Halfway through 2013

Saturday, June 29, 2013


We're now halfway through the year! Here's a look back over the past six months. I've read 41 books and gave out five and four star ratings to the following:

Five Star Ratings Fiction
Life after Life by Kate Atkinson
Passion: A Novel of the Romantic Poets by Jude Morgan
Frances and Bernard by Carlene Bauer
Ashenden by Elizabeth Wilhide

Five Star Ratings Non-Fiction
Eighty Days by Matthew Goodman
The Creation of Anne Boleyn by Susan Bordo

Four Star Ratings Fiction:
The Rose Garden by Susanna Kearsley
Shadow on the Crown by Patricia Bracewell
The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett
The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan
The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton
The Passing Bells by Phillip Rock
Circles of Time by Phillip Rock

Four Star Ratings Non-Fiction
Desperate Passage by Ethan Rarick

I read 86 books in 2012, so I should be able to meet that same number this year. The quest to read 100 books in a year rolls on! 

On Book Sales, Brown Paper Bags and Being Nice to Fellow Book Lovers.....

Saturday, June 22, 2013


Today was an insanely beautiful day here in DC - deep-blue sky and warm without a bit of the humidity that will turn this place into a swamp in July and August. It also happened to be the day that my neighborhood branch of the DC library held one of its seasonal "$5 a bag book sales." I didn't even fill up my shopping bag but I'm proud enough of my haul to take pictures. 

In my non-fiction haul above, I snagged a first edition of a mid-century look at ballet around the world by a famous ballet scholar, a highly regarded memoir and a history of women in the Middle East along with two books I've never seen before - a British oral history of women during WWI and a compilation of interviews with famous mid-century ballet personalities. 

But the fiction haul was even better: 

I scored two Jean Plaidys with vintage covers - including one that was a favorite of mine as a teenager - a very '80s looking Elizabeth I and Robert Dudley on the cover of "Queen of this Realm." 

I also found a Susanna Kearsley that's pretty tough to find here in the U.S. and several new to me historical novels. Twelve books for $5! 

The catch is that DC is a big hub for book buyers. I got to the library about 15 minutes before the sale opened, picked up a couple of books I had on hold and then became the second person waiting in line. The couple in line ahead of me were clearly book buyers - they had the little handheld scanners and came equipped with two massive crates. Unfortunately, a whole contingent of book buyers decided that the line to get in to the book sale started outside. Suddenly, I had three guys in their 50s and 60s yelling at me and the old lady and mother and child standing next to me for taking their place in line! It was honestly embarrassing to see grown men pouting and shouting about something as simple as a book sale. The poor librarian who opened the door almost got trampled as people ran in to the book sale. Needless to say I got pushed, shoved and climbed over in the aisles as I tried to look for books. 

Has anyone else ever experienced this? I thought it was pretty crazy to see people getting so riled up!

Fortunately, the day ended positively for Historical Fiction Notebook's intern. He found a good use for the paper bag once the books were taken out!

Review: Desperate Passage

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

In late October 1846, the last wagon train of that year's westward migration stopped overnight before resuming its arduous climb over the Sierra Nevada Mountains, unaware that a fearsome storm was gathering force. After months of grueling travel, the 81 men, women and children would be trapped for a brutal winter with little food and only primitive shelter. The conclusion is known: by spring of the next year, the Donner Party was synonymous with the most harrowing extremes of human survival. But until now, the full story of what happened--and what it tells us about human nature and about America's westward expansion--remained shrouded in myth.
Drawing on fresh archeological evidence, recent research on topics ranging from survival rates to snowfall totals, and heartbreaking letters and diaries made public by descendants a century-and-a-half after the tragedy, Ethan Rarick offers an intimate portrait of the Donner party and their unimaginable ordeal: a mother who must divide her family, a little girl who shines with courage, a devoted wife who refuses to abandon her husband, a man who risks his life merely to keep his word. Rarick resists both the gruesomely sensationalist accounts of the Donner party as well as later attempts to turn the survivors into archetypal pioneer heroes. "The Donner Party," Rarick writes, "is a story of hard decisions that were neither heroic nor villainous. Often, the emigrants displayed a more realistic and typically human mixture of generosity and selfishness, an alloy born of necessity." (from Amazon)

Before I picked up this engrossing work of narrative non-fiction, I didn't know anything about the Donner Party beyond wagon trains, snowstorms and cannibalism. I wish I could remember which blog I first saw this title on - I think it was during Armchair BEA's Non-Fiction theme day - but whoever it was, I owe them a big thank you. This was a fast-paced, moving story of human survival that gave me greater insight into the early years of Westward migration in the United States.

Rarick does a great job of sketching the various personalities while giving a sense of the treacherous monotony of the journey from Missouri to California that should have taken about four months. It's a testament to his writing skill that by the time we get to the point in the narrative where the survivors begin eating dead bodies, it doesn't feel sensational or even the worst thing that has befallen the party. I'm sitting here in humid Washington, DC but could feel the bitter cold of thirty-foot snowfalls in the Sierra Nevada range.

There are a couple moments when the various rescue parties and groups of survivors who have set out to search for help get a bit confusing. I would have appreciated a map marking the different spots where they were camped so that I could a sense of the distances involved.

But overall, this was a thrilling work of history that gave me a deep appreciation for the American pioneer experience. 

Reading Updates

Saturday, June 15, 2013

It's interesting to write a review of this title now since I read a review copy of it almost two months ago. Most of the book is your typical multiple time-period historical mystery with a sympathetic lead character who gets caught up in events behind his/her control and discovers a startling secret about their past at the end. All of that is here and all of it is competently done. The parts that really stood out for me (and that I remember two months later) are the sections following Will Shakespeare through Elizabethan London and the descriptions of book-binding and book-selling. A real love of books, stories and words comes through in these sections balancing out the other sections following the (rather pedestrian) mystery. 

This is the kind of book that I never pick up but somehow I kept seeing the spare, intriguing blue and white cover in bookstores and libraries and gave in. This is a very engaging time travel story set alternately in Vermont in 2013 and in Regency London. The time travel story is handled in a very different way than most books. I don't want to say too much and ruin the fun but the way Ridgeway reverses some of the conventions of the time-traveling story really puts a fresh spin on things. I loved that the time-traveling Nick Davent settled in Vermont because the sense of timelessness and the past made him feel comfortable in the future. This is also the only time-traveling book I've read that explores the idea of how each time period has a feel and that that feel impacts individual personalities. I was a little worried that the overall "conspiracy" element of the book would be over-bearing but it wasn't - I just wish I had known this book was the first in a trilogy when I picked it up. I would have started it with slightly different expectations. Still - a great find and I will definitely seek out the next two books when they come out. 

I just started this one today and I'm already a quarter of the way through it. I've read all of Kearsley's other time-slips (The Winter Sea, Mariana and The Shadowy Horses) and this already reads as well as The Winter Sea. I enjoyed the other two titles but knew deep down in my heart that they wouldn't hold up in a second read. This one has some really gorgeous descriptions of the Cornish coast, a strong sense of atmosphere and a nice interplay between the two lead characters. I'm absolutely desperate to get my hands on Kearsley's newest release "The Firebird" since the Washington, DC library has decided NOT to order it!!!!! I may break down and order it off of Amazon. 

Next up in the reading queue: The Chalice (the second book in Nancy Bilyeau's  mystery series set in Henry VIII's England); Queen's Gambit (the acclaimed new novel about Katherine Parr) and Emily (the final book in Cynthia Harrod-Eagles Russian trilogy).  

I also received The Secret Daughter of the Tsar about a potential fifth secret daughter of Nicholas II and his wife Alexandra. I was quite disappointed in this one but will wait to post a review until its publication date in October. 

Giveaway Winners

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Good Morning!

The winners of the giveaways are: 

Passion: A Novel of the Romantic Poets goes to.......... Emma at Wordsandpeace

Madame Tussaud goes to....................Tanya M.

Thanks to all who entered! You encouraged me to hold lots more giveaways in the future!

Armchair BEA Wrap-up & Giveaway

Sunday, June 2, 2013


I really enjoyed Armchair BEA this year (my second year of participating). A week can sure fly by fast when you're posting every single day for six straight days! I met tons of new bloggers - including River City Reading, Relentless Reader, Anglers Rest, Confessions of an Avid Reader,Wordsandpeace and Wordsforworms! Apologies if I'm missing anyone - I enjoyed blog-meeting you all. 

During this year's Armchair BEA, I learned that I should write posts that find more ways to include readers. I really enjoyed interacting with everyone and felt that the literary fiction and non-fiction days resulted in the best posts. I think in the future I'll try to find ways to integrate more themed reading lists into my blog - I loved writing them and getting suggestions and responses from readers. Hopefully, next year's Armchair BEA will include more ideas for themed reading lists. I didn't think the responses to some of the Ethics and Keeping it Fresh topics were as interesting - the responses tended to be a little predictable. 

Thanks to every one who commented on my posts this week. Here's a new book giveaway to thank every one for visiting!

During the great book closet cleaning of 2013, I found a couple of other books that I can bear to part with, including a hardcover first edition of Michelle Moran's Madame Tussaud. For whatever reason I just can't get in to books on the French Revolution so hopefully someone will enjoy this one more :)

Just fill out the Rafflecopter form below!

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Armchair BEA: Keeping It Real

Saturday, June 1, 2013


Wow! It's Day Five of Armchair BEA already! I'm going to take it easy today and just give some brief answers to the topic questions of the day: What exactly does "keeping it real" mean?  The meaning lays in keeping.  How do you not only grow an audience, but how do you keep them coming back for more?  If you have been around for years, how do you keep your material fresh?  How do you continue to keep blogging fun?

In all honesty, I don't think I've been that great at growing an audience and keeping them coming back for more. The blog started in September 2010 and because of work travel in the spring of 2011 and the last half of 2012 I actually stopped blogging for long periods of time. I feel like I'm back on track now and aiming for a reasonable post a week pace. I'm never going to be one of those blog every other day bloggers although I wish I was. 

I've also struggled with the name I gave the blog - whenever I choose a new book to read, I feel that it has to be historical fiction or history so that I will keep up the reviewing pace. 

I'm having better luck learning how to keep my material fresh. I always envisioned this blog as a place for different kinds of historical fiction. No offense to many of the great blogs out there but a lot of them seem to focus on the "queen and princess" subgenre of historical fiction. Now I love those books - it's how I got into historical fiction - but as a blog reader myself, I wanted to provide material on backlist historical fiction titles and unusual time periods and more "literary" historical fiction. I didn't want be just another stop on the new release blog tour of the month. 

I've also recently realized that I live in a pretty cool city for author events and historical sites. So (being a journalist) I decided to add a "reporting" element to the blog. Maybe my museum posts and author events will spark an idea for a trip or will just give my blog more of a discussion feel. 

One thing I do know - I've always found blogging a lot of fun and will continue to feel that way! This year's Armchair BEA has encouraged me to find more ways to interact with blog readers but I'll save those thoughts for tomorrow's wrap-up post!