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CBRV Review #2 – Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community and War by Nathaniel Philbrick

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I’ve been terribly remiss with writing these reviews, but I wanted to get this one in before Thanksgiving!

As children we were all told about the Pilgrims’ landing at Plymouth, their initial meetings with Native Americans, and warm and fuzzy story of the first Thanksgiving. And there it ends. (We hear something about witches later on, but things get a bit muddled until the 18th century.)  But what REALLY happened, before and after?

This is something Nathaniel Philbrick (author of In The Heart of the Sea which I SO want to read), explores in his excellent book. He spends a little time on the background of the Puritan community, covering their flight from England and decade-long stay in Leiden. We are introduced to William Bradford, William Brewster (so many Williams!), John Howland, the young indentured servant who fell off the Mayflower and had to be fished out of the sea. (Full disclosure: according to my Gram, he’s one of my ancestors.) And of course, the very short Miles Standish. He was short! And violent. But oh so short! Surprisingly, the description of the voyage is not long considering the book title. The real meat of the story comes later.

The author gives a beautiful, detailed account of the Puritans’ encounters with the Native Americans and their fragile alliance with the Wampanoag sachem Massasoit.  Illness, near-starvation, the rise of other, more successful colonies. The daily struggles, the political rivalries in English and Native American communities. Friendship and mistrust on either side. This all comes to a head in the very bloody King Philip’s War, 55 years after the landing at Plymouth. 

What struck me most about this book was how even-handed it is. Their are no real villains (ok, maybe one or two), and no real heroes. These were real people, and they were all remarkably human and well-rounded. Philbrick offers an unflinching narrative of the both the cruelty of some and the struggles of others to rise above it. 

I recommend it.

 

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CBR V review #1: A Place of Greater Safety, by Hilary Mantel

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(It’s July! Been reading like crazy, but I never seem to be able to sit down and actually write a review.)

I am a huge fan of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, and the sequel Bring Up The Bodies. I enjoy her spare writing, how she can convey so much in only a few words.

Eager to read more from her, I picked up A Place of Greater Safety. I had no idea what I was getting into. Make no mistake, this is a good book. But it’s not an easy read by any means. It is the story of the French Revolution, as experienced by Georges-Jacques Danton, Maximilien Robespierre, and Camille Desmoulins. Young lawyers from the the provinces, they come to Paris to earn their fortunes. (As a side note: It’s been a LONG time since high school, and am embarrassed to admit that I can’t remember hearing the name Desmoulins before reading this book, although I was familiar with Robespierre and Danton.) Robespierre is slight, rigid, distant. Danton is his opposite – huge, overbearing, loud, sexually voracious. And ugly. That point is made often. Desmoulins is flighty, charming, pretty, a genius, and is a friend to them both. All are ambitious. They talk, scheme, conspire, cheat on their wives, argue and scheme some more.

They are exhausting.

We tend to like our Revolutionary heroes, well, HEROIC. We expect them to be self- sacrificing, uncomplicated, high minded patriots, willing to die for freedom. And personally, I like having a protagonist I can get behind. Perhaps that’s simple minded of me, but generally I need to get invested in SOMEONE if I am to stick to a 770 plus page book. And these are difficult men to root for. Truly. These characters – these PEOPLE – are complicated, frequently unsympathetic. There is no doubt that they firmly believe in their revolutionary ideals, but their fervor often takes a back seat to their personal ambition and appetites. The only one for whom this is not the case is Robespierre, and weirdly this only serves to make him even less sympathetic than the more human Danton. Robespierre is cold and hypocritical, condemning bloodshed on one hand while signing the arrest warrants of former friends with the other.

And this is, I think, where Mantel’s brilliance as a writer comes through. Her characters no longer seem like characters, but human beings, with good points and bad. We are forced to except them for who they are, not who we wish they were. Once I made peace with this idea my enjoyment of this book increased. She made me like the villainous Thomas Cromwell before, and she kept me reading here. (Although seriously? Desmoulins and his antics – and Mantel’s obvious love of him as a character – continued to annoy the crap out of me.)

Be warned. This is not beach reading. There is a cast of thousands, although fortunately there is a glossary to keep them straight. While Mantel writes in her notes that this is not meant to be a complete history of the French Revolution, there were instances where I did more research to understand exactly what was going on, and who was who. The petty rivalries! The squabbling factions! I hadn’t thought about the Brissotins or Girondists since…a really long time ago. There is a lot of information to process here. One criticism I do have is that Mantel will suddenly change the point of view, sometimes in the middle of a paragraph. It happens throughout the book, and made it difficult to know exactly who was speaking/thinking at the time. Sometimes I had to go back and reread for clarification.

We can never truly get into the mind of a long dead historical figure. Mantel does a masterful job of filling in the blanks and framing the action with actual speeches, diaries and letters. I recommend it. Please read it and let me know what you think!

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I need to update this blog more often…

I keep forgetting my password. Bleh

 

CBR4 Review #13: Last of the Amazons by Steven Pressfield

I really like Steven Pressfield as a writer. My favorite book of his is Gates of Fire, about the Spartan stand at Thermopylae. He is able to bring Ancient Greece to life in a way that other authors can’t.

In the Bronze Age (and before Homer), Theseus, the king of Athens, travels on a quest where he encounters the Amazons nation. They call themselves tal Kyrte (the Free People), and live by a strict code of honor. These warrior women are bound to each other in war and marriage. They welcome the Greeks, but when their Queen Antiope falls in love with Theseus, things get sticky. The queen’s defection is seen as a betrayal. Antiope’s tal Kyrte lover Eleuthera leads the Amazon invasion of Greece, with the destruction of Athens as their ultimate goal.

The book is told from 3 points of view: Mother Bones, an Athenian girl raised on Amazon stories, Damon, her uncle, and Selene, an Amazon warrior (and close companion to Eleuthera).

The story is involving. I confess I was unfamiliar with the details of Theseus and Antiope’s story, so I wasn’t sure what would happen next. Pressfield’s descriptions of life on the steppes were, for me, the highlight of the book. We gets sense of the desperation in a culture that’s on the verge of extinction and knows it.

The battle scenes were a bit too detailed for me, though. I found those portions a bit of a slog – not because of the subject, just that who was marching in front of who and where the Amazons dug their latrines just seemed to take up a lot of space. Space that could be filled with more action! But that’s just me. I also felt the ending to be a bit rushed. Pressfield doesn’t seem to have much use for his characters once the main storyline is done. Things are wrapped up pretty quickly. All in all, though, these are minor quibbles. I enjoyed this book.

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CBR4 Review #12: The Woman in Black, by Susan Hill

I read this book last year around the time the movie starring Daniel Radcliffe (who will always be Harry Potter in my heart) came out. I haven’t seen the movie, but intend to! As soon as it hits Netflix instant. I’m a sucker for a good ghost story. I love them, but they are hard to come by these days. I don’t need gore, just some good old fashioned chills. Scare me. Is that so much to ask for?

For the most part, The Woman in Black delivers. Set in Victorian England, Arthur Kipps is a solid man, a solicitor with a happy family. One Christmas while his kids are sitting around telling ghost stories, he is cajoled into telling his own. He recounts an experience that terrified him so much he had not spoken of it since.

As a young man, Arthur is sent is sent to the tiny coastal village of Crythin Gifford to settle the affairs of the late Mrs. Alice Drablow. While at the funeral, he sees a mysterious woman dressed in black. After the funeral, he makes his way to Eel Marsh House, a creepy mansion on an island only accessible via causeway. There he attempts to go through his late client’s papers, and wrap everything up before he goes back to London.

During his stay, things start to happen. There are spooky noises in the house, and strange, unexplained movements in the nursery. He sees the Woman in Black again. He also hears the sounds of an adult and child crashing a pony trap and sinking into the marsh. Arthur makes a friend in a local man, and discovers the secret of Eel Marsh House and the tragedy that occurred there years before. Without telling you any more, the story ends tragically.

The Woman in Black is chilling in it’s atmosphere. Hill is able to pull the the reader into the story pretty completely. Although there are only a couple of startling, jump-out-of-your-seat moments in the book, there is a creepiness that pervades each page. It does end very abruptly, and at first I was bothered by it. But really, extending it, I think, would give it less of an impact.

The Woman in Black is a very short book. At just over 120 pages, I’m eager to see how they were able to stretch it to fill a whole movie.  I recommend reading it alone, at night, preferably in a creepy mansion!

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CBR4 Review #11: The Rose Garden, by Susanna Kearsley

I am a big fan of the Diana Gabaldon Outlander series. Well, slightly obsessed, actually. They have everything: history, romance, swordplay! Well written characters, unpredictable outcomes. And who wouldn’t want to go back in time, meet a handsome chivalrous stranger, and have sexytimes/adventures? Unfortunately, Gabaldon’s books are LONG. They take years for her to write, and while there is a big payoff, this also means big gaps between the books.  (See also: Martin, G.R.R.) So when someone suggested I read Susanna Kearsley in order to fill my Outlander-less days (and get my time travel fix), I figured I’d give her a try.

The Rose Garden is the story of Eva Ward, a successful Hollywood publicist. Devastated by the death of her sister, she travels back to the place where they had spent their childhood summers – the rocky, mist shrouded coast of Cornwall. There, Eva reacquaints herself with the area and renews old friendships. She stays at the rundown mansion of family friends. Here we meet a familiar cast of characters: the bickering brother and sister duo, the wise free-spirited stepmother, the artsy shopkeeper, the former playmate (who’s grown up into a hunk).The estate has fallen on hard times, and Eva agrees to help out.

While she heals her heart and starts to reassess her life, strange things happen. One day, while out walking, Eva finds herself transported back to the early 18th Century. Just as abruptly, she’s transported back. This begins to happen more frequently and without warning. The time she is sent to is dangerous, especially for a woman alone. The Jacobites are gathering for their first (failed) rebellion. Fortunately Eva meets a handsome, chivalrous stranger (of course!), and he becomes her protector. As she finds herself pulled back and forth, romance and adventure ensue. Will she choose to stay in the 18th Century, or go back to her Hollywood life? Can you guess? C’mon, guess.

The book is filled with detail: the lush countryside, the Gothic mansion. The characters, while stereotypical, are likeable enough.One thing that I found very strange was the lack of description of the main character. What does she look like? We’re never told, and it’s kind of frustrating, especially when you consider that she’s flouncing back and forth 300 years. You’d think her appearance would inspire some kind of comment, other than “Woman, your hair is not dressed!” It must have been a conscious choice by the author, but it’s a curious one.

The Rose Garden is a romance with a little adventure, tied up neatly at the end. It’s more romance than adventure, while I enjoy my historical fiction with a side of romance/sex, not as the main focus. But that’s just me. (Gabaldon fans may argue with me that her books are romance, there’s still a LOT of swashbuckling going on there, as well as a wealth of historical detail.) I did enjoy this book, even though I thought it slight and very predictable. I found myself trying to figure out how it would end, and was mostly right.

This is a cozy read, if not one that will stick with me.

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CBR4 Review #10: The Last Witchfinder, by James Morrow

Jennet Stearne is the daughter of the Witchfinder General. Her story begins in 1680s England. When Jennet’s educated Aunt Isobel is tried and executed for witchcraft, the young girl makes it her life’s mission to take down the Parliamentary Witchcraft Act. She seeks to use science to prove that witches could not possibly exist, therefore making the law unnecessary.

What follows is a 40-odd year quest. Along the way, we meet the villagers of Salem, Algonquin warriors, Sir Isaac Newton, and most memorably, a young Ben Franklin.

I expected this book to be much more somber than it was. I also did not expect it to be funny, which it was in some places. Morrow takes quite a few liberties with history (something that usually bothers me), but the ride is so much fun it didn’t matter. I think “rollicking” is really the only way to describe it. The Last Witchfinder is pretty long – over 500 pages – but very, very fun.

CBR4 Review #9:The Tigress of Forlí, by Elizabeth Lev

“If I were to write the story of my life, I would shock the world.” —Caterina Riario Sforza de’ Medici

About a year ago, I read a book called The Borgia Bride, written by Jeanne Kalogridis. A (no doubt highly) fictionalized account of life with the Borgias, it was told from the point of view of Sancha of Aragon, wife to the youngest Borgia. I didn’t like it very much, but one part stood out for me. When Sancha is imprisoned in the Castel Sant’Angelo (history, not much of a spoiler), she meets an extraordinary woman. Caterina Sforza is a warrior countess and fellow prisoner. Beautiful and brave, she led her army against Cesare Borgia and lost. I’d never heard of her before, and was interested in knowing more.

The Tigress of Forlí is the biography of Caterina Sforza de’ Medici.

Lady of Imola and Countess of Forlí, Caterina was born the illegitimate daughter of the Duke of Milan, and raised to understand her family’s place in the world. Married at age 10 to the corrupt Girolamo Riario (the nephew of the pope), she spends many years in Rome watching the power brokers at work. She bears him 6 children, and they eventually settle in Romagna to rule over Forlí. After her obnoxious husband is murdered, Caterina takes control of this small but important territory on behalf of her children. She takes charge of her lands and her destiny, and makes choices that at this point in history are considered.

Over many years (and 2 more husbands), Caterina becomes a celebrity, shocking and fascinating those around her. She’s crafty, strong, loyal to her family and ruthless with her enemies. I enjoyed this book, but found it a bit of a slog at times. With a cast of thousands, it was at times rather hard to remember who was who. Perhaps if I had better understanding of the political climate of 15th Century Italy, keeping the power shifts (and changing allegiances) straight wouldn’t have been such a chore. And although the book does a pretty good job of bringing Caterina to life, there are times when she gets lost, her motivations unclear. But these are relatively minor quibbles. I hate to use the word “important” when describing a book – it sounds pompous. But a biography of this woman who actually wielded power as opposed to working behind the scenes is something not to be missed.

CBR4 Reviews 6,7,8: The Widow’s War, Bound, and The Rebellion of Jane Clarke by Sally Gunning

The Widow’s War, Bound, and The Rebellion of Jane Clarke is a trilogy of books set in and around the Cape Cod village of Satucket in the years leading up to the American Revolution. While not a strictly linear story, (they all pretty much stand alone), they definitely belong together, and tell a larger tale.

The first book, The Widow’s War, centers around Lyddie Berry. When her husband of 20 years drowns in a whaling accident, she finds her life altered in ways she hadn’t expected. In the midst of her grief, she is forced to watch as her husband’s property (which includes her home), is turned over to her greedy and obnoxious son-in-law. This is in accordance with the laws of the times – a woman has no property and no social standing without a husband. As her grief turns into rage, she resolves to become independent and get her home back. The legal and personal battle that follows takes it’s toll on her in surprising ways.

Bound is the story of Alice Cole, a young bond slave. The book follows her from early childhood in London and a harrowing sea voyage where her mother and brother die, to the docks of Boston where her father is forced to sell her into bondage for 11 years. She is bought by John Morton, a kindly man who brings her home as a companion to his daughter Nabby. Nabby and Alice grow up together, and when Nabby marries, Alice’s bond is sold to Nabby’s husband. Alice goes along as maidservant. Nabby’s new husband, however, is not what he seems to be. When Alice finds her life endangered, she runs away and stows aboard a ship bound for Satucket. There she meets the Widow Berry and her friend Eben Freeman. They are kind to Alice and take her in. Alice believes that her nightmare is over, until a secret comes to light that could ruin everything for her.

The Rebellion of Jane Clarke centers around the Widow Berry’s step-grandaughter. Jane grows up in privilege as the daughter of one of Satucket’s biggest landowners (the odious son-in-law from the first book). The year is now 1769. When she refuses to marry the man her father chooses for her, Jane is packed off to Boston as punishment. She is sent to care for an elderly aunt, and she finds herself in the middle of a city in turmoil. There are British soldiers bunked across the street, and Jane’s brother is a law clerk for John Adams. She meets and becomes friends with the bookseller (and later Revolutionary hero) Henry Knox.  As she takes this all in, and becomes witness to the Boston Massacre, Jane struggles to make sense of it. She also is determined to make up her own mind for the first time in her life.

All three books are very different, but as I said, together they tell a whole story. Each book focuses on one woman and her struggle to take control of her own destiny. Throughout the books, we meet patriots who meet to discuss independence from Britain. Yet the plight of the women and servants among them is not considered important enough for discussion. It is these small, personal struggles that are at the heart of these books, mirroring the bigger, historical struggles As a 21st century woman, I take my freedom for granted. It’s sobering to read about a time, not too long ago, when women had no legal standing. The endings are realistic in the way things are a little open-endednot necessarily “wrapped up”, and you are left to draw your own conclusions from what you’ve learned of the characters personalities.

These are “stand alone” books, but I would only recommend reading The Widow’s War by itself. It helps set up the characters for the next 2 books. I also found Lyddie Berry and Eben Freeman to be my favorite characters. They appear in the last 2 books, but are not the focus.

All in all, I enjoyed these books. The endings are realistic in the way things are not necessarily “wrapped up”, and you are left to draw your own conclusions from what you’ve learned of the characters personalities.If you enjoy reading about the colonial life before the Revolution, I would recommend them.

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