Seraphina has spent much of her life refusing friendships and hiding herself from those who might get close to her. Why? Because she is half dragon, would be considered an abomination by almost everyone she knows, and cherishes her relative freedom from prejudice and prosecution. The love between her parents was forbidden and she has already overstepped her bounds slightly by taking a job in the royal court, helping with the orchestra and giving the Princess Grisselda music lessons. The peace between dragons and humans is an uneasy one, however, particularly when dragons can take human form, indistinguishable from real humans if they fail to wear their bells. Both dragons and humans are wary, and it would take just one powerful rebel to tip the balance.
Seraphina is a book that completely surprised me. I don’t know why – I bought it because I’d seen many praising reviews of it around the blogosphere, so I knew, objectively, that I might like it. But subjectively, it didn’t actually appeal to me that much. I didn’t feel like reading a book about dragons, the cover didn’t broadcast to me that I would like it (although why I’m not sure – on a closer look it’s actually lovely), and YA is not my favorite genre. I bought it when it was on the Kindle Daily Deal, as something that I knew I should try, but had no particular plan to read it. And then I was on the train on Friday, I’d finished the last book I was reading (Widow’s Web by Jennifer Estep), which had ended on a slightly low note, and I just had no idea which book I wanted to read next. For whatever reason, Seraphina called to me then, so I opened it.
It wasn’t even love at first few pages. In fact, I found it difficult to get into, and if I wasn’t sitting on train with nothing else appealing to me much, I might have wandered over to my bookshelves and chosen something else. But I stuck with it, because I had twenty minutes to fill. And then I fell in love with it, and found myself absolutely glued to the Kindle until I finished. I loved it even more because it blind-sided me and I expected not to like it; instead I found an absolute gem. The book has a fantastic, multi-layered world, deep characters, and a plot that races along and managed to surprise me at the end.
I simply adored Seraphina. I loved that the book took prejudice head-on and showed that this tough, brave, sensitive, clever, gifted girl is someone that most of the population around her would hate if they knew her true nature. They adore her, but how easily that could change, and how worried she is despite that affection – this is a worry that is justified but this book is a perfect example of how well fantasy can teach us about our world, too. I even loved how Lucian Kiggs, another significant character in the book, shares some stigma with Seraphina because he’s a bastard, but in a totally different way. We could also talk about how much I loved the romance and how utterly perfect it was, but that really just capped off a book that was already spectacular.
This is the book I wish I’d read instead of all of those disappointing YA fantasy books I did read. Highly, highly recommended.
Mary Mallon is an Irish immigrant simply doing her best to get by in a difficult world. At the turn of the twentieth century, few jobs are open to older women, but Mary has found her calling as a cook. By the time she hits her fifth decade, Mary has cooked for some of Manhattan’s most prominent families. But sickness follows her everywhere she goes, though she barely realizes it; after cooking for a few weeks, the family is inevitably hit by an illness that kills one or more of them. Mary never puts together the pieces, but others do, and soon she’s accused of spreading typhoid around New York and killing two dozen people.
Like many people, I’d heard of “Typhoid Mary” before; Mary Mallon was the case which helped doctors realize that seemingly healthy people could be carriers of illnesses. Imprisoned for a large chunk of her life to prevent her from spreading typhoid, Mary’s case spawned the discovery of numerous other healthy carriers and spurred us towards hygiene controls that prevent diseases spreading in quite the same way. But I’d never really thought about Mary as a person before, or what it must have felt like to realize that you’d been spreading illness when you really just wanted to make a living and cooking delicious food.
That’s the dilemma that faces Keane’s fictional version of Mary. While she’s convinced – at first – that she could never be the cause of the harm that has befallen these families, that little niggling doubt enters her mind. But that doubt isn’t enough for her to give up her livelihood, and that’s what Mary Mallon ends up imprisoned when others with her condition are allowed to go free, just not to spread their illnesses. What Keane does is give us a woman who is surprisingly convincing in her decisions, even when they’re bad. We can see how she fell into getting in trouble, how the doubts preyed on her mind but she refused to believe them, and even why she kept on working and making people sick.
When I first picked up this book, I was a little bit perplexed; very shortly after the beginning of the book, Mary is imprisoned and caught for her “crimes”, and goes fighting all the way. It seemed as though there was no real lead-up and no background, but what actually happens is that the background comes later. We understand her past in the context of her future, which was a great way to actually structure the book for those who might not know who “Typhoid Mary” was. It gives us context and only later do we see how she actually became a cook and fought for that job, understanding the background of the story once we get an idea of where it’s going. Towards the end of the book, chronological events fall back into order, and thus we finish it with a full sense of who Mary is.
I really enjoyed this book; it put a catch phrase and person on the fringes of my knowledge into full perspective and delivered a great story at the same time. I’d definitely recommend Fever to those interested in historical fiction.
All external book links are affiliate links. I received this book for free for review.
Catherine the Great is an iconic female monarch, known even to those who have never glanced at Russian history. Her reign ushered in something of a golden age for much of Russia, symbolized by cultural and physical expansion, the effects of which were felt for decades after her reign had concluded. In this biography of Catherine, Robert K. Massie covers the entirety of her life, from her origins as a relatively modest German daughter of a prince, through her disastrous marriage to the heir to the Russian throne, until her death as one of Russia’s greatest rulers.
Massie’s biography looks intimidating, at almost 600 pages long in hardcover in my edition, but his narrative of the flow of Catherine’s life is incredibly smooth and easy to read. I actually managed to read a lot in one sitting and in parts it could almost read like fiction, which makes this a very accessible non-fiction read. I can imagine most readers enjoying this if they have an interest in imperial Russia and Catherine’s long reign. Massie also makes Catherine easy to relate to; he draws from her letters and her own memoirs to try and build her character and explore how she might have been feeling through her life.
I didn’t like that there seemed to be little connection to Massie’s sources aside from the originals, though, and the notes aren’t marked in the text, which I didn’t like either. A lot of the start of the book is based on Catherine’s memoirs, which means that we have to take her word for the way that things happened, and I’d have liked some sort of evidence of external sources corroborating what she says. In reality Massie consulted a lot of sources, but it’s really hard to see what’s coming from where. It made it difficult for me at least to trust what he was saying.
That said, though, I liked how comprehensive this book was and how well it was structured. It roughly follows Catherine’s life chronologically as the book is separated into sections, but each chapter within those sections tends to deal with just one subject. This made it very easy to follow what was happening in Catherine’s life at any given time, but also allowed the author to delve deeper into each subject. As I said earlier, it’s very easy to feel sympathy for Catherine, and the frequent quoting from her memoirs and letters helps us as readers feel as though we are actually learning about the real woman. Because Massie starts at the beginning of her life, we can understand some of the motivations she’s had for later actions. In addition, Massie never passes judgement on her for any of her actions, which makes him a valuable biographer for a woman who often gains undeserved negative press for the number of “favorites” she had (when male monarchs did the same without any note).
He follows the shifts in her political focus easily, too, and traces how the relative enlightened idealism of her youth is crushed by the realities of ruling a country, an aspect of the book that I found particularly fascinating. But again, he doesn’t pass judgement on her; he doesn’t judge her for her inability to free Russia’s serfs, for her eventual censoring of the press after the French Revolution, or for any of her other political actions which don’t particularly match up with current beliefs. Catherine’s actions were not always ones that we would agree with, but Massie leaves it to readers to decide, without attempting to influence them. I found this quite valuable.
A riveting biography, Catherine the Great is a complete picture of the last, and greatest, female monarch of Russia. For anyone who enjoys history, this book would be an exceptional choice.
All external links are affiliate links. I received this book for free for review.
The book industry is full of dismaying news lately. Lots of book bloggers thinking about abandoning ship, Amazon buying Goodreads (although since I mostly use LibraryThing, this isn’t a huge issue for me), uproar about the Hugo awards; it doesn’t seem like anything good has happened in the last few weeks.
So, instead, I will tell you about the first proper walk of the year. Last weekend we went to Robin Hood’s Bay on the Yorkshire coast, a lovely little seaside town, and walked down the old railway path and then along the shore.
The railway path
The coastline looking towards Robin Hood’s Bay
The coastline looking back from Robin Hood’s Bay
I didn’t actually do much reading despite having four days off with the bank holidays, but I’ve been making up for it since. Here’s the pile of what I am looking forward to in the rest of April:
Apologies that the picture is a little bit blurry, but I think you can see that the urban fantasy focus is still strong. I’m up to date on a few of my favorite series, so I’m both trying new ones and continuing with some that weren’t necessarily my favorite on the first read, and there are lots of small ones that I can take on the train with me.
I’m also going to try and power through all the books I’ve acquired over the time I’ve been using Amazon Vine. In the US, they’ve tightened the rules so that everything you’ve received must be reviewed before you can request anything else, and I imagine the UK can’t be far behind. The program is useful for actually selecting books that I don’t get offered for review but am anxious to read as soon as I possibly can (see The Crane Wife above), so I’d prefer to stick with them while I can.
How’s your April going?
The count and countess of Provence had four daughters. A normal medieval family might have been disappointed that they didn’t have any sons, but not this one, because not only can these girls inherit, they can also be manuevered into place to become queens of countries across Europe. Marguerite is first, sent away to marry the French king, where she finds herself dominated by her mother-in-law and unable to exercise her own intellect. Then Eleanore is escorted to cold and rainy England to marry the “old” English king Henry III. Beatrice and Sanchia don’t gain their status as queen until well after marriage, but each have a husband chosen to benefit the family. Throughout their lives, the sisters work together and sometimes against one another, whether or not they choose to obey the family motto, “Family comes first”.
For me, this book got off to an excellent start. I liked the relationship between the sisters as they were young, and the different ways that each sister adapts to her new life as a married woman. Because of the difference in ages, the marriages are staggered, so for a good portion of the first half of the book events are new and fresh. Each sister grows up and adapts to her marriage and husband differently, so that we get a great feel for each of their personalities and their struggles. It’s also nice to read something which focuses so clearly on the relationships between powerful siblings in a historical context and how ambition can put a huge wrench in the best of intentions.
Unfortunately, after the sisters were all married and settled, as often happens, the book started to lag. I can never really blame the author in these situations because, quite frankly, most women’s lives in this period, even those of queens, had the same cycle of pregnancy and birth which (for me at least) just doesn’t make for that exciting a story. In general, a queen gets pregnant, has a baby, and then hands the baby off to someone else. Occasionally one of them is separated from and then longs for her children, and Marguerite in particular has a dramatic time going off on Crusade for years and saving her incompetent husband, but I think the whole book lost a little bit and I struggled to get back to it. Plus, because there are four sisters, there are a number of scenes where the sisters get together and fight about various things, all of them being stubborn and none giving any ground. Beatrice is the main culprit here, as she spends most of the book longing for her sisters’ love and trying to win it and then coming up against a wall. It felt repetitive, even though there were still things going on in the wider plot.
I also think the book suffered because Eleanore and Marguerite were the more interesting queens – Sanchia and Beatrice married younger brothers who took crowns elsewhere and it is fairly clear that they hadn’t done much which was significant or left a huge historical record. The author’s hands are tied in these cases, of course.
Perhaps my expectations were too high, but Four Sisters, All Queens left me a bit cold after a promising start. Still a good prospect for someone who is looking for a book about powerful women and the relationships between them in medieval Europe.
I received this book for free for review.
Good morning and happy April (and a happy belated Easter to those who celebrate it)! I missed the opportunity for a Sunday Salon post yesterday because it was actually sunny and we decided to start going walking again. This has made me very happy; after the majority of March was completely gloomy, the weather is finally going in the right direction. And it’s very nice to be outside and able to enjoy some of the British countryside again.
In March I read 14 books, a number that actually astonished me. Reading for 50 minutes to an hour extra on the train every day makes a huge difference, but I’ve also noticed that I pick shorter or kindle books to read as they’re easier to carry. In any case, I’m very pleased, not least because my TBR number has gone down for the first time in months, but I’m also wondering when I’m ever going to review all of these books!
- The Painted Bridge, Wendy Wallace
- Fair Game, Patricia Briggs
- The Ultimate Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams (regular readers will recall that I started this in January – so not entirely read in March)
- Strong Poison, Dorothy L. Sayers
- The Second Empress, Michelle Moran
- Chasing Magic, Stacia Kane
- Sins of a Ruthless Rogue, Anna Randol
- Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, Therese Anne Fowler
- Cold Days, Jim Butcher
- The Devil’s Heart, Cathy Maxwell
- The Snow Child, Eowyn Ivey
- Four Sisters, All Queens, Sherry Jones
- The Family Trade, Charles Stross
- By a Thread, Jennifer Estep
Sadly, no non-fiction this month, although I am actually reading Catherine the Great by Robert K. Massie right now.
Favorite of the Month
Easy for once! Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald was completely captivating and sticks out to me as one that I’ll remember for a while.
How was your reading month?
The Dale and the Seldon families are enemies, and no members of either family want anything to do with each other. Miss Daphne Dale, slightly on the shelf, unfortunately is required to attend her friend Tabitha’s wedding to a dread Seldon. Why? Because she’s fallen in love with a pen pal after she answered an ad in the papers, and the wedding is the one place that they can meet. Little does she know that her suitor is Henry Seldon, one of the family’s eligible bachelors, who opened her letter and fell for her entirely by accident, and thus one of her sworn enemies. How long can Daphne and Henry try to avoid facing the reality that they’ve fallen in love with each other despite family differences?
Elizabeth Boyle is another new-to-me romance author, albeit one I’ve heard a bit about in the past. I will be honest and confess that when I chose to read this book, it was mainly because of the really cute cover and the title; lots of romance novels are about misses and rakes but I wanted to find out how this one actively ran away. (You can imagine my disappointment when she didn’t actually run away with him).
I thought huge portions of this book were very cute, and I loved the fact that the author inserted excerpts from the couple’s love letters to each other throughout the narrative. That was an incredibly sweet touch and it gave us some insight into how they’d first fallen in love, before they realized that they were falling for the enemy. I adored their first meeting in particular, before they knew who the other was; they are both absolutely certain that they’re found The One until their family and friends tell them the truth.
The only note that I’d make as a downside was the fact that, even though the reader and both of them actually knew who the other was, it takes these two absolutely ages to actually admit it. They both kind of hope that their mysterious lover is still someone else, which gets frustrating after a while, until it becomes absolutely ridiculously obvious. I would have almost preferred that the author let them reconcile sooner and then throw some other obstacle in the way of their happiness. With a family feud, it certainly would have been possible, and it wouldn’t have been so easy to get frustrated with these characters about denying reality for most of the book.
While I wouldn’t yet put Elizabeth Boyle on my list of immediate romance authors to buy, I’ll certainly be keeping my eyes open for more of her books in the future. And the Miss Ran Away With the Rake is a lovely little romance read, just be aware that it’s not completely flawless.
All external book links are affiliate links. I received this book for free for review.
I wish I could share some adventures with you this week, Saloners, but sadly the weather here is still firmly stuck in winter and we haven’t much felt like going anywhere. Well, that’s not true; I’d happily travel somewhere, but having started a new job, opportunities for longer holidays are few and far between for a couple of months. The spring cleaning fever has hit us without the spring, though; we spent Monday night on a trip to Ikea and now our house is full of boxes and things pulled out of their places to be reorganized. No bookshelves this time, although like most book lovers I am perpetually running out of space for the many books that seem to find their way into my home. Nope, this time we are reorganizing the bedroom, but in the middle of building a bunch of furniture, my husband overdid it and now we’ve got boxes lying around for a week or so while he recovers.
I did have something unusual happen to me this week, though; on the train on Thursday morning, I spotted an unoccupied seat and without thinking, sat down. Next to me was a Japanese man who proceeded to chat to me about the weather in York, the daffodils which sadly haven’t come up yet (remember last year?) and then asked if I liked roses. He proceeded to whip out a piece of colored paper and created this:
I was so impressed! The rose now lives on my desk at work, a nice little reminder that complete strangers can surprise you with their generosity and friendliness.
In bookish news, I finished two completely different books: The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey, which I loved up until the ending, and The Devil’s Heart by Cathy Maxwell, the last of the Chattan curse trilogy, which was okay. I’m now in the middle of Four Sisters, All Queens by Sherry Jones, which is dragging considerably in the second half of the middle after an engaging beginning. I hope it picks up by the end.
And now I’m off to go practice driving and recycle some of the boxes that are littering my house. I hope you all have lovely weeks and that spring arrives very soon!
Olivia and Clayton are young lovers, completely wrapped up in each other, until Clayton discovers that Olivia’s father is embezzling money from the government through his paper mill. Olivia refuses to believe that her father could ever do such a thing, and so asks him about it, sure that there is a perfectly innocent explanation. Instead, her lover is thrown into prison, and her father tells her that he’s been hanged.
Ten years later, Clayton walks back into Olivia’s life intent on destroying the mill which ruined his life, only to get her hauled off to Russia by accident. Convinced that she’s a spy, since that’s what Clayton’s been doing since he vanished, a group of Russian gangsters kidnap Olivia and attempt to coerce her into breaking a code for them. Clayton follows to rescue her, but doesn’t expect to fall for her charms a second time …
This was a fun read. I was mainly drawn to it because it takes place in Russia, which seemed like it would be a refreshing change from the usual Regency-style romances set in England. I’ve read and loved plenty of those but I’m definitely open to more locations and different storylines. Mostly, the setting didn’t impact hugely on the book. It’s colder and the bad guys are after the tsar instead of a king or a prince, but otherwise, the romance followed along reasonably traditional lines.
Not that I minded, because the romance itself was done well. I liked that Randol flashed back to their youth but backed it up with romance that was solidly in the present, too. Their quest to stop the assassination plot brings them together while their fragile trust is replenished. It also gives them numerous opportunities to prove themselves to one another, as events around them make life challenging. This is a really good background for a romance read, as it makes the book about a lot more than just how this particular couple can fall in love.
I’m actually quite sorry that I missed the first book in this series before reading this one, too. While I didn’t need the background of Clayton and his two fellow spies to understand what was going on, or to appreciate their relationship, I’m definitely one of those people who prefers to read a series in order, and now I think I’d probably have liked the first book.
A sweet romance with a decent spy plot that adds an extra element to the book, Sins of a Ruthless Rogue is a good romance read and I’d certainly recommend it to other romance readers.
All external book links are affiliate links. I received this book for free for review.
Zelda Sayre is a vivid eighteen-year-old from Montgomery, Alabama, always the life of the party, when she meets F. Scott Fitzgerald. The youngest in her family, Zelda loves being the center of attention, and Scott is happy to put her at the focal point of his universe – for a time. As an aspiring author, but simultaneously a man who enjoys having fun, Scott is torn between numerous passions in a way that isn’t clear to Zelda when they meet. When they marry, they’re both certain that their lives are going to be full of success and love, with no perception of just what might happen when two vivid personalities clash.
I knew very little about Zelda Fitzgerald before I started reading this book. I had heard before that she had held back Scott’s career and that she’d been in a mental institution; I’d also read somewhere that she and Scott loved each other despite the difficulties. This book gave me a lot of insight, I felt, into the kind of woman Zelda might have been, and went a long way towards explaining how two people can love each other an absurd amount and yet hate each other at the exact same time.
The novel starts with Zelda as a young, impressionable teenager who meets Scott and completely falls for him, a Northerner with ambitions completely different from any that the boys she knows have. They quickly marry and the book spans the rest of their lives up until Scott’s death, so we get an insight as to how Zelda may have felt about all of his achievements, including his lack of them at times.
What I also really appreciated was that the novel gets across how Zelda might have felt as the wife of a man who was famous. She suffers hugely from a lack of her own identity, which made perfect sense to me; how would an ambitious, talented girl feel when she’s constantly shuffled to the side? I can’t imagine now, for myself, living in a time where my only duty was to keep house for my husband, simply because I’m not the sort of person who would be happy pouring all of my effort into someone else’s life without any real recognition of my own. This is especially true for Zelda, who watches as her husband spends the hours he’s meant to be working with a bottle in his hand, and who feels that she’s lost her own identity to support his. Her struggles were so clearly understandable to me and I could feel their mutual frustration pouring out of the pages. What’s heartbreaking about this book is that it’s also obvious that they do love each other, but it’s a destructive kind of love that is powerful but takes something huge out of both of them.
I also hadn’t realized that Zelda was a creative force in her own right, painting, writing, and dancing in a way that might have brought her recognition on her own. Perhaps not if she’d never met Scott, but once she has a foothold in the creative world, she keeps on going. She had her own art exhibitions and she was invited to dance professionally; she even had her own published novel and short stories. I had never had any idea, and now I’m actually very curious to read the fictional accounts, on both sides, of their marriage.
A wonderful book that brought a historical figure to life for me, Z is a spellbinding read. Highly recommended.
All external book links are affiliate links. I received this book for free for review.