Tag Archives: historical biography

Book Reviews: The Rise Of Thomas Cromwell & Billie Holiday The Musician And The Myth

Hello everyone,

here are today’s reviews. Enjoy:

The Rise of Thomas Cromwell: Power and Politics in the Reign of Henry VIII, 1485-1534 by Michael Everett
Thomas Cromwell is often portrayed, both by historians, novelists, and film makers, as a Machiavellian politician and revolutionary evangelical who rose to power by masterminding Henry VIII’s split with Rome. While it makes for an intriguing story, Everett thinks we’ve been exaggerating his importance, and his influence on Henry VIII. By combing through historical documents and primary sources, he retraces Cromwell’s early career, from his humble beginnings to his rise at court. The figure that emerges from these pages is that of a very skilled, highly efficient, and hard-working administrator to whom Henry VIII could delegate all kinds of matters, knowing they would be taken care of. It was the King who made all the important decisions. Cromwell only executed them.
Because the book deals with Cromwell’s early career, as a lawyer and merchant first, and later as a servant of the King who was responsible for various Crown lands (it was this work, Everett argues, that brought him to the attention of Henry VIII), it is sometimes dry in places. Some topics, like law, just aren’t that engaging, unless you have a passion for them. But that doesn’t mean the book is boring. On the contrary, it is full of fascinating insights into Cromwell’s work and personality that give us a better understanding of who this man really was and how he managed to rise so quickly at court. It’s a must read for anyone interested in Cromwell and the Tudors.
Available at: Amazon
Rating: 4/5

Billie Holiday: The Musician and the Myth by John Szwed
Never title was more apt. When I picked up this book, I expected to read a regular biography of Billie Holiday. A chronological account of her life and work, starting from her birth, to her rise to fame, her turbulent love life, and her death. Instead, what I got was a study of Billie as a musician and an investigation into the myths that still surround her. The first part of the book is dedicated to debunking all the lies and misconceptions about Billie, including those she herself told in her autobiography. Szwed skilfully separates fact from fiction to reveal what really happened, both in her personal and professional life.
The second part of the book focuses on Billie, The Musician. Szwed brings back to life the musical world Billie inhabited and its protagonists. Her voice, her creative process, her performance style, the songs she wrote and sang, and the impact she had on the music world are all analysed to explain what made her so incredibly talented and loved, even decades after her death.
Well-written and engaging, the book is a fascinating study of Billie’s life and work, providing lots of interesting insight into a bygone era and one of its main protagonists. You can tell how much Szwed loves his subject. His passion exudes from every page. Unfortunately, the book also confused me. Billie Holiday: The Musician And The Myth is only for die-hard fans (or detractors) of Billie. Because the book doesn’t follow a chronological order and is more a debate on Billie and her art, only they have the necessary background information to fully appreciate it. If you, like me, simply wanted to know more about her life, this book isn’t for you. It did, however, made me curious to discover more about Billie Holiday and listen to more of her songs.
Available at: Amazon
Rating: 3.5/5

Are you going to pick up these books?

Disclaimer: this book was sent by PR for consideration. In addition, this post contains affiliate links.

Book Review: Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley

Mary Wollstonecraft died a few days after giving birth to her daughter, Mary Shelley. Yet, even from beyond the grave, she played a big part in her daughter’s upbringing and had a big influence on her beliefs and decisions. Both women made similar choices, suffered similar tragedies, and were sustained throughout all their hardships by their dreams of improving women’s conditions through their writings.

Both Marys were intelligent, talented women that struggled to achieve independence in a world where women were considered the properties of their fathers and husbands, meant to serve and obey, not to lead and work. They both became famous writers, penning books and essays that highlighted their political convictions and the evils of society. They fell in love with men who broke their hearts. They had children out of wedlock. They both lived abroad, Wallstonecraft in Paris during the Revolution and Shelley in Italy with her husband Percy, the infamous Lord Byron and their circle of scandalous friends.

They broke every social convention of their time. “Not only did they write world-changing books,” Gordon writes, “they broke from the strictures that governed women’s conduct, not once but time and again. Their refusal to bow down, to be quiet and subservient, to apologize and hide, makes their lives as memorable as the words they left behind”. Their refusal to bow down to the dictates of society and their determination to remain true to themselves and their beliefs, no matter what, made them what Wollstonecraft termed “outlaws”.

In Gordon’s hands, both women, with all their strengths and flaws, talents and dreams, vividly come back to life again. So does the world they inhabited, with all its strict rules and social conventions, and the ostracism it inflicted on those who dared break them. Put into context, their achievements in overcoming the many hardships, prejudices, and insults they faced, are even more astonishing and remarkable.

Their stories are told in alternating chapters. Gordon dedicates one chapter to each woman at a similar period in her life, so we are always going back and forth between them. I thought this would be confusing, but it wasn’t at all. Each chapter is named after the Mary it is dedicated to, the years it covers, and the most important events that occurred in that period. Besides, despite their many similarities, their lives were different enough to allow readers to always easily distinguish between the two Marys.

Well-researched and beautifully written, Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley hardly reads like a biography at all. It is a very enthralling read, sometimes utilizing fictional devices such as cliffhangers to keep readers interested and engrossed. You just won’t be able to put it down.

Well-researched and beautifully written, Romantic Outlaws: The Extraordinary Lives of Mary Wollstonecraft and Her Daughter Mary Shelley tells the story of two remarkable women who have defied conventions to remain true to themselves and used their talents to improve the conditions of women in society. Enthralling and engrossing, you won’t be able to put it down.

Available at: Amazon

Rating: 5/5

Disclaimer: this book was sent by PR for consideration. In addition, this post contains affiliate links.

Book Reviews: The Abortionist's Daughter, The Sharp Hook of Love, The Tudor Vendetta, & The Woman Who Would Be King

Hello everyone,

today I’m reviewing three historical novels, and a biography of a great ancient female ruler. If you pick up these books, I hope you’ll enjoy them as much as I did.

The Abortionist’s Daughter by Elisa DeCarlo
Melanie Daniels lives a quiet and boring life in a small American town. Her family is admired and loved by the community until one day her her father accidentally kills a woman while performing an abortion and is sent to jail. The small town is horrified, and shuns not just the doctor but his family too. Melanie’s only hope for the future seems to be marriage to Paul, a nice and shy younger guy who doesn’t make her heart flutter. That’s until she meets James. Believing him to be an honourable gentleman, Melanie runs away with him to New York. Here James shows his true colours and abandons her. His mistress Gladys, a Broadway actress, comes to her rescue, leaving her in her debt. Their paths will meet again when Melanie discovers her calling is the stage too.
The Abortionist’s Daughter is a coming of age story. At the start of the novel Melanie, who has lived a protected life in a small town, is very naive, completely ignorant in matters of sex, gullible, and selfish. She trusts the wrong people and make many mistakes, with awful consequences both for herself and those she loves. But she also tries to fix them, and learns a lot along the way. And she’s determined to make something of her life. She doesn’t just follow James to New York for love. She also follows him because she wants a better life for herself. For that, she’s willing to defy conventions and the role society imposed upon women. In doing so, she becomes a better person and an independent woman.
DeCarlo beautifully describes life in 1910, from the quiet life in a small, quite-narrow minded community, to the glitz and glamour of Broadway, to the many restrictions placed on women, leaving them few options. The language used fits the theme period well, adding another layer of authenticity to the story. It’s obvious DeCarlo did her research, and did it well.
The abortion topic is always a controversial one. But, despite what the title may imply, it’s not even the main theme here. Yet, DeCarlo strongly conveys how dangerous abortions were at the time, and how desperate women felt to decide to have one. Regardless of what your opinion is, the book, by humanizing these women, does offer some interesting food for thought.
My only criticism is that the book starts quite slowly. It took me a couple of chapters to fully get into it, but once it picked up speed somewhat, I thoroughly enjoyed it. I highly recommend it to readers who love coming of age stories and fans of this historical era.
Available at: Amazon
Rating: 4/5

The Sharp Hook of Love: A Novel of Heloise and Abelard by Sherry Jones
Everyone knows the story of Abelard and Heloise. He was one of the greatest philosophers in France. She one of the best learned woman in the country. He was headmaster at the Nôtre Dame Cloister School. She was his student. He aspired to fame. She was destined for the convent. But when they met, their lives changed forever. Abelard and Heloise fell in love. Ambitious but naive, the two lovers believed they could defy the conventions of the time, established by men they considered to be their inferiors. In the end, they were forced to decide between love, duty, and ambition.
The Sharp Hook Of Love is a beautiful retelling of this ever famous love story. But a one sided one. Heloise is the narrator, and everything that happened is filtered through her eyes and her feelings for Abelard. At times, it is actually difficult to remember how well-educated and intelligent Heloise really is, as consumed and obsessed as she is by her feelings for her lover. But love is not rational, and, if you expect it to be, you’re going to be very frustrated with Heloise. As much as she adores Abelard, though, he doesn’t come across as a good and dashing romantic hero in this book. He treats her quite badly for most of their time together, being more interested in making sure their relationship doesn’t ruin his career than anything else. Had the story had an omniscient narrator, and the reader able to see what was in his heart too, maybe he would have come across better.
But these drawbacks, if you can so call them, didn’t bother me nor diminished my enjoyment in reading the novel. On the contrary, The Sharp Hook Of Love is one of the best novels I’ve read this year. Vividly written and poignant, the love and passion the couple felt for each other exudes from every page. But this isn’t just a story about love. It’s a story about sacrifice. A story about power and how it was wielded to both keep women in their place and destroy your enemies. Highly recommended.
Available at: Amazon
Rating: 4.5/5

The Tudor Vendetta by C.W. Gortner
The Tudor Vendetta is the third and last volume in the Spymaster Chronicles. I have not read the first two (but I surely will now), so I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to follow this story properly, but that wasn’t the case. Although there are many references to events that happened in the first two books, these are clearly explained, leaving the reader always up to date and never feeling frustrated.
The story takes place right after Elizabeth I’s accession to the throne. Spy-in-training Brendan Prescott returns to London from exile, hoping to keep working with Cecil and Walsingham to keep the Queen safe and to reconcile with his sweetheart, Kate, one of Elizabeth’s ladies-in-waiting. But the Queen has other plans. Her beloved Lady Parry has disappeared while on a visit to Vaughn Hall, her family home, and she needs Prescott to find out what happened to her. But the manor hides a secret that could destroy Elizabeth.
The Tudor Vendetta is full of twists and turns. When you think you have it all figured out, something unexpected happens. Although it starts slowly, and the beginning of the book seems to have little to do with the mystery Brendan is called to investigate, it soon picks up speed, forcing the reader to quickly turn the pages, unable to put the book down.
The world Gortner evokes is very vivid and realistic too. Although I didn’t fully get the sense of urgency he was trying to create, I did get the sense of mystery. The scenes at Vaughn Hall, especially, evoked a somewhat gothic atmosphere that keeps the reader uneasy and intrigued. The characters are also well-developed, especially Brendan. He’s quick, smart, confident, and loyal, yet with weaknesses and faults that make him human and easy to relate to. Although the trilogy has ended, I hope Gortner will keep writing about Brendan and his adventures.
Well-written and engaging, The Tudor Vendetta is a must read for all fans of the Tudors and of good mystery novels.
Available at: Amazon
Rating: 4/5

The Woman Who Would Be King: Hatshepsut’s Rise to Power in Ancient Egypt by Kara Cooney
Reading The Woman Who Would Be King, a biography of Egyptian’s female ruler Hatshepsut, is as fascinating as it is frustrating.
Fascinating because Hatshepsut was an incredible woman who has done the unthinkable. She became regent for her nephew when she was just a teenager and refused to relinquish it even when he became old enough to rule on his own. She bent the boundaries of gender to consolidate her power in a society where authority was synonym with masculinity. She brought prosperity to her country. Never before had a woman held so much power, and centuries would pass before it happened again.
And yet her images and legacy were destroyed, and largely forgotten, by her successors. Which brings me to the frustrating part. Very little information about Hatshepsut has survived. Despite her astonishing achievements, we know very little of what she did, and even less of what kind of person she was. Therefore, this biography is full of conjectures and hypothesis. Terms like “likely” and “possibly” abound in almost every page.
In telling her story, Cooney presents the historical evidence, backed by sources, and explores all possible sides of an argument or event, and then shares her own conclusions. But even she admits that her book is more speculation that real history, especially when she tries to image how Hatshepsut felt at different moments in her life. It’s not her fault, though. Cooney did the best job she could with the information she had. Unless new evidence comes to light, it’s impossible to write a more accurate story of this ruler and her reign. If Egyptologists, academicians, and historians will still criticize her for it, the casual reader will appreciate it more.
Although written in an academic style, Cooney brings the world in which Hatshepsut lived back to life. A lot of her theories aren’t based only on fragments of old documents or what remains of her temples, but also on the beliefs and customs the Ancient Egyptians had. This gives us a better understanding of both the limitations imposed upon her and the opportunities she was given. If, by the end of the book, Hatshepsut still remains elusive, the Egyptian world she lived in will have revealed most of its secrets to you.
Well-researched, documented, and written, The Woman Who Would Be King is a wonderful read that will appeal to all fans of Ancient Egypt and powerful women.
Available at: Amazon
Rating: 4/5

What do you think of these books?

Disclaimer: this book was sent by PR for consideration. In addition, this post contains affiliate links.

Book Reviews: The Match Girl And The Heiress, The Many Faces Of Josephine Baker, Saved By The Bang, & Lewis Carroll The Man And His Circle

Hello everyone,

curious to see what I’ve been reading lately? Let’s get started then:

The Match Girl and the Heiress by Seth Koven
Nellie Dowell, the daughter of a sailor who drowned at sea when she was only 5, was taken away from her mother, who couldn’t afford to keep her anymore, and sent to live in a poorhouse. She never had a childhood. Muriel Lester, the daughter of a well-off ship-builder, never lacked for anything. Her childhood was peaceful and full of love. Nellie started working in the match-making industry at an early age and, thanks to her job, was able to travel to New Zealand and Sweden. Muriel travelled the world too, but as a Christian peacemaker and humanitarian. Nellie struggled financially all her life. Muriel considered her wealth a burden and wanted to be free of it.
The match girl and the heiress met, and became friends, in the slums of East London, where they created Kingsley Hall, Britain’s first “people’s house” founded on the Christian principles of social sharing and pacifism and Gandhi’s home while in London, and tried to bring about economic and social justice, using the Sermon on the Mount as their guide.
This book is a wonderful account of the very different lives of these women, their close friendship, and their hard work for a common ideal they strongly believed in, in a world torn apart by war, imperialism, and industrial capitalism.
Although not a light read, the book is fascinating and engrossing, and provides valuable insights into a little known aspect of turn of the century history in England and London. Well-written and researched, I highly recommend it to those who are interested in this historical period, the lives of the working classes, and anyone who wants to understand our modern world better.
Available at: Amazon
Rating: 4/5

The Many Faces of Josephine Baker: Dancer, Singer, Activist, Spy by Peggy Caravantes
Young adults know Josephine Baker as a cabaret performer and jazz singer, if at all. But Josephine Baker was so much more than that. She worked as a spy, at a great risk for her safety, during World War II, and became a civil rights and human rights activist. Her belief that people of all races and religions could live peacefully together led her to adopt 12 children from different parts of the world. They were known as the Rainbow Tribe.
But Josephine was no saint. She had a fiery temper, little education, too much pride, no idea how to manager her money, and didn’t hesitate to dump people when she didn’t need them anymore. She often comes across as unpleasant, but her shortcomings were more the result of a difficult childhood and poor education than meaniness. An example? She allowed Peron to use her as a propaganda tool, making statements that outraged the Western World. Although her heart was in the right place, her lack of education left her vulnerable and didn’t always allow her to see things clearly. But her faults make her all the more human and relatable.
Despite being written for a young adult audience, the book is not dumbed down. It doesn’t gloss over her flaws, nor over the many challenges, racism and abuse Josephine had to face in her life. But it deals with them in a way that is suitable for this age group.
Well-written and researched, the book also features beautiful pictures, informative sidebars on relevant topics such as 1917 East St. Louis riot, and an appendix that updates readers on what happened to the Rainbow Tribe. Overall, it’s a wonderful introduction to this remarkable woman that I highly recommend to all those who aren’t very familiar with her life and work.
Available at: Amazon
Rating: 4/5

Saved By The Bang by Marina Julie Neary
Belarus, 1980s. Antonia Olenski, PhD, a catty half-Jewish pianist, is married to local celebrity and composer Joseph, but is enjoying the attentions of the dashing tenor Nicholas. Their love triangle is broken up by the Chernobyl disaster, which forces Antonia to evacuate the city with her daughter Maryana. When she returns to the Gomel Music Academy, she discovers her job has been given to someone else. She’s been demoted, but is determined to regain her crown.
Saved By The Bang is a dark nuclear comedy. The characters continually struggle with adversity, in a world where abuse, adultery, and deceit are common, even normal. Even the nuclear disaster of Chernobyl and its aftermath don’t faze them. People are falling ill and babies born with disabilities, but they get on with life as if nothing had happened. Their reactions to events are often absurd… or not? Although they don’t react as you expect them to, their reactions are realistic. Getting on with life despite everything, cheating, adapting, and fighting back, are all ways to survive in a world where you are often on your own.
The novel is very politically incorrect, sharp, and laced with dark humour that portrays the human condition in all its rawness, misery, absurdity, and glory. If that’s your thing, you’ll love this.
Available at: Amazon
Rating: 4/5

Lewis Carroll: The Man and his Circle by Edward Wakeling
For most people, Lewis Carroll is simply the author of Alice in Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass. But Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, his real name and the one Wakeling uses throughout his biography, was a very complex man. Blessed with a vivid imagination which he used to create stories to entertain first his siblings and then the world, Dodgson was also an Anglican deacon, mathematician, logician, amateur photographer, artist, and supporter of the arts. He was also a devoted son and brother who took care of his unmarried sisters, a loyal friend and a man who enjoyed a vast social circle.
It’s the people he cared about and associated with – his family, his friends, his colleagues, his associates, and his acquaintances – that are the real focus of this book. These included his parents, child friend Alice Liddell, artists Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Millais, poet Alfred Tennyson, publisher MacMillan, and a lot more. Drawing upon his personal database of nearly 6,000 letters, mostly never before published, Wakeling examines the relationships Dodgson had with the people he knew, loved, admired, and worked with. Because each chapter is dedicated to a different group of people (one for his family, one for his child friends, and so on) the book doesn’t follow a strict chronological order. Yet, the reader never becomes confused about dates and events.
Lewis Carroll: The Man And His Circle provides fascinating insights that improve our understanding of the life of this Victorian man and the time he lived in and help us debunk common myths. But it is no easy read. I found the writing style often dry, especially when new characters are introduced. Making genealogical information sound interesting is always challenging, but it’s like the author never even tried to make such passages readable.
But I had a bigger problem with the book. Wakeling is obviously passionate about Dodgson, and I can easily see why. His love for the Victorian author permeates the book, but also turns Dodgson into a one dimensional, positive, character. Wakeling is so busy defending him from all the nasty, unfounded charges that have been thrown at him throughout the centuries that he never mentions any of his flaws. While I don’t believe he was the monster some people believe he was, he wasn’t a saint either. Not one is perfect, and mentioning his flaws would have allowed the reader to better relate to Dodgson.
So, would I recommend this book? If you don’t know much about Lewis Carroll and are looking for a full biography of the author, nope. This ain’t it. But if you want to know more about the people he associated with, then, despite his flaws, you’ll find this book a treasure trove of valuable information. And if you’re a die-hard Carroll fan, this book is a must.
Available at: Amazon
Rating: 3.5/5

What do you think of these books? Will you pick up one or two?

Disclaimer: this book was sent by PR for consideration. In addition, this post contains affiliate links.

Book Reviews: Women Heroes Of The American Revolution, Behind Every Great Man, & Enough

Hello everyone,

today’s books all celebrate women, and are a must read for all those who are interested in their stories and well-being. Here’s why:

Women Heroes of the American Revolution: 20 Stories of Espionage, Sabotage, Defiance, and Rescue by Susan Casey
The contribution women made to the American Revolution has been largely forgotten. Until now. Susan Casey has brought back to light the stories of 20 women who fought, in different ways, alongside men for the independence of their country. Their stories are divided in 5 sections, based on the role these women played. Supporters, like Mary Katherine Goddard, the publisher who first printed the Declaration of Independence with the names of the signatories. Spies, like Lydia Darragh, who passed information to George Washington. Saboteurs, like Sybil Ludington, who made a Paul Revere style ride to gather scattered troops to fight the enemy. Soldiers, like Deborah Sampson Gannett, who served, disguised as a man, in the Continental Army. The stories are beautifully illustrated with images of the heroines, while small sidebars help put their accomplishments, and the situations they found themselves in into context.
Some of the stories are so intertwined with, even submerged by, myths, that it is difficult to separate legends from reality. But, drawing from primary source documents and interviews with eminent historians, Casey did the best job she could under the circumstances.
My only complaint is that some stories are quite dry. Maybe that’s due to the substantial lack of information about some of the heroines, but half the stories failed to fully engage my attention. And it’s a shame, cos they involved some amazing accomplishments. If the writing style had been as exciting as the feats it describes, I would have given it a higher rating. But, even so, it is a fascinating little book that anyone interested in the history of women and/or the American Revolution should read.
Available at: Amazon
Rating: 3.5/5

Behind Every Great Man: Women in the Shadows of History’s Alpha Males by Marlene Wagman-Geller
Behind every great man, there’s a great woman. She  supports him, encourages him, fights with him, and helps him achieve his dreams. Yet, she’s often in the shadows, forgotten. Her contributions vanish from history, while the man takes all the credit for their success. Marlene Wagman-Geller thinks it’s high time we rectify that (I so agree!). In her new book, Behind Every Great Man, she brings back to life, and the spotlight, 40 women who stood, for better or worse, behind their alpha males.
The wide mix of women is fascinating. Some of them are tragic figures, others free spirits. Some were super patients, others evil. Some put up with all sorts of indignities to support their men, others were discarded after years of marriage for younger women. But they were all strong, passionate women, and all helped shaped their men’s destinies. Some of the women, like Constance Wilde and Eva Braun, are quite famous, but others, like Mrs C. S Lewis, Mrs Samuel Becket, and the first Mrs Albert Einstein, are familiar only to a very few. Until now.
Each chapter is short, and to the point, giving us just enough information to help us gain an understanding of who these women were, and what their relationships with their men were like. Wagman-Geller doesn’t gloss over their flaws, peccadilloes, and even crimes, but infuses their stories with a dash of humour that will have you laughing out loud.
Entertaining and informative, Behind Every Great Man is a must read for every fan of her-story.
Available at: Amazon
Rating: 4/5

Enough: 10 Things We Should Tell Teenage Girls by Kate Conner
Kate Conner is a 20 something year old mother, married to a pastor, who has been working with teens for years. One day, before going to church, she published on her blog a post titled “Ten Things I Want To Tell Teenage Girls”. The post quickly received more than two million views in two weeks. Its message struck a nerve and resonated with many people, so Conner decided to turn it into a book.
The book contains 10 sections, each of which expands on a point made in the blog post. Therefore Conner addresses issues such as modesty, tanning beds, drama and social media, and explains why following your heart is pretty much the worst advice ever. But the main theme of the book is being enough. We are already enough. Already beautiful. Already valuable.
Teenager girls usually just roll their eyes and tune out when adults start talking about these issues with them. No one likes preaching, teens least of all. But we all like to have someone in our corner. Conner is that someone. She’s funny, witty, and wise, and tells teens what they need to know in a language they can understand and appreciate. Yet, it’s unlikely they’ll pick up a copy on their own. That’s why this book is aimed mostly at mothers (or teachers, or guardians, or anyone else who cares for teen girls). Conner helps you figure out how to communicate with your teen and teach her valuable lessons in a way that won’t make anyone cringe.
Entertaining, truthful and inspiration, Enough is a transformative read that may change your teen’s life. I can’t recommend Enough enough!
Available at: Amazon
Rating: 4.5/5

What do you think of these books?

Disclaimer: this book was sent by PR for consideration. In addition, this post contains affiliate links.

Book Reviews: Augustus, Caesar's Lictor, & NeuroLoveology

Hello everyone,

ready for today’s reviews? The first two are must reads for fans of ancient Rome, while the third will help those of you who are unhappy in your relationship with your significant other. Let’s get started:

Augustus: From Revolutionary to Emperor by Adrian Goldsworthy
Born Gaius Octavius and known to us today as Octavian Augustus, the first emperor of the Romans was called Caesar, from the man who adopted him, by his contemporaries. And that’s how Adrian Goldsworthy calls him too throughout his book. It’s a name he, according to Marc Anthony, “owns everything to”.
August was only 19 when Julius Caesar was murdered, yet he never doubted his right to be his heir. He was ruthless in his pursuit of power, yet when he achieved it, he ruled well and brought peace and stability to an empire that had been ravaged by wars and internal problems. He had absolute power, but never took on the honours and title of emperor, preferring to remain princeps, the first citizen of the republic. And during the last years of his life, he tried hard to create a group of public servants, chosen between his friends and colleagues, that would rule the empire after his death. But when most of them died young, Tiberius remained as the sole heir. Rome had ceased to be a republic.
The book is divided in 5 parts, each one dedicated to a different stage in Augustus’ life. But I prefer to divide the book in two parts. The first half tells the story of how Augustus achieved power. It’s chiefly a military story so, if like me, you’re not really into wars, battles, military strategies, conquests, and this sort of thing, you’re gonna find this part of the book quite boring. It’s not Goldsworth’s fault though. The Romans were military people, and Augustus a military dictator, so there’s no way the author could have left anything of it out. At least not without cutting out background information that would make reading harder for those readers who aren’t familiar with this time period.
The second half of the book, which focuses on what Augustus did once he became princeps, his family, his interests, and his personality, was much more interesting to me. I felt like I was finally getting to know the real Augustus, what kind of man he really was, what made him tick, and what he believed in. The portrait that emerges is well-balanced. Augustus seemed to become less ruthless as time went on, but he could still be pretty cruel even to those members of his family who disappointed him and that, with their rash and irresponsible behaviour, tainted his prestige. He wasn’t faithful to his last wife, yet he genuinely cared for her, and didn’t divorce her even when it would have been convenient to do so. He seemed to have believed in the republican ideal and yet didn’t hesitate to take on absolute power when convinced that Rome needed someone like him to rule at such a difficult time. He was a man of many contradictions, with both good and bad qualities, difficult to understand for us modern people, but whose personality and reforms are still influencing the world today.
The book is very well-researched. Goldsworth combed through all the ancient texts to unearth any tibdit involving Augustus and then put them all together in this autobiography. He weights the evidence, the facts, and the propaganda, debunking common myths and presenting to the readers what, according to surviving proof, is the most likely truth. Although the writing style is a bit dry at times, especially in the first half the book, this is one of the most, if not the most, complete biography of Augustus ever written. It’s a must read for any fan of the emperor and Ancient Rome.
Available at: Amazon
Rating: 4/5

Caesar’s Lictor: The Lords of Luca by Alex Johnston
Marcus Mettius risks his life every time he works for Caesar. So, why is he still doing it? No one knows, but I’m glad he does, because his adventures are always fun. The task he is given this time is quite boring yet almost impossible. He has to help Caesar organize the meeting of the Triumvirate at Luca. There are many mundane tasks to plan, such as providing supplies for all the attendees and write the political blurbs for the media, and many petty quarrels to settle. To say that Pompey and Crassus don’t get along is a huge understatement. Caesar needs them both as allies, but how can they work together when they can’t even talk civilly to each other and take every opportunity to inflict petty and not so petty slights on each other?
We don’t really know what happened at this famous meeting, but Johnston’s account is both hilarious and plausible. He well captures the mood of the event, the tension and conflicts between the triumvirs and the political situation of the time. All infused with a good dose of humour. Caesar and Marcus Mettius are brilliant as usual, but it’s Pompey who stole the show for me in this short story. But you’ll have to read it to find a why.
The language used by the characters is anachronistic, but fits the story well. The modern style keeps the story engaging, allowing the reader to better relate to the characters. But the jokes they make and the metaphors they use relate to ancient, and contemporary, events, customs, and expressions. If you’re not familiar with them, don’t worry. Johnston explains them all at the end of the book. He also explains what really happened and what he made up. Like the other books in the series, Caesar’s Lictor is entertaining, fast-paced, and funny. I can’t wait for more!
Available at: Amazon
Rating: 4/5

NeuroLoveology: The Power To Mindful Love & Sex by Ava Cadell
Do you think that understanding how the brain processes attraction, relationships, conflict and sex will take the magic out of romance and your relationship? Think again. It actually has the opposite effect. Drawing from the latest research in neuroscience and her experience in her practice, Dr Ava Cadell provides powerful insights into the strong connection between the brain, the mind, and the body, and shares lots of useful, practical, and fun tips on how to attract and keep the partner of your dreams.
It won’t be easy. Making a relationship work is a lot of work. It requires time, patience, commitment. There is no easy formula to improve your relationship, but there are many small things you can do on a regular basis to keep the love alive. For instance, cuddling, touching, and kissing releases oxytocin, the “bonding hormone”, while learning to use all five senses during lovemaking can greatly improve your sexual life.
But the book is not just about sex. It’s about creating a lasting and meaningful connection with your partner to create an unshakable and fullfilling relationship. So, Cavell explains how our brains are wired, and how figuring out whether our partner is left or right brained, an introvert or an extrovert, can help us understand, and relate to, them better. It stresses the importance of communication and emotional vulnerability in a couple. How respecting and loving ourselves is the first step in creating a successful relationship. It provides tips on how to overcome the many challenges and stresses that couples face during the years. There is even a chapter about how to find a partner when you have a serious illness or, if you already are in a relationship, how to deal with your significant other’s illness.
This book is one of the most comprehensive guides available today, and features lots of exercises you can do either alone or with your partner. Most of the tips aren’t revolutionary. Some of them are just common sense, but I enjoyed learning how science backed them up. And nope, you won’t be reading a boring science manual. Although based on science, NeuroLoveology is written in a straightforward and engaging style that never bores. It should be a mandatory read for any couple. Even if you’re in a great relationship, give it a read anyway. You’ll probably find a few tips to make it even better.
Available at: Amazon
Rating: 4/5

Have any of these books caught your eye?

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Book Review: An Uncommon Woman by Hannah Pakula

I bought An Uncommon Woman by Hannah Pakula because, after years of studying the life of Queen Victoria, I had became interested in her children as well. And what better way to start my research on them than a biography of her eldest child, Victoria? But this book turned out to be so much more than just a biography of Vicky, as she’s called in the book to distinguish her from her mother. An uncommon woman is also the biography of her husband Frederick, her son Wilhelm and German statesman Otto Von Bismark, as well as the history of the unification of Germany!

As you can imagine, this is a most interesting read, but by no means a light and easy one. It is very well-researched and extremely detailed (it is 600+ pages long!), packed with a plethora information about both the daily lives of its protagonists and the political influence they exercised. Vicky was only 17 when she married Frederick, the Crown Prince of Prussia, and had to leave her loving home to live in a hostile country. Although the couple was very much in love, the Prussian government was very autocratic and feared the liberal and democratic ideas the new Crown Princess shared with her husband. Because of this, Bismark did all he could to isolate the couple.

He would prevent Frederick from exercising any influence in the government of the country, deny him recognition for the fundamental part he played in the unification of Germany, and poison the minds of his father, Kaiser Wilhelm, and of his son and heir, the future Emperor Wilhelm II, against him. Frederick and Vicky patiently put up with this painful situation, believing they would readdress and put an end to all the problems of the country when they would ascend to the throne. Sadly for them, for their country and the rest of Europe, Frederick was terminally ill with cancer when he became Kaiser. He would rule for only 99 days.

His heir, Wilhelm was a spoiled and selfish brat. And not as pliable as Bismark has thought. Wilhelm had supported the statesman against his own parents because it was convenient for him to do so. But once in power, he wouldn’t hesitate to get rid of the chancellor if the latter refused to obey his wishes, even when these wishes had disastrous consequences for the country. After her husband’s death, Vicky lived her life in retirement, away from politics. This was very difficult for her. She was a very gifted woman who could see clearly what the militaristic and autocratic policies of the government would lead to, and yet could do nothing to stop them.

The book also emphasizes how many of the horrors of the first half of the 20th century had their origin in this period. Germany had become an united nation, not through democracy and liberality, but through war, lies and subterfuges; the country was ruled by autocrats; the climate was one of militarism and suspicion; and anti-antisemitism, often used as a political weapon, was spreading fast. This helped me better understand the environment and climate in which Nazism was born in and flourished years later. How very different history would have been if Frederick and Vicky had had a long reign!

Throughout all her woes and difficulties, Vicky maintained a close correspondence with her mother. She also kept loving her home country more than Germany. This is not surprising considering the way she was treated by the Prussians and Germans from the very first day of her arrival in her new country. Sadly, it is also not surprising that this love for Britain was often used by the government to put her in a bad light. Vicky, however, loved Germany and wanted the best for the country. She wanted Germany to adopt the same political system of the United Kingdom and for the two countries to be close, rightly believing this would benefit the nation she was briefly called to rule upon.

An Uncommon Woman is a very informative, but also overwhelming read. There is just so much information and chronological order isn’t always followed, so it is easy for the reader to get lots sometimes. The author draws extensively from Vicky’s letters and other primary sources of the time, never indulging in speculation, which was quite refreshing. So many authors these days make wild claims without having the evidence to back them up. Not here.

The writing style is also mostly engaging, but it can, at times, get a little dry. All in all, though, the book flows easily and is a page turner. I’d definitely recommend it to those who are both interested in the life of this fascinating woman (I doubt you’d find a more complete biography of Vicky) and the political time she lived in. If, however, you want a light read and are only curious to know more about Vicky, and not the history of Germany too (although the latter is a fundamental part of her story), then this is not the book for you.

An Uncommon Woman by Hannah Pakula is a through biography of Vicky, the eldest child of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, of her husband, Crown Prince Frederick of Prussia, her son, the future Emperor Wilhelm II, of statesman Otto von Bismark, and a detailed history of the unification of Germany. The book is extremely detailed, very well-researched and highly informative, but can, because of the magnitude of the subject, get a little dry and confusing at times.

Available at: Amazon UK, Amazon USA and Barnes & Noble

Rating: 4.5/5

Book Review: Marie Antoinette by Hilaire Belloc

Marie Antoinette by Hilaire Belloc is not your usual biography. The author isn’t interested in sharing anecdotes and discussing the daily life of this unfortunate queen, nor does he tries to understand her personality. Instead, this is a study of the world in which Marie Antoinette lived and the circumstances that connived to bring her to her tragic fate. Marie Antoinette was a good and generous woman, but not a remarkable one. What’s remarkable is the harrowing way in which she suffered during the French Revolution. Belloc believes that it was unavoidable.

In this book, he shows how all the obstacles that stood in the way of the young archduchess marrying the dauphin of France fell down one after another, as if they were pushed down by a higher hand, and how all the different events and circumstances of her life in France drew her a step closer to the scaffold. Belloc believes that, because Marie Antoinette didn’t understand the French (not to mention the poor education she had received), she had no choice but to act the way she did, and that led her to her fall. There was just no other destiny for her. I’m not sure I believe Marie Antoinette couldn’t choose to act in any other way, but I do agree that in order for her to do that, she needed to understand her people, which was very difficult to do for her, secluded as she was in the Palace of Versailles and the other royal residencies.

But Belloc doesn’t try to justify Marie Antoinette’s behaviour, nor does he accuse her. Simply, he uses historical evidence to set the record straight about the lies and myths that surround the French Queen and point out the truth. He’s not blind to Marie Antoinette’s faults but he doesn’t exaggerate them either. However, this focus on political and social events rather than on Marie Antoinette as a woman, makes the book dense and, at times, hard-to-follow for modern readers. It doesn’t help that Belloc often doesn’t go into details, but simply mentions events and names, giving for granted the reader knows what he’s talking about. This may have been true in 1909, when he wrote the book and the French Revolution was still a very popular subject, but it isn’t today.

If you’re not familiar with this time period (and the one in which the author lived as he sometimes mentions more recent events too), you may find the book quite confusing. If that’s the case, you may want to read other books about the subject (Marie Antoinette: The Journey by Antonia Fraser would be a better starting point for anyone interested in the life of the French Queen) and then get back to this one. Then, despite the archaic and convoluted writing style, you’ll find it an engrossing read.

Marie Antoinette by Hilaire Belloc is an informative, unbiased and objective work on Marie Antoinette. But rather than focusing on her private life or her personality, the author explains the world in which Marie Antoinette was born in and why she acted the way she did, which lead her to her inevitable fall. Marie Antoinette wasn’t a remarkable woman. The revolution made her remarkable. This book will give you a better understanding of how that happened. However, it is written in an archaic style and the author often cities facts that may not be known to those who aren’t familiar with this time period.

Available at: archive.org

Rating: 4/5

Book Review: Princesses: The Six Daughters Of George III By Flora Fraser

King George III had a big family, siring 15 children with his poor Queen, Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. But it’s only their flamboyant and extravagant firstborn, George, Prince of Wales, and his younger brother William, who succeeded him on the throne that are usually remembered. Their six sisters – Charlotte, Augusta, Elizabeth, Sophia, Amelia and Mary – are now only footnotes in history books about their more famous family members. Finally, someone has decided to write their stories.

At first sight, their lives may seem pretty boring and uneventful. Only 3 of them married, when they were already quite old, and no children were born from these unions. They spent most of their lives at home, enjoyed very little freedom and you’d be excused for thinking they spent their days only shopping for new gowns, gossiping and attending court balls. But from their letters, on which Fraser heavily relied for her book, a different picture emerges. The princesses fell in love and, one of them, Sophia, even gave birth to an illegitimate child. They also all had dreams of their own they tried to fulfill in whatever way they could, although their plans were often frustrated.

They had to deal with their father’s mental illness, which not only grieved them but also put an end to their dreams of marriage and the freedom that would come with their new status, for fear the King wouldn’t have been able, in the state he was in, to part with one of his beloved daughters, and have a relapse. Yet, they all loved their father very much. Only the oldest, Augusta, managed to get married while her father, then well, was still alive. They also lived in a time of political instability: America was fighting their war of Independence against Britain and the French would, a few years later, depose and murder their king and queen. However, the political and social situation of the time is barely touched upon.

Instead, the book focuses mostly on the private lives of the princesses, examining them in minute details. Although I usually love reading tidbits about people’s lives, there are just way too many in this book. A lot of them don’t add anything to the story, but just bog it down. At times it feels like you’re reading an excerpt from a letter after another, and they are mostly about simple, mundane things that happened to them. Because of it, I found the book slow, tedious and hard to get into. And it’s a shame because, to minutely record every little detail about the princesses’ lives, the author only briefly touches upon more interesting topics, such as the relationship Sophia had with the father of her child or that of Amelia with the man she wanted to marry. From the book, it’s clear that she was madly in love with him, but he’s barely mentioned.

In addition, sometimes it can be difficult to keep track of all the people who appear in the book. However, this is understandable, given the size of theur family. Luckily, there’s a genealogical tree at the beginning of the book, which I kept referring to. For these reasons, although this book is a delightful and informative read, I would recommend it only to those with a strong interest in the Georgian era and the British royal family. The casual reader may find it too dry and confusing to follow.

Princesses: The Six Daughters of George III by Flora Fraser is an informative, delightful and detailed account of the lives of the British princesses. However, the many personal details about their daily life bog down the book somewhat, while the big number of people that appears in it can at times confuse the readers. Because of it, I would recommend it only to those who are very interested in these princesses. Casual, non-academic readers may find it too dry a read.

Available at: Amazon UK and Amazon USA

Rating: 3.5/5

Book Review: The Six Wives Of Henry VIII by Antonia Fraser

Divorced, beheaded, died; Divorced, beheaded, survived. The Betrayed Wife, The Temptress, The Good Wife, The Ugly Sister, The Bad Girl and The Mother Figure. The six women who have married Henry VIII and helped shape the events of the era are known to us only by the way they died and by the stereotypes that have been attached to them throughout time. In this biography of Catherine of Aragorn, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Anne of Cleves, Catherine Howard and Catherine Parr, historian Antonia Fraser has decided to to look at the women behind the stereotypes, bringing to life their true personalities.

And she does an excellent job at that. The political, religious and social aspects of the time remain in the background here. They’re explained to make us understand in what society and environment they lived and died in, but the main focus is on these six amazing women. Although Fraser sympathizes with them (and how could you not to?), she portrays them in an honest way, pointing out their good qualities without hiding or downplaying their flaws. We also get to know what kind of clothes they liked to wear, what pets they kept, what their interests were, what they were passionate about, what made them tick and what their motives were to act the way they did..

Henry VIII obviously has a main part in the book too. Fraser tries to bring to life his true personality and the portrayal that comes out is not very flattering. The book is extremity well-written and chock full of information, yet apart from a few rare dry patches, it flows really easily and is a joy to read. It’s a solid, strong book that will give you a better understanding of who these 6 women were as individuals. They were victims, but not willing victims. They lived in a time where women had no rights, yet they were intelligent, courageous and spirited women who tried to have some control over their lives and make, in the small ways open to them, their own decisions, although not all of them were wise enough to know when to stop. Overall, I would recommend it anyone interested in the Tudor era.

The Six Wives Of Henry VIII by Antonia Fraser is an informative and enjoyable biography about the women who married the second Tudor monarch. Fraser goes beyond the stereotypes to bring to life the individual personality of each woman, their good qualities and flaws, their tastes and their reasons for acting the way they did.. A must read for every Tudor fan.

Available at: Amazon UK, Amazon US and Barnes & Noble

Rating: 4/5