desire to belong helps her to make a place for herself in a new household.

I really liked this diary-type novel.  It's funny and heartbreaking, as Joan navigates a world she knows nothing about.  I loved the religious interplay between the characters as well as Joan's first true romantic feelings, which felt dead on. The characters, the time and place, the plot - it all felt relevant and possible.  Fun read.

note: if you're interested in the content of the books I read, please go to

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Thorn by Intisar Khanani

genre: fantasy, fairy tale retelling

Princess Alyrra is from a small kingdom - and when a King from a much more prosperous land requests her hand for his son, there really is no choice to be made.  She must go.  But before she arrives,  one betrayal suddenly gives Alyrra that glorious gift:  choice.   In her new role as goose girl, Alyrra can choose to work hard and find peace in her new rougher, but in some ways more free, life - or she can choose to help a prince who is surely full of secrets at a cost that may risk even her own life.

This is a fairly faithful retelling of The Goose Girl, although the more developed magical element gives it an interesting twist.  Because it's a faithful retelling, there is a talking horse and that took me a while to get used to, for whatever reason.  The "evil" character is an addition that adds depth to the plot and I liked how it resolved.  The romantic thread is mild and that doesn't necessarily resolve in that way you'd expect but I think I liked that too, it was realistic.    What I really liked was the deeper and more ethical threads of justice and mercy, the heavy responsibility that lies over those in a position to judge and meet out punishments.  Intriguing and more thought-provoking than the average fantasy novel, I enjoyed it.

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

The Wives of Los Alamos by Tarashea Nesbit

genre: historical fiction

The wives of Los Alamos didn't know WHY they were in Los Alamos. That wasn't information that could be discussed - even hinted at.  The wives of Los Alamos did what wives do: clean their house, cook their family's food, care for their children.  But they did these things in a tiny, barely constructed town that didn't technically exist, where their food had to be procured by the US Army and where their husbands went to work each day on a project they weren't allowed to understand.

They were from all over, their very cloistered life magnified to a great degrees all the little things that women can tend to (really, sometimes have to) worry about, as well as create a tiny fish bowl where everyone knows everyone else's business.    When their "project" is finally revealed in all its terrifying glory, the aftermath is just as complicated as its construction.

I have never read a book in this narrative style - there is no main character.  No plot, really - it's more a communal novel, written in first person plural.  Their story, the story of the women, is told from its essential beginning to its end but it's not ONE person's story.  Everything is "we" and "our." It's a cross section, an attempt at showing the patriotic unity on the surface of the more jealous, petty and unfaithful.  The balance sometimes felt a bit off for a historical fiction - really, THAT many women cheated on their husbands, were spiteful and bitter?   I know I didn't live then and maybe these sorts of feelings really were the product of a society where women were told what limited jobs were acceptable and behavior codes were so strict when it was time to be sociable that there had to be a backlash somehow?

I did like it, although truthfully, I kept waiting for more, somehow.  I maybe NEED a character, one particular person to feel rooted to - even if her experience somehow excludes the experiences of everyone else.  I did really appreciate the ethical discussion at the end, how very differently people looked at the issue and how, I think, we still struggle with this today: was it right?  For these women, that question was so close, so sharp and real that I can imagine it changed everything.
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