Book Review: The Way to London by Alix Rickoff

the way to london

The Way to London: A Novel of World War II by Alix Rickoff

Lucy Stanhope is a spoiled debutante living the good life in Singapore in the early years of WWII. Her mother is a selfish narcissist, and her step-father is a lecherous creep, and Lucy has no problems defying them or society to live the way she wants. However, when the weight of scandal becomes too much, Lucy finds herself packed up and shipped off to Nanreath Hall in England. Going from the tropical luxury of Singapore to the dreariness of war-time Britain is a kick in the teeth for Lucy. When she befriends a young war orphan, the two make plans to escape the drudgery of the country for London. The perilous journey across a war zone will force Lucy to face her priorities in life, and to confront her mistakes.

This is a beautiful, vividly written book. Rickoff has put an enormous amount of effort into packing every page with an incredible amount of historical detail. You can almost smell the tropical flowers on the breezes of Singapore, and feel the clammy touch of the fog in England. The story is slowly paced, allowing plenty of time to take in the story and get to know the characters.

That being said, this book wasn’t really up my alley. I’m not really one for romances (though if I were going to pick a romance genre it would likely be historical romance). It also kind of irked me that as rich in detail as most of the book was, the author is still relying on the “spoiled brat of a woman is made pure and whole by the love of a noble man” trope, which is nearly as bad as “the pure and virtuous woman finds the strength to tame the wild, uncouth man” trope. For all the detail and time spent on the setting and getting to know our main characters, the interaction between Lucy and her foil/savior, Michael, is uncomplicated and a bit flat. You know through all the sniping that they’re going to wind up together in the end, though I have to admit there were other contenders I was rooting for, and one (from her time in Singapore) whose story would (in my opinion) have been a bit more interesting.

So in all, this is a well written book in a genre I don’t have a lot of patience for. If you’re generally a fan of romance novels, or are into the WWII setting, this might be a good title for you to try.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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Book Review: The Man from the Train by Bill James and Rachel McCarthy James

The Man from the Train: The Solving of a Century-Old Serial Killer Mystery by Bill James and Robin McCarthy

On June 9th, 1912, eight people, a family of six and two children visiting for the night, were murdered with the blunt side of an axe. The murder of eight people, six of them children under 12 years of age, rocked the small farming town of Vilisca, Iowa. But the Moore family were simply the latest victims of this violent perpetrator. Someone with an axe to grind (sorry, I really, truly couldn’t help myself) was traveling across the breadth of the country at the turn of the twentieth century, and leaving piles of corpses in his wake . . .

Bill James is a baseball guy. Specifically he is a baseball statistician, and he approaches this topic with a mathematical mindset. After all, the Vilisca murders, considered to be one of the most infamous unsolved mass murders in US history, are tentatively considered to be part of a series of serial killings at the turn of the twentieth century, but James expands on the widely accepted dimensions of the serial killer’s crimes. Rather than the several crimes most ascribe to the killer, James posits that the man from the train began his cross-country murder spree as early as 1898, and may be responsible for over one hundred murders.

Such a claim often precedes eye rolling and offers of tin-foil hats, but in this book, James provides the reader with carefully researched and sourced data to back up his assertions. Using newspaper records from across the country, combined with modern profiling techniques, James has unearthed a truly startling number of mass murders like the one in Vilisca. Like any good historian, James is careful to use primary sources where possible, and to document where the data available clash with his hypothesis. While several similar crimes are dismissed out of hand as being tied to our suspect, James makes quite a strong argument for adding several more murders to the ones traditionally ascribed.

Fans of history and true crime (lovers of Devil in the White City take note) should enjoy this book. But the casual reader need not despair. James’ writing style is accessible and engaging, and replete with dark humor and some truly monstrous puns.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Black Tudors by Miranda Kaufmann


Black Tudors: African Lives in Renaissance England by Miranda Kaufmann

It is said that history is written by the winners. While that is certainly true, the more insidious fact is that history is written by those who hold the pen. What this means in a practical sense is that those with little power, and little influence–whether or not they “won”–are often either diminished in the historical record or left out entirely. One of the great (or terrible) things about the emergence of the internet is that it has given voice to populations who, even fifty years ago, would not have been heard. The internet is going to change how histories are written in the future, the vast amount of data available, and the clamor of voices waiting to speak will need to be addressed by future historians.

But enough digression. We’re talking here about the Tudor era. Very, very few people are literate, even in the upper levels of society. While high ranking men and officials had a decent literacy rate, women, lower classes, and minorities were overwhelmingly illiterate. The upshot of this is that we know quite a good deal about the rulers, the “important” folk, economics, etc. but very little about the daily lives of merchants, yeomen, women (especially poor women), and others not well represented in the written record.

This fact makes Kaufmann’s book incredibly ambitious. There are no known surviving sources written by Africans in Tudor England. Kaufmann instead must play detective, inferring the shapes of these people’s lives through their interactions with higher-status (ie. record-leaving) contemporaries. What Kaufmann has found is the tip of a fascinating iceberg. The unusual wording of law in the British Isles (and notably not in her colonies) meant that there could be no slaves in England  (though people could be, and were, treated as such). As a result, Kaufmann’s history isn’t one of slavery, but about the wide range of professions and lifestyles occupied by Africans in Tudor England. We are introduced to sailors and wreck divers, prostitutes and silk weavers, servants and princes. Some were able to live independently in cities and towns through the country, others were employees or servants. Some tales are inspiring. Others, like the fate of Maria, an African woman brought on board one of Sir Walter Raleigh’s ship for “entertainment” are horrible beyond imagining.

Kaufmann has been able to unearth or infer quite a bit of information on the lives of African individuals in Tudor England. Her book is a fascinating look at a time before England’s involvement in the transatlantic slave trade made the dehumanization of African people the norm. Her work will appeal to historians and anthropologists alike, and is a must read for anyone seeking more information on the role of minorities in history.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher via LibraryThing in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Scars of Independence by Holger Hoock

Scars of Independence: America’s Violent Birth by Holger Hoock

The Revolutionary War is the origin story of the United States. Like every origin story, it carries certain expectations: a plucky underdog comes into power, or comes into the realization of their own inner power, and proceeds to upend the established order of things. The origin story reaches its climax when said plucky underdog is able to defeat the villain, who is the representative of the power of the old order.

That is certainly the popular narrative that winds through most histories of the Revolutionary War. But is this all there is? Hoock’s Scars of Independence seeks to add to the Revolutionary narrative, to complicate and humanize the feel-good legend most of us learn in school. Hoock has little time for the “immaculate conception” origin of the United States, which features a noble and forward-looking young colony rebelling and separating nearly bloodlessly from the stodgy and declining Britain. Rather, Hoock shows us the bloody underside of the fight for independence, a violent and cruel conflict regarded in its time not as a fight for independence, but as a civil war.

In Scars of Independence, Hoock takes us through the escalating violence on both sides of the conflict. We learn about tarring and feathering, prison ships, rapes, whippings, hangings and lynchings. We learn about petty grievances between neighbors turned into war crimes. About prison camps in mines, about the impossible position of Native Americans and of slaves, caught between two feuding (largely white) armies.

This is a fantastic, thoroughly researched history. A must read for any history buffs or Revolutionary War enthusiasts. Hoock has presented an aspect of the Revolutionary War that is seldom dealt with in popular literature. Though this is first and foremost a history book, Hoock’s writing style is accessible and clear, and Scars of Independence is highly readable, even for the more casual reader.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher via Goodreads Giveaways in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Pretty Jane and the Viper of Kidbrooke Lane by Paul Thomas Murphy

Pretty Jane and the Viper of Kidbrooke Lane: A True Story of Victorian Law and Disorder: The Unsolved Murder that Shocked Victorian England by Paul Thomas Murphy

In 1871, a young, pretty servant girl was found ruthlessly beaten in a country lane. Jane Clouson died a few days later without regaining consciousness. When the son of her employer falls under suspicion for her murder, the subsequent police investigation and trial spark unrest between the working class and the middle class residents of London. Jane, unremarkable and overlooked in life, became a powerful symbol of the suffering of working class girls, and the easy power of their “betters.”

Pretty Jane is an engagingly written book that straddles the true crime and history genres. Murphy’s style of writing is engaging and flows well, allowing the book to read more like a novel than a history book. Murphy takes the reader along for the ride in an investigation and trial that, in the modern day, would be up there with the OJ Simpson or Casey Anthony trials. Each side bitterly fought for their desired outcome, and the legal push-pull dynamic adds to the story’s suspense. Murphy is more than willing to unwind this suspense out slowly, leaving you to tensely wait to see if there will ever be any justice for poor Jane.

Any history buff will enjoy this book. The narrative style of the writing makes this book accessible and fun for casual readers as well. If you’re a fan of Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, this book should be next on your TBR.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Rejected Princesses by Jason Porath

rejected princesses

Rejected Princesses: Tales of History’s Boldest Heroines, Hellions, and Heretics by Jason Porath

Dear husband brought this book to my attention after hearing a segment about it on NPR (what a very good husband!). After hearing only a few anecdotes about it, I needed to read it, NOW. Thank goodness for Amazon Prime.

Rejected Princesses grew out of a lunchtime chat among Dreamworks animators: Who was least likely to be turned into an animated princess? Out of this seed grew a blog (http://www.rejectedprincesses.com) and the blog sprouted a book (with a second on the way!). The first volume is a massively heavy compendium of 100 women who defied norms, expectations, invading armies, assailants, and politicians. Each entry is roughly 2-3 pages long, and each features a Disney-style illustration of the featured “princess.”

The entries are neatly cataloged with maturity ratings and applicable trigger warnings. This means you can read the more family-friendly entries to the kids, and save the stories of rape, murder, and revenge for later (or never, as it suits you). In this way, Porath has created a book that has something for all ages, while at the same time not glossing over the violence experience by quite a few defiant women. The stories also skip across time, space, and legend. You’ll find biblical queens next to Bolivian revolutionaries next to British suffragettes next to African warriors next to Japanese samurais. You’ll find straight women and women who represent every color of the LGBTQA rainbow. Porath show us that there is a princess out there for everyone.

This book was amazing. Some women, like Hatshepsut (the only female pharaoh in Egypt), Harriet Tubman (“Moses” of escaping slaves), and Joan of Arc (the gold standard of defiant woman) I had heard of already, but others like Saint Olga of Kiev (who set a town on fire using pigeons), Calafia (mythical Muslim queen and namesake for the state of California), and Trung Trac and Trung Nhi (Vietnamese sisters who led armies to defeat the Chinese in the 1st century) I had never even guessed existed. The book is jam-packed with these kinds of stories, and the encyclopedia-entry-style of each story means it’s easy to pick up and put down as needed, and come back to your favorite parts. Once you read through the book, there are even more entries on the Rejected Princesses website, so you can head over there to keep getting your fix.

This is a great book for anyone looking for inspiration from some truly badass ladies. Porath’s rating system means that you can share these stories with the little girls in your life, and let them know they can grow up to command their own tank regiment (Mariya Oktyabrskaya), overcome handicaps (Wilma Rudolph), be great at math (Hypatia), and/or decide exactly what they want out life and strive for it.

Book Review: George Washington: A Life in Books by Kevin J. Hayes

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George Washington: A Life in Books by Kevin J. Hayes

So here you are, reading a book review about a book about the history of George Washington’s books. It’s hard to get more meta than that. In all seriousness, though, this was an interesting angle for a history/biography about the first president of the United States.

Working roughly in chronological order, Hayes takes us through the library at Mount Vernon. We start with Washington’s earliest books (collections of devotions by famous preachers), and move from there to travel guides, reference books, abolitionist tracts (though he regrettably never used his considerable political influence to address the injustice of slavery, in his personal dealings Washington was an abolitionist), popular fiction, and military books.

Hayes introduces us to a man born in the American colonies, and denied a “proper” English education. In order to compensate for an education he perceived as lacking, Washington would embark on a lifetime quest of self-improvement. He actively sought out books to deepen his understanding of the physical, spiritual, and literary worlds. His passion for books and for reading would remain undiminished throughout his life.

George Washington has deservedly been the subject of countless biographies. Approaching his life from the direction of his library is both refreshing and educational. While some of the conclusions the author draws based on the content of the Mount Vernon library shelves seems a bit reaching, on the whole this is a fascinating look at one of the Founding Fathers of the United States.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: The Apache Wars by Paul Andrew Hutton

The apache wars

The Apache Wars: The Hunt for Geronimo, the Apache Kid, and the Captive Boy Who Started the Longest War in American History by Paul Andrew Hutton

In 1851, an Apache warrior named Goyahkla found his entire family massacred by Mexican militia men. This warrior, believing the justice of his revenge earned him the protection of the gods, would embark on a lifetime of violent retribution. The name he would become known by was not his own, but (a bit perversely) the name of the saint his Mexican victims prayed to when he attacked: Geronimo. Ten years later, a young boy, Felix Ward, was abducted in an Apache raid on his parent’s ranch. These two figures would contribute to a war between the Apaches and the American government that would last for decades.

This is an incredible history, and one which has largely been forgotten (at least in my east-of-the-Mississippi neck of the woods). While the name Geronimo is known to many (though to most as the word that is shouted before jumping from a high place), few know the details of the Apache resistance to American and Mexican encroachment. Like many Native American histories, it is a part of the past that has been de-emphasized in school curricula.

The story is stunning, and devastating. The duplicity and racism of the American government, while not surprising, is nauseating to read about in such detail. The bad-faith deals, the continual shunting of the Apache onto smaller and smaller portions of land, the corruption of the Indian Agents assigned to their “care,” the selling of troublesome Apaches into slavery, it’s all there in black and white. And it’s horrifying.

This is a well-written history, but keep in mind that this is more of an academically-inclined book. The story is an incredible one, but in this tone, it does become dry and dragging at times. History buffs and those interested in the topic will find an incredible trove of information here. Those looking for a more accessible version of the story should check out Indeh, written by Ethan Hawke and illustrated by Greg Ruth (Which made my Top 10 for 2016).

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher via Blogging for Books in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: The Seeds of Life by Edward Dolnick

Seeds of Life

The Seeds of Life: From Aristotle to da Vinci, from Shark’s Teeth to Frog’s Pants, the Long and Strange Quest to Discover Where Babies Come From by Edward Dolnick

For the entirety of our existence, we have wondered “where do babies come from?” Yet this question proved to be so incredibly complicated and intricate, that only in the last century and a half have we been able to discover answers with any sort of surety. Seeds of Life examines the scientific pursuit of the origin and continuation of life from the 16th century through the 19th. Scientific giants such as da Vinci, Leeuwenhoek, and Harvey would find themselves stymied by this question. In an age of scientific enlightenment and accomplishment, the inability to answer such a seemingly basic question was frustrating to the extreme. The pursuit of this answer led to bitter feuds and rivalries, and at times split the scientific community asunder.

Dominick does a great job of bringing this story to life in an engaging and easy to follow way. It is no mean feat to cover such a topic over such a broad time frame, but Dolnick sets the story as a form of detective novel, with various players entering the fray, only to crash on the shoals of an unanswerable question. Dolnick makes the story easy to follow, and adds welcome (and some would say, inevitable) humor to the topic.

Folks who enjoy their nonfiction with a dash of humor will enjoy this book. If you’re a fan of Mary Roach (indeed, Bonk is a great follow up to this book), or were entertained by Unmentionable by Therese Oneill, this is a great book for you. Even if you aren’t usually a nonfiction person, this is the perfect book for dipping a toe into the genre. It may not be an explosion-laced extravaganza, but it is an entertaining and fast reading true story. You’re bound to have fun with this book.

An advance copy of this book was provided by the publisher via Goodreads Giveaways in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Ice Ghosts by Paul Watson

Ice Ghosts

Ice Ghosts: The Epic Hunt for the Lost Franklin Expedition by Paul Watson

In 1845, Sir John Franklin, a British explorer nearing the end of his career, set out in command of two ships to discover the Northwest Passage: a nautical route between Canada and the arctic that would connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The hunt for the passage had taken up decades, and the accumulated loss of lives and ships in its pursuit was largely considered part of the cost of ensuring Britain’s continuing dominance of the seas. Franklin was determined to be the one to finally find the passage, and to ensure the immortality of his legacy. Setting off with the prophetically named Erebus and Terror, Franklin and his crew of 128 men disappeared into the great white desert of the Arctic Circle. The search for the crew and for the ships would span more than a century, and cost millions of dollars; Franklin’s widow would spend the family fortune in a vain search for answers. The mystery of the Franklin Expedition would capture the imagination of governments, academics, and the public. Franklin achieved his dream of an immortal legacy in the most unfortunate way possible.

Watson explores the story from the late 1840s through to the present day. From the first rescue attempts (delayed by bureaucratic posturing within the Royal Navy), through to the high-tech hunts of the 21st century. Perhaps the most intriguing part of this story involves the local Inuit tribes, whose oral histories seemed to point to the fate of the Franklin Expedition, but were nearly universally disregarded by the European, Canadian, and American searchers.

Watson has written an engaging and fascinating history. The saga of the Franklin Expedition is one of those epic historical tales that seems more like an adventure story. Watson has done a marvelous job of capturing the suspense and drama that accompanied the lost expedition across the decades. His use of multiple primary sources, and his emphasis on the Inuit oral histories make this book stand out from the pack. Fans of adventure-oriented nonfiction like The Lost City of Z should certainly make a point to read this book next.

A copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.