Tag: History

April 26, 2017

Mini Reviews | Historical Fiction

Mini Reviews | Historical FictionThe Dressmaker's War by Mary Chamberlain
Publisher: Random House, January 2016
Pages: 304

In London, 1939, Ada Vaughan is a young woman with an unusual dressmaking skill, and dreams of a better life for herself. That life seems to arrive when Stanislaus, an Austrian aristocrat, sweeps Ada off her feet and brings her to Paris. When war breaks out, Stanislaus vanishes, and Ada is taken prisoner by the Germans, she must do everything she can to survive: by becoming dressmaker to the Nazi wives. Abandoned and alone as war rages, the choices Ada makes will come to back to haunt her years later, as the truth of her experience is twisted and distorted after the war. From glamorous London hotels and Parisian cafes to the desperation of wartime Germany, here is a mesmerizing, richly textured historical novel, a story of heartbreak, survival and ambition, of the nature of truth, and the untold story of what happens to women during war.

During my latest historical fiction kick, I wanted to love this book so dearly. The cover was so beautiful and the story sounded so intriguing…but it was utterly uninspiring. Ada’s childish tendencies made her appear selfish and ignorant. While this would have been a great launching pad for her growth into a fantastic character, the character development was overshadowed by the powerful historical backdrop. In the end, Ada faded into the background instead of helping to tell the story of World War II.

 

Mini Reviews | Historical FictionMemoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden
Publisher: Vintage, January 1970
Pages: 434

A literary sensation and runaway bestseller, this brilliant debut novel presents with seamless authenticity and exquisite lyricism the true confessions of one of Japan's most celebrated geisha.
In Memoirs of a Geisha, we enter a world where appearances are paramount; where a girl's virginity is auctioned to the highest bidder; where women are trained to beguile the most powerful men; and where love is scorned as illusion. It is a unique and triumphant work of fiction—at once romantic, erotic, suspenseful—and completely unforgettable.

I’ve always heard excellent reviews about Memoirs of a Geisha and after finally reading it, I understand why. The powerful narration made it easy to hear the difference between the storyteller’s past and present, even the narrator’s occasional interjections. Combined with the fascinating history and culture of the geisha and a compelling main character, I can see why this book is a winner again and again.

 

Mini Reviews | Historical FictionThe Hourglass Factory by Lucy Ribchester
Publisher: Pegasus Books, March 2016
Pages: 512

London, 1912.
The suffragette movement is reaching a fever pitch, and Inspector Frederick Primrose is hunting a murderer on his beat. Across town, Fleet Street reporter Frances “Frankie” George is chasing an interview with trapeze artist Ebony Diamond. Frankie finds herself fascinated by the tightly-laced acrobat and follows her to a Kensington corset shop that seems to be hiding secrets of its own. When Ebony Diamond mysteriously disappears in the middle of a performance, Frankie and Primrose are both drawn into the shadowy world of a secret society with ties to both London's criminal underworld and its glittering socialites.
How did Ebony vanish, who was she afraid of, and what goes on behind the doors of the mysterious Hourglass Factory? From newsrooms to the drawing rooms of high society, the investigation leads Frankie and Primrose to a murderous villain with a plot more deadly than anyone could have imagined.

In the midst of the girl power era, I’ve fallen in love with the suffragettes. These women turned convention on its head so we can work, vote, and be ourselves. So, therefore I wanted to love The Hourglass Factory just as much, but it wasn’t in the cards.

The novel started out strong enough with a vibrant atmosphere built out of beautiful attention to detail and descriptive that dropped me in the middle of London. The main character of Frankie was engaging, inspiring, and familiar. She’s the underdog you want to cheer for. But it started to take too long for anything to happen. Overwhelmed by minor characters grabbing possession of the story, The Hourglass Factory quickly lost its way.

 

Mini Reviews | Historical FictionThe Moon in the Palace by Weina Dai Randel
Series: Empress of Bright Moon,
Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark, March 2016
Pages: 395

There is no easy path for a woman aspiring to power. . . .
A concubine at the palace learns quickly that there are many ways to capture the Emperor’s attention. Many paint their faces white and style their hair attractively, hoping to lure in the One Above All with their beauty. Some present him with fantastic gifts, such as jade pendants and scrolls of calligraphy, while others rely on their knowledge of seduction to draw his interest. But young Mei knows nothing of these womanly arts, yet she will give the Emperor a gift he can never forget.
Mei’s intelligence and curiosity, the same traits that make her an outcast among the other concubines, impress the Emperor. But just as she is in a position to seduce the most powerful man in China, divided loyalties split the palace in two, culminating in a perilous battle that Mei can only hope to survive.
The first volume of the Empress of Bright Moon duology paints a vibrant portrait of ancient China—where love, ambition, and loyalty can spell life or death—and the woman who came to rule it all.

Thank goodness for GoodReads’ annual book contest, or I would miss gems like The Moon in the Palace. I loved the insight into another historical era I’d never heard of before. Together with the powerhouse of a main character, the dynamic Mei (later known as Wu Zetian or Empress Consort Wu), The Moon in the Palace is a must for historical fiction fans, whether or not you’re interested in Chinese history. Between the historical backdrop, the forbidden love, or the astounding atmosphere that dropped you into Mei’s shoes, you’ll find something to love.

 

Mini Reviews | Historical FictionMr. Churchill's Secretary by Susan Elia MacNeal
Series: Maggie Hope Mystery,
Publisher: Bantam, April 2012
Pages: 358

London, 1940. Winston Churchill has just been sworn in, war rages across the Channel, and the threat of a Blitz looms larger by the day. But none of this deters Maggie Hope. She graduated at the top of her college class and possesses all the skills of the finest minds in British intelligence, but her gender qualifies her only to be the newest typist at No. 10 Downing Street. Her indefatigable spirit and remarkable gifts for codebreaking, though, rival those of even the highest men in government, and Maggie finds that working for the prime minister affords her a level of clearance she could never have imagined—and opportunities she will not let pass. In troubled, deadly times, with air-raid sirens sending multitudes underground, access to the War Rooms also exposes Maggie to the machinations of a menacing faction determined to do whatever it takes to change the course of history.
Ensnared in a web of spies, murder, and intrigue, Maggie must work quickly to balance her duty to King and Country with her chances for survival. And when she unravels a mystery that points toward her own family’s hidden secrets, she’ll discover that her quick wits are all that stand between an assassin’s murderous plan and Churchill himself.

Mr. Churchill’s Secretary should be a great book. Set in WWII London, it follows American-British Maggie Hope as she works for Prime Minister Churchill in the early to mid days of the war. Sounds like a winner, right? Yet behind the historical drama of England in the midst of the war, I finished the book with a wanting feeling. It had a good premise, mostly good execution, so what was missing? My vote? The passion in the characters. They were all right, but with a bit of a push, they could have been excellent.

Posted April 26, 2017 by Ellen in reviews / 0 Comments
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August 15, 2016

Review | Ladies of Liberty by Cokie Roberts

Review | Ladies of Liberty by Cokie RobertsLadies of Liberty: The Women Who Shaped Our Nation by Cokie Roberts
Publisher: Harper Perennial, March 2009
Pages: 512
Format: Paperback
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In this eye-opening companion volume to her acclaimed history Founding Mothers, number-one New York Times bestselling author and renowned political commentator Cokie Roberts brings to life the extraordinary accomplishments of women who laid the groundwork for a better society. Recounted with insight and humor, and drawing on personal correspondence, private journals, and other primary sources, many of them previously unpublished, here are the fascinating and inspiring true stories of first ladies and freethinkers, educators and explorers. Featuring an exceptional group of women—including Abigail Adams, Dolley Madison, Rebecca Gratz, Louise Livingston, Sacagawea, and others—Ladies of Liberty sheds new light on the generation of heroines, reformers, and visionaries who helped shape our nation, finally giving these extraordinary ladies the recognition they so greatly deserve.

After getting hooked on Hamilton (“Just you wait!”…sorry), I was thrilled to find Cokie Roberts’ history of the ladies of liberty, the women so often overlooked in favor of the famous men in their lives. Roberts take a in-depth looks at the lives and effect of these women, starting shortly after the founding of the nation, bringing life back to these amazing characters in history.

Thanks to Hamilton, I actually had a pretty good handle on the more minor character Roberts delved into and found myself connecting to them more so than others. It was a good segue into what occasionally became an info dump, helping keep the book moving along.

I loved the amount of depth about Aaron Burr, a man I sadly knew very little about, and his daughter Theodosia. Those treason charges? I had no idea about that, but watching it through his and his daughter’s eyes (a person who is essentially an extension of him) was fascinating.

There were other people throughout history I recognized, such as Sacagewa (who I have a whole new respect for), whose stories brought life to Ladies of Liberty. The portrayal of Dolley Madison made me sad I didn’t get to meet her – she sounded like quite the character. The level of detail was fascinating.

However, it did have a downside. Occasionally the narrative was so bogged down by the detail that it felt smarter to skip ahead a few pages and get back to the story. It was hit and miss: half engaging, the other half a bit boring.

I felt like the narration went off on tangents occasionally. There were many stories about women I’ve never heard of (great!), but without the proper set up, their stories didn’t resonate with me (not so great). Sometimes it felt like Roberts found a really great history, and felt she had to stick it in somewhere…ah! Without the proper introduction, these histories fell flat, and I felt more irritated than intrigued.

Overall, a must for American history (or Hamilton) buffs. The level of detail and occasional personal touch Roberts adds in brings the stories to life. Maybe with a little more background, the rest of the stories would have stood out to me as well.

3 Stars

Posted August 15, 2016 by Ellen in reviews / 1 Comment
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July 15, 2016

Review | The Match of the Century by Cathy Maxwell

Review | The Match of the Century by Cathy MaxwellThe Match of the Century by Cathy Maxwell
Series: Marrying the Duke, #1
Publisher: Avon, November 2015
Pages: 356
Format: Paperback
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In New York Times bestselling author Cathy Maxwell's glittering new series, wedding bells are ringing… until the return of a rake throws a bride's plans—and heart—into a tailspin...
Every debutante aspires to snag a duke. Elin Morris just happens to have had one reserved since birth. But postponements of her marriage to London's most powerful peer give Elin time to wonder how she will marry Gavin Baynton when she cannot forget his brother, Benedict.
Already exasperated at being yanked from the military to meet "family obligations," now Ben must suffer watching his arrogant sibling squire the only woman he has ever loved. Joining the army saved Ben from sinking into bitterness, but seeing Elin again takes him back to the day they surrendered to their intoxicating desire.
As the wedding draws near, Elin tries to push Ben far from her thoughts. When danger brings them together, there is no denying their feelings. But can Elin choose love over duty?

Long-lost lovers Elin and Ben are finally reunited…as Elin celebrates her long-planned engagement to Gavin, Ben’s brother. But after one look at Elin, Ben knows he can’t let his brother, the duke, marry her. Elin, torn between what she should do and what her heart is telling her, faces the choice of a lifetime: follow her heart or make the match of the century?

There’s a lovely sort of magic that thrives in historical romances. It can transport you to a different time and place, one maintained by manners and, therefore, all the more fun when the rules are broken. It creates a world where the term “rake” is used as an endearment of sorts, and women spent half the time flustered or whispering behind their fans. The historical romances with this magic are stunning.

Unfortunately, The Match of the Century isn’t one of them.

There’s nothing wrong with the story – in fact, the dueling brother/romantic hero story line reminded me of this story (which I loved) quite a bit. The fault in this historical romance fell to two things: the characters, and how they were portrayed by the narration.

Elin spent half her time telling me how she felt instead of showing me (major pet peeve). When something (finally) happens to her, the character doesn’t follow her nature (as portrayed so far, anyway). She’s weirdly calm, despite how often she claims she’s upset.

Ben, well, I don’t know what goes on in Ben’s brain. It was so caveman – “Woman. Mine. Must take from brother.” – and lacked the sort of finesse that brings me to these novels in the first place.

What stunned me the most was how Gavin, Elin’s fiancee and Ben’s brother, reacts to the whole thing. At first, she’s a possession (more caveman) thenView Spoiler ». It’s not plausible and entirely too contrived to make for fun reading.

I’m not head over heels about The Match of the Century. After a promising start, the novel fell flat because the characters, so intrinsic to the historical romance, weren’t strong enough to hold it up.

2 Stars

Posted July 15, 2016 by Ellen in reviews / 0 Comments
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January 20, 2016

The History of Fairy Tales: The Major Players

The History of Fairy Tales

All the best stories begin with “Once upon a time,” but how often do we think about where those fairy tales came from?

I was intrigued after listening to Stuff You Should Know’s podcasts on fairy tales (origins and Grimms’ fairy tales). I knew about the Grimm brothers and Hans Christian Anderson, but what about the others? Where did these stories come from? 

It’s nearly impossible to find many fairy tales origins – most were  told or acted out instead of handed down as written versions. It also makes it more difficult to find the original story. Think of it like a game of telephone: one storyteller tells it his way, as does the next, and the story evolves into something new. 


While many different authors influenced the fairy tales we know and love today, these guys stand out as the major players. 


Charles PerraultCharles Perrault 
Lived: 1628-1703
Hometown: Paris, France
Known for:
     The Sleeping Beauty (La Belle au bois Dormant)
     Little Red Riding Hood (Le Petit Chaperon Rouge)
     Cinderella (Cendrillon)
     Puss in Boots (Le Chat Botte)

Little-Known Fact: Perrault started writing fairy tales after he lost his post as a secretary at age 67 and devoted himself to his children.



Giovanni Francesco StraparolaGiovanni Francesco Straparola
Lived: 1480-1557
Hometown: Caravaggio, Italty
Known for:
     Constantio Fortunato (earliest known version of Puss-in-Boots)
     His two-volume work Le piacevoli notti (The Nights of Straparola) which contains the oldest known versions of many fairy tales.
Little-known fact: “Straparola,” meaning “babbler,” isn’t usually used as a last name. It is thought it was more of a nickname for the writer. 

Giambattista Basile

 

 

Giambattista Basile
Lived: 1566-1632
Hometown: Naples, Italy
Known for:
     Rapunzel (earliest known version)
     Cinderella (earliest known version)
     His collection of Neapolitan fairy tales, “The Tale of Tales, or Entertainment for the Little Ones”
Brothers GrimmLittle-known fact: The Brothers Grimm praised his collection as the “first national collection of fairy tales.”

Brothers Grimm (Jacob and Wilhelm)

Lived: Jacob (1785-1863), Wilhelm (1786-1859)
Hometown: Hanau, Germany
Known for:
     Popularizing folk tales, like Cinderella, The Frong Prince, Rapunzel, Snow White and more.
     Their fairy tale collaborations, like Children’s and Household Tales
     Their first collection was revised many times, growing from 86 to over 200 stories.
Hans Christian AndersonLittle-known fact: Both brothers were elected to the civil parliament. 

Hans Christian Anderson

Lived: 1805-1875
Hometown: Odense, Kingdom of Denmark
Known for: 
     “The Emperor’s New Clothes”
     “The Little Mermaid”
     “The Snow Queen”
Little-known fact: Anderson loved to travel, writing many travelogues on his journeys (Spain, Portugal, Sweden). 


What fairy tale authors do you love? Which is your favorite (hard question!)?

Posted January 20, 2016 by Ellen in history of fairy tales / 2 Comments
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August 14, 2015

Review | Sin in the Second City by Karen Abbott

Review | Sin in the Second City by Karen AbbottSin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys, and the Battle for America's Soul by Karen Abbott
Publisher: Random House, June 2008
Pages: 302
Format: Hardcover
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Step into the perfumed parlors of the Everleigh Club, the most famous brothel in American history–and the catalyst for a culture war that rocked the nation. Operating in Chicago’s notorious Levee district at the dawn of the last century, the Club’s proprietors, two aristocratic sisters named Minna and Ada Everleigh, welcomed moguls and actors, senators and athletes, foreign dignitaries and literary icons, into their stately double mansion, where thirty stunning Everleigh “butterflies” awaited their arrival. Courtesans named Doll, Suzy Poon Tang, and Brick Top devoured raw meat to the delight of Prince Henry of Prussia and recited poetry for Theodore Dreiser. Whereas lesser madams pocketed most of a harlot’s earnings and kept a “whipper” on staff to mete out discipline, the Everleighs made sure their girls dined on gourmet food, were examined by an honest physician, and even tutored in the literature of Balzac.
Not everyone appreciated the sisters’ attempts to elevate the industry. Rival Levee madams hatched numerous schemes to ruin the Everleighs, including an attempt to frame them for the death of department store heir Marshall Field, Jr. But the sisters’ most daunting foes were the Progressive Era reformers, who sent the entire country into a frenzy with lurid tales of “white slavery”——the allegedly rampant practice of kidnapping young girls and forcing them into brothels. This furor shaped America’s sexual culture and had repercussions all the way to the White House, including the formation of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
With a cast of characters that includes Jack Johnson, John Barrymore, John D. Rockefeller, Jr., William Howard Taft, “Hinky Dink” Kenna, and Al Capone, Sin in the Second City is Karen Abbott’s colorful, nuanced portrait of the iconic Everleigh sisters, their world-famous Club, and the perennial clash between our nation’s hedonistic impulses and Puritanical roots. Culminating in a dramatic last stand between brothel keepers and crusading reformers, Sin in the Second City offers a vivid snapshot of America’s journey from Victorian-era propriety to twentieth-century modernity.

Such a title. How can I resist a book that claims to tell the story of the “battle for America’s soul” right from the first page? I didn’t think that the history of two madams in 1800s Chicago would grab me, but, oh, did it. 

I immediately fell in love with the Everleigh sisters. These women epitomized the American dream. Sure, some people might not agree with this idea, but they envisioned it, planned it, and went out to get it. The psychology of two women who recreated their history to intentionally set themselves up as the most famous madams in America was intense, intriguing, and admirable. I wondered how they would do in today’s world, with the aid of technology to recreate their backgrounds. 

At first, I didn’t have the same fascinating with the reformers – I felt like they were taking away time from the most enchanting story of the two sisters. After I finished Sin in the Second City and thought over my notes, I realized that the reformers played a bigger role than I initially realized – they were the contrast, the foil, and to move into the historical, the representations of one era fighting against another. 

The same storytelling I fell in love with in Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy shone through in Sin in the Second City. Abbott brought the world of 1800s Chicago to life. I didn’t know the dark history of Chicago, the story of white slavery, or the history of courtesans. Each one intrigued me. Nothing stood so firm in the book as the theme of America’s transition from the Victorian era to the 20th century. I knew the basics of the story from history classes, but delving into the world, interacting with the people, brought the change to life. 

I didn’t expect to be intrigued by this particular era of American history. Typically, I find myself entranced by Civil War history or the Revolution, the Prohibition, but not Victorian era turning to the more modern world. Now, I can’t get enough. 

4 Stars

Posted August 14, 2015 by Ellen in reviews / 0 Comments
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July 10, 2015

Review | Lusitania: Triumph, Tragedy and the End of the Edwardian Era by Greg King and Penny Wilson

Title: Lusitania: Triumph, Tragedy, and the End of the Edwardian Era

Author: Greg King and Penny Wilson
Publication Date: February 2015
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Source & Format: Library; hardcover
Lusitania: She was a ship of dreams, carrying millionaires and aristocrats, actresses and impresarios, writers and suffragettes – a microcosm of the last years of the waning Edwardian Era and the coming influences of the Twentieth Century. When she left New York on her final voyage, she sailed from the New World to the Old; yet an encounter with the machinery of the New World, in the form of a primitive German U-Boat, sent her – and her gilded passengers – to their tragic deaths and opened up a new era of indiscriminate warfare.

A hundred years after her sinking, Lusitania remains an evocative ship of mystery. Was she carrying munitions that exploded? Did Winston Churchill engineer a conspiracy that doomed the liner? Lost amid these tangled skeins is the romantic, vibrant, and finally heartrending tale of the passengers who sailed aboard her. Lives, relationships, and marriages ended in the icy waters off the Irish Sea; those who survived were left haunted and plagued with guilt. Now, authors Greg King and Penny Wilson resurrect this lost, glittering world to show the golden age of travel and illuminate the most prominent of Lusitania’s passengers. Rarely was an era so glamorous; rarely was a ship so magnificent; and rarely was the human element of tragedy so quickly lost to diplomatic maneuvers and militaristic threats.

The story of the Lusitania is a new interest for me; I have always heard the story in passing, but after reading Erik Larson’s Dead Wake, I was hooked. I found King and Wilson’s Lusitania while looking through GoodReads a few weeks ago and picked it up at the library, hoping King and Wilson’s Lusitania would share more information to fuel my latest fascination.

King and Wilson’s Lusitania focuses on a few first and second class passengers, telling their story in incredible detail. Many of these passengers I hadn’t heard about before in my reading, so that held my attention. I found it a little strange, however, that King and Wilson don’t follow a third class passenger: in fact, they rarely mention the more than 1500 people who stayed in the Lusitania‘s third class accommodations. 

I hoped for more information on the U-boat commander Schwieger, but this nonfiction only devoted a chapter to the man that changed not only the course of the Lusitania‘s history, but the rules of warfare in general. For a man who had such an impact on so many lives, I found it a little strange that he was portrayed as a minor character. 

After the boat sails, the narration was strong and engaging: King and Wilson follow the chronological order of the ship’s last voyage. The order before was a little confusing: the narration bounced back and forth between the past and the time on the dock without a clear train of thought. Not a big deal, but was a little hard to follow at times.

In the end, Lusitania was an okay read. It wasn’t bad by any means, but I found myself yearning for more information, for more details on the passengers…just more. 


Posted July 10, 2015 by Ellen in Uncategorized / 0 Comments
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June 18, 2015

Review | When Paris Went Dark by Ronald C. Rosbottom

Title: When Paris Went Dark: The City of Light Under German Occupation, 1940-1944
Author: Ronald C. Rosbottom
Publication Date: August 2014
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Source & Format: Library; hardcover
Links: GoodReads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble

The spellbinding and revealing chronicle of Nazi-occupied Paris

On June 14, 1940, German tanks entered a silent and nearly deserted Paris. Eight days later, France accepted a humiliating defeat and foreign occupation. Subsequently, an eerie sense of normalcy settled over the City of Light. Many Parisians keenly adapted themselves to the situation-even allied themselves with their Nazi overlords. At the same time, amidst this darkening gloom of German ruthlessness, shortages, and curfews, a resistance arose. Parisians of all stripes-Jews, immigrants, adolescents, communists, rightists, cultural icons such as Colette, de Beauvoir, Camus and Sartre, as well as police officers, teachers, students, and store owners-rallied around a little known French military officer, Charles de Gaulle. 

WHEN PARIS WENT DARK evokes with stunning precision the detail of daily life in a city under occupation, and the brave people who fought against the darkness. Relying on a range of resources—memoirs, diaries, letters, archives, interviews, personal histories, flyers and posters, fiction, photographs, film and historical studies—Rosbottom has forged a groundbreaking book that will forever influence how we understand those dark years in the City of Light.



A must for history lovers, especially those who can’t resist the allure of Paris. I found this book on GoodReads and grabbed a copy from the library. The depictions of Paris are stunning, but the story of the City of Light under occupation was both strange and fascinating. The strange denial and forced normalcy of the remaining citizens cast an odd pall over Paris that lasted throughout the war.


I was disappointed that Rosbottom stayed within the psychological story of Paris’ occupation. He doesn’t delve into the darker history, like the Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup, instead focusing on the Germans’ fascination and tourism with Paris. I didn’t know about Germany’s infatuation with the City of Light, which was fascinating, but I wanted to know it all, from the good to the ugly. Rosbottom’s When Paris Went Dark more often than not focused on the good/not-so-bad. 


Rosbottom’s ancedotes were interesting, but they occasionally weren’t enough to pick up some of the more dry parts. Hitler’s tour of Paris to be the most fascinating story included in When Paris Went Dark because it showed the complexity of his personality and mindset. Rosbottom’s depiction of Hitler as a conqueror and a tourist is such a fascinating combination, making me see Paris in an entirely different light.


To be fair, to truly enjoy this book, one must be interested in this topic. This isn’t an overview: it’s an in-depth, detailed look at Paris under occupation only. However, When Paris Went Dark is an interesting read, one that has little tidbits of history that isn’t commonly taught in our history classes. 


Posted June 18, 2015 by Ellen in Uncategorized / 0 Comments
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May 28, 2015

Review | Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy by Karen Abbott

Title: Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy
Author: Karen Abbott {website}
Publication Date: July 2014
Publisher: Harper
Source & Format: Library; hardcover
Links: GoodReads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble

Karen Abbott illuminates one of the most fascinating yet little known aspects of the Civil War: the stories of four courageous women—a socialite, a farmgirl, an abolitionist, and a widow—who were spies.

After shooting a Union soldier in her front hall with a pocket pistol, Belle Boyd became a courier and spy for the Confederate army, using her charms to seduce men on both sides. Emma Edmonds cut off her hair and assumed the identity of a man to enlist as a Union private, witnessing the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. The beautiful widow, Rose O’Neale Greenhow, engaged in affairs with powerful Northern politicians to gather intelligence for the Confederacy, and used her young daughter to send information to Southern generals. Elizabeth Van Lew, a wealthy Richmond abolitionist, hid behind her proper Southern manners as she orchestrated a far-reaching espionage ring, right under the noses of suspicious rebel detectives.

Using a wealth of primary source material and interviews with the spies’ descendants, Abbott seamlessly weaves the adventures of these four heroines throughout the tumultuous years of the war. With a cast of real-life characters including Walt Whitman, Nathaniel Hawthorne, General Stonewall Jackson, detective Allan Pinkerton, Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, and Emperor Napoleon III, Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy draws you into the war as these daring women lived it.


When I think of women in the Civil War, two different types come to mind: meek and mild, and the Scarlett O’Hara of warriors, using their feminine wiles to do battle with words. I never considered women dressing as men as Emma Edmundson does, blatantly spying as Belle Boyd does, or creating spy rings as Rose Greenhow and Elizabeth Van Lew did. Abbott’s memoir detailing these women’s drastically different yet fascinating lives opens a new chapter of Civil War history. 

Initially, I couldn’t find Abbott’s rhythm, but her pacing quickly caught me up in the world of the Civil War by the second chapter. I was a little concerned about the amount of history I knew Abbott intended to cover, but she recreated these vibrant women’s personalities so well that I found myself enchanted. Her writing was smooth and engaging, developing each woman’s history so well I felt that I knew them myself.

Each woman had a different impression on me; I found Belle, the stubborn rebel spy, to be mildly irritating, a bit arrogant, and one hundred percent devoted to her Confederate cause. Emma, the woman disguised as a soldier in the Army of the Potomac was a woman trying to find her place in the world. Rose Greenhow used her wiles to subtly spy on the Union, flaunting her Southern roots at each chance she could, but was slowly recovering from the loss of her child. Elizabeth Van Lew put everything on the line – her reputation, her family, her home – to do what was right to her. In short, I fell in love with these women.

Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy is a fantastic depiction of the every aspect of the Civil War: Abbott touches on women’s rights, segregation, world perspectives, and honest depictions of battles (the hardest part to read). Abbott’s work is a must read for history buffs and memoir fans, or simply for someone curious about America’s Civil War.


Posted May 28, 2015 by Ellen in Uncategorized / 0 Comments
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April 11, 2015

Review | Case Closed by Gerald Posner

Title: Case Closed
Author: Gerald Posner {website}
Publication Date: September 2003
Publisher: Anchor
Source & Format: Borrowed; hardcover
Links: GoodReads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble

The assassination of John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963, continues to inspire interest ranging from well-meaning speculation to bizarre conspiracy theories and controversial filmmaking. But in this landmark book, reissued with a new afterword for the 40th anniversary of the assassination, Gerald Posner examines all of the available evidence and reaches the only possible conclusion: Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. There was no second gunman on the grassy knoll. The CIA was not involved. And although more than four million pages of documents have been released since Posner first made his case, they have served only to corroborate his findings. Case Closed remains the classic account against which all books about JFK’s death must be measured. 




Normally, I don’t check others’ reviews before I write my own, but today, I was intrigued. The variance of reviews was astonishing. JFK’s assassination is such a crucial part of America that everyone (literally…everyone) has an opinion on this fateful day in history. (Oh, before we begin – reading those reviews did not influence my own.)





Posner’s narration created a smooth flow of images, streaming different opinions and perspectives of the Kennedy assassination into a fascinating book. I liked the addition of the footnotes, adding different tidbits of information and occasional perspectives. There were times, however, that Posner’s personal opinions overcame the narration, especially as the book drew to a close. Granted, it’s his book and he can say whatever he wants in it, but I much preferred the recitation of events and fascinating, little-known observations on the characters in play. 




The event’s major characters were all portrayed with a great bit of detail: all except JFK, Jackie, and their side of the story. I expected some of the story to focus on Jackie after the assassination and the funeral, so Posner’s skip from LBJ’s rushed swearing-in ceremony to the medical examiners’ findings were a bit harsh (Note: this section is hard to read, especially for squeamish people like me). The focus on the two killers, Oswald and Ruby, fascinated me. 






Oddly, I had never given Oswald a lot of thought: JFK rules the narration more often then not. It was Posner’s focus on Oswald that kept me reading, tracing back from his childhood to track personality traits and characteristics. Whether or not you agree that Oswald was the killer, Posner’s depiction of his life is enough to fascinate any. 






Again,  regardless if you agree with Posner or not, the amount of detail in his research is so engaging. I loved the detailed footnotes, the cultural tidbits from Russia and Oswald’s life in the South with Marina…there was so much in this (admittedly huge) book that caught my interest. This will be a great read for any history buff!


Posted April 11, 2015 by Ellen in Uncategorized / 0 Comments
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April 9, 2015

Review | Dead Wake by Erik Larson

Title: Dead Wake
Author: Erik Larson {website}
Publication Date: March 2015
Publisher: Crown
Source & Format: Library; hardcover
Links: GoodReads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble

On May 1, 1915, with WWI entering its tenth month, a luxury ocean liner as richly appointed as an English country house sailed out of New York, bound for Liverpool, carrying a record number of children and infants. The passengers were surprisingly at ease, even though Germany had declared the seas around Britain to be a war zone. For months, German U-boats had brought terror to the North Atlantic. But the Lusitania was one of the era’s great transatlantic “Greyhounds”—the fastest liner then in service—and her captain, William Thomas Turner, placed tremendous faith in the gentlemanly strictures of warfare that for a century had kept civilian ships safe from attack. 

Germany, however, was determined to change the rules of the game, and Walther Schwieger, the captain of Unterseeboot-20, was happy to oblige. Meanwhile, an ultra-secret British intelligence unit tracked Schwieger’s U-boat, but told no one. As U-20 and the Lusitania made their way toward Liverpool, an array of forces both grand and achingly small—hubris, a chance fog, a closely guarded secret, and more—all converged to produce one of the great disasters of history.

It is a story that many of us think we know but don’t, and Erik Larson tells it thrillingly, switching between hunter and hunted while painting a larger portrait of America at the height of the Progressive Era. Full of glamour and suspense, Dead Wake brings to life a cast of evocative characters, from famed Boston bookseller Charles Lauriat to pioneering female architect Theodate Pope to President Woodrow Wilson, a man lost to grief, dreading the widening war but also captivated by the prospect of new love. 

Gripping and important, Dead Wake captures the sheer drama and emotional power of a disaster whose intimate details and true meaning have long been obscured by history.



I knew about the Lusitania in the most superficial way, the way high school history teachers gloss over important world events to pack as much information as they can into a semester. I thought I knew the story, but Larson’s Dead Waste left me breathless. 


The depth of Larson’s research is unbelievable. From the details on a baby’s clothes to the thoughts of various passengers, Larson’s research and narration brought Dead Waste to life. I was so impressed by the depth of details and historical events, especially the British perspective. The Lusitania, often referred to as the jewel of the British line, Cunard, was a major focus in the Admiralty and I loved reading their reactions – it was an entirely new story line that I had never heard before.


Turner’s narrative and story added for a new perspective, one that I have never heard in this story before. As the captain of the British fleet’s pride and joy, he had certain responsibilities, especially in wartime, so his perspective is especially fascinating.


I found myself addicted to this historical nonfiction. I read Dead Wake during my lunch, on my breaks, getting ready for work in the morning (putting on mascara was a trial, let me tell you)…I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I knew what would happen, but it was the smooth narration and constant new perspectives that kept Dead Wake in the front of my mind. 


Posted April 9, 2015 by Ellen in Uncategorized / 0 Comments
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