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Historical Fiction
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
A brilliant and paranoid Emperor, a wary and passionate slave girl – who will survive?

Ave Historia: An irreverent look at historical fiction today: books trends, historical tidbits, and random tangents

Top Ten Books Of 2013

December 12, 2013

Tags: christmas, top ten list

In compliance with federal law, which apparently states that all book bloggers must post a “Top Ten Books I Read This Year!” list on their blogs in December, I'm giving you mine—and in time to help you complete your holiday shopping! Because nothing fits better in a stocking than a book. Here are my recommendations, the best books I read in 2013 (though not all were published this year) and just who you should buy them for . . .


1. “Longbourn” by Jo Baker. Jane Austen meets “Downton Abbey”--this is the story of the mostly-silent servants who make their way through the Bennet house in Pride & Prejudice—and this is their story, not Elizabeth and Darcy's, which is what makes it refreshing. Housemaid Sarah wants to do something with her life besides empty chamber pots and scrub petticoats, and that's far more important to her than who any of the Bennet girls marry. But like Elizabeth, Sarah has her choice between a charming unreliable suitor and a silent passionate one, and like Elizabeth, Sarah will take her chance at happiness into her own hands. Buy for: your Janeite bestie, the one whose “Pride & Prejudice” blu-ray skips automatically to Colin Firth climbing out of the pond. The descriptions of Regency housework alone will keep her from ever sighing again “I wish I was born back then!”

2. “Eleanor and Park” by Rainbow Rowell. One of the sweetest and tenderest stories about young love I have ever read; good enough to touch even a cynical heart like mine. The plot couldn't be simpler: two brainy sixteen-year-olds with variously screwed-up home lives meet on a school bus and fall in love. The genius is in the details: the awkward pauses, the fragility of emotions, the pitch-perfect dialogue of smart kids who can throw around words like “phylum” and discourse on Shakespeare, but then get flustered and only mutter “God!” Buy for: that awkward teenager in your life, be it a younger sister or a teenage son. They will read this book thinking “This is my life.”

3. “The Pagan Lord” by Bernard Cornwell. The latest installment in the Saxon Stories, with the always entertaining shield-wall adventures of cranky Viking-trained hero Uhtred as he kills enemies, insults priests, and strides around being the colossus that he is. Cornwell never fails to entertain, and this one is fabulous blood-and-battle fun. Buy for: your husband, who you recently got hooked on the Uhtred books during a long car ride, and who has been plowing through them ever since with a feverish gleam in his eye like a heroin addict (ahem).

4. “The Secret of the Glass” by Donna Russo Morin. My favorite book from one of my favorite writer friends. The nice thing about Donna's historical heroines is that they always have something on their minds besides their love life—and Renaissance gal Sophia might have a Tom Brady look-alike sending her passionate glances, but this girl already has her hands full running her dying father's glassblowing business, and knowing it will be scooped out of her hands as soon as he dies because of course, women can't run glassblowing businesses. Rarely has the helplessness of historical women at the hands of society been so well explored; I spent much of this book in a fit of outrage on Sophia's behalf. Buy for: your feminist cubicle mate, who will realize all over again that women today might be saddled with the GOP, but we've still got it a lot better than our historical counterparts.

5. “BZRK Reloaded” by Michael Grant. I'm a born Luddite who can break a computer just by walking past it, so if you'd told me I'd be this riveted by a YA thriller about nanobot technology, I'd have laughed in your face. But Grant's tale of the Hallmark company trying to enslave the minds of humanity and the teenage hackers who try to stop them is hard-edged and riveting. Light YA this ain't; Grant pulls no punches in depicting a covert revolution where death, enslavement, and madness are right around around the corner for all concerned. Buy for: the office nerd you drew for Secret Santa. Sit back and enjoy the fun as he becomes paranoid—“I know I've got bots on me, I just KNOW it!!”

6. “Wool” by Hugh Howey. I devoured this post-apocalyptic doorstopper in a matter of days, unable to look away from Howey's compulsively readable and utterly horrifying vision of a future where humanity lives in underground silos—but what's really outside those silos? And the heroine, a tough as nails mechanic, is just a delight from start to finish. Buy for: your garage mechanic uncle. He'll be tickled to read a story where the mechanic saves humanity from destruction, rather than some covert ops James Bond type.

7. “The Queen's Pawn” by Christy English. Don't be fooled by the quietness of this historical novel that mostly takes place in the cushioned spaces of a queen's medieval solar—this is a nail-biting examination of female power-play in an era where women weren't supposed to have any power. Eleanor of Aquitaine takes one half of the narrative, and facing her as protege and eventual rival is Princess Alais of France who Eleanor raises as future wife to Richard the Lionheart, but who will strike out on her own in a grab for Eleanor's throne and Eleanor's husband. But this is no cat-fight story of two women fighting over a man—Eleanor's fierce pride in Alais never wavers even when Alais moves against her, and Alais's love and respect for Eleanor proves a beacon when her ambitions begin to falter. Buy for: your mother, because this is a mother-daughter story unlike any you've ever read.

8. “Kristin Lavransdatter” by Sigrid Unset. A riveting trilogy set in medieval Norway, following a headstrong girl, her feckless but charming husband, her many sons, and the richly-textured community in which they live. Astounding that 800 pages of a woman obsessing about sin could be so flat-out absorbing, but then again, it's a classic for a reason. Buy for: that niece who's backpacking to Norway to see the Northern Lights. Be prepared for a puzzled email about why she missed the Northern Lights because she was too wrapped up in a medieval Norwegian girl obsessing about sin.

9. “Cuckoo's Calling” by J.K. Rowling. Mas respect for Rowling, who didn't coast on the success of Harry Potter but struck out into other genres—first adult contemporary with “Casual Vacancy,” and then even more brilliantly into crime with “Cuckoo's Calling.” This is old-fashioned noir at its best: a brilliant down-on-his-luck detective and his sweet-as-cream Gal Friday negotiating the seedy glamor of the high fashion industry as they try to discover why a supermodel plunged to her death from a locked apartment. Buy for: your dad, who loves the crime shows but wishes they'd move away from the damn evidence labs and the DNA stuff, and go back to the Colombo model of Detective Who Just Asks Questions.

10. “One Dog and His Boy” by Eva Ibbotson. Ibbotson's last delightful comic romp in a long career. Here she gives us a lonely little rich boy whose parents can't see why he's upset when the dog they've rented for one weekend just to give him "the dog experience" has to be returned. Hal refuses to accept this, and takes off with the dog. Adventures ensue, and Ibbotson's trademark humor lifts her prose a cut above, such as when a fiery little Pekinese reflects, "There is absolutely nothing wrong with old ladies, but when your ancestors have been bred to ride on the saddle of the Emperor when he gallops off to war, you do not feel like being told you are an itsy-bitsy little doggie, aren't you." Buy for: that person in your life who needs a little comfort food for the soul. Maybe that's you—because the stream of disasters from the daily news or your latest Gillian Flynn binge is leaving you depressed, then this is the book to cheer you up.

Merry Christmas!

A Christmas Re-Make

December 25, 2011

Tags: christmas, a christmas carol, the ref

I love Christmas. I really do. But at some point in the holiday season (usually somewhere around December 1st) certain aspects start to grate. Take “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” - what kind of message is this song sending, telling us that popularity and happiness will only be achieved when others realize that your personal oddities are in fact useful and lucrative? Or “Frosty the Snowman.” I'll flip past it approximately 800 times on various TV channels during the holiday season. First 400 times I think he's kinda cute with the top hat and shoe-button eyes. Last 400 times I start fantasizing about running after him with a hair-dryer.

The trouble is, the Christmas season has become all sugar and no spice. For those of us who want a little bite to the holidays, here are some quick fixes. It's Christmas Day and I've got eggnog to drink, but I can offer solutions to the top three holiday offenders: music, movies, and books.

MUSIC
Is “Winter Wonderland” giving you headaches? Are you on the brink of eating a shotgun if you have to sit through one more hack version of “Jingle Bells” piped over bad speakers at the Gap? Fear not; YouTube has two clips that will have you grinning. First on the list is a sidesplitting “Winter Wonderland” parody sung impeccably by a men's choir. Let's just quote the first verse: “Lacy things the wife is missin'/Didn't ask her permission/I'm wearing her clothes, her silk pantyhose/Walkin' round in women's underwear.” Second on the list is men's a capella group Straight No Chaser, singing a seemingly straightforward “12 Days of Christmas” in which they eventually lose count of which ____ing day it is, break confusedly into other carols such as “Here We Come A Wassailing” and the Dreidel Song, and somehow end up in a Christmas-ed version of Toto's “Africa.” Bloody brilliant.

Walkin' Round In Women's Underwear

Twelve Days of Christmas


MOVIES
By now you're probably tired of the Charlie Brown Special, Frosty the Snowman, and “It's a Wonderful Life.” Try “The Ref” instead, a hilarious Christmas comedy starring Kevin Spacey, Judy Davis, and Denis Leary. Leary plays a harassed cat burglar trying to escape on Christmas Eve with the score of a lifetime, and forced to hide out in suburban Connecticut by taking a quarreling couple hostage. Trouble is, the couple can't stop fighting even when an armed man is pointing a gun at their heads, and soon the burglar is reffing the family disagreements and tearing his hair out. Priceless lines abound, but here's one for anybody with a relative they would just as soon stayed home: the quarreling couple's pathologically-bullying mother, finally held up at gunpoint by the burglar who hisses “Nobody move, or I shoot!” After which the beleagered daughter-in-law says with complete sincerity; “Go ahead, shoot her.”


BOOKS
Ah, that annual piece of Christmas torture known as Charles Dickens's “A Christmas Carol.” I am probably going to hell (or at least coming across as an incredible philistine) for saying that I hate Dickens with the fire of a thousand suns, but I make no bones about it: I can't stand his cumbersome humor, his lengthy expositions, or his absurd character names. Worst of his offenses is “A Christmas Carol,” a piece of sanctimonious treacle that was forced down my throat in some institution of learning or other, and on which I have been gagging ever since. I keeping hoping that someday Scrooge will push Tiny Tim out a high window before we can get to “God bless us every one!” but in abeyance of that miracle, I'll settle for Laura Ingalls Wilder's “On The Banks of Plum Creek.” Wilder's collection of autobiographical growing-up-on-the-frontier novels will thankfully outlast the dreadful Little House on the Prairie TV show they spawned, and Plum Creek has a particularly good Christmas segment where the heroine's father heads to town for Christmas candy to stuff his daughters' stockings, and is caught on his way back by a freak blizzard. He holes up in a snowbank for four days, surviving on the stash of candy and finally emerging alive but with no Christmas presents. The family celebrates minus presents but plus Dad: a far better Christmas message than the “Buy now, buy more!” mentality of “Let's open Walmart at midnight on Black Friday so everybody can start buying as soon as possible.”

Having sufficiently salted your holiday, I'm off to enjoy mine. Not eggnog, come to think of it. Too sweet. Try dry champagne instead, ice cold, for another holiday substitution. And Merry Christmas.