Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Title: The Last Empress

Author: Anchee Min

Rating <3 <3 <3 <3

Summary: The last decades of the nineteenth century were a violent period in China’s history, marked by humiliating foreign incursions and domestic rebellions and ending in the demise of the Ch’ing Dynasty. The only constant during this tumultuous time was the power wielded by one woman, the resilient, ever-resourceful Tsu Hsi -- or Empress Orchid.  

The Last Empress is the story of Orchid’s dramatic transition from a strong-willed, instinctive young woman to a wise and politically savvy leader who ruled China for more than four decades. In this concluding volume Min gives us a compelling, very human leader who assumed power reluctantly and sacrificed all to protect those she loved and an empire that was doomed to die.

Review:  (THIS FIRST PARAGRAPH CONTAINS SPOILERS) This is the second and final book in Anchee Min's series about Empress Orchid and the Chi'ing Dynasty in China. I must admit I was very much looking forward to reading it because I loved the first book, Empress Orchid, because of how it drew me in with all the details of scenery and lifestyle of what life was like in China for royal women during this time period.  However this book had a very different feel to it.  From the very beginning The Empress is faced with struggles such as losing her favorite eunuch, (who was plotted against by those she should have been able to trust) followed by the death of her only son, then the death of her fellow wife who is the first ranking empress and who was  her rival in many things. And finally when she has picked her sister's son as a replacement for the throne finding him inadequate for the role he must play, and he ends up dying before her in the end.

The Last Empress to my taste was written in a very different style than the first book in the series; it felt like a lot of political events and wars surrounded by a few pages of what the empress or other main characters might be feeling.  While there were many good scenes, such as when she rescues her sister's son from his abusive mother and declares him the next heir, there seemed to be far more historical "information" in the book than I was expecting compared to the first novel, which disappointed me, however it was still a very good read.  If you read the first book, Empress Orchid I think it is worth it to finish up the story and read the Last Empress just DO NOT expect the same writing style. 

Here is an  actual photo of Empress Orchid: 

<3 Elizabeth

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Title: Testimony of an Irish Slave Girl

By: Kate McCafferty

Rating >3

Summary: Kidnapped from Galway, Ireland, as a young girl, shipped to Barbados, and forced to work the land alongside African slaves, Cot Daley's life has been shaped by injustice.

Review: I was looking forward to this novel because I haven't read a lot about this time period and I thought it would be interesting to learn more about it. However after reading about fifteen pages into it I had to stop. The writing style did not appeal to me, and the characters just seemed flat and one dimensional. Very rarely will I not finish a book, but this is one of the few that I put back on the bookshelf without finishing it. 

Monday, February 27, 2012

Title: Sacred Hearts

Rating <3 <3 <3 <3 <3

Summary: The year is 1570, and in the convent of Santa Caterina, in the Italian city of Ferrara, noblewomen find space to pursue their lives under God’s protection. But any community, however smoothly run, suffers tremors when it takes in someone by force. And the arrival of Santa Caterina’s new novice sets in motion a chain of events that will shake the convent to its core.

Ripped by her family from an illicit love affair, sixteen-year-old Serafina is willful, emotional, sharp, and defiant–young enough to have a life to look forward to and old enough to know when that life is being cut short. Her first night inside the walls is spent in an incandescent rage so violent that the dispensary mistress, Suora Zuana, is dispatched to the girl’s cell to sedate her. Thus begins a complex relationship of trust and betrayal between the young rebel and the clever, scholarly nun, for whom the girl becomes the daughter she will never have.

As Serafina rails against her incarceration, others are drawn into the drama: the ancient, mysterious Suora Magdalena–with her history of visions and ecstasies–locked in her cell; the ferociously devout novice mistress Suora Umiliana, who comes to see in the postulant a way to extend her influence; and, watching it all, the abbess, Madonna Chiara, a woman as fluent in politics as she is in prayer. As disorder and rebellion mount, it is the abbess’s job to keep the convent stable while, outside its walls, the dictates of the Counter-Reformation begin to purge the Catholic Church and impose on the nunneries a regime of terrible oppression.

Review: This novel takes you into the world of a nunnery in the later part of the 1500's in the Italian city of Ferrara.  The nuns live in a very sequestered world, where they avoid most contact with the outside world, except for a few concerts performed for nobles, and some occasions where they have supervised visits with family members.  I for one did not know that nuns in this time period, lived such sheltered and protected lives away from society, and that so many of them were thrust into this lifestyle through no choice of their own.

The main character of this story is a young woman of noble blood , Serafina, who is thrust into the nunnery against her will, because she fell in love with the wrong man, and the book follows her struggles with rebellion, both to escape, find herself, and the betrayal and trust that define her friendships with nuns who befriend her in the nunnery.  One of these people, Suora Zuana, is the dispensary mistress, who looks after the nun's health, and has many struggles of her own.

This book was an easy read, the author kept it at an easy pace, and it has been one of my favorite reads so far this year. I'd recommend it to anyone who enjoys strong, characters; and women who were fighting to maintain what independence they had in a time of struggle for the Church they had pledged their lives to serve.

Friday, February 24, 2012

The Last Queen

By C.W. Gortner

Rating <3 <3 <3 <3 <3

Summary: The third child of Queen Isabel and King Ferdinand of Spain, Juana is born amid her parents’ ruthless struggle to unify their kingdom, bearing witness to the fall of Granada and Columbus’s discoveries. At the age of sixteen, she is sent to wed Philip, the archduke of Flanders, as part of her parents’ strategy to strengthen Spain, just as her youngest sister, Catherine of Aragon, is sent to England to become the first wife of Henry VIII. 

Review: The Last Queen by Mr.Gortner, was a wonderful read, it takes you into the world of the young princess Juana who is the daughter of the infamous Isabella who was ruler of Spain and supporter of many famous endeavors like the crusades, and Columbus. Juana is sent to marry Philip the archduke of Flanders, who she starts off having a loving relationship, and amorous times with but who ends up envying her crown (and becoming abusive), after she becomes the next in line to rule Spain after many tragedies in her family.

    In addition Her Father instead of coming to her aid, as she thinks he will, ends up setting a trap and imprisoning her just like her husband; the novel follows her journey from her adolescence into womanhood, bearing children and through a very difficult and abusive marriage, into that of becoming a ruler in captivity and beyond.  It is a very smartly written book, and even through its written by a guy he follows a womans train of thought very well!

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Memoirs of Mary Queen of Scots

By: Carolly Erickson

Genre: Historical Entertainment

Rating <3 <3 <3 1/2

Summary: Queen of Scotland at six days of age, married as a young girl to the invalid young king of France, Mary took the reins of the unruly kingdom of Scotland as a young widow and fought to keep her throne. A second marriage to her handsome but dissolute cousin Lord Darnley ended in murder and scandal, while a third to the dashing Lord Bothwell, the love of her life, gave her joy but widened the scandal and surrounded her with enduring ill repute.
Unable to rise above the violence and disorder that swirled around her, Mary escaped to England--only to find herself a prisoner of her ruthless, merciless cousin Queen Elizabeth.
Here, in a riveting first-person account, is the enchanting woman whose name still evokes excitement and compassion--and whose death under the headsman's axe still draws forth our sorrow.

Review: The Memoirs of Mary Queen of Scots is a first person account of the life of Mary Queen of Scots from around the age of fifteen up until her death by the order of her cousin Queen Elizabeth the first of England.  The main character Mary in other books has been displayed as a strong rival of Elizabeth who plotted her death, and who was really more vilified in other plot lines that I've read.  She had a strong backing in the Catholic movement of the time, who looked at Elizabeth as a "Protestant Whore" and did not believe she was the true heir to the throne of England because the marriage of her Mother Anne Boleyn and Henry the 8th was not considered valid.  
   This novel portrays Mary as a bit more wishy washy, then I have pictured her, with scenes where her main concern is her wardrobe or how many servants she has.  It did however bring  out the other side of the story from her point of view, and not just Queen's Elizabeth's who has gained more literary focus.  Also this book IS a historical entertainment so many events were added in that most  likely DID NOT take place in real life SPOILER such as, Mary having a daughter, bathing at a mineral bath with Queen Elizabeth, and other events. I would recommend this book if you're looking for a fast paced fun read about Mary Queen of Scots...but NOT a strictly historically accurate book about her life. Cheers! 


Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Secret Life of Josephine: Napoleon's Bird of Paradise

By: Carolly Erickson

Rating <3 <3 <3 <3

Summary: Fashion icon, leader of France’s society in the turbulent years of the guillotine and the bloody Napoleonic Wars, the alluring Josephine was a tough survivor—yet she also had a gentle, haunting quality that made her irresistible to her contemporaries, especially to the mysterious, compelling stranger from Martinique who captured her heart.

Review: The Secret Life of Josephine, follows the life of Napoleon's first wife, from around the age of fifteen to the time of her death.  The main focus of the book being her love affairs, difficult marriages, both with Napoleon and her first husband, and her struggle to mantain her sense of independence and willfullness in a world that was still very much male dominated.

Josephine, was a woman ahead of her time, having many lovers, fighting to maintain her way of life, even facing execution during the French Revolution, then rising  to the pinnacle of her power as she was empress of France during her long and difficult marriage to Napoleon.  Ms. Erickson  speaks out through Josephine's voice about the struggles of the time such as the slave rebellions, mass executions in France, and the eventual return to the French monarchy.  Josephine is not portrayed as a perfect person but as a human who did the best she could. This helps the reader develop a bond with her while reading the book -- she seems more reachable than other characters I've read about.

Overall the book was very enjoyable --the reason I gave it only four smiley faces was because it ended rather abruptly and I would've enjoyed a more thorough ending to the story.


Thursday, February 16, 2012

Empress Orchid

By: Anchee Min

Rating <3 <3 <3 <3 <3

Summary: From a master of the historical novel, Empress Orchid sweeps readers into the heart of the Forbidden City to tell the fascinating story of a young concubine who becomes China’s last empress. Min introduces the beautiful Tzu Hsi, known as Orchid, and weaves an epic of a country girl who seized power through seduction, murder, and endless intrigue. When China is threatened by enemies, she alone seems capable of holding the country together.

Review: Empress Orchid takes the reader into the Forbidden City of China in the last days of it's ruling class. It follow's the life of a young country girl who becomes first a concubine to the Emperor then goes on to produce his only son, and will eventually become China's last ruling empress. While reading the book the reader will go through many heartbreaks. triumphs, and suspenseful moments with Orchid that make the book hard to put down.  
    In the spirit of books like Memoirs of a Geisha, or Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Empress Orchid will transport the reader into a completely different time and culture, and provide an escape from everyday reality.  While there are references to what will happen to some characters early on in the book, the characters are not one dimensional, and it is easy to identify with them even a hundred and fifty plus years later, this is not a book that you'll finish and put on a book shelf and forget.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Dovekeepers

By: Alice Hoffman

Rating : <3 <3 <3 <3 <3

Summary: Yael’s mother died in childbirth, and her father, an expert assassin, never forgave her for that death. Revka, a village baker’s wife, watched the horrifically brutal murder of her daughter by Roman soldiers; she brings to Masada her young grandsons, rendered mute by what they have witnessed. Aziza is a warrior’s daughter, raised as a boy, a fearless rider and an expert marksman who finds passion with a fellow soldier. Shirah, born in Alexandria, is wise in the ways of ancient magic and medicine, a woman with uncanny insight and power.

The lives of these four complex and fiercely independent women intersect in the desperate days of the siege. All are dovekeepers, and all are also keeping secrets—about who they are, where they come from, who fathered them, and whom

they love.

Review: The Dovekeeper's by Alice Hoffman is a book that you will truly never forget.  Told from the point of few of four amazing Jewish women who are living in a time of extreme Jewish persecution by the Roman empire it follows their journey from girlhood to maturity, and into their lives at the Jewish settlement of Masada.  Ms. Hoffman does an amazing job with her research with bringing in the historical details of the story, and how the people lived, worked, and loved during these times.

    The story switches between the four women's voices, so you get different viewpoints on what it was like to live in the settlement of Masada, what different aspects of Jewish life were like for women, and what Jewish culture was like for women around 70 C.E.  These four women broke through barriers that women were supposed to adhere to in their culture and show that even in times of trouble and fear, courage and fighting for those you love is a theme that speaks across time and culture.

   This is a book that I will not be forgetting anytime soon and would recommend to anyone who is looking for something that transcends just a run of the mill historical fiction read! 


Monday, February 13, 2012

The Winter Palace

By:  Eva Stachniak

Rating: <3 <3 <3 <3 <3

Summary:  Her name is Barbara—in Russian, Varvara. Nimble-witted and attentive, she’s allowed into the employ of the Empress Elizabeth, amid the glitter and cruelty of the world’s most eminent court. Under the tutelage of Count Bestuzhev, Chancellor and spymaster, Varvara will be educated in skills from lock picking to lovemaking, learning above all else to listen—and to wait for opportunity. That opportunity arrives in a slender young princess from Zerbst named Sophie, a playful teenager destined to become the indomitable Catherine the Great. Sophie’s destiny at court is to marry the Empress’s nephew, but she has other, loftier, more dangerous ambitions, and she proves to be more guileful than she first appears.

What Sophie needs is an insider at court, a loyal pair of eyes and ears who knows the traps, the conspiracies, and the treacheries that surround her. Varvara will become Sophie’s confidante—and together the two young women will rise to the pinnacle of absolute power. 

Review: This was one of those books that you just don't want to put down. The main character Barbara or Varvara as she is referred to in Russian is thrust into court life at a very young age, first in the service of Empress Elizabeth, then later on into the service of "Sophie" a princess who would later become Catherine the great.  Both of Barbara's mistresses use her to their own ends, and she has to use her wits to not end up on the wrong side of two very powerful and conniving women.
     This book is full of wonderful details about what it would've been like to have lived in the Russian Imperial court, and to serve some of its most prominent figures, the characters have personalties that will have you thinking about them even when your not reading the book. If you enjoy historical fiction then this is not a book I'd miss. It's the first in a series so I'm looking forward to the next book!

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Time In Between - Book Review

Book: The Time In Between

Author: Maria Duenas

Summary: At age twelve, Sira Quiroga sweeps the atelier floors where her single mother works as a seamstress. At fourteen, she quietly begins her own apprenticeship. By her early twenties she has learned the ropes of the business and is engaged to a modest government clerk. But everything changes when two charismatic men burst unexpectedly into her neatly mapped-out life: an attractive salesman and the father she never knew.

Review: The Time In Between takes the reader into the world of Sira Quiroga,  a young seamstress who started off sweeping floors; who travels to many different places to live as her world changes from poverty to lavish parties and a stable fiance and his government job to a secret lover and more intrigue than some readers might be able to handle. The new places in Spain, and in Africa that were mentioned in the book were very interesting, and the new job that Sira finds herself with is a surprise, however the last 200 pages or so was a bit of a shock and I could've used a bit longer to get used to how the book ended, and it could've left less much to the imagination and explained a bit more about what happened to other characters such as Rosalinda. On the whole i enjoyed it, I could've just used more explanation about some of the characters, and more plot development at the very end. 

Rating - <3 <3 <3 <3