Review: Mistress of the Sea

Thursday, November 28, 2013

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Plymouth, 1570. Drake's ship, The Swan, sets sail for the New World with a crew of pirates hell-bent on Spanish treasure. Among them is Will Doonan seeking both his fortune and revenge for the loss of his brother. But unbeknown to all, young Ellyn Cooksley has stowed away. And her presence aboard ship will prove to be more tempting to Will then gold...... (from jacket blurb). 

It's a rare thing to find a story that is both well-written and fun, with characters who are both true to their time and relatable and historical detail that works in the service of a fast-paced plot - Mistress of the Sea is all of these things. I think the short blurb above doesn't do justice to this book - overselling the romance angle while ignoring the great sense of adventure and spirit of the times that is to be found in this story of Elizabethan explorers fighting their way through the New World.

I've read dozens of books about the reign of Elizabeth I and her court but I've never read a story that captured what it actually meant for the people of that time to live in the Elizabethan Golden Age. Barden's descriptions are judiciously flavored with a taste of Shakespearean word play and a beautiful sense of the mystery and wonder that must have enveloped voyagers to the new lands. Take this moment for example when Will Doonan contemplates the night sky as he sails away from the jungles and beaches of Panama:


From the time he was a boy he had thought of the Americas as forsaken; they were as distant from England as it was possible to sail. The only language in those lands was that of the stars, the sun and the moon, day and night. He could remember the Psalm that had nourished such ideals....In the furthest places, at the ends of the world, there was no language but the sounds of the stars.....

I particularly appreciated the main character Ellyn - who is curious, brave and opinionated without ever becoming a caricature designed to appeal to modern readers. The portion of the plot devoted to her decision to stow-away on Drake's ship The Swan is thankfully played very realistically and takes up only a small part of a book devoted to much bigger adventures.

This is definitely an old-fashioned swashbuckler in that the plot holds few surprises. The fun is all in getting there - sword fights, pirate ships, an evil Spanish villain and a sweet love story all thrown in for good measure. It reminded me a bit of the Indiana Jones movies and pirates stories I loved as a kid -  but transported to Elizabethan times.

The only problem with this book? It's not available here in the United States. I bought my copy off of eBay from a UK bookseller and that's a shame because Barden is a writer I would love to support with my book-buying money. I was thrilled to win The Lost Duchess (her sequel to Mistress of the Sea in a contest) and hope that there are many more adventures to come.

A Fall of Books

Saturday, November 2, 2013

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One key sign that you are a book lover? You mark the change of seasons by library book sales. Every April, June, November and (I think) January, my local library holds a pretty fabulous used book sale. Today was the fall book sale and while it wasn't the epic summer $5 a bag sale that also meant that it wasn't swarmed by as many book dealers as last time around (see my post from June). Nobody pushed, shoved or argued this time around. I was actually able to look through the fiction section without people literally climbing over me and I found some pretty good stuff. 

First, here's my non-fiction haul: 


I picked up two incredible biographies that I read back in my tween years (although I don't think they had that term back when I was a tween!). Elizabeth Longford's Queen Victoria: Born to Succeed and Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Four Kings. I wish they would reissue these biographies - they're as exciting as any novel and just as well-written. I probably will just skim them but I'm happy to have them permanently in my collection. 

I haven't read the others: 900 Days: The Siege of Leningrad; Foundation: The History of England Part I; Memoirs of a Medieval Woman; The Year 1000: What life was like at the turn of the first millennium; Eiffel's Tower: The Thrilling Story Behind Paris' Beloved Monument and Victoria's Daughters. I'm especially excited about finding "The Year 1000" since I'm on a bit of "daily life in England in different centuries" kick. 

Here's my DVD and fiction haul. 

I got a 4-DVD set of Rick Steves' Europe with Italy, Greece, Turkey, Israel and Egypt and Kabhi Kushi Kabhie Gham - my favorite Bollywood movie of all time, a movie my best friend and I watched to death in our college dorm as we wrote term papers. I don't think I've seen it since college but I seemed to remember the Hindi words to all of the songs when I popped the DVD in just now! 

I picked up a couple of authors I've been meaning to read. I've never read any of Le Carre and I've heard he's a fantastic writer. I've also been meaning to revisit Tolkien as an adult. Finally, I picked up two titles from a new author who writes in my favorite "dual time period/family secret historical novel" genre - Lucinda Riley. I also picked up a novel about Henry V that I remember enjoying as a teenager and one of the literary fiction writers whose work I always enjoy - Margot Livesey. 

I bought all of this for...........................$9!!!!!

I'm feeling pretty good but don't know where to start. I have a feeling I'll end up like this: 



Hope your book weekend has been as good as mine!!!