Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

lifeafterlifeA lovely and unusual book about reincarnation, free will and destiny.

Ursula Todd was born on a snowy day in February with the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck. That was the first time she died…

I loved how Kate Atkinson built this story through seemingly insignificant details. As the reincarnations progress, layers are added upon layers, so that by the end of this tale, it is a rich tapestry of events, emotions and possibilities.

I was surprised by the open-endedness of this story. I feel like Atkinson wrote a tale that reads like real life- it has the meanings that we assign it. Nothing more, nothing less.

I listened to the audiobook of Life After Life and it was very good. A few times, I wished that I had the physical book in front of me so that I could double check a date or detail. Other than that, the narration was excellent.

This story has me wondering about life, reincarnation and all of it. If, as so many world religions say, there are parts of us that are immortal, wouldn’t we all go a bit bonkers after millennia of existence? Would we get bored of it? Would we ever choose to not come back? What’s the bigger picture?

Anyway, this book will make you wonder, question and dream about existence. Which, in my mind, is one of the highest functions of a book.

Recommended for fans of historical fiction, spirituality and life itself. I think Atkinson has written a masterpiece.

Thanks for reading!

The Mapmaker’s Daughter by Katherine Nouri Hughes

The Mapmaker’s Daughter by Katherine Nouri Hughes

mapmaker's daughterA fascinating peek into the 16th century world of the Ottoman Empire. The story is told through the memories of a woman who is dying and recalling the circumstances that brought her to where she is now. Her extraordinary life included being kidnapped by pirates, educated with a prince and joining the royal family of Suleiman “the Magnificent.”

All of this as a female in the 1500s! Katherine Nouri Hughes, the author, admits that there are so few records of her life that Cecilia Baffo Veniero, called Nurbanu, was a blank slate.

But, Nurbanu actually existed. Hughes gives her a life of mystery, dizzying highs, lows, and riches beyond imagining. I loved it.

And, I learned so much from this story. Admittedly, my historical fiction preferences seem to run towards the Roman Empire or Tudor England. Perhaps it was time I branched out.

For example, did you know that there was a law for when the heir to the Sultan took the throne, that all of his brothers were killed? This was to protect the dynasty from civil war. “And to whomsoever of my sons the Sultanate shall pass, it is fitting that for the order of the world he shall kill his brothers. That law has held us together; secured our Empire; made us who we are…” loc 127, ebook.

Beyond the obvious reasons, this was particularly awful because the Sultan tended to have scores of kids. There were the usual threats of illness and the plague to consider.

Suleiman himself was a legend in his own time. “A man like no other. His titles alone told the story. … Sultan of the Two Continents, Servitor of the Two Sanctuaries, Warden of the Horizons. Suleiman the Magnificent- man and legend combined. … Imperial, mirthless, deadly pale.” loc 463, ebook.

He ruled an empire and his children. According to Hughes, he was heavily influenced by his favorite wife, Hurrem, who is a colorful character in this story.

Nurbanu is fortunate because, when she is captured, she was already well-educated. “I’d been assigned to the Head Scribe herself without question because I was educated. That was what Barbarossa had said at the presentation. ‘She can read.'” loc 482. That saves her from more gruesome fates within the harem.

But it doesn’t make her life easy. After all, she’s still a slave in the palace of Suleiman.

“I know how awful the end of fantasy is- for it steals into parts of the heart and mind where nothing should be able to go. It is driven by the heat of what we long for, and it melts all that is in its path until it comes out into the open and is exposed for what it is: something that was never true.” locs 3250-3268.

Recommended for readers who like historical fiction with a large cast of character, an exotic locale and a heroine with a quick mind.

Thank you to NetGalley and Open Road Integrated Media for a free advance reader copy of this book. Reminder- the short quotations that I used in this review may differ in the final printed version.

Thanks for reading!

The Thief Taker (The Thief Taker #1) by C.S. Quinn

The Thief Taker (The Thief Taker #1) by C.S. Quinn

thieftakerIn the 1660s, thief takers solved the cases that were beneath the dignity of the typical London watchmen. The poorer sort of people, who had experienced a crime or theft, would come to men like the title character in this story for justice. He would attempt to track down the perpetrator by finding the property that they took and fenced.

Usually, the thief taker could either get the property back for his client or turn the thief in to the higher authorities. But, the punishments back then were so barbaric- chopping off a hand, splitting noses- that the thief taker would usually just let the criminal go with a warning to not steal again or advise him to find a different clientele.

Charlie Tuesday is a thief taker in London. One day, a beautiful young woman comes to him for help in solving her sister’s murder. Normally, he doesn’t work on any cases larger than theft but the money that is offered is more than he can refuse.

From the strange mutilation of the body, he determines that there’s more to this crime than meets the eye. As the plague descends on London, he and Anna-Maria race to stop the murderer from striking again and, perhaps, even threatening the throne of England itself.

The Thief Taker‘s scenery is lush. The customs, clothing, and food from 1665 are so different from what we have now. The reader is whisked away to a world that is the same in some ways (human behavior and emotions) and so different in other ways (social structures and occupations). I didn’t even know what a thief taker was until I read this book.

The story is an intricate mystery with the murders, possible witchcraft, and treason. I didn’t see the ending coming at all. It could be that I don’t read that many mysteries, but I thought that it was really well done.

Another fascinating piece to this story are the plague victims. The horrific conditions that the author describes, like bodies rotting in the streets and the Thames becoming clogged with corpses around London Bridge, actually took place.

Because of these icky details, The Thief Taker occasionally veers towards the horror genre but never really crosses that line. I kept picturing the rotting plague victims as zombies. In some ways, they’re similar. Contact with a plague victim could bring infection. Sometimes, the main character would come across a body that would appear dead, but wasn’t dead. At one point in the story, a character describes the plague victims who are wandering the streets in search of mercy as the “walking dead.” It was very creepy.

Also, the societal breakdown that accompanied the plague was so quick. Every moment the characters were in the London streets was filled with tension. The reader didn’t know if a plague victim was going to pop out of a quarantined house or if a thug was going to try to commit a robbery in a dark alley.

Readers who like the historical fiction of Philippa Gregory, Judith Merkle Riley, and Sarah Dunant may enjoy this.

I received a free copy of this book through Goodreads First Reads program.

Thanks for reading!

The Anchoress by Robyn Cadwallader

The Anchoress by Robyn Cadwallader

England, 1255. What could drive a girl on the cusp of womanhood to lock herself away from the world forever? -from Goodreads

anchoressThe 1200’s was an exciting time in many ways. But, not if you were a woman.

In The Anchoress, I learned about yet another way in which women were treated poorly by the male dominated church. Apparently, the anchoress was an actual calling where the woman chose to be walled up near or in a church in order to move closer to God.

The people who walled up the woman left a small window for food and waste to pass through. That was the extent of her interaction with the outside world. How messed up was that.

Sarah, the anchoress in this story, chooses the position for a variety of reasons, but they’re not all that mysterious. The description of the book plays it up as a mystery which the reader will figure out in probably five pages or so.

I enjoyed this book more for the historical details of the period.

The interesting part is when Sarah starts to go bonkers (no big surprise there) and her confessor tries to keep her straight. That particular drama was gripping even though most of the action took place in one room.

If you enjoyed The Anchoress, you may want to read A Triple Knot by Emma Campion or Pope Joan by Donna Woolfolk Cross.

Thanks for reading!

Trials of the Earth: The True Story of a Pioneer Woman by Mary Mann Hamilton

Trials of the Earth: The True Story of a Pioneer Woman by Mary Mann Hamilton

trials of the earthTrials of the Earth is Mary Mann Hamilton’s memoir about her hardscrabble life in America during the late 1800’s.

She uses period speech to illuminate a life of struggle and hard work. If certain anachronistic and racially insensitive terms bother you, especially the casual use of the N-word, you may want to chose another memoir. It was shocking but I kept reminding myself that Mary was a product of her times.

On top of the constant struggle of putting food on the table and keeping a roof over her head, it seems like she was perpetually pregnant and her husband was an alcoholic.

But Mary lived up to the challenges, raised and buried children, nursed her husband through his hangovers and illnesses- she was a survivor. That is mainly what Trials of the Earth was to me- a survival story.

“Nevertheless, this is not a book of repining; it is a tale simply told of what one woman has lived through in the Mississippi Delta. I say ‘lived through’ because at times this history reads like a record of the extreme limits of human endurance.” loc 75, introduction

So many of the modern conveniences that we take for granted didn’t exist. Mary moved around a lot and notes with relief every time her husband manages to install a pump in her new house so that she didn’t have to haul water from the river.

Mary’s relationship with her husband, Frank, isn’t a fair deal. She is a very young woman when she gets married and from the start he’s controlling- telling her what they will eat and what friends they will have. He even tells her what books she can read.

That would have been the last straw for me. But again, she was a woman of her times.

“To me he seemed like a man that had taken a silly child to raise rather than a wife. … As time went on I found there were plenty other things I didn’t know, too. The first thing I found out was that he drank.” loc 226, ebook.

In addition to the inequality in their relationship, Frank is from England and has a secret past. He won’t tell Mary, his own wife, his real name or talk about his circumstances or the family he left behind. But, Mary doesn’t let it bother her too much. I suppose she was too busy with everything else they had going on. That lack of trust would have driven me bonkers.

Not that she felt like anything was wrong with their relationship. “Women can stand more work, more trouble, and more religion than men.” loc 528, ebook. She accepted the hardships because she knew that she could. I admire her gumption but I also felt sad for her too. I felt sad because she didn’t have the option to live any other sort of life.

Frank is always talking about the sin of Eve and all the baggage that comes with it to Mary. There is a lot of mansplaining that goes on too. Parts of this book were infuriating to me.

Recommended for readers who enjoy memoirs that read like historical fiction. Ability to tolerate the bleak role that women occupied in society in the late 1800’s is a must.

Thank you to NetGalley and Little, Brown and Company for a free advance reader’s copy of this book. Reminder: some of the quotations in this review may change in the final printed copy.

Thanks for reading!

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith

vampirehunterTake Abraham Lincoln and his famous rail-splitting ax, add a dash of vampires and voila: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.

Fans of horror may enjoy this creative re-mix of history more than I did. Though I enjoyed learning about Lincoln, the moments of gore inbetween weren’t for me.

I listened to the audiobook and my favorite parts were the Americana inspired musical interludes between some of the chapters. Banjos or plaintive violins shepherded readers into the next section. It was beautiful.

As for the story itself, I suppose I didn’t realize how easy it was to introduce vampires into every moment of a person’s life.

Example: Last night I had trouble sleeping. I opened my eyes at 3:45 a.m. and whispered to myself, “The vampires must be closer than I thought.”

Or, another real example, there was a terrible accident yesterday in which one of the bar owners in my small hometown was killed riding her motorcycle. I turned to my coworker with a grim look and said, “Vampires.”

See? You can vampire-ize anything!

Food goes bad in the refrigerator? Vampires. Cat pukes behind the bed? Vampires. Traffic is bad? Vampires.

Though it was fun at first, it became ridiculous.

But don’t let me deter you- if you like horror, you may love this. I enjoyed it but, I confess, I’ve had enough vampires to last me for the foreseeable future.

Thanks for reading!

The Dream Lover: A Novel of George Sand by Elizabeth Berg

The Dream Lover: A Novel of George Sand  by Elizabeth Berg

thedreamloverThe Dream Lover encompasses some of the best qualities that historical fiction has to offer. It transports you to the 1800’s France. It introduces you to an extraordinary person: Aurore Dupin, pen name, George Sand. Then, the reader gets to sit back and enjoy the wild ride that was her life. Talk about escapism.

For a woman in the 1800’s, George Sand had it going on. She left her husband, had a series of lovers- both male and female- became a famous author, involved herself in the political upheavals of her time… it is truly an incredible life.

Not everyone in her life accepted her for who she was: “I feel I have made a mistake, George, and that I do not love you after all. … The only thing you are passionate about is locking yourself up at night and writing your precious fiction, ignoring all that is before you here, which, if you would pay attention to it, would make your stories infinitely richer!” … It was as if I had been shot in the chest.” pg 242. But she wrote and loved anyway. Well done, Aurore, well done.

She rejected the role that society set out for her. “Tell me, George. Do you wish you’d been born a man?” … “In my youth, I wished that. … But now I find I don’t wish to be either man or woman. I wish to be myself. Why should men serve as judge and jury, deciding for us what can and cannot be done, what is our due? Why should they decide in advance of our deciding for ourselves what is best for us; why should they decide what IS us?” “But then you do wish to be a man!” “Perhaps I wish to be a woman with a man’s privileges.” pg 151. Amen.

I loved the drama in this novel as well as the romance. One would think that the sheer quantity of lovers that she had would have nullified any quality in the feelings, but Berg does a good job proving that this was otherwise. The passion that she exhibits in one, Sand seems to have shown in them all.

My only complaint about The Dream Lover is that it felt rushed because of the almost unbelievable amount of important events that peppered Sand’s life. I would have savored a 1000+ page book like Margaret George’s treatment of Cleopatra in The Memoirs of Cleopatra, but The Dream Lover appeals to the more casual reader.

Still, it would have been awesome. A bookworm can dream, can’t she?

If you enjoy Margaret George, you may like this book too for its sumptuous descriptions and tempestuous relationships. Also, you may want to pick up In the Company of the Courtesan or Marrying Mozart. Both are excellent historical fiction novels with similar themes to The Dream Lover.

I received a free advance reader’s copy of this book through Goodreads First Reads. FTC guidelines: check!

Thanks for reading!