The Spy by Paulo Coelho

The Spy by Paulo Coelho

thespyThe Spy is the story of Mata Hari, told first in her voice and then from the point of view of one of her male admirers.

Paulo Coelho isn’t at his best in this novel.

He prefers and excels at metaphorical stories. For example, in this tale, Coelho has Mata Hari comparing herself to the nightingale that impaled itself on a thorn to grow a bright red rose for a young man in love.

I get what he was reaching for- but I think this tale would have been told better through details rather than metaphors.

Also, it’s so short. The audiobook was only a couple hours long.

It wasn’t nearly long enough to do Mata Hari’s life justice.

I first learned about the fascinating life of Mata Hari in Inspired!: True Stories Behind Famous Art, Literature, Music, and Film by Maria Bukhoninia. There were enough unbelievable things that happened in Mata Hari’s life to make a compelling historical fiction.

Sadly, this didn’t quite fit the bill for me.

If you’re going to read a Coelho novel, may I recommend The Alchemist. (Which is also a novel people love or hate. I fell on the side of love.)

Thanks for reading!

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The Revenant by Michael Punke

The Revenant by Michael Punke

therevenantThe Revenant is a fictional tale based on the real life account of Hugh Glass, a trapper who was attacked by a grizzly bear and then left for dead by the men who had been left to care for him.

This story is so gripping. From the explosive opening moments until the very last page, the reader is practically swept up into the action.

Not only are the men in The Revenant struggling with each other, but Nature herself has a huge role in this survival tale. If the characters aren’t freezing, they’re starving or looking for a safe place to sleep.

This is a particularly excellent read for a cold winter night with a cup of something hot to drink near your elbow.

This would have been a five star read except for the ridiculously unsatisfying conclusion.

It felt like The Revenant suddenly turned from a survival/adventure/revenge story into a tame morality play.

I realize that it is a morality play the whole time, but with all the action and nail-biting tension, it doesn’t “feel” like one until the ending- which I won’t ruin for you, except to say that it was very lame.

My husband read a version of this story called Lord Grizzly when he was in college so, while I was into this one, we were comparing notes on the differences between the two works.

Although varying in small details, the major arcs were the same. I felt as if The Revenant did a better job of building the tension than Lord Grizzly but we both agreed that the ending to the story (in both books) was a let-down.

If you enjoyed reading The Revenant, you may enjoy The Knife of Never Letting Go. Though not based on a true story, it shares the traveling-through-the-wilderness feel and tension of this book.

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

And thanks for reading!

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!