Ave Historia: An irreverent look at historical fiction today: books trends, historical tidbits, and random tangents
April 17, 2012
February 1, 2012
1.“Madame Tussaud” by Michelle Moran.
This one came out last year, and I heard such great things about it that I didn't dare pick it up. I've got deadlines to meet, and the last thing I needed was a spicy, decadent read about the French Revolution including a heroine who passes her day making wax death masks. But I can't wait to plunge into Michelle's new French world, having spent so much time in her versions of ancient Egypt and Rome.
2.“Queen Without A Crown” by Fiona Buckley
Finally, a new Ursula Blanchard mystery! I've read and enjoyed all of Buckley's novels about the resourceful Ursula, lady-in-waiting and sometime spy for Elizabeth I. What sets this series of mysteries apart is the authenticity of the opinions expressed by the 16th century characters. Ursula is no striding 21st century miss, but a real woman of her time who struggles to balance her duties to Queen, country, husband, daughter, conscience, and God. “Queen Without A Crown” will apparently throw Ursula into the thick of yet another Mary Stuart plot against the Queen – here's hoping she takes some time off from intrigue and finally, finally gives in to all this passion she's been repressing, for at least four books, for her sweet and steady manservant.
3.“The Painted Veil” by Somerset Maugham
“Moon and Sixpence” and “The Razor's Edge” are two of my favorite reads ever, so how is it I have not read “The Painted Veil” yet? I have no idea, but I'm determined to follow Maugham's idealistic hero and his frivolous erring wife on their journey to China this year, come what may.
4.“The Queen's Vow” by C.W. Gortner
There aren't too many books I would agree to give a blurb too before I had even read them. But if C.W. Gortner told me his next book was titled “How I Spent My Summer Vacation,” I'd know two things: a) it would involve queens, intrigue, sex, betrayal, and the machinations of power, and b) I would not be able to put it down. His forthcoming tome on Isabella of Castile, I predict with confidence, will be no different.
5.“Fear” by Michael Grant
Here's one YA dystopia series that is a lot of fun: think X-Men crossed with Stephen King's “Under the Dome.” But Grant's teenage heroes and anti-heroes, increasingly isolated in their bubble away from adults, are forced to grapple with weighty adult issues like self-government, war, cannibalism, racism, starvation, and religious mania as well as the more usual YA themes of romance and growing pains. The result is addictive story-telling, and thank the gods, the next installment is coming out the same day as my third book. Instead of obsessively checking and re-checking my Amazon rankings, I'll be head-down in the FAYZ with Michael Grant & Co.
6.“The Edwardians” by Vita Sackville-West
I'm in serious “Downton Abbey” withdrawal, and my Anglophile mother assures me that “The Edwardians” will be just the ticket: a big multi-generational English family drama that obviously served as the model for all these “Upstairs, Downstairs” spinoffs. High tea, huge hats, saucy parlormaids and crusty dowagers – I'm there.
7.“The Iliad” by Homer
Yet another classic I haven't for some unfathomable reason gotten around to reading yet. I can quote the entire plot of the Iliad and even some direct passages, but I've yet to plow through the whole thing start to finish. Hector, tamer of horses, here I come.
8.“The Golden Lily” by Richelle Mead
My guilty pleasure read. I'm not really a fan of YA vampire fiction, but I gobble up Mead's work. Maybe it's the humor, maybe it's the politics, maybe it's her intelligent and fiery heroines who buck the trend by not being Mary Sues. But I can't wait for this one.
9.and 10. “The Sister Queens” by Sophie Perinot, and “Four Sisters, All Queens” by Sherry Jones
I'm listing these two together, not only because I know the authors, but because their books about the same historical figures are being released just a few months apart. The four daughters of the Count of Provence were all beauties who managed to bag kings for husbands: Sophie's “Sister Queens” focuses on the sibling rivalry and friendship between the eldest two, respectively queens of France and England, and Sherry's “Four Sisters, All Queens” brings in the younger two as well with their kingdoms of Germany and Sicily. I can't wait to see the two contrasting takes on a very interesting family. Not to mention sister drama that isn't about the Boleyn family.
So there's my reading list for 2012, or at least the start of it. What are you looking forward to reading this year?
January 2, 2012
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?
April 17, 2011
"No matter what kind of power she wielded behind the scenes, Augustus's empress Livia was smart enough to present herself publicly as a simple Roman matron; Augustus was constantly bragging that his wife wasn't too proud to weave his tunics with her own hands, Empress or no. (I always picture Livia getting up from her desk full of official dispatches when she heard guests coming, weaving exactly two bands of cloth until they went away again, and then going right back to work while the servants finish the weaving.)"
For more - and for Chris's fabulous review - click here!