Review: The French Executioner by C. C. Humphreys


It is 1536 and the expert swordsman Jean Rombaud has been brought over from France by Henry VIII to behead his wife, Anne Boleyn. But on the eve of her execution Rombaud swears a vow to the ill-fated queen: to bury her six-fingered hand, symbol of her rumoured witchery, at a sacred crossroads.

Yet in a Europe ravaged by religious war, the hand of this infamous Protestant icon is so powerful a relic that many will kill for it… From a battle between slave galleys to a Black Mass in a dungeon, through the hallucinations of St Anthony’s Fire to the fortress of an apocalyptic Messiah, Jean seeks to honour his vow.

I very much enjoyed this book. This is one of those books that is nonstop action with a rag tag team of misfits going against all odds and as such had a tendency to become a bit wild with all the coincidences and crazy events that the characters seemed to stumble into repeatedly (a slave galley AND St. Anthony’s fire AND Anne Boleyn’s ghost AND an Apocalyptic messiah AND a Black Mass…well you get the idea). But the over the top action makes for an exciting read and I ended up reading the book very quickly accordingly. If you just sit back and don’t think “wow these characters sure have witnessed like every salacious and exciting thing this time period had to offer” it’s a fun ride. This book is more adventure tale than staid historical fiction. And that’s not to say the author hasn’t done their homework. The events they’ve added are historically accurate and interesting in their own right. One of the better historical adventure novels I’ve read.

4 out of 5


Review: The Brethren by Robert Merle


The Périgord of sixteenth-century France is a wild region on the edge of the reaches of royal authority-its steep, forested valleys roamed by bands of brigands and gypsies, its communities divided by conflict between Catholics and converts to the new Protestant faith, the Huguenots.

To this beautiful but dangerous country come two veterans of the French king’s wars, Jean de Siorac and Jean de Sauveterre, The Brethren-as fiercely loyal to the crown as they are to their Huguenot religion. They make their home in the formidable chateau of Mespech, and the community they found prospers, but they are far from secure-religious civil war looms on the horizon, famine and plague stalk the land, and The Brethren must use all their wits to protect those they love from the chaos that threatens to sweep them away.

The Brethren is an interesting type of book. I understand the series is very popular in France with it just now being translated into English (I believe the author died several years ago). The book follows the early life of Pierre de Siorac, second legitimate son of one of the “brethren”, two brothers in arms who made their fortune during various wars. Jean de Siorac marries a woman unfortunately Catholic, a major source of trouble between herself and her Huguenot husband. The book is odd in that there is no real plot. It simply moves from one episode to another in the life of young Pierre. He sagely notes the religious turmoil and violence of the time around him, but his main concern is his own family trials and tribulations. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the book. It was very readable, but there was no movement of plot that really impelled me to finish it quickly. I will probably read more of the series, but it is definitely a family saga more than a rollicking adventure.

4 out of 5

Review: Spindle by Shonna Slayton


Briar Rose knows her life will never be a fairy tale. She’s raising her siblings on her own, her wages at the spinning mill have been cut, and the boy she thought she had a future with has eyes for someone else. Most days it feels like her best friend, Henry Prince, is the only one in her corner…though with his endless flirty jokes, how can she ever take him seriously?

When a mysterious peddler offers her a “magic” spindle that could make her more money, sneaking it into the mill seems worth the risk. But then one by one, her fellow spinner girls come down with the mysterious sleeping sickness…and Briar’s not immune.

If Briar wants to save the girls—and herself—she’ll have to start believing in fairy tales…and in the power of a prince’s kiss.

A fairy tale retelling set in the Industrial era, the author hits her facts well describing the time period and how factory life was for young women working in them. Blending a good deal of magic as well in the story this is a version of Sleeping Beauty that doesn’t really play out as an actual retelling, but more of a spin off OF the fairy tale. Briar isn’t really Sleeping Beauty, but her situation is tied up in the original story.

This isn’t perhaps the page turner of an adventure, but it is a good romance with a lot of good historical details and serious treatment of the time period. I enjoyed the book and it was a fast read.

4 out of 5

Review: Fiasco: A History of Hollywood’s Iconic Flops by James Robert Parish


A longtime industry insider and acclaimed Hollywood historian goes behind the scenes to tell the stories of 15 of the most spectacular movie megaflops of the past 50 years, such as Cleopatra, The Cotton Club, and Waterworld. He recounts, in every gory detail, how enormous hubris, unbridled ambition, artistic hauteur, and bad business sense on the parts of Tinsel Town wheeler-dealers and superstars such as Elizabeth Taylor, Clint Eastwood, and Francis Ford Coppola, conspired to engender some of the worst films ever.

Sometimes you go into a movie and leave wondering “who greenlighted this mess”. The situation is even more embarrassingly compounded when the particular train wreck has an enormous budget. This book chronicles some of the most expensive movie disasters. Parish is able to really dig in to the background of what happened to allow such insane decisions to be made. The book is fascinating from a gossipy level as well has just a history stand point of how terrible things snowball. I really enjoyed the book.

4 out of 5

Review: Frostblood by Elly Blake


Seventeen-year-old Ruby is a Fireblood who has concealed her powers of heat and flame from the cruel Frostblood ruling class her entire life. But when her mother is killed trying to protect her, and rebel Frostbloods demand her help to overthrow their bloodthirsty king, she agrees to come out of hiding, desperate to have her revenge.

Despite her unpredictable abilities, Ruby trains with the rebels and the infuriating—yet irresistible—Arcus, who seems to think of her as nothing more than a weapon. But before they can take action, Ruby is captured and forced to compete in the king’s tournaments that pit Fireblood prisoners against Frostblood champions. Now she has only one chance to destroy the maniacal ruler who has taken everything from her—and from the icy young man she has come to love.

I always go into a book really wanting to like it and I’m fond of books that have cliched characteristics (good wins in the end, the couple gets together, etc). This book I sort of on the one hand liked the author’s writing, but on the other the plotting and characters felt uneven to me. Ruby is a harsh, emotionally volatile human and Arcus is generally devoid of visible emotions, yet somehow without much explanation they fall passionately in love. I guess I should buy into that romance like most other cliched ones, but something about it all felt a bit off. Maybe it was Arcus having a distinct lack of emotion that made it feel weird. Maybe it was not understanding why the two would be attracted to each other.

The second issue is Ruby magically becoming a winner in the gladiatorial ring only through the deus ex machina of being possessed by the evil embodiment of a god. I was actually more intrigued by the side character of the shifty, militant noblewoman who seemed to have her own reasons for manipulating the situation. Hopefully there is more of her plot in the next novel in the series. It just felt like Ruby speedily accomplishes her mission and abruptly ends in a showdown with the king. I don’t know. I wanted to like the book, but I’m left with just hoping the series will get better as it goes.

3 out of 5

Review: Samurai William by Giles Milton


With all the adventure, derring-do, and bloodcurdling battle scenes of his earlier book, Nathaniel’s Nutmeg, acclaimed historian Giles Milton dazzles readers with the true story of William Adams—the first Englishman to set foot in Japan (and the inspiration for James Clavell’s bestselling novel Shogun). Beginning with Adams’s startling letter to the East India Company in 1611—more than a decade after he’d arrived in Japan—Samurai William chronicles the first foray by the West into that mysterious closed-off land. Drawing upon the journals and letters of Adams as well as the other Englishmen who came looking for him, Samurai William presents a unique glimpse of Japan before it once again closed itself off from the world for another two hundred years

Featuring a bizarre footnote in history, this very readable book introduces William Adams, a man who became stranded in Japan and ended up making it his home. Adams was able to navigate the intricate etiquette of Japanese culture, learn the language, and became invaluable to the survival of the first group of English traders in Japan. The victim of jealousy and distrust by his countrymen, Adams was still loyal and did what he could to help. Adams was a curious figure at a turning point in Japanese history. His battles with the Jesuits and Dutch are fascinating and a little known part of Japanese history is thrilling. Adams was perhaps ahead of his time, understanding the best way to navigate the culture of the land he had become stranded in was to respect it and modify his own behavior, something that the majority of the European populace found themselves unable to do when encountering other cultures.

5 out of 5

Review: A Useful Woman by Gioia Diliberto


Frequently recognized as one of the most influential women of the century, and considered a heroine by nurses and social workers around the globe, Jane Addams had to struggle long and hard to earn her place in history. Born in 1860 on the eve of the Civil War, she lived during pivotal times when women were only beginning to create new roles for themselves (ironically building on the Victorian ideal of women as ministering angels).

Focusing on her metamorphosis from a frail, small-town girl into a woman who inspired hundreds of others to join her movement to serve, the poor, A Useful Woman, delves into the mysterious ailments and other troubles young Jane faced.

Determined to find a place for herself in a world where women were very limited, Jane Addams became one of the pioneers in social work. In a time when women were supposed to be seen as angels of the home and couldn’t even vote, Addams founded Hull House in an attempt to make a difference in the lives of poor immigrants and also find a focus for her need to do something other than be the spinster aunt. A woman plagued with health issues and always rather distant, Addams found became an advocate for immigrant improvement and reform to social work. She used the stigma of women being more refined and virtuous at the time to her benefit and plunged into a staggering amount of work involving helping her neighborhood. Addams served as one of the few social workers who not only had money, but a desire to live among those she was helping. It was a revolutionary idea at a time when charity work was seen as not much more than giving out help from on high.

Jane’s plight wasn’t unusual at the time. Women were expected to get married and no thought was given to a woman ever having a career or different sexual orientation that may have made that less than desirable. Women at this time were starting to become more accepted into education but were often left at ends with what to do with it afterwards. The author delves into the psychosomatic illnesses that plagued some educated women that we would now contribute to severe mental and emotional distress or depression, but at the time were seen as proof of women being “weak” mentally. She also very openly and fairly addresses the fact that Addams may or may not have had romantic inclinations towards other women, a fact complicated by the flowery letter writing at the time and Jane’s own rather remote personality.

5 out of 5

Review: John Quincy Adams by Harlow Giles Unger


He fought for Washington, served with Lincoln, witnessed Bunker Hill, and sounded the clarion against slavery on the eve of the Civil War. He negotiated an end to the War of 1812, engineered the annexation of Florida, and won the Supreme Court decision that freed the African captives of The Amistad. He served his nation as minister to six countries, secretary of state, senator, congressman, and president.

John Quincy Adams was all of these things and more. In this masterful biography, award winning author Harlow Giles Unger reveals Quincy Adams as a towering figure in the nation’s formative years and one of the most courageous figures in American history, which is why he ranked first in John F. Kennedy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Profiles in Courage.

Considered to be a failure as a president, John Quincy Adams is a figure who not only suffered multiple political failures (such as the presidency), but found a way to persevere in spite of them and ultimately become a truly monumental champion of free speech, abolition, and protecting the rights of citizens. Now more than ever Adams’ example should shine as a beacon of someone who first and foremost saw himself as a defender of the right to speak out against things seen as a wrong or unfair. Adams became a formidable orator and in spite of constant opposition in Congress demanded his voice be heard saying things those in power did not want to hear, but needed to.

Raised by his ambitious parents to be a politician who would be able to protect and defend the legal and political side of his newly founded country, Adams was able to smooth the way for the fledgling nation with his diplomatic skills. Finding himself out of touch with the common man after becoming president, he eventually became the most fierce fighter for every man’s right to free speech. Not without his flaws, Adams could also be harsh and was plagued with many personal tragedies revolving around his family, from the young death of beloved family members, including a daughter, to the disease of alcoholism that claimed his brothers and sons. Adams was a pioneer in pushing the young nation to establish better education and centers for learning. Mocked for his devotion to knowledge, the Smithsonian Institute was founded under his watch. Determined to speak for what he believed rather than party politics, Adams alienated people and made many enemies, but on his death was almost universally admired for his wisdom and virtue. Unger gives a highly readable glimpse of a man that many have forgotten to some degree.

5 out of 5

Review: Clover Adams by Natalie Dykstra


Clover Adams, a fiercely intelligent Boston Brahmin, married at twenty-eight the soon-to-be-eminent American historian Henry Adams. She thrived in her role as an intimate of power brokers in Gilded Age Washington, where she was admired for her wit and taste by such luminaries as Henry James, H. H. Richardson, and General William Tecumseh Sherman. Clover so clearly possessed, as one friend wrote, “all she wanted, all this world could give.”

Yet at the center of her story is a haunting mystery. Why did Clover, having begun in the spring of 1883 to capture her world vividly through photography, end her life less than three years later by drinking a chemical developer she used in the darkroom? The key to the mystery lies, as Natalie Dykstra’s searching account makes clear, in Clover’s photographs themselves.

Clover Adams was for all intents and purposes a very intelligent and artistic person overshadowed by a brilliant husband and haunted by a family history of mental illness and depression. Perhaps the saddest part of her biography is the fact that her suicide might have been preventable today with the help of counseling or medicine, but at the turn of the century it was just not something really understood. Another area  of a time period that failed her is the view of women at this time. Clover had the makings of a great photographer, but bowing to the more conservative nature of the time and her husband’s dislike for attention directed toward his family (which a female photographer gaining any reputation other than as a “hobbyist” would have done) Clover made her passion a pass time. What remains is a woman who felt truly alone and becoming useless. Her husband was not a demonstrative man and had a very obvious fondness for another woman even though he truly did seem to love his wife. Clover’s documented insecurity with her looks and fear of abandonment could only have been aggravated by her inability to gauge her husband’s affections. The story is tragically of a woman plagued with a history of depression surrounded by people who could only hope she found a way out of her “black moods”. The most poignant thing is Clover’s photography sheds a light on the isolation and sadness she suffered from, giving a glimpse into a mind those closest too her struggled, but failed to understand.

5 out of 5

Review: Scarlet Women by Ian Graham


In 1965, an impoverished elderly woman was found dead in Nice, France. Her death marked the end of an era; she was the last of the great courtesans. Known as La Belle Otero, she was a volcanic Spanish beauty whose patrons included Kaiser Wilhelm II, the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) and Grand Duke Nicholas of Russia. She accumulated an enormous fortune, but gambled it all away. Scarlet Women tells her story and many more, including:

Marie Duplessis, who inspired characters by both Dumas and Verdi; Clara Ward, a rare American courtesan who hunted for a European aristocrat, but having married a Belgian prince, ran away with a gypsy violinist; Ninon de L’Enclos, who was offered 50,000 crowns by Cardinal Richelieu for one night. Money left in her will paid for Voltaire’s education.

Featuring a cadre of scandalous women, you’d think this book would be more salacious than it is, yet the cover is about the most tawdry thing about it. More focused on the unusual lives of some of the most infamous (and often forgotten) women who rubbed elbows with the rich and powerful in history, the book rarely addresses anything going on between the sheets and more looks at how unique their lives and situations often were. The over arcing theme is often that many times these women had little choice in the matter of whether they were “scandalous” or not. Some had big personalities, some were pushed into the life of a courtesan by their families, and some were simply beautiful women who wanted some measure of freedom in their lives. Many of the women I’d never heard of before, but they are presented sympathetically and often with humor. The book has sort of a choppy style in the writing, which is the only minor complaint I had. I’m sure someone looking for in depth about any of these women would be disappointed, but as a general collection of stories about some fascinating figures this book is a wonderful read.

4 out of 5