Tuesday, April 25, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: Feast of Sorrow by Crystal King

I received this book for free from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.

Released this week: Feast of Sorrow by Crystal King is a superb historical novel set in Ancient Rome.

During the latter years of Augustus’ (and Livia’s) rule and during the reign of Tiberius, a Roman patrician named Marcus Gavius Apicius, one of the earliest known "foodies," embarks on a project to make himself legendary. Wealthy beyond measure, he has no talent for the usual methods of making a name for oneself in Roman society, and so concentrates on his one particular skill – exquisite entertaining. For this, he purchases a young slave, Thrasius, who has a reputation as a talented cook, paying 20,000 denarii, a ridiculously high sum.

Thrasius proves well worth the investment. Not only is he a remarkable chef and party organizer, but he is astute and literate. Moreover, he’s a good man, which makes this book a pleasure to read.

As a slave, Thrasius is completely dependent on the good will of his master. Apicius is an unpredictable tyrant, making it necessary for Thrasius to measure his words and walk lightly in the household. In his favor, he makes spectacular meals and Apicius’ fame spreads. Ultimately, Apicius hopes to become the gastronomic advisor to the emperor. Unfortunately, obstacles in his way include a former friend and now deadly rival, Octavius, who is in Livia’s favor, and Livia herself, who holds an old grudge against Apicius’ dear friend Fannia. Even worse, he has an enemy in his wife’s cousin, Sejanus, who holds an important position with Tiberius and thus is well placed to thwart Apicius’ rise.

Thrasius works hard to promote his master, knowing that his own future depends on Apicius’ success. Moreover, he falls in love with the personal slave of Apicius’ daughter. Knowing she could be sold or given away at Apicius’ whim, Thrasius must do everything possible to stay on his master’s good side, even while watching Apicius behave in ways that are counterproductive, selfish, and cruel.

The novel is a fascinating look at Rome from a unique perspective. The lush descriptions of the banquet bring the opulence and decadence of the times fully to life. The uncertain lives of slaves and the menace hanging over their patrician masters keep the plot tight and fast paced. Thrasius is heroic as a man with a unique skill attempting to protect those in his sphere as best he can. Apicius is oddly sympathetic as a mediocre man with a narrowly focused ambition, willing to sacrifice everything, even those he loves, in order to be remembered by posterity. King’s story is a convincing portrait of the man. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: Merely a Marriage by Jo Beverley

I received this book for free from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.

I read this book a while ago, but waited to post this review until closer to the publication date.

I’ve read a few of Jo Beverley’s Regency Romances and enjoyed them, so I was startled to see this latest novel, Merely a Marriage, described as her last. I googled her and was sorry to learn that she died in May 2016.

Jo Beverley’s historical romances have always stood out for me because she doesn’t just set them in the Regency period for the manners of the time. (The manners are important, of course; all the rules of courting and social behavior make these books fun escapism.) She also truly seems to know the time period and inserts more historical context into the storylines than is typical. The history isn’t the focus. It’s never heavy-handed and the books are clearly genre romance. But the historical tidbits are an added bonus.

Merely a Marriage takes place immediately following the death of Princess Charlotte in childbirth. England is plunged into mourning. Social events are muted. Dresses must be in mourning colors. And the twenty-five-year-old Lady Ariana Boxstall is in a panic. Her father is two years dead and her brother, a couple of years younger than she, has no intention of marrying and filling the nursery with potential heirs. This could be a problem if her brother, Norris, should suffer an untimely death. Their uncle would inherit, and he’s a gambler and a nasty drunkard.

Norris is too young and healthy to be concerned, which irritates Ariana. So, he challenges her: if she’s wed by the end of the year, he’ll marry right after her. Since she retired from society after a disastrous coming out at seventeen, he feels safe. But Ariana is not one to shy from a challenge.

Ariana is beautiful, willful, and intelligent. However, she has a fatal flaw. She’s much too tall. Since she would never settle for a man shorter than herself, her options are limited in the countryside. She has to go back to London to find a wider field of choices. Her mother is happy to take her, and they will stay with an elderly relative who knows all the right people. Unfortunately, she knows some of the wrong people too: her nephew, the Earl of Kynaston, is one of the young men whose mockery made Ariana’s debut so painful. She might have endured it better if she wasn’t so smitten with him at the time. She’s older and wiser now, but still not prepared to share a roof with him. He’s as gorgeous (and tall) as ever, but he’s also still nasty, and he drinks to excess.

Of course, first (and second) impressions can be wrong.

As Lady Ariana shuffles through the men who survive the first weed-out round (tallness), she discovers that she’s even pickier than she thought. Height is the main thing, but not everything. Thrown together frequently with Kynaston, she finds he has more and more attributes on her checklist. Still, she resents him so much and is so certain he’s not interested in her, that she invents sins to assign to him, fabricating a tale of dissipation, rakish behavior, impoverishment, neglect of his estates and family, all to talk herself out of the attraction she still feels.

Kynaston has his own reasons for keeping Ariana at arm’s length despite his attraction to her. The reader will be convinced that he’s actually a noble character long before Ariana admits it. Ariana’s willful blindness to all the clues gets a bit irritating after awhile. She prefers to invent reasons for his behavior and stick to her own version of his life despite all evidence to the contrary. However, once she is told Kynaston’s history, she does an abrupt about face. Now she sees clearly that he is the perfect man—the only man—for her.

Ariana’s matter-of-fact approach to life makes her an interesting protagonist. And Kynaston is fine as the alpha male of her dreams. But her single-minded pursuit of him, including various plans to compromise herself so that he will have no choice but to marry her, get a bit unnerving. She tackles problems with an end-justifies-the-means attitude where the end is always to get what she wants. Since she’s certain that she knows what’s right for everyone, she sees no problem with forcing the issues. And, while she is naturally right that she and Kynaston are meant for each other (it’s a romance, after all), I found her character rather off-putting. Nevertheless, she is surrounded by charming supporting characters and I had fun reading this.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: My Last Lament by James William Brown

I received this book for free from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.

I’ve been looking forward to reading My Last Lament by James William Brown. I know pretty much nothing about modern Greek history, and the blurb for the novel intrigued me.

Aliki is an elderly woman recording her "memoir" for an ethnographer who we never meet, who is studying the ancient folk custom of "lamenting" the dead. Visiting Aliki’s isolated village, the student was unable to witness Aliki in action, so she left behind a cassette player and some blank tapes. The result is this novel.

A lamenter is not exactly a paid mourner and not exactly a eulogizer, but something in between. Upon the death of a loved one, a lamenter is brought in to encapsulate the life of the deceased with a poetic remembrance. Aliki’s gift for lamenting came upon her all at once and she performs the task in a semi-trance, not really knowing where the words come from. This recollection of her own life, this encapsulation, is, in a way, her own lament.

Aliki was about 14 years old when the Germans took over her village. Early on, they executed her father for hoarding food, and she was taken in by a neighbor, Chrysoula, who had a young son, Takis. They grew up together and so shared a lifelong bond.

Chrysoula was a woman of action. In addition to Aliki, she also took in a Jewish refugee family from the city, a mother and son, Stelios. Stelios is a bit older. Aliki and Stelios fall in love.

Things are not going to work out well. Though the Germans are eventually defeated, they cause enough havoc in the town that the family is disrupted. Many of the villagers are killed. Then, unfortunately, Aliki, Takis, and Stelios find that post-war Greece is as savage and dangerous as occupied Greece.

Stelios is a skilled shadow puppeteer, and the three set off trying to earn their living by putting on performances, first in the city and then around the countryside. Aside from the dangers of the ongoing civil war, the cohesion of their little group is threatened by the animosity between Takis and Stelios. Takis is mentally ill and hounded by confusion and guilt over what happened back in the village. He’s also fiercely jealous of the relationship between Stelios and Aliki.

The novel serves as a tour of post-war Greece and an introduction to the political divisions that have brought Greece to the position it’s in today. The characters are sympathetic and the action is well paced. Readers may guess the secrets that drive the plot before the big reveal at the end, but that doesn’t detract from the story.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: Heart Mountain by Gretel Ehrlich

Heart Mountain by Gretel Ehrlich is a sprawling historical epic that combines Western fiction with WWII fiction to provide a moving account of Wyoming ranchers keeping the home fires burning during the war and of Japanese-Americans who were imprisoned (interned) at the Heart Mountain relocation camp. Told from multiple viewpoints, the novel is a bit choppy and disjointed starting out, but stick with it. The author slowly immerses you in the geography, the workaday world, and the intense emotional lives of very varied characters. As WWII fiction generally focuses on the atrocities committed by the enemy, it’s too easy to forget about the ugly side of the war effort at home. Heart Mountain shows the conflicting feelings of those left behind (too old to fight, deferred for medical reasons, women) and those disillusioned by fighting (a medic, a prisoner of war, and a wounded soldier, as well as a Japanese-American pilot). It also shows the varying responses of those interned and of the isolated community surrounding the camp. This is straightforward, old-style historical fiction and recommended for twentieth century historical novel fans.

I received this book free from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: Blood Rose Rebellion by Rosalyn Eves

I received this book for free from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.

I finally had a chance to do a little reading, so I picked a YA fantasy: Blood Rose Rebellion by Rosalyn Eves. This entertaining, suspenseful novel is set in the mid-1800s in an alternative fantasy world of England and Hungary, where the ruling elites maintain their status and power not only through bloodlines and money, but through magic. Years ago, a spell was cast by a small cadre of the nobility to concentrate access to magic in the hands of a few. The "Binding" prevented outsiders who might have magical talent from ever learning how to use it. While the rationale behind the Binding made some sense (it also trapped dangerous magical monsters within the spell so that they couldn’t harm humans), in practice it led to grave abuse of power.

Lady Anna Arden is a young woman from a well-placed magical family destined for high English society. However, at her confirmation she was unable to perform a spell and was declared Barren. Since then, she has been kept from the public eye. However, at her sister’s debut in society, Anna inadvertently breaks her sister’s spell, causing considerable damage and raising alarms throughout "The Circle," the ruling body. Her talent is unique and potentially dangerous. It’s a type of anti-magic that threatens their entire way of life if she can’t be controlled.

Anna’s parents and grandmother whisk her off to Hungary, her grandmother’s home country, in the hopes that the scandal will die down and The Circle will lose interest in her. Instead, Anna becomes embroiled in a plot to break the Binding spell and free access to magic to the masses. This does not go over well with those in control.

This is a well-done fantasy with intricate world building and a quasi-historical setting that Eves brings to life with a bold sympathetic heroine, a strong love interest, and new friends who are fully rounded characters. Newly released, this is billed as Blood Rose Rebellion #1, so I look forward to the next installment!

Monday, March 13, 2017


I'm taking part in the blog tour for this wonderful new historical:
by Margaret George
Berkley Hardcover
On Sale: March 7, 2016
Price: $28.00
ISBN: 9780451473387
THE CONFESSIONS OF YOUNG NERO takes readers through the early life of Rome’s infamous Nero. Through the machinations of his mother, Agrippina the Younger, Nero became emperor at the age of sixteen, the last of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. But the road was a frightening one.  The young boy, an intelligent, sensitive and watchful child, had a series of psychological shocks from an early age.  His cruel uncle Caligula and his scheming cousin Messalina threatened his life, and his domineering and ambitious mother Agrippina married and poisoned two men en route to securing the throne for her son. Agrippina viewed Nero’s power as an extension of her own will. But once on the throne—like the teenage boy he was—Nero did not want to take orders from his mother.  Soon the world was not big enough for the two of them. Thereafter he was remembered as a hedonist and tyrant who “fiddled” while his people burned. But the truth behind the caricature, revealed here, shows Nero to be instead a product of his mother’s relentless ambition, and the incest, violence, luxury, and intrigue that have gripped Rome’s seat of power for generations.
Margaret George is the author of the bestselling Autobiography of Henry VIIIMary, Queen of Scotland and the IslesThe Memoirs of Cleopatra; and Mary, Called Magdalene.
I knew I'd signed up for this tour but couldn't find the info about it so thought I'd missed it. I ran my review early, but loved the book so much I'm posting it again.
I received this book for free from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.

Last summer, while on a family vacation to Germany, we visited museums in one city (I think it was Trier) that presented a special exhibit on the Roman Emperor Nero. The theme of the exhibits was that Nero got a raw deal from historians. (He’s known primarily for fiddling while Rome burned, which isn’t even true.)
In fact, he was an able administrator and was very much loved by the Roman people, if perhaps not so much by the Senate. Apparently, he took great pleasure in athletic and musical competitions, which was considered beneath the dignity of the office. No surprise, he always won first place. It was a very interesting exhibit and new perspective.

So I was eager to read Margaret George’s new book, The Confessions of Young Nero. Margaret George is well known in historical fiction circles for epic biographical novels. I’ve had her on my to-read list for a long time.
Nero was a member of the imperial family, though he was not expected to become emperor. His father died when he was young and his mother, Agrippina, had been banished. During Caligula’s reign, Nero was raised by an aunt. (He barely managed to survive Caligula’s casual murderousness.) The manipulations of his family to get rid of Caligula and to jockey for position at court make for interesting reading. Things really get going when Claudius becomes emperor and Agrippina returns. She reclaimed her son and started plotting.

During his formative years, Nero (then Lucius) had no dreams of seizing power. He was content to study history with his tutors, to sneak into an athletic training camp to wrestle and race, and to learn to play the cithara.

Nero is presented as a sensitive and intelligent boy/young man, cursed with a fiercely manipulative mother. Agrippina married Claudius and had him adopt Nero. Claudius’s own son was displaced. To help move things along more quickly, Agrippina employed the family poisoner, Locusta, whose point of view is presented in a few chapters for additional historical perspective.

Nero watched with fascination and horror. At first, he was merely swept along in the current that carried him to the throne. But, once he became emperor, Nero discovered his own taste for power.

George does a wonderful job showing Nero’s growth, his loss of innocence, and his slide from a boy with a conscience to a power-crazed dictator who ceases to listen to his advisors and who believes he is entitled to whatever he desires just because his power is limitless. He’s not a warrior as his predecessors were, which means Rome is able to enjoy a period of peace and prosperity, but he is extravagant and vain.

The book is long but reads quickly. It weaves together politics, court and family intrigues, and romance. It carries the reader up to the burning of Rome. Here, the story breaks off but with the promise of a second novel in the works to continue Nero’s story. For anyone who loves Roman history or epic biographical fiction, this new novel by Margaret George is highly recommended.

Friday, March 10, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: Mad Richard by Leslie Krueger

I received this book for free from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.

Life keeps happening and it’s really cutting into my reading and blogging. Still, I did squeeze in this gem, Mad Richard by Leslie Krueger.

This literary historical novel introduces us to Richard Dadd, a talented nineteenth century British artist who was mentally ill, grew increasingly violent, and was eventually admitted to Bedlam. The novel begins with a visitor to the insane asylum who comes specifically to speak with Richard: Charlotte Bronte. The encounter did happen, though the details here are fictional.

The story branches out to follow the lives of both these characters. Although they don’t come in contact again, they know some of the same people so the links between them hold the separate narratives together. One person who looms large is Charles Dickens. A boyhood acquaintance of Dadd’s, his path keeps crossing Dadd’s and they keep tabs on each other’s professional careers. Bronte and Dickens are not friends but are literary contemporaries.

Charlotte’s sections are somewhat dreamy, as the author is at a later stage in her career, her siblings are dead, and she is contemplating living out her life as a spinster caring for her father in the parsonage. It’s not the life she particularly wants. She has fallen in love with her editor, a handsome younger man, who supports her as an author and friend, but who shies away when her deeper feelings become more obvious. Charlotte is wooed in turn by her father’s curate, a sober, quiet man. Charlotte’s father sent him away, appalled that he dared approach his social superior, the famous author. However, Charlotte keeps him on a string while she decides what course to take. She fears life alone but also fears a life without writing and worries marrying the curate will cut short her career.

Dadd’s life is more tumultuous. One of nine children, Richard is his father’s favorite. His father is a successful chemist who has pinned all hopes for the family’s rise in the world on Richard. This exceptional son is given a first class education and, when he decides he wants to be a painter, tutors are hired and connections are tapped. Richard also finds his own group of up-and-coming artists, and it seems he is on his way.

But Richard is slowly losing his mind. He immerses himself in his art and his interpretation of art, but his thoughts drift farther and farther from reality. Part of the time he frightens himself, but other times he is inspired by his own intellect. Pushed by his father to accept a position accompanying a gentleman on a tour of Egypt, Richard falls off the cliff of madness in the exotic climes. By the time he returns, he is hearing the voices of Egyptian gods telling him to commit murder.

This is a beautifully written book that succeeds in weaving together the stories of these two very different people, who have in common ambition, a love of art, and an ambivalent feeling about fame. Charlotte’s story is bittersweet and grounded in reality. Richard’s is horrifyingly tragic and surreal. The author does a wonderful job of presenting his descent into madness in a vivid, realistic, and sympathetic way.