Tuesday, August 30, 2022

E-Readers or the Real Deal?

I know, I know, this post has been done before. Many times. I just can't help myself though. It's a real curiosity for me, how other avid readers feel about this topic. I have thought a lot about it over the years and at the risk of sounding like the mushy middle my conclusion for myself is this......they are both worthy of respect.  But the e-reader is just more practical. So I will elaborate and explain my thoughts.

I am a Gen Xer. That group who always has one foot in the technology world and one foot in the old school, 80's, had to use Encyclopedias for reports world. So it's no surprise that when e-readers came out I was hesitant. I actually remember the first time someone mentioned theirs to me that I was like, "what?  Who would even buy that thing? No pages to turn? No book smell? No going to the LIBRARY??? It was unthinkable. Then I bought a paperwhite during a Black Friday sale and oh my goodness....the possibilities. I could get any book I wanted immediately. You could access a definition with a fingertip. Want to see the sequels for the book? Done...just click on the digital bookstore. Want to know exactly how many minutes left until you finish the book, according to your reading speed? Right there on the screen. It was awesome.  Until one day I realized the e-book I really wanted to read was going to cost more than a used copy or getting it for free from the library. So I bought the paperback book. And I changed my mind again.

Sitting on the couch holding the book, turning the pages and getting lost in the writing was familiar. Flipping throughout the book easily back and forth was more convenient than having to scroll or try to bookmark everything I wanted to see. I'd missed real books. Having a smart phone with all the apps and texts and social media made online reading sometimes feel like just another screen. Not to mention the constant "suggestions" of what to read next gave me anxiety. So many books I hadn't read were just sitting there taunting me. I began to develop the worst case of fear of missing out for a book nerd. 

The book was comforting and soothing. Did I really want to keep my Kindle or not?  But by the time I finished the 700 page tome of small print I knew I just couldn't do this all the time again. Especially with my aging eyes. So I made a personal decision: most of the time I would choose to read on my Kindle. But when I was feeling nostalgic or when the book was not on sale for a reasonable online price, I would choose the real paper book. And this is how I've done it ever since. 

Truth be told I do miss books and libraries. I've posted before about how screen time is affecting our children's ability to read chapter books and to concentrate for long periods of time. But in reverse, I think screens are great for the older population who aren't struggling with beginner reading skills. Being able to have added light, increase text size, or change fonts when needed is invaluable. As I get older there are books I won't even attempt in paperback form because I have to read them with a giant book light draped around my neck or sit right next to a window. And don't even get me started on reading in bed at night. My husband (who hates reading books) wouldn't be able to sleep with the lamp on. When I'm on my e-reader he doesn't care because I use the dark light mode. It's a win win for us both. 

I hope libraries and bookstores never go away completely. I hope people will still be able to browse used bookstores looking for paper treasures. But for me it's just not practical anymore to only count on the real thing. Maybe some day they will make an e-reader that feels more like a real book. 

Which do you prefer? E-readers or the real deal? Why? I want to know!


Saturday, August 27, 2022

To Hold the Crown by Jean Plaidy (Uneasy Lies the Head- UK Version)


Publication Date: September 28, 1984

Length: 416 pages

I just adore Jean Plaidy. Sometimes she gets a bad rap because her books are simplistic in dialogue and don't have much in the way of fictional characters. But these things are her strengths I say. When I was in high school I wanted to learn about The Tudors and her books were so good about combining accurate facts with the feel of a novel. I went away feeling entertained yet all of it was true so I was learning so much. She has covered so many Kings and Queens from England, France, and Italy it's hard to find someone royal she hasn't written about. For some reason I had never read this book before, I'd always started with Henry VIII or Elizabeth Tudor. There just aren't many historical fiction books on Henry VII, although that is changing recently. So this one was a must read for me this year.

The story begins in 1486 at the birth of Prince Arthur to Elizabeth of York, who is now Queen Elizabeth, wife of Henry Tudor. The two mothers-in-law, Margaret Beaufort and Elizabeth Woodville are not making life easy for poor Elizabeth. Their rivalry is evident as they vie for who is the dowager Mother deserving of the respect of the court. Elizabeth gives birth amid a cloud of insecurity as to her husband's grasp on the throne but having a boy solidifies his standing a bit more and everyone breathes a sigh of relief. 

Henry is always insecure about his power as King. And with good reason. At every turn it seems someone is waiting to insert an imposter into his court and to take the crown he so dearly clings to. Several subplots alternate with life at the court and include Lambert Simnel, a boy convinced he is the rightful heir, the Duke of Clarence, and Perkin Warbeck, claiming to be the long lost Richard Duke of York, one of the Princes in the Tower believed killed by his Uncle Richard. Henry is doubtful of each claimant but insecurities plague him enough to want them eradicated. While trying to rule his kingdom, fill his coffers, and convince everyone his is the rightful King he presents as a harsh, cold, distant man. Elizabeth dutifully plays her role as companion and mother to their four children and realizes her place is in supporting the joining of the Houses of Tudor and York. But she is not always happy in her new life. Her mother is always working behind the scenes to make sure their family is given their due respect.

We eventually meet Katherine of Aragon and experience life through her eyes at court as she struggles through the death of Arthur and the wooing by Young Henry Tudor. As they work to come to an understanding we see the twilight of Henry VII's reign and his life's work to hold the crown coming to fruition. 

I absolutely loved this book! It is one of my favorites by Plaidy. I knew the story of the Tudors well long before I read it but somehow she always manages to add little tidbits I hadn't heard before or to insert a twist I hadn't even thought of. When I first started reading it I assumed (based on the cover) it would focus heavily on Elizabeth of York and her viewpoint. It really doesn't. We are privy to the thoughts of Henry and Katherine much more than Elizabeth and she becomes more of a minor character as the story progresses. Plaidy manages to take a story that has been retold countless times and make it seem fresh. An amazing feat considering how much material there is out there about the Tudors. 

I read a review on Amazon that said though Plaidy will never be compared to a more detailed author like Sharon Penman, she has a style that is a comfortable read you can enjoy like putting on a pair of old sneakers. I couldn't agree more. 

Wednesday, August 24, 2022

Why I Love Historical Fiction


In my review of Gone With the Wind I stated that it was the greatest novel of all time. I read it (or at least tried to) for the first time when I was twelve years old and it really stuck with me. I was also just crazy about a series called Sunfire that featured different time periods with the main character living through an important event.  So it kind of surprises me that throughout my twenties and thirties I not only didn't read historical fiction, I actually loathed most of it. I recall searching for books and scorning the ones that weren't actual history books or biographies. I ate up true crime, politics, and courtroom dramas like the ones written by John Grisham. And I still think all of those books added deep knowledge and value to my life. But I just couldn't bring myself to read anything considered both historical and fiction. Fast forward fifteen to twenty years and now it is practically all I read. 

I used to think the dialogue and character interactions were cheesy. And sometimes in certain books they are. I also used to be frustrated with the idea that the historical figures didn't actually say or do some of the things in the book. The idea that real live human beings that lived years ago were talking to fictional characters drove me nuts! It just felt so.....wrong. I mean, if it wasn't all true then what on earth was the point? Wasn't I reading to learn something? The "fiction" part of historical fiction was what made me ignore the genre for years. I just couldn't accept the idea that something in the book didn't really happen. When I started reading Outlander that all changed because I'd finally found a book that incorporated history with characters that were compelling enough on their own to make me want to see what happened to them.

And that is the key I think to good historical fiction. It's that perfect balance between using the backdrop of a real historical event to plop down people (real or otherwise) who are themselves engaged in interesting enough drama to want to know their story as well as the history they are living through. If either one of these elements are out of balance, it ruins the book. But when an author does this dance well it is the best kind of book.

Sometimes I've tried an historical fiction book and it is masquerading as a book set in a time period with almost nothing to distinguish it from the present day. Sure there are bits of language, culture, and scenery thrown in but very little. The characters often do things or say things no one would have said or done and it just comes off as insincere. When done well, good historical fiction transports you to the time in a way no non fiction history book can. And that is how I started to transform my dislike of historical fiction. I found that even if I knew a time period well through facts, I didn't really feel immersed in the era. Knowing someone behaved a certain way is very different than hearing it through created conversations, or becoming attached to characters as people instead of the subject of a biography. 

The irony of it all is that now I find it hard to go back to straight history books. I still enjoy "just the facts" but it feels kind of boring. I've let my imagination run free with historical fiction and now I can't get enough of it. The biggest problem I face is that there are so many books with so many sequels in this genre I will die before I read them all. I guess that's not a bad thing....I'll never run out of something great to read!  What do you think? Is historical fiction your favorite genre? Has the answer to this question changed over time for you too?

Friday, August 19, 2022

Shattered Crowns: The Scapegoats 1913-1914 by Christina Croft


Publication Date:  July 26, 2011

Length: 360 pages

I first discovered Christina Croft when I read her biography of Princess Alice, Queen Victoria's daughter, and the mother of Tsarina Alexandra of Russia. I thought it was interesting that she had written a whole book on the subject of Alice because I hadn't found another one. With her Shattered Crowns series she takes on the subject of World War I in a unique way and is one of the few authors who has written historical fiction about the Great War that isn't straight battles and strategy. I wanted to know about the major players, their thoughts, their inner struggles, and also the why behind the causes of the war. I feel like World War II is overrepresented in print and media and World War I is often forgotten. So many people can tell you who the "bad" guys are for World War II but have almost no understanding of who they were in the first war. Croft puts a very real, human face to the monarchs and rulers of the day and how their demise came about.

The Scapegoats is part one of the series. It begins in 1913, the year before that fateful summer of 1914 and the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie. Their deaths would set off a chain of events that spiral into war. Franz Ferdinand and his Uncle, Emperor Franz Josef, disagree on the marriage of Ferdinand to Sophie, a commoner, and the inability of their children to inherit the throne of Austria due to their union. It is a first glimpse into the ruling dynasties that will play a part in the story. Franz Ferdinand is the face of modernity and change while his Uncle is staunchly aligned with the past and its structured rules and norms. 

Despite the fact that most of the monarchies of Europe were related through their grandmother, Queen Victoria, it does not seem to create a spirit of love and harmony.  Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany is portrayed as a man who is in constant rivalry and insecurity with his cousins, Tsar Nicholas and King George V. Queen Marie of Romania seeks to foster peace between many of her relatives to no avail.  We follow the thoughts and motivations of each as Croft skillfully switches between chapters covering differing locations. The background to the war builds throughout the book as we see conflicts between the cousins become serious breakdowns of communication and petty jealousies are resurrected. The slow burn of simmering frustration continues and though it is hoped by all that deadly conflict will be avoided, sadly it isn’t. 

Croft posits a theory that Kaiser Wilhelm has been greatly maligned and that he is a sympathetic figure. She recreates his inner turmoil and desperation as he waits for his cousin Nicholas to come around to his side and way of thinking. Most of the material I had read about Wilhelm up until this book had been from the point of view of his relatives who saw him as haughty and arrogant, creating trouble wherever he went. Here he is to be pitied and seen as someone who tried everything to stop the coming conflict. It is an interesting, new way to see him. One I had never considered. Croft does an excellent job of establishing evidence for her case. I found myself researching things he said or did many times because I was surprised I hadn't heard about it before.

You really have to read all three books to appreciate this series. After book one you only reach the stalemate between Germany and Russia and aren't even fully into the war yet. The next two books will take you through the war and its aftermath. Croft's ideas about who is actually pulling the strings and why are intriguing and again, something I hadn't thought about much. Whether or not you agree with her is irrelevant because the story is compelling on its own. She makes you feel like you know these people personally and there are none who are portrayed as total villians. Rather I ended up extremely sad for all of them and for humanity, knowing that these cousins, aunts, and uncles couldn't find a way to avoid the destruction of so many lives. This was the first book on this subject that gave me a clear understanding of it all. 

Tuesday, August 16, 2022

My Top Auto Buy Authors (What the heck is that?)

I learn something new all the time while writing this blog. That's why it's so much fun for me! I read an article yesterday called, "Who Are Your Auto Buy Authors?" I had no idea what it was referring to. Apparently in the book loving world "auto buy" authors are those whose books one will buy without even reading the cover, reviews, or the jacket. You just know you have to have the book based on who wrote it. I have been doing this all my life but never knew it was a condition with a name, lol. 

I started thinking about who my auto buy authors are. It has definitely changed over the years which is totally normal. As a teen and young twenty something I used to heavily read true crime and politics. Then as I got older I gravitated to classics and history. The last decade my tastes have moved into historical fiction. So that is where I wanted to create my list from.  Below are my top auto buy authors. Who are yours? Did you even know such a thing existed?

  • Anne Perry (Victorian Mysteries)-  I discovered her books years ago when I was merging my love of true crime, history, and fiction. She rarely disappoints and if I see one of her books it's hard not to add it to my Kindle. I know I'm getting a solid mystery to solve, combined with Victorian manners, and dark, creepy suspense. 
  • Sharon Kay Penman (Medieval Period)Anyone who has read my book reviews knows this is not a shocker. What's funny is I actually didn't much care for her the first time I read The Sunne In Splendour. I thought it was tedious and dragged. But I kept going and by the time I got to the end I realized I loved it! The "tedium" was really details that added to the richness and thoroughness of her writing. Now when I get a chance to read one of her books I enjoy savoring every word. I have learned so much about Eleanor of Aquitaine, the Crusades, and Richard I from her books.
  • Ellis Peters (Cadfael Chronicles- Medieval Mysteries)- These are just the best! I feel so behind because there are twenty and I'm still only on book four. They are short but pack so much witty dialogue and excitement in them that they are a joy to read. Cadfael the Monk solves mysteries in his world of Shrewsbury, England circa 1100's. Combining medieval history with murders and intrigue you can't go wrong with one of these books. 
  • Diana Gabaldon (Outlander Series)- My husband would probably fall over from shock that I didn't list her first. I've been obsessed with all things Outlander since 2003 when I picked up the first book. I had never heard of Jacobites, Culloden, or Bonnie Prince Charlie until reading Outlander. Now I can't get enough of these subjects. Combining time travel with history is always a win and this author is the queen of that genre. I hope she goes on writing about Jamie and Claire and their crew forever.
  • Jean Plaidy (Kings and Queens)-  I discovered this author in high school in my public library. I read her book about Queen Elizabeth II and was hooked. I will probably die before I finish all her books as this lady was a prolific writer who penned hundreds of books about every King and Queen from William the Conqueror to Queen Victoria. She also has books about French, Italian, and Spanish royalty that are amazing. Simplistic in writing and dialogue they nonetheless are wonderful to read if you are learning about the historical figure and want just the truth. No embellishments. She tells the story of the lives of these royals in an entertaining yet factual way and you learn so much.
  • Alison Weir (Tudors, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Plantagenets)- I started with her classic book The Six Wives of Henry VIII which is a biography of the wives. She started writing historical fiction novels about the same queens which I have yet to read. Her book on the vanished Plantagenet princes was just as compelling. If you want books that are just straight history she is great for this. 
  • Christina Croft (Victorian Era and early 20th century history)-  Her Shattered Crowns series is historical fiction that covers WWI in an easy to understand way and allows you to get to know the major players as real people. I have also read her biographies about Queen Victoria's daughters and granddaughters. She is the place to go to for all things Queen Victoria.

I'm sure I'll add to this list in the future but this is a snapshot of authors I would consider my top buys. I can't think of any one of their books I haven't finished once started and when I see any on sale I will buy them. Don't even need to read the reviews, they are rock solid already for me!

Thursday, August 11, 2022

The Jane Seymour Conspiracy (The Marquess House Saga Book Four) by Alexandra Walsh


Publication Date: July 18, 2022

Length:  401 Pages

Thank you to Net Galley for loaning me this book for review. 

This book looked really intriguing to me just based on the title and cover. It is the fourth in a series and usually I'm a stickler for starting with book one. But it was new and I am trying out Net Galley so I wanted to just jump in and read this one now. 

The story is a time shift going back and forth between 2020 and 1527-1536. The modern day timeline consists of twin sisters Perdita and Piper who have inherited Marquess House from their now deceased grandmother and all that goes with it. The ladies, along with their love interests, have already been through the ringer with attempts on their lives and shady villians in the first three books and are now thrust into another quest for the truth that will cause them to be in grave danger again. 

The story centers around Jane Seymour who comes to the court of Henry VIII as one of Katherine of Aragon's ladies in waiting. She watches as the King begins his pursuit of Anne Boleyn and his abandonment of his Queen. Jane is unaware that his eyes will eventually settle on her. The King is determined to produce a son to carry on his dynasty and the story centers around team Katherine and team Anne as the two factions work to decide who will prevail in the Tudor wars. Jane is caught in the middle as Anne's cousin and watches as the Boleyn side works behind the scenes to secure their place within the royal court.

Meanwhile, back in 2020, the sisters have found a new mystery with the arrival of The Pentagram Manuscript. They work to uncover the hidden messages inside that reveal a shocking new twist on Jane Seymour's true character and motives. It seems she may not have been the innocent, docile lady that history has recorded. Jane's role in the relationship of Henry and Anne, her own personal love story with another man and possible children of her own reveal a hidden secret that could change the course of history. Piper and Perdita are also being pursued by their crazed cousin, Xavier who is determined to see his own daughter installed as owner of Marquess House. Their lives are in danger and they have to use their wits to stay one step ahead of it all.

I enjoyed this book and thought it reminded me a bit of The DaVinci Code. It is not as in depth as that book but it has elements of the spy novel genre. Clever clues, pursuing bad guys, intelligence agencies all factor in the modern day time period and the almost too perfect to believe rescuing the main characters at every turn. The historical parts are clearly contrived although the author is accurate with dates and major events. You have to suspend belief to go along with it but it was fun to fact check and see that some of the theories about Jane might have been possible. 

I found the names of the modern characters to be a bit cheesy and some of the dialogue was silly. Just when I thought it was getting really complex the sisters would share a moment that felt a bit like YA fiction. This was really the only parts of the book I objected to. There was a lot of "Perds" and "Pipes" which got annoying quickly. The mystery combined with history was fun so I didn't let the other stuff distract me from finishing it. I'm not sure if and when I'll read the other three but they look interesting. They concern mysteries involving Catherine Howard, Elizabeth Tudor, and Arbella Stuart (although I'm not familiar with her). It would also be fun to know all the details of just how the twins inherited that beautifully described mansion in the first place. I'm sure I'll read them eventually just to find out!

Monday, August 8, 2022

Back To School: Classic Novels For Kids


I love back to school time. My job as a reading interventionist lets me work with kids all year on their reading skills....dream job! I often lament that I don't have enough time to read whole books with my student groups the way I did in the classroom. I miss really digging into a novel and its characters because I saw so much growth and excitement when we did. Kids wanted to read the sequels or books by the same author and many times it spurred them to try books on their own when they didn't want to read much the year before. But I've started trying excerpts from classic books if I don't have time for the whole novel and I've been pleasantly surprised at the results. 

Kids who are behind are often just given practice passages to work on skills and while that is sometimes necessary in school it doesn't do much to ignite their love of books. The more they love books, the more they will read, and the more they read, the better they will be at it! So when I can, I use parts of a really solid, well written time tested book to work on comprehension and hope it will make them want to read the novel in its entirety. Below are some of my favorite classic kids books. If they are a bit above their level yet, consider finding the audiobook and letting them read along with it while they listen.

Thursday, August 4, 2022

Devil's Brood by Sharon Kay Penman


Publication Date:  October 7, 2008

Length:  753 pages

It has taken me a very long time to finish this book. Not because it isn't wonderful (it is!) and not because I wasn't excited to read it but because it really takes your full concentration. I have found this to be true with all of Penman's books but especially with this one. I also was reading the paperback copy instead of the Kindle version so I needed extra light with my old eyes. So here we are nearly six months after finishing the second book in this trilogy, Time and Chance, and I am finally reviewing book three. 

Our story picks up where Time and Chance left off. Henry II is King of England and has returned from his self imposed exile in Ireland after the death of his frenemy Thomas Becket, former Archbishop of Canterbury. Henry is still trying to work through his complicated feelings about the Archbishop's friendship that turned sour after the two could not agree on how to balance church rules with divine right of Kings demands. He is feeling guilty and frustrated and needing to be redeemed from his role in Becket's death. He throws himself into the quest to create and hold onto a kingdom that he can proudly pass on to his sons, Hal, Geoffrey, and Richard. John is too little at this point but will factor in later.

Eleanor is focused on her home, the duchy of Aquitaine. She wants to bequeath it to Richard who increasingly becomes her obvious favorite of the offspring. Henry and Eleanor spend a lot of time at odds with one another about who should rule what and where and it causes continual strife within the family.  Henry errs on the side of Hal, the eldest son, whom he eventually gives the title of the Young King in order to solidify his role as heir and this causes rifts between all three sons. Eleanor is eventually imprisoned by Henry when he finds evidence of her plotting against him and there is a constant back and forth between the sons who are all scheming and plotting against one another. Add in the wives and it's a family with the dysfunction of a modern day soap opera. That is the book in a nutshell but wow does it give a lot of detail as to how it all unfolds. 

I found the level of research to be truly amazing. Penman must have spent hours upon hours thinking through how each scenario must have played out between the characters because the dialogue and thoroughness is remarkable. I felt like I was actually living with these characters. Without giving away anything important let's just say that when anyone died I felt sadness and pity. More than any of her other books I've read so far I felt like I could reach into the past and really know these people. The causes of family strife are meticulously explained and developed so much so that I found myself sometimes as exasperated as if they'd been real friends and family. You can see the train wreck coming and want to shout at everyone to stop being so stubborn and get along. That is not to be.

As I've thought about writing this review I think what comes to mind is background knowledge. If you know nothing about Henry and Eleanor and their family squabbles or haven't read the first two books this might not be the place to start. You can, it just won't be as personal to you. I'd recommend either reading the first two books in the trilogy or maybe another, simpler, but still thorough book on their lives. The Courts of Love by Jean Plaidy is a great book to learn more about them before diving into this one with such detail. Setting up the background for this story would help me not to feel lost and to enjoy it. Otherwise it could be a bit tedious and boring for the casual reader. 

I absolutely loved this book but it did take a lot of time and dedication to read it. Penman continues to amaze me and I am excited to read Lionheart and A King's Ransom. These two books are not technically part of the original trilogy but continue the story of Richard and his mother, Queen Eleanor. I have no doubt they will be just as amazing!