Archive for February, 2010

New Releases: February 2010

So I was perusing the New Releases section of BarnesandNoble.com on my lunch break the other day and came across a few interesting titles (some of which I’ve also noticed on recent editions of Shelf Awareness) that I thought I’d share with you.  

Sadly, my TBR queue is so large and unmanageable as it is I probably won’t be doing more than adding these to my overly extensive Wish List, but hey, a girl can dream, right? 

Heresy by S. J. Parris

Synopsis

Masterfully blending true events with fiction, this blockbuster historical thriller delivers a page-turning murder mystery set on the sixteenth-century Oxford University campus.

Giordano Bruno was a monk, poet, scientist, and magician on the run from the Roman Inquisition on charges of heresy for his belief that the Earth orbits the sun and that the universe is infinite. This alone could have got him burned at the stake, but he was also a student of occult philosophies and magic.

In S. J. Parris’s gripping novel, Bruno’s pursuit of this rare knowledge brings him to London, where he is unexpectedly recruited by Queen Elizabeth I and is sent undercover to Oxford University on the pretext of a royal visitation. Officially Bruno is to take part in a debate on the Copernican theory of the universe; unofficially, he is to find out whatever he can about a Catholic plot to overthrow the queen. 

 

The Infinities by John Banville

Synopsis

In his first novel since the Booker Prize–winning The Sea, John Banville gives us a dazzling new book that chronicles both a human family and a rather unholy gathering of immortals.

On a languid midsummer’s day, old Adam Godley, a renowned theoretical mathematician, is dying. His family gathers at his bedside: his son, young Adam, struggling to maintain his marriage to a radiantly beautiful actress; his nineteen-year-old daughter, Petra, filled with voices and visions as she waits for the inevitable; their stepmother, Ursula, whose relations with the Godley children are strained at best; Petra’s “young man”–perhaps more interested in the father than the daughter–who has arrived for an untimely visit.

And around the Godley family hover the mischievous gods: among them, Zeus, who has his eye on young Adam’s wife, and Hermes, our narrator: “We too are petty and vindictive,” he tells us, “just like you, when we are put to it.” As old Adam’s days on earth start… 

 

The Forty Rules of Love by Elif Shafak

Synopsis

An American housewife is transformed by an intriguing manuscript about the Sufi mystic poet Rumi

In this lyrical, exuberant follow-up to her 2007 novel, The Bastard of Istanbul, acclaimed Turkish author Elif Shafak unfolds two tantalizing parallel narratives- one contemporary and the other set in the thirteenth century, when Rumi encountered his spiritual mentor, the whirling dervish known as Shams of Tabriz-that together incarnate the poet’s timeless message of love.

Ella Rubenstein is forty years old and unhappily married when she takes a job as a reader for a literary agent. Her first assignment is to read and report on Sweet Blasphemy, a novel written by a man named Aziz Zahara. Ella is mesmerized by his tale of Shams’s search for Rumi and the dervish’s role in transforming the successful but unhappy cleric into a committed mystic, passionate poet, and advocate of love. She is also taken with Shams’s lessons, or rules, that offer insight into an ancient philosophy based on the unity of all people and religions, and the presence of love in each and every one of us. As she reads on, she realizes that Rumi’s story mir­rors her own and that Zahara-like Shams-has come to set her free. 

 

Vampire Forensics: Uncovering the Origins of an Enduring Legend by Mark Collins Jenkins

Synopsis

Mark Jenkins’s engrossing history draws on the latest science, anthropological and archaeological research to explore the origins of vampire stories, providing gripping historic and folkloric context for the concept of immortal beings who defy death by feeding on the lifeblood of others. From the earliest whispers of eternal evil in ancient Mesopotamia, Greece, and Rome, vampire tales flourished through the centuries and around the globe, fueled by superstition, sexual mystery, fear of disease and death, and the nagging anxiety that demons lurk everywhere.

In Vampire Forensics, Mark Jenkins probes vampire legend to tease out the historical truths enshrined in the tales of terror: sherds of Persian pottery depicting blood-sucking demons; the amazing recent discovery by National Geographic archaeologist Matteo Borrini of a 16th-century Venetian grave of a plague victim and suspected vampire; and the Transylvanian castle of “Vlad the Impaler,” whose bloodthirsty cruelty remains unsurpassed.

Jenkins navigates centuries of lore and legend, adding new chapters to the chronicle and weaving an irresistibly seductive blend of superstition, psychology, and science sure to engross everyone from Anne Rice’s countless readers to serious students of archaeology and mythology. 

   

A Dark Matter by Peter Straub

Synopsis

The incomparable master of horror and suspense returns with a powerful, brilliantly terrifying novel that redefines the genre in original and unexpected ways.

The charismatic and cunning Spenser Mallon is a campus guru in the 1960s, attracting the devotion and demanding sexual favors of his young acolytes. After he invites his most fervent followers to attend a secret ritual in a local meadow, the only thing that remains is a gruesomely dismembered body—and the shattered souls of all who were present.

Years later, one man attempts to understand what happened to his wife and to his friends by writing a book about this horrible night, and it’s through this process that they begin to examine the unspeakable events that have bound them in ways they cannot fathom, but that have haunted every one of them through their lives. As each of the old friends tries to come to grips with the darkness of the past, they find themselves face-to-face with the evil triggered so many years earlier. Unfolding through the individual stories of the fated group’s members, A Dark Matter is an electric, chilling, and unpredictable novel that will satisfy Peter Straub’s many ardent fans, and win him legions more.
 

   

Coming of the Storm (Contact: The Battle for America Series #1) by W. Michael Gear, Kathleen O’Neal Gear

Synopsis

From New York Times bestselling novelists W. Michael and Kathleen O’Neal Gear comes a landmark new series portraying the devastating clash of cultures that followed the European invasion of early America. Dramatic, authentic, and deeply moving, this first book in the Contact series tells the story of the blood-drenched years that followed Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto’s landing in “La Florida” in 1539 — as seen entirely through the eyes of two courageous Native Americans. Black Shell, an exiled Chickasaw trader, is fascinated by the pale, bearded newcomers who call themselves “Kristianos,” and not even the wise counsel of Pearl Hand, the extraordinary and beautiful woman who has consented to be his mate, can dissuade him. It will unfortunately take a first-hand lesson in the Kristianos’ unfathomable brutality for Black Shell to fully comprehend the dangers that these invaders pose to his people’s way of life.While his first instinct is to run away with Pearl Hand, somewhere the Kristianos cannot find them, Black Shell has been called to a greater destiny by the Spirit Being known as Horned Serpent. With Pearl Hand by his side, Black Shell must find a way to unite the disparate tribes and settlements of his native land and overcome the merciless armies of de Soto, which will stop at nothing to attain wealth and power. 

For years readers have urged the Gears to bring the clash of Native American and European cultures to life as only they can. Now, with Coming of the Storm, the Gears unleash their expansive breadth of knowledge and stunning writing talents to dispel the myths and falsehoods surrounding Hernando de Soto, as they paint avivid portrait of the heroic men and women who fought a terrifying, militarily superior power for their survival — and in so doing defined the character of a nation. 

 

 

Today while at Barnes and Noble (to finally buy a Nook, hooray!) I came across these and immediately added them to my wish list:

Black Hills by Dan Simmons 

Synopsis

When Paha Sapa, a young Sioux warrior, “counts coup” on General George Armstrong Custer as Custer lies dying on the battlefield at the Little Bighorn, the legendary general’s ghost enters him – and his voice will speak to him for the rest of his event-filled life.

Seamlessly weaving together the stories of Paha Sapa, Custer, and the American West, Dan Simmons depicts a tumultuous time in the history of both Native and white Americans. Haunted by Custer’s ghost, and also by his ability to see into the memories and futures of legendary men like Sioux war-chief Crazy Horse, Paha Sapa’s long life is driven by a dramatic vision he experienced as a boy in his people’s sacred Black Hills. In August of 1936, a dynamite worker on the massive Mount Rushmore project, Paha Sapa plans to silence his ghost forever and reclaim his people’s legacy-on the very day FDR comes to Mount Rushmore to dedicate the Jefferson face.

The Secret History of the Mongol Queens : How the Daughters of Genghis Khan Rescued His Empire by Jack Weatherford

Synopsis

A magnificently researched history of the ruling women of the Mongol Empire, revealing their struggle to hang on their patrimony and to preserve their nation.Jack Weatherford tells the gripping story, lost ot history until now, of the female heirs of the Mongol Empire. He beings with the six daughters of Genghis Kahn and the traces their royal families through 250 years of upheaval as the empire tore itself apart, pitting brother against sister and son against mother.

Cro-Magnon: How the Ice Age Gave Birth to the First Modern Humans by Brian M. Fagan 

Synopsis

The name “Cro-Magnon” inspires images of a snowbound world, mammoth hunting, and eerily alluring cave paintings. Who were these ancient people? In a word, they were us—the first anatomically modern humans.

Bestselling author Brian Fagan brings these early humans out of the deep freeze with his trademark mix of erudition, cutting-edge science, and vivid storytelling. Cro-Magnon reveals human society in its infancy, facing enormous environmental challenges—including a rival species of humans, the Neanderthals.

For ten millennia, Cro-Magnons lived side by side with Neanderthals, an encounter that Fagan fills with drama. Using their superior intellects and tools, these ingenious problem solvers survived harsh conditions that eventually extinguished their Neanderthal cousins.

Cro-Magnon captures the indomitable adaptability that has made Homo sapiens an unmatched success as a species. Living on a frozen continent with only the most basic tools, Ice Age humans survived and thrived.

*I’m extra excited about this last one because the author was my first archaeology professor at UC Santa Barbara and he was just fantastic!*

 

Have you picked up any of these beauties?  Excited for any other new releases? 

 

BTT: Why You Read

btt button

Suggested by Janet:

I’ve seen this quotation in several places lately. It’s from Sven Birkerts’ ‘The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age’:

“To read, when one does so of one’s own free will, is to make a volitional statement, to cast a vote; it is to posit an elsewhere and set off toward it. And like any traveling, reading is at once a movement and a comment of sorts about the place one has left. To open a book voluntarily is at some level to remark the insufficiency either of one’s life or one’s orientation toward it.”

To what extent does this describe you?

Don’t forget to leave a link to your actual response (so people don’t have to go searching for it) in the comments—or if you prefer, leave your answers in the comments themselves!

Interesting quotation, but I don’t agree with the last bit at all.  I don’t believe that reading has any correlation with insufficiency of life.  Sure, at times when I’m upset or have had a bad day and just need to escape the world I’ll pick up a book and lose myself and my troubles in the pages, but I could have the most fulfilling and exciting life and I’d still be a book addict. 

I do, however, completely agree that to read is to travel across space and time and that’s one of the things I love most about it!  And just as the life and times of a writer will affect the tone and themes of a book, so too will the experiences of the reader.  Books are everchanging.  Even though the words remain the same, I could read a novel now and twenty years from now and it will probably mean something completely different to me.

Everyday I look forward to heading off toward an infinite number of “elsewheres” and leaving reality behind, at least for a little while.  Reading, in essence, is like having super powers. 

So up, up, and away into unknown lands with strange and wonderful characters!

What’s your answer?

Book Review: Marked

Marked

P. C. Cast  
Paperback, 320 pages
St. Martin’s Press
May 01, 2007
 

Once again, apologies for the lag time between reviews!  Things have been really hectic and I’ve been so busy I’ve let some things slide through the cracks.  I actually finished Marked over a week ago so this will be more of a mini review with the summary provided by Borders.com:

Enter the dark, magical world of The House of Night, a world where vampyres have always existed. Sixteen-year-old Zoey Redbird has just been Marked as a fledgling vampyre and joins the House of Night, a school where she will train to become an adult vampire. That is, if she makes it through the Change–and not all of those who are Marked do.

 

Sadly after about a week and a half after reading this book, not a lot of details jump out at me to pass on to you.  I didn’t absolutely love it, but I did enjoy reading it and I got sucked into the story from the first few pages.  Some of it seemed a bit too cookie-cutter for my taste (a hot vampire fledgling that sets his sights on the main character, an antagonist that is nasty and mean to the MC for no apparent reason, etc.) and I kept wishing that the teenage lexicon wasn’t constantly getting slammed in my face (if Zoey made any more smartass parenthetical remarks or used the words “poopie” or “boobies” one more time…), but it was really hard to put the book down because I was so drawn into the world PC & Kristin Cast created.

I loved the concept of the vampyres worshipping the ancient Greek goddess of night and all the ties to Cherokee rituals and beliefs.  And I’m really intrigued by the differences that make Zoey stand out from the other fledglings (completely filled in Mark, bloodlust, etc.) so I hope I find out the reason for that eventually.   The characters that make up her new group of friends at the school are great and provide a lot of delicious sarcasm and witty retorts.

The end was incredibly climactic and actually got pretty intense at times and it definitely left me wanting to continue the series and find out what happens next.  I’m hoping that as the story progresses and Zoey gets older and (hopefully) wiser, the writing will reflect that as well (Hmmm…deja vu, didn’t I just say that about Percy Jackson?). 

After reading Vampire Academy I found that I liked this book better and will probably read the next one before continuing the other series. 

But again, I didn’t love it as I hoped I would.  Ever since reading the Harry Potter and Twilight series I’ve been searching for more YA books that would captivate me just as much and so far I’ve been unsuccessful.  It makes me wonder if those were just flukes and YA really just isn’t for me. 

Have you read this series?  What did you think?  Can you recommend any YA books that will change my mind?

Book Review: The Sea of Monsters

The Sea of Monsters

Rick Riordan
Paperback, 304 pages
Miramax Books
April 01, 2007

 

Book 2 of the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series opens with our young hero at the end of another school year, this time at a sort of new age, hippy private school where there are no grades and the students sit on yoga balls instead of plastic chairs.  He’s even managed to make it an entire year without setting anything on fire or getting attacked by monsters posing as teachers. 

But he is starting to have nightmares about his satyr friend Grover, who’s on a quest to find Pan, that trouble him deeply.  And even though he doesn’t go looking for trouble, it always seems to find him.  When monsters attack his P.E. class, Annabeth comes to the rescue just in time to save Percy and his new and strange friend (who turns out to be a baby cyclops) Tyson from death by flaming cannon dodgeballs. 

They flee to Camp Half-Blood only to find it under attack, its magical defenses disintegrating, and under a new activities director who’s been yanked out of Hades to fill the position.  It turns out that the someone has poisoned the tree containing Thalia’s spirit that serves as a protective barrier around the camp, preventing monsters from entering. 

After more clues from the Grover dreams Percy and Annabeth realize that they key to saving the camp (and possibly the world) is to undertake another dangerous quest to find the Golden Fleece – which has the power to heal the tree and restore the camp’s defenses. 

The quest leads them to the Sea of Monsters, which now resides in the Bermuda Triangle, where they face enemies both new and old with the help of the god Hermes and Clarisse, Percy’s nemesis. 

I liked this book better than The Lightning Thief, I think because I already knew the characters and the basic premise of the heroes and Camp Half-Blood and the action began right off the bat without much down time or back story. 

It was still a bit too juvenile for my taste, through no fault of the author since these books are aimed at kids.  But seriously, what thirteen year old says things like “It would have flattened me like a Percy pizza with extra olives” or something to that effect?  But it was full of adventure and humor.  I actually laughed out loud at some of Percy’s narrative.  And I love the whole idea of the series, that the Greek gods follow the center of Western Civilization (hence Mt. Olympus being in New York and Hades in Los Angeles) and that there’s a summer camp for all their demigod offspring. 

I’m still not completely sold on the series.  It hasn’t quite set its hooks in me like Harry Potter did.  I’m hoping that as Percy gets older in the next books the writing will reflect that and become more mature.  But I had lots of fun reading this one and was surprised by the cliff-hanger ending.  If you’re looking for some fun, light and fast reading then I recommend this series.  I’ll be interested to see how the movie compares to the first book.

Happy Wednesday!

Hello fellow bibliophiles!  I thought I’d post a few updates in between reviews…

I just finished the second Percy Jackson book, The Sea of Monsters, moments ago so stay tuned for my thoughts on that one.  Can I just say it’s great to be able to finish a book after three 45 minute sessions on my stationary bike?  Yes, yes it is.  I’ve been seeing the trailer for The Lightning Thief and I have to say it looks pretty good!  Anyone planning on seeing it?

I’m also still reading Under the Dome and I’m slowly creeping toward the end.  Okay, not really, but I’m definitely past the halfway point.  I usually devour Stephen King books immediately (I still remember starting and finishing Desperation on Christmas day in 1997, so glorious!), but this one is taking me a while.  Maybe I should have taken a break between behemoth books after reading Drood, which is also quite a hefty piece of literature.  But it’s starting to pick up the pace so I’m hoping to have it finished by the end of the month.

Yesterday I received my second book, gratis from the publisher, in the mail – Mornings in Jenin by Susan Abulhawa.  It’s about the Palestinian/Israeli conflict and it looks like it’s going to be depressing but (hopefully) great.  The reviews I’ve seen so far give it high praise so I’m looking forward to reading it.  I’m just going to do myself a favor and read something light and funny at the same time so I don’t get too depressed!

What are you reading?

Book Review: The Heretic Queen

The Heretic Queen: A Novel

Michelle Moran
Paperback, 416 pages
Crown Publishing Group
September 01, 2009

 

This is Michelle Moran’s second novel, after Nefertiti, and it picks up around twenty years later when the old religion has been restored, the capital has moved from Amarna back to Thebes, and all that remains of the Heretic Queen’s family is her niece Nefertari. 

Due to her ties with Akhenaten and Nefertiti, the young princess is reviled, feared, and distrusted.  She’s tolerated by her peers solely because of her friendship with Ramesses, the heir to the throne of Egypt.  But when she’s overlooked as Ramesses’ first wife for the beautiful but vapid Iset, granddaughter to a harem wife, Nefertari is filled with dread and doubt, unsure of her place at court and heartbroken at the thought of Ramesses with another. 

When the High Priestess of Hathor – and Ramesses’ aunt – offers to take her under her wing, she reveals a plan to supplant Iset and make Nefertari the young king’s Chief Wife, thus thwarting the plot of her scheming sister (the High Priestess of Isis) to put Iset on the throne in exchange for wealth and power.  Nefertari’s intelligence and knack for foreign languages makes her a valuable asset to the kingdom and she slowly starts to win over the people with her wise and fair judgments in the Audience Chamber.

With enemies surrounding her, Nefertari knows that the only way for the names of her family to be written back into the scrolls of history is to become Chief Wife and to be crowned Queen of Egypt.  She must use all her wiles to avert the many attempts to besmirch her name and turn Ramesses against her.  And to make matters worse, the Nile has not flooded in four years and the Hittites are threatening to invade, and while the kingdom is on the verge of famine and war the people are quick to blame Nefertari. 

But when she puts her own life at risk to ride to war beside Ramesses and uses her mastery of foreign languages to weed out enemy spies, she finds herself surrounded by even more dangers as desperation drives her foes to new heights of treachery.

In my opinion The Heretic Queen was equally impressive as Moran’s début novel, Nefertiti, and I immediately connected to Nefertari and felt what it was like to be harshly and unfairly judged by the wrongdoings of relatives.  And while at first I was a bit disappointed because I thought it was a continuation of Mudnojemet’s story, I was quickly won over by Nefertari and her love of languages and sharp wit.  Ramesses was a very likeable character and I admired how he always treated Iset with love and respect even when she was at her whiniest and behaved like a spoiled brat.  And when Nefertari finally got the opportunity to ruin her, she couldn’t bring herself to do it and my admiration for her deepened. 

It was well researched, fast paced, and I loved the writing style.  My only complaint is that it was too short and I didn’t want it to end.  I desperately wanted to see what happened years into Ramesses’ reign as he built the impressive reputation that remains with him to this day. 

I preemptively gave this book a spot in my Top 10 Historical Fiction list, hoping that it would be well deserved and I’m happy to say that it was.  Who knows, maybe I’ll come across a book in the future that bumps it out (maybe Moran’s next book, Cleopatra’s Daughter?), but for now it’s definitely worthy.

On a side note, I recently had the privilege of visiting the travelling King Tut exhibit at the De Young museum in San Francisco and I was absolutely awestruck at the site of the 3,000 year old artifacts from a civilization that I’ve been fascinated by my entire life.  I actually saw Tutankhamun’s crook & flail, Nefertiti’s bust (breathtaking, even lacking a nose), Queen Tuja’s sarcophagus, and larger than life statues of Akhenaten.  Sadly, the boy king’s golden funerary mask isn’t allowed to travel so I didn’t get to see it, but hopefully someday I’ll find myself in Egypt, walking under the same sky and upon the same sand as the ancient kings of the greatest empire ever known.

Musing Mondays: February 8th

I’ve seen several bloggers mention reading multiple books this week. Do you frequently read more than one book at a time? Do you try to limit this to a certain number? Do you have different books for different purposes/topics?

I never used to read multiple books at once (except for when I was in school), but I recently took up the habit and I’m really glad I did.  What made me decide to give it a try was that the book I was reading at the time (Drood) was heavy and huge and unwieldy and it was really annoying trying to read it while riding my stationary bike.  So I grabbed a paperback off my TBR pile and had two going at the same time.  Since then, I’ve kept that up and have even thrown in a third and fourth at times.

I like to read different genres at once too, so I can choose based on my daily moods.  Maybe a fantasy and a historical fiction or a vampire or paranormal book with straight up fiction.  It’s nice to be able to mix it up! 

Right now I just finished the paperback I was reading so I’ll start a new one tonight and then I’d like to try to start working in non-fiction titles along with the gigantic hardcovers I read before bed. 

I thought I wouldn’t like juggling books because I would lose track of what was happening or mix up plots, but it’s actually been really easy and it’s nice to not feel so restricted!

My biggest problem is choosing which books to read from my TBR pile!  Sometimes I just can’t really tell what I’m in the mood for.  But I’ve decided to start in on all the ones I’m borrowing from people so I can return them while we’re young.  🙂  At least that narrows things down somewhat.

BTT: Winter Reading

Winter Reading February 4, 2010

The northern hemisphere, at least, is socked in by winter right now… So, on a cold, wintry day, when you want nothing more than to curl up with a good book on the couch … what kind of reading do you want to do?

Don’t forget to leave a link to your actual response (so people don’t have to go searching for it) in the comments—or if you prefer, leave your answers in the comments themselves!

Definitely historical fiction, preferably one that takes place in Britain.  I want swirling petticoats, lavish gardens, and noble families plotting against each other to win the king’s favor.  High fantasy would be a close second.  Sadly, in Southern California it’s not often that we get the kind of weather that would make for a perfect, cozy day of Winter reading.  But we did have several storms last week and I took every advantage of curling up under a blanket with my favorite pastime.  If only my fireplace was in working condition!

What about you?

Top 10: Historical Fiction

History is one of my passions and when it’s combined with my love of reading, I’m in absolute heaven. I love being transported back in time to experience the world decades or centuries ago, and to see what life was like through the eyes of royalty, peasants, soldiers, and fools alike.

Here’s a list of my favorites so far (in no particular order)…

1. The Memoirs of Cleopatra by Margaret George

Actually this is one of my favorite books of all time so naturally I can’t recommend it enough, especially if you’re interested in Egyptian or Roman history. George’s Cleopatra comes to life and is depicted as an extremely cunning and effective ruler as well as a loving wife and devoted mother as she struggles to keep her lands and people safe in the face of drought, famine, and war.

2. Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden

This book is beautifully written and is just a classic. It follows the story of Chiyo, a nine-year old fisherman’s daughter who’s sold into slavery by her father, and her transformation into one of the most successful and renowned geisha of her time. Although it’s a story of suffering and heartbreak, it’s also one of love and passion, and of doing whatever it takes to change your destiny and achieve your dreams.

3. The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory

Everyone seems to be in a Tudor frenzy at the moment, and I’m no exception. I’ve always been familiar with the story of the doomed second bride of Henry VIII, but this was the first novel I’d read about her life. It’s told from the point of view of Anne Boleyn’s sister, Mary, who is the first to be ensnared by the young king’s affection and follows the family as they rise to power. It’s quite an intense read as it puts you right in the heart of the Tudor court, where one wrong step could lead you to the Tower of London and into the hands of the executioner.

4. River God by Wilbur Smith

Okay, if you’re obsessed with ancient Egypt like I am then you need to read this and the other Taita books by Wilbur Smith. I guess technically I should classify them as historical fantasy because there are elements of magic involved in some of them. This is the first one and it takes place during the reign of Mamose when Egypt is invaded by the Hyksos. Taita is a fascinating and mysterious character who you’ll want to follow through the twists and turns of the political intrigues and warring kingdoms of the Nile valley.

5. The Autobiography of Henry VIII by Margaret George

More Tudor hysteria? Yes please! This book is a massive undertaking but well worth the almost 1,000 pages. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect when I started it, in fact I went into it thinking I wasn’t going to like it just because I thought it would be impossible to sympathize with Henry. I couldn’t have been more wrong. It was frighteningly easy to slip into his mind, walk in his shoes, and understand why he did the things he did. It starts with his childhood and the death of his brother that leads to his marriage to Katherine of Aragon and we see through his eyes the scheming and manipulation of his courtiers and the radical separation from Catholicism that threw his kingdom into turmoil. Fantastic read.

6. Empress Orchid by Anchee Min

This book actually reminded me a lot of Memoirs of a Geisha, although it takes place in China rather than Japan, but the writing style and character development were similar. Although, Empress Orchid was far more gritty and dark, which suited me just fine. It tells the story of the last empress of China in memoir-like fashion, from her childhood to becoming a royal concubine and then one of the emperor’s wives, who ends up ruling the empire for over four decades. I was fascinated by life in the Forbidden City and the role of the women there as Orchid fought to stand out among the countless other concubines to win the favor of the emperor. I haven’t read the sequel, The Last Empress, yet but it’s in my TBR queue and I can’t wait to see what happens next!

7. Nefertiti by Michelle Moran

This was Michelle Moran’s debut novel, set in 14th century B.C. Egypt, and I found it to be very well researched and absolutely thrilling. It’s told from the point of view of Nefertiti’s sister Mutnodjmet during the reign of Amenhotep IV, who takes on the name Akhenaten after casting out the old religion and replacing it with a monotheistic one worshipping the sun disc Aten. It was fast-paced, yet detailed and descriptive, and I became invested in all the characters – including Nefertiti, despite her selfishness and thoughtless behavior toward her sister. Towards the end it got pretty stressful as the people blame Akhenaten and Nefertiti for the plague that sweeps through the capital and everyone in the royal family fears for their lives. I couldn’t believe this was Moran’s first novel. Incredible story telling!

8. The Heretic Queen by Michelle Moran

I’m actually not quite finished with this one yet but it’s every bit as good as Nefertiti was and I can already tell it deserves a place on this list. It picks up about 20 years later when the old religion has been restored, the capital has moved from Amarna back to Thebes, and all that’s left of the heretic queen’s family is her niece Nefertari.  The young princess is feared and despised because of her ties to Akhenaten and Nefertiti and when she becomes the second wife of her childhood best friend and first love, the young pharaoh Ramesses, she knows the only way for her family to be written back into the scrolls of history is to become Chief Wife and to be crowned the queen of Egypt.  She’s surrounded by enemies but with her intelligence and the help of some influential allies she strives to do whatever it takes to win the love of the people and take her place on the throne.

9. Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

Again, this is more accurately historical fantasy due to the time travel element – and I included it in my top 10 fantasy books too, sorry for the repetition – but it’s a truly amazing read.  I absolutely could not put it down and when I was finally forced to, I couldn’t stop thinking about the Scottish highlands and the world that Claire finds herself in after stumbling through ancient standing stones and travelling back in time two hundred years.  It’s written so well that it seems perfectly plausible that in the blink of an eye you could magically appear in another century.  Claire is such a compelling character with real emotions and flaws and I defy you not to fall in love with Jamie Fraser.  This entire series is great but Outlander knocked my socks off.

10. Mary Queen of Scotland & The Isles

Yes, another book by Margaret George.  What can I say?  She’s a master of her craft.  Meticulous research, great pacing, thought provoking writing and characters that you can connect with.  Mary is a true heroine.  Her tragedy was my tragedy, her triumphs were my triumphs, and I got so caught up with her story that I lost touch with reality while reading the book.  With all the indignities she suffered, Mary remained proud, refusing to give up hope or give in to defeat. 

I highly recommend all this books to fans of historical fiction!  Out of all the titles I’ve read in this genre, they’re my favorites.  I feel it might be worthwhile to mention a few that I was less than enthusiastic about, surprisingly from these very same authors.  I couldn’t stand Margaret George’s Helen of Troy.  As much as I tried to get into it I simply couldn’t.  Helen as a character just fell flat and I couldn’t have cared less whether she or Paris lived or died, that’s how detached I was from the story. 

The Virgin’s Lover was my least favorite of Philippa Gregory’s books that I’ve read so far.  Elizabeth was a giggly, empty-headed grown child who couldn’t conjure up a single thought of her own, relying on Robert Dudley for every decision or opinion.  After reading The Queen’s Fool and seeing how strong and calculating Elizabeth was in that book, I just couldn’t understand how the same author could have portrayed her in such a contradicting fashion.  Maybe that was intentional in The Virgin’s Lover but I had to force myself to finish that one.  I wasn’t thrilled with The Other Queen (also about Mary Queen of Scots) either, but it was alright.  On the other hand, I loved the Queen’s Fool as well as The Constant Princess.  I got Gregory’s newest, The White Queen, for Christmas and I’m really looking forward to reading her take on the War of the Roses.

Here are some more titles currently in my TBR queue that I’m excited about:

  1. The Last Empress, Anchee Min
  2. The Last Queen, C. W. Gortner
  3. A Thread of Grace, Mary Doria Russell
  4. An Echo in the Bone, Diana Gabaldon
  5. Cleopatra’s Daughter, Michelle Moran
  6. The Last Days of the Romanovs, Helen Rappaport
  7. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Lisa See

What are your favorite historical novels?  What are some you could have lived without?