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Six authors bring to life overlapping stories of patricians and slaves, warriors and politicians, villains and heroes who cross each others' path during Pompeii's fiery end.
Caught in the deadly world of the Renaissance's most notorious family, three outsiders must decide if they will flee the dangerous dream of power.
The Borgia family begins its legendary rise, chronicled by an innocent girl who finds herself drawn into their dangerous web.
The lives of an ambitious soldier, a patrician heiress and a future emperor fatefully intersect.
The Year of Four Emperors - and four very different women struggling to survive
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Ave Historia: An irreverent look at historical fiction today: books trends, historical tidbits, and random tangents

The Inevitable Top Ten List

January 2, 2012

Tags: bernard cornwell, death of kings, second duchess, elizabeth loupas, dresden files, jim butcher, song of the nile, stephanie dray, the last queen, c.w. gortner, major pettigrew's last stand, helen simonson, dance with dragons, george r.r. martin, 11/22/63, stephen king, mr rosenblum dreams in english, natasha solomons, kitchen confidential, anthony bourdain, top ten list

Apparently a federal mandate was handed down from the White House, or possibly the Borg, to all book bloggers at the turn of the New Year: You must post a “Top Ten Books I Read in 2011” blog post, or you will be assimilated. Surrender immediately. Resistance is futile.

Who am I to resist Obama, or the Borg Queen? Here's my Top Ten List of books I've read this year (though some were published far previous to 2011). More original post coming next week, assuming I haven't been assimilated.

Best Books I Read In 2011, In No Particular Order

1.“Death of Kings” by Bernard Cornwell
Ah, the master himself with his latest installment in the Saxon Stories, a bloody and exuberant tale starring acerbic warrior hero Uhtred of Bebbanburg. Cornwell provides his usual stream of dry one-liners, battlefield heroics, and gorgeous writing – all wrapped up in one lovely package with a hero so hunky that I would time-travel back to the Dark Ages, risking an existence of dismemberment, violence, and no deodorant, for a single chance to meet him in person.

2.“The Second Duchess” by Elizabeth Loupas
The best debut I've read in a long time: a clever and level-headed Austrian princess newly married to the same Duke of Ferrara who stars in the famous Browning poem. Cautiously, the new duchess investigates the mysterious death of her predecessor while negotiating the snakepit of Renaissance politics and the attentions of her sometimes attractive, sometimes terrifying new husband. Deliciously twisty plotting, sensuous prose, and unforgettable characters.

3.“The Last Queen” by C.W. Gortner
A much sadder historical fiction read which I nevertheless devoured in a single hot summer day. The life of Juana of Castile makes for gut-wrenching reading as she travels from exuberant young princess to the woman who will be walled up and unfairly dismissed by history as a madwoman, but it's like watching a car wreck – you can't look away for a minute. Read with a large plate of Spanish tapas and a glass of sangria for consolation, preferably under the loggias of the Alhambra palace where Juana grew up.

4.“Ghost Story” by Jim Butcher
Just to prove that I don't only read historical fiction. Jim Butcher's urban fantasy series about a lanky wise-cracking wizard operating in modern-day Chicago is as addictive as crack. This one is no exception. Harry Dresden, wizard and wise-ass, is one of the best fictional heroes around – and this is one of the few books I can think of where the narrator spends pretty much the whole book dead.

5.“Song of the Nile” by Stephanie Dray
I love an unabashedly ambitious heroine, and Dray's Selene really fills the ticket – Cleopatra's intelligent daughter who does her best to claw, scheme, and manipulate the Emperor of Rome into giving back her birthright of the throne of Egypt. If only the Emperor of Rome weren't a first-class creep who wants waaaaaay more than a girl should reasonably have to give up in pursuit of power. Sequel to “Lily of the Nile,” and altogether a darker, harder, more grown-up read.

6.“Major Pettigrew's Last Stand” by Helen Simonson
A gem – if Masterpiece Theatre doesn't snap this book up for a movie remake starring Derek Jacobi, it would be a crime. A gentle but hysterically funny romance about a reticent English widower who finds himself, to his considerable inconvenience, falling in love with a charming Pakistani widow. Humorous, understanding, and sweet – and how lovely to see a passionate romance between a Romeo of sixty-eight and a Juliet of fifty-eight. As if only the young and beautiful are entitled to star in great love stories.

7.“Dance With Dragons” by George R.R. Martin
The long and not very patiently awaited installment in Martin's iconic and massive “Song of Ice and Fire” series. I won't bother recapping the plot of this thousand-page doorstopper, since your screen would explode, but it was worth every hour of sleep I lost over it.

8.“11/22/63” by Stephen King
Another doorstopper on the top of the New York Times Bestseller list, and worth every penny of the doctor's bills you will incur for the wrist strain that settled in after hours of holding this brick up close enough to read. A teacher in 2011 finds a mysterious portal that takes him back to 1958 – and he decides to stick around and see if he can't prevent the Kennedy assassination from happening. The answer may surprise you – Stephen King has not one whit lost his touch for horror, creativity, and poignancy, sometimes all in the same sentence.

9.“Mr. Rosenblum Dreams In English” by Natasha Solomons
Middle-aged Jack Rosenblum is a German Jew who escaped Nazi Germany by moving his family to England - and for twenty years, Jack has devoted himself to becoming the perfect English gentleman. He has the tweed suits from Harrods, the pipe and the Jaguar, but one thing eludes him: membership to a golf club. When every good golf club rejects Jack (no Jews allowed! Germany certainly didn't corner the market on anti-Semitism) Jack decides with grandeur that he will build his own golf course. What a bad idea – and what a funny, moving, satisfying book about the results.

10.“Kitchen Confidential” by Anthony Bourdain
How to classify this book: Memoir? Expose? Humor? Its author is easier to pin down: a hard-drinking, hard-swearing, hard-living executive chef (and now Travel Channel star) who can't write a sentence without being funny, poignant, or offensive, often simultaneously. Bourdain's macho testosteronal voice would be unbearable if he didn't make just as much fun of himself as he does of everyone else. I can't walk into a restaurant now without wondering if the crew making my food is the kind of swaggering foul-mouthed batch of borderline psychos who are depicted so vividly in the pages here.

So there it is – my top ten list, along with everyone else's. Now please, Mr. President or Ms. Borg Queen, can I pretty please go back to my book and not be assimilated?

Weekend Read: Sword Song by Bernard Cornwell

March 4, 2011

Tags: weekend read, sword song, bernard cornwell

If you like your historical fiction filled with blood, battles, and alpha males, then Bernard Cornwell is for you. His list of 40+ books covers stories as diverse as King Arthur, the American Civil War, the building of Stonehenge, and Napoleon’s attempts to push Wellington out of Spain, but his current series is called the Saxon Stories: five books to date about King Alfred’s struggle to save a little country called England from the Vikings, and Alfred’s chief warrior whose exploits on the battlefield ensure that Alfred will someday be called “the Great.”

It’s an unconventional partnership to say the least. King Alfred is humorless, tidy-minded, and a fervent believer in Christianity; the strapping hero Uhtred is noisy, aggressive, and a fervent believer in Thor. The two regard each other with exasperation, mystification, and sometimes downright loathing, but the King needs Uhtred if he is ever to push the Vikings out of England, and Uhtred keeps fighting for him although his own sympathies often lie with his Viking friends. Sword Song is the fourth installment in Uhtred’s adventures, and things are looking up for him. He’s no longer chained to an oar as he was through much of the previous book (don’t ask), and he’s settled down happily with a wife he adores and a never-ending supply of battles to fight. Trouble comes in the form of Alfred’s daughter Aethelflaed, a teenage princess who has long been a pet of Uhtred’s. Now grown into an appealingly steely girl (the scene where she blackmails an oath of loyalty out of Uhtred is priceless), Aethelflaed is newly and unhappily married to an idiot who promptly manages to get her kidnapped by Vikings. Uhtred’s job, like any hero’s, is to rescue the princess. But what if the princess doesn’t want to be rescued?

Uhtred gets better and better: confident, aggressive, humorous, vital. Alfred is a pious little prat in comparison, and Aethelflaed despite her impossible name is a girl with a bent for adventure whom even Uhtred can’t push around. Start at the beginning of this marvelous Saxon Stories for the full adventure, and give yourself far more than a weekend’s worth of reading.

Teaser Tuesday

March 1, 2011

Tags: teaser tuesday, bernard cornwell, sword song


The priest had come to me in the summer, half grinning, and pointed out that the dues we collected from the merchants who used the river were unpredictable, which meant that King Alfred could never estimate whether we were keeping proper accounts. He waited for my approval and got a thump about his tonsured skull instead. I sent him to Alfred under guard with a letter describing his dishonesty, and then I stole the dues myself. The priest had been a fool. You never, ever, tell others of your crimes, not unless they are so big as to be incapable of concealment, and then you describe them as policy or statecraft.

-- From Sword Song by Bernard Cornwell. What do you get when a Christian-born Saxon boy is raised by pagan Vikings instead? Uhtred of Bebbanburg, hero of Bernard Cornwell's Saxon Series. Read my review of Sword Song this Friday.