What’s Ashley Reading?: Queens of the Conquest

Queens of the Conquest by Alison Weir

First line: Imagine a land centuries before industrialization, a rural, green land of vast royal forests and open fields, wild moorlands and undrained marshlands, with scattered villages overshadowed by towering castles, and small, bustling walled towns.

Summary: In the first of a four book set, Alison Weir looks at the lives of the first five queens of England after the Norman conquest: Matilda of Flanders, Matilda of Scotland, Adeliza of Louvain, Matilda of Boulogne and the Empress Matilda. Each woman made their mark on the early part of English history through their good works, descendants and political maneuvers.

My Thoughts: I love to read nonfiction and biographies most of all. They tell so much about a person’s life but also about the time period. And this one was particularly fascinating. These women lived almost one thousand years ago but we know quite a lot about who they were, where they were at certain times and what they did. Some of the queens even left behind letters, their personal seals and elaborate tombs for historians and lovers of history to see.

I was not very familiar with these early queens so I learned a lot from reading Weir’s book. The fact that 4 of the 5 queens were named Matilda made the reading a little bit confusing but the author tried to make sure she differentiated between them either with their titles or other names they went my such as Maud. Life during these years was very hard and life was short but these women accomplished a lot during their time. And that so many of them spent such a short amount of time in England is shocking. They helped rule over several duchies in France and had to split their times between each country.

If you are looking for a great insight into medieval England then I would highly recommend picking this book up. It is a big book and very dense but filled with lots of information and several pictures are included in the middle too.

FYI: The next book, Queens of the Crusades, will be out on February 23, 2021.

What’s Ashley Reading?: The Five

The Five by Hallie Rubenhold

First line: There are two versions of the events of 1887. One is very well known, but the other is not.

Summary: Everyone has heard the story of Jack the Ripper. He haunted the streets of Whitechapel preying on women. His victims known as the canonical five are Polly, Annie, Elisabeth, Catherine and Mary Jane. His story has been researched and turned over hundreds of times but very little is actually known about the women whose lives he took. Here are their stories.

My Thoughts: I have recommended this book to anyone and everyone! I was completely engrossed in it. It is thoroughly researched and well written. It reads like fiction and is easy to get caught up in these women’s lives. I found myself hoping for better outcomes as I read even though I knew how each of their stories was a going to end.

Rubenhold brings these women and the times that they lived to the forefront. Everyone thinks that they know the victims. They were prostitutes right? Wrong. Some were but not all five. Each has a story to tell. I could not believe the detail put into their narratives. Using housing records, census, interviews and newspaper reports we get fuller picture of their lives.

Sometimes we romanticize the Victorian time period but it was anything but ideal. People were barely able to care for their families. Housing was not always safe or healthy. Disease, alcoholism and poverty were prevalent. How people survived is astounding.

If you love history, true crime or biographies than this is perfect for you. It is full of information that will keep you reading until the very end.

FYI: There is very little mentioned about Jack the Ripper. This book focuses on the women only and the time that they lived.

What’s Ashley Reading?: Mudlark

Mudlark by Lara Maiklem

First line: It is hot and airless on the 7.42 from Greenwich to Cannon Street.

Summary: Mudlarker Lara Maiklem spends hours walking miles along the riverbank of the Thames in London. In her wanderings she finds little trinkets that give us a look into the English past. She has found items ranging from the Romans to modern day trash.

My Thoughts: I absolutely devoured this book. I first heard about it on a podcast, Talking Tudors, hosted by Natalie Grueninger. In one of her recent releases she talked with Lara about her upcoming book and the Tudor related finds she has discovered in the mud of the river. Immediately after listening to it I had to find a copy to read. Thank goodness Netgalley had it available.

I really enjoyed how the author laid out the book. She started at one end of the Thames and worked her way to the sea. As she described her finds she also delved into her past, experiences on the foreshore and other mudlarks and their finds. I loved learning about the items she found. I was constantly on the internet looking for pictures of these items and reading more history behind them. I am really jealous of the items she has in her curio cabinet. I am seriously thinking about getting a day pass to mudlark the next time I am in London. Or can I mudlark in Kansas?

FYI: Lara Maiklem is on Facebook and Instagram. If you want to see her finds and hear more about mudlarking then check them out.

What’s Ashley Reading?: Mistress of the Ritz

Mistress of the Ritz by Melanie Benjamin

First line: Blanche is dead.

Summary: Blanche Auzello, the wife of the Ritz hotel director, is living a beautiful life in Paris until June 1940 when the Nazis invade. They take over the grand hotel and life changes drastically. Life under the occupation becomes strained especially for Blanche who is hiding a secret that could potentially harm her and those she loves. However, she and her husband are determined to do what they can for France and the staff of the Ritz, even if it means their lives are forfeit.

My Thoughts: I am a big fan of Melanie Benjamin. Her novels are always very interesting and filled with fascinating women. I had never heard of Blanche or her husband before picking up this novel. It sounds like life in Paris was very tense during the occupation but not nearly as bad as I imagined it would be. It seems as if people continued to live life as normal as possible during those years.

Melanie Benjamin at Watermark books on May 28, 2019.

One of the issues I had with the story was that it seemed to almost center on her husband, Claude, rather than her. He references her often and thinks about her during his chapters but he almost takes over the narrative. And strangely I enjoyed his storyline more than hers. He could be a jerk but his story was more interesting except for when Blanche was with her friend, Lily.

FYI: Perfect for fans of Kate Quinn’s book, The Alice Network.

Book Review: Love & War

Love & War by Melissa de la Cruz

First line: Forget Paris.

Summary: As the Revolution is coming to a close Alexander Hamilton and his new bride, Eliza Schuyler, are learning that being married is not always easy. Alex is setting up his law offices and Eliza is establishing their home. The long hours at the office defending Loyalist clients puts a strain on the young couple. Will they be able to continue their love story or will it crumble?

Highlights: I enjoyed the story of their early marriage. De la Cruz does a good job of portraying how hard it would be to try to find a balance in this new country. I particularly liked the struggle of a young patriot having to defend the wife of a Loyalist. He must have faced lots of ridicule from other members of his party.

Lowlights: This is young adult and it feels like it. The love and feelings are very immature. However, it does as good job of bringing the history to a young audience.

FYI: Book 2 in the Alex & Eliza series.

Book Review: Dark Tracks (Book 4 in the Order of Darkness series)

First line: There was an angry bellow from inside the woodcutter’s hovel; the woman, struggling up from the stream with a heavy bucket of icy water in each hand, raised her head and shouted back.

Summary: In the fourth installment of Philippa Gregory’s young adult series we follow Luca, Isolde and their companions on their journey. As they stumble into a small village, they find the townspeople besieged by a troupe of dancers. However, these are no ordinary dancers. These dancers seem to be possessed. What is causing this dance sickness and how can it be cured? These are just a few of the questions Luca wants to find out. But when Isolde is taken by the dancing fever the need to find a cure becomes even more important.

Highlights: I have really enjoyed Gregory’s young adult novels. She is my favorite author. Her historical fiction is amazing. She does a great job of describing the time. This is a great way to get younger readers interested in the past. Even as an adult, I learn new bits of information with each story. I also really like the covers. But if you have read my other reviews you know how much I love a good cover!

Lowlights: These are definitely for young adult. They are not as in-depth and detailed but still gets the story told in a fun and interesting way.

FYI: This is book 4 in the series. Check out her other books (Changeling, Stormbringers, and Fool’s Gold) before reading this one!

Book Review: How To Stop Time

How To Stop Time by Matt Haig

First line: I often think of what Hendrich said to me, over a century ago, in his New York apartment.

Summary: Tom Hazard may look like an ordinary man but he is anything but. He is several hundred years old. He has seen the world change from Elizabethan England to the modern era. Sounds like a dream right? Maybe so but it can be lonely. When a group called the Albatross Society discovers him, he learns that there are many more people like him. Their main rule is to never fall in love. It complicates things. Tom has led many different lives but now he takes on a role that could jeopardize his existence, a history teacher. When he intrigues a fellow teacher, he has to decide if it is worth it to break from the rules of society or start over again.

Highlights:

“I sometimes want to stop time. I sometimes want, in a happy moment, for a church bell never to ring again. I want not to ever have to go to the market again. I want for the starlings to stop flying in the sky…But we are all at the mercy of time.”

Such a great story! I love the thought that someone can live forever and see so many things. I would love to be able to see the world of Shakespeare and the Roaring Twenties. These are iconic times in history. Being a history major, this book was right up my alley.

“It’s not that long ago, not really. History is right here, Anton. It’s breathing down our necks.”

I like that Tom does age. He is not immortal. He just ages slower than the average person does. He has demons. He wants to know what and who he is. He feels guilt. He knows love. He is a flawed character instead of the perfect ones in many stories of immortals. He has made mistakes and learned from them. He has not collected tons of wealth and profited off his condition. He has lived. He has searched for years for someone and never given up.

Lowlights: I listened to part of this on audiobook. The reader was good but when there are many changes from time and location it makes that story harder to follow. Tom often looks back at his past in order to help explain his present. However, while reading it flowed much easier.

FYI: It is already optioned to be a movie starring Benedict Cumberbatch!

Book Review: The Family Tree Cemetery Field Guide

The Family Tree Cemetery Field Guide by Joy Neighbors

First line: Cemeteries are usually viewed with reservation.

Summary: Filled with helpful tips on how to plan, research and preserve information that can be found at cemeteries. This book describes different symbols, types and information about gravestones and their meanings. It also walks the reader through websites and online tools that can help a novice or experienced genealogist on their journey of discovering their family history.

Highlights: I loved seeing the different types of stones and the symbols with their meanings. I never considered that the type could tell you about the finances or social status of my ancestor. All the hints and tips about ways to search for information were helpful. As I was reading, I would open a browser and try them out on my tree. I have a few illusive ancestors and I tried using the tips to discover more about them. I still have not found their death dates but I have learned other little tidbits about their lives. I hope to continue to find more with time.

Lowlights: There was a lot of information that I was familiar with so it was a little slow going through that but at no fault of the author. I like that they walk the reader through the process of signing up and searching.

FYI: Perfect for any genealogist.

Book Review: The Most Beautiful Woman in Florence

First line: It was a large canvas, big enough that it had taken two men to carry it into Il Magnifico’s chambers.

Summary: Simonetta, a new bride to Marco Vespucci, is considered the most beautiful woman in Florence. When she meets the rising star, Sandro Botticelli at the home of Lorenzo de Medici, she becomes the muse for the artist. He uses her as the model for one of his most famous works, The Birth of Venus.

Simonetta in The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli

Highlights: I really enjoyed the story. I love the time and the history of the Medici family. They were leaders of the Republic of Florence as well as supporters of the Renaissance in Italy. I had never heard of Simonetta Vespucci before reading this but since I have Googled her to see the paintings done by Botticelli. The writing was well done and flowed nicely. This is a good example of historical fiction. It has just enough history to learn from but is not filled with facts. I plan to read the author’s debut novel soon.

Lowlights: I got tired of the repetition of her being the most beautiful woman and being used to having people stare at her. It is the title of the book. It was too much. I did not need to be reminded.

FYI: Check out the artwork of Botticelli. It is amazing!

Late September new releases

The first few weeks of school are out of the way, the mornings are a little cooler, and we can always find more excuses reasons to read, right? There are some books that look like they will be great reading as fall makes its way to Kansas. So take a look at a few books we think are worth noticing as the pumpkins start to ripen.

Click on the title to go to the library catalog where you can see if the book is available and put it on hold. Grab your favorite hot drink, find a comfy chair and sit and read for a while!

Sept. 19: Jane, Unlimited by Kristin Cashore
Jane was raised by her Aunt Magnolia, a deep sea photographer and adjunct professor. But now Jane is a year out of high school and Aunt Magnolia got lost during an expedition to Antarctica a few months ago. Jane is now obsessed with the umbrellas that reflect her dreams. When she is invited to a gala at the island mansion Magnolia told her to absolutely go to if she ever got the chance, Jane goes. What Jane doesn’t know yet is that every choice made in the mansion comes with a reward, or a price.

Cover of The Cuban Affair by Nelson DeMille
Meet Daniel “Mac” MacCormick, owner of a fishing boat that may be making a trek to Cuba to recover $60,000,000 hidden during the Cuban revolution.

Sept. 19: The Cuban Affair by Nelson DeMille
Daniel “Mac” MacCormick is a decorated U.S. Army veteran who served two tours in Afghanistan during his 5-year stint as an infantry officer. Now he owns a 42-foot charter fishing boat and is sitting in a bar waiting to hear why he should take a $2,000,000 fare to Cuba. After hearing Sara’s story of the $60,000,000 her grandfather hid during the revolution, he knows that he’ll either come away from this job rich, or he won’t come back at all.

Sept. 26: Sleeping Beauties by Stephen King and Owen King

Cover of Sleeping Beauties by Stephen King and Owen King
Stephen King co-authored “Sleeping Beauties” with his son Owen King.

This father-and-son collaboration explores the question of what might happen if the women of the world disappeared. From Goodreads: “In a future so real and near it might be now, something happens when women go to sleep; they become shrouded in a cocoon-like gauze. If they are awakened, if the gauze wrapping their bodies is disturbed or violated, the women become feral and spectacularly violent; and while they sleep they go to another place. The men of our world are abandoned, left to their increasingly primal devices. One woman, however, the mysterious Evie, is immune to the blessing or curse of the sleeping disease. Is Evie a medical anomaly to be studied, or is she a demon who must be slain? Set in a small Appalachian town whose primary employer is a women’s prison, Sleeping Beauties is wildly provocative and gloriously absorbing.”

Sept. 26: The Last Castle by Denise Kiernan (non-fiction)
If you have been to Asheville, North Carolina, and visited the Biltmore Estate, or if you’ve never been to North Carolina and only seen pictures of the Biltmore Estate, this book tells the magnificent story of how the country’s grandest residence was built. However, the book is more than just the story of how a 175,000-square-foot home was built. You’ll also learn the story of George Vanderbilt and Edith Stuyvessant Dresser.

Cover of Wishtree by Katherine Applegate
This book for middle grade readers is a wonderful story about relationships.

Sept. 26: Wishtree by Katherine Applegate (for young readers)
From Goodreads: “Red is an oak tree who is many rings old. Red is the neighborhood ‘wishtree’—people write their wishes on pieces of cloth and tie them to Red’s branches. Along with her crow friend Bongo and other animals who seek refuge in Red’s hollows, this ‘wishtree’ watches over the neighborhood. You might say Red has seen it all. Until a new family moves in. Not everyone is welcoming, and Red’s experiences as a wishtree are more important than ever. “