Review: Shakespeare No More by Tony Hays

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It’s April 1616, and William Shakespeare is mortally ill-felled, they say, by a fever. But when he calls his estranged friend Simon Saddler to his bedside, Will says he’s been poisoned. Stratford Constable Saddler feels compelled to investigate his old friend’s death in order to discover not only who murdered him, but also how a man once as close as a brother was moved to cuckold Simon and destroy their friendship. The trail may ultimately lead to the discovery of more murders-and a conspiracy at the very highest levels.

It’s not often you run into a book that is anything less than glowing about Shakespeare, yet this one finds a main character who has more than a little reason to be angry with the Bard. Not only did Shakespeare sleep with Simon Saddler’s wife, but there are more than a few people who would like to do in the playwright and someone did. This mystery isn’t so much about Simon finding out who killed Shakespeare, but coming to terms with what his friend became after he moved to London and just how complex and evil the wiles of the nobility are and how corrupting they end up being on everyone. Simon becomes involved not just in trying to unravel who killed Shakespeare, but also in the machinations of a scandal that threatens to ruin the king. As Simon tries to navigate his way through the underworld of London, he slowly begins to understand more about why Shakespeare changed after their friendship in Stratford. Shakespeare isn’t very sympathetic in this novel, as he’s portrayed as being thoroughly consumed with currying favor with the nobility and willing to bed any woman he can find. The mystery is good though and complex enough that it never loses its momentum.

4 out of 5

Review: Spirit of the Highway by Deborah Swift

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England has been engaged in a bitter Civil War for nearly ten years. Ralph Chaplin, a farmer’s son, has fallen for beautiful copper-haired Kate. There is only one problem – he is a Roundhead soldier and she is a Royalist lady.
Tired of bloodshed, Ralph volunteers to fight, sensing that the Battle at Worcester will be a chance to finish the fighting for good. He longs for peace, so he can forge a secure future and find a different, more equal way of life for himself and Kate.
But War is not what he imagined, and soon he has made a deadly enemy; one who will pursue Ralph and those he loves, and wreak vengeance. What’s more, Ralph finds he has as many enemies at home, as on the battlefield.

While this is possibly a better written novel than the first in the series, I actually liked the first novel more. Maybe it’s because Abi is a more likable main character than Ralph is. This books shares the same issue I had with the other in that there’s a lot of build up, but the actual action seems over very quickly. And the whole thing reads more like a novella than a whole novel. I was able to finish the book in a day simply because it read so fast. It’s hard to really classify this as a romance since it’s more a historical novel than anything else. It is a novelty to have the male character being the narrator in a “romance”, but Ralph was already set up as rather a knob in the last novel so I wasn’t disposed to be too generous to him in this one. It’s not a bad way to spend a couple hours, but I still find a lack of advertised highwayman action.

3 out of 5

Review: It Happened in Kansas by Sarah Smarsh

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It Happened in Kansas features over 25 chapters in Kansas history.  Lively and entertaining, this book brings the varied and fascinating history of the Sunflower State to life.

Ah Kansas, land of Dorothy, sunflowers, really flat land and more sunflowers. I read this book to go along with The Lemoncholy Life of Annie Aster as part of the action takes place in turn of the century Kansas. It is a credit to this author that she actually made Kansas very interesting to the point that I looked into taking a road trip there. Scouring through the stranger parts of Kansas history, Smarsh paints a picture of a state that is often where major historical issues start for some reason. From Bleeding Kansas to Brown v. Board of Education, Kansas has a tendency to be a place where things come to a head. A fascinating home of flight, Exodusters and the flying spaghetti monster, this is a great look at a state that often doesn’t get much attention.

4 out of 5

Review: Shriver by Chris Belden

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Mistaken for a famous but reclusive author of the same name, lonely Shriver attends a writers’ conference at a small Midwestern liberal arts college. Completely unfamiliar with the novel he supposedly wrote and utterly unprepared for the magnitude of the reputation that precedes him, Shriver is feted, fawned over, featured at stuffy literary panels, and barely manages to play it cool.

Things quickly go awry when one of the other guest authors suddenly disappears and Shriver becomes a prime suspect in the investigation. Amidst eager fans, Shriver must contend with a persistent police detective, a pesky journalist determined to unearth his past, and a mysterious and possibly dangerous stalker who seems to know his secret. But most vexing of all, Shriver’s gone and fallen in love with the conference organizer, who believes he’s someone else.

When the “real” Shriver (or is he?) appears to claim his place among the literati, the conference – and Shriver’s world – threaten to unravel.

There were ways that this book was charming, as Shriver is a homebody who is way out of his depth in the situation he involved himself in on a whim. As the book plays out it all becomes more and more confusing about who Shriver really is. Is he really an imposter? Is he possibly the real Shriver, just someone completely dissociated with who he was when he wrote his famous novel? Or is he really just an average man who gets involved in something out of his league and in the process reinvents himself as an author? Whatever he is, Shriver finds a place where he finally fits in the literati that shows up in this small Midwestern conference. The author spends a good deal of his time poking fun at the pretentious culture of literature and some of it is a bit mean spirited. In particular I’m tired of male authors’ preoccupation with women’s breasts when describing them and the addition of the seductive teenage character. I can get through a description of a man when writing without mentioning his crotch, so I feel like a male author should be able to get through the description of a woman without talking about her chest. Likewise, the teenage nymphet is just creepy. I’m not sure if this author added the sexy cheerleaders to be satirical or not, but his main character’s interaction with them didn’t make him particularly charming in a book where most of the time he’s a bumbling harmless old man. The deal with Lolita characters is there’s nothing sympathetic about a male character showing any interest with them considering we’re talking about underage girls. Anyway, those particular features left me with a slightly bad taste in certain areas with a novel that might otherwise have been a cute satire about the culture of literature.

3 out of 5

Review: Highwaymen and Outlaws by Michael Billett

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Relive the violent world of the outlaw, where western legends Billy the Kid and Jesse James rode, England’s Dick Turpin murdered, and Australia’s Ned Kelly robbed. Hear tales of highwaymen who stole from the rich and gave to the poor; cavaliers who killed lawmen, but spared women; and Mexico’s guerrilla bands who financed their revolutionary ways through crime.

I read this book to go along with Shadow on the Highway (which ended up having far less highway robbery in it than advertised). While this book was nicely laid out with pictures, it seemed like the author was trying to cover far more material in a short span than he was able. Because of that, many of the topics were only briefly and superficially touched on. And to be fair, the author was trying to cover a lot: outlaws in three different continents, outlaws from many different centuries, punishment of outlaws, and police enforcement. The book also seemed laid out rather strangely at the beginning, where topics were hopped back and forth from in a rather confusing manner. That being said this might make a nice superficial reference book on the topic of highwaymen, but I doubt it will really hold my high school students’ attention and was a bit disappointing on a topic that seems like it should have been very easy to make very exciting.

3 out of 5

Review: The Lemoncholy Life of Annie Aster by Scott Wilbanks

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Annabelle Aster doesn’t bow to convention—not even that of space and time—which makes the 1890s Kansas wheat field that has appeared in her modern-day San Francisco garden easy to accept. Even more peculiar is Elsbeth, the truculent schoolmarm who sends Annie letters through the mysterious brass mailbox perched on the picket fence that now divides their two worlds.

Annie and Elsbeth’s search for an explanation to the hiccup in the universe linking their homes leads to an unsettling discovery—and potential disaster for both of them. Together they must solve the mystery of what connects them before one of them is convicted of a murder that has yet to happen…and yet somehow already did.

A thoroughly charming book about a group of misfits who become involved in a time bending mystery that requires them to set right a murder. While they can’t change the events of the murder itself, they are determined to make sure the nefarious Ambrosius Culler, a thoroughly evil man, is held responsible for his crimes. While they characters are quirky and some would be called eccentric, they’re not cloying and seem realistic in spite of their oddities. Elsbeth is a cranky but lovable elderly woman while Annie is a woman seemingly out of place in her own time with her love of antiquities and general odd things. The possible issues that come with writing a book where there is a lot of timeline skipping around is avoided by the author and nothing really glaringly stood out as a plot hole. Perhaps some of the characters were far more clever than they had a right to be, but the end result was a book that was alternately a good mystery as well as a heartfelt story about a group of people who just didn’t fit in, be it in 1890s Kansas or in the 1990s.

4 out of 5

Review: The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy by David Cannadine

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At the outset of the 1870s, the British aristocracy could rightly consider themselves the most fortunate people on earth: they held the lion’s share of land, wealth, and power in the world’s greatest empire. By the end of the 1930s they had lost not only a generation of sons in the First World War, but also much of their prosperity, prestige, and political significance.

Deftly orchestrating an enormous array of documents and letters, facts, and statistics, David Cannadine shows how this shift came about–and how it was reinforced in the aftermath of the Second World War. Astonishingly learned, lucidly written, and sparkling with wit, The Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy is a landmark study that dramatically changes our understanding of British social history.

I read this book to go along with Rutherford Park as it was about the British peerage at the same time period. In this particular instance I’m not reviewing the validity of the information in the book so much as I’m reviewing the readability. This is a THOROUGHLY researched book. Cannadine backs up his thesis meticulously with so much documentation of the changing of the British aristocracy that it would be hard to argue with anything the claims. The issue is the book was incredibly hard for me to read. There were points that I read several pages and then had to go back and reread because I had no idea what I’d just read. This was something I would never sit down and just read for pleasure. It’s not that there isn’t interesting information, it’s just that those are trails that the author doesn’t bother following because he was proving his own point. And that’s excellent. It was great historical research. But the side details were often so much more interesting than the main research point that I ended up regretting there wasn’t more sidetracking into some of the minor details.

2 out of 5