The Fountains of Silence

Image result for the fountains of silenceFirst Lines: They stand in line for blood.  June’s early sun blooms across a string of women waiting patiently at el matadero.  Fans snap open and flutter, replying to Madrid’s warmth and the scent of open flesh wafting from the slaughterhouse.

I’m convinced that I’ll read anything by Ruta Sepetys.  After the absolute beauty of Between Shades of Gray, she’s won my respect.  So even though I know absolutely nothing about 20th century Spain (which I think is part of the point of writing this book), I was willing to give it a shot.

Spain is hiding dark secrets from the world.  It’s 1957 and General Francisco Franco, the country’s fascist longtime dictator, is doing everything he can to present a beautiful front to the rest of the world while his country crumbles.  Daniel Masterson is an American tourist coming to Spain with his parents for the summer.  Daniel’s father is an oil tycoon and his mother was born in Spain.  With photography as his guide, Daniel tours parts of Madrid looking for a story to tell through the lens of his camera.  Through this he is introduced to Ana and the true cost of the Spanish Civil War.  Backed into an uncomfortable position, Daniel must decide which questions are worth asking when the consequences are dire.

In this story, we really follow two characters: Daniel and Ana. Daniel is the son of an oil baron from Texas, coming to Madrid with his parents for the summer. His mother is from Spain and Daniel is fluent in Spanish and feels at least partly connected with their culture. Ana is a maid at the hotel he says at. Her parents chose the wrong side of the Spanish Civil War and were killed for it, leaving her and her two siblings to scrounge together some semblance of a life.

The characters were interesting in their own ways. Daniel is curious and, as a budding photojournalist, he is interested in people and the stories their actions tell. That quickly lands him in some hot water in Madrid, as the Guardia Civil don’t allow certain freedoms, regardless of your nationality or wealth. I liked that he was so curious and that he was always trying to understand the Spanish culture and the hardships of those in poverty. Ana is clever and starstruck by the extravagance of the hotel she works at. People spend more money on a bottle of wine than she makes in a year! She wants to understand American culture, but America is so different than what she knows. Even ice cubes are a foreign concept to her.

I liked that this book highlighted a recent piece of history that most people probably are not familiar with. For as much as I’ve studied and taught World War II in my class, I almost never hear anything about Spain during that time. And it was interesting to see how dark life was for so many people, how they constantly felt death at their backs for one reason or another.

What I struggled with a little was the story. While I was interested in what was happening, I thought it had a tendency to drag on. There were sometimes things that happened where I was questioning why that mattered. Also, there’s this air of mystery at the beginning of the story that takes forever to start unraveling. It was very drawn out to me.

I still think it’s a solid read and I’m glad I read it.
  The rating from other readers on Goodreads is like, bananas high.  It’s currently at 4.32/5, which is remarkable for a standalone.

My Dear Hamilton: A Novel of Eliza Schuyler Hamilton

Image result for my dear hamiltonFirst Lines: The promise of liberty is not written in blood or engraved in stone; it’s embroidered into the fabric of our nation.  And so is Alexander Hamilton.  My husband.  My hero.  My betrayer.

I know this isn’t YA, but I figured there were enough of us who were interested in Hamilton that this would be worth hearing about.  This book has been sitting on my shelf for over a year, just waiting to be picked up.  I’m not really sure what I was waiting for, but it was finally time.

As a general’s daughter, Elizabeth Schuyler is no stranger to war.  Which is a good thing as she has to navigate the treacherous lands in New York during the Revolution and engage in her own battle of wits against the handsome aide-de-camp, Alexander Hamilton.  She’s captivated by his brilliance and charisma, him by her sincerity and bravery.  But finding love and the end of the war doesn’t mean happily ever after for the Hamiltons, as Alexander fights to make the union the country he knows it can be–if only everyone would stop fighting him at every turn.  It only gets harder when scandals rock the family…

I got my hands on America’s First Daughter (which focuses on Thomas Jefferson’s daughter) a few years back and I was swept away by it. The way it showed a different perspective on the events and people I thought I knew so well. The details, the close connection to history, the way it didn’t shy away from painful truths.

This book did the exact same thing.

Like many people drawn to this book, I’m a big fan of Hamilton. And because of that, I was familiar with the arc of this story as well as the main players that don’t otherwise get talked about much in history (John Laurens, James Madison, Aaron Burr). I was very interested in seeing this all through Eliza’s eyes, especially knowing how everything ended.

It was incredibly fascinating and showed me so many different sides of characters/historical figures that I didn’t previously know about. The authors say multiple times that much of the dialogue is taken straight from writings by the people, as to stay as close to who they were as possible. And I do believe they succeeded in what what probably a daunting venture.

Eliza is far more than I ever thought of her before, even from the musical. Eliza is adventurous and bold. Maybe she’s not as witty as Angelica or as daring as Peggy, but Eliza’s spirit is balanced by her good heart and her sense of fairness, which made her a much better equal to Alexander. Where he was a raging wildfire, constantly in motion, she was a slow-burning but constant flame that tempered Alexander’s. And we get to see that play out so well.

While the courtship and their marriage was definitely something I wanted to read, I found myself so much more absorbed in what life was like for the Hamiltons after the Revolution, as political parties began to fracture the country and as Alexander was a constant target of every snide remark and put-down. The changing alliances, the politics of the era…there are a number of times it seemed to mirror where our country is now in many ways. It was somewhat comforting to see that and know that the country has weathered things like this before, but it was also disheartening to know that sometimes these things never change.

What kind of snuck up on me was the fact that this story is incredibly emotional, and sometimes in ways you’re not expecting. I read about half of the book in one day and the second half of the book was constantly making me cry. Sometimes I knew it was going to be coming, but other times it was unexpected or I thought I’d prepared myself for it and it hit me a different way than I’d thought. I was not at all ready for that roller coaster, but I enjoyed it.

I have definitely walked away from this book with a different perspective on the time period and people like Madison and Jefferson. Jokes and witty rap battles aside, I lost a significant amount of respect for Jefferson throughout this book. I know the perspective is biased, but there are some facts that don’t change regardless of who’s doing the telling.

Lovely book. I’m so glad I read this.

Shadowsong (Wintersong, #2)

Image result for shadowsongFirst Lines: My dearest Sepperl, They say it rained on the day Mozart died.

I read Wintersong back in the…spring?…and, being a duology, I wanted to finish off this series.  It was gonna be easy, you know?  Two books, done.  And I’d have one more series I could cross off my list.  If I was actually keeping a list, which I’m not.

*Potential Series Spoilers Ahead*

It’s been six months since Liesl came back from the Underground.  She’s determined to live her life and grow her music career, but her second chance at life is so much harder than she ever thought.  Her brother, Josef, is cold and distant from her.  And Liesl can’t stop thinking about the man she left behind.  When signs begin to show that the barrier between the Underground and the world above is failing, Liesl knows she needs to do something.  But how far will she be willing to go?  How much is too much to sacrifice?

I had really enjoyed the first book in this series, though I admittedly found it weird at times. But I liked its play on German culture, its delve into the Goblin underworld, and its ties to music.

Pretty much, still what I liked about this one.

I will say that it started off sloooooow. It took me a long time before I felt like I was really getting anywhere. Part of that might have been because I didn’t have time to sit down and sink into it the way I like to. I was reading a chapter at breakfast and maybe another couple before bed. (Normally, I like to sink at least an hour into reading a day, but I’ve been on a writing kick lately.) But part of it, I think too, was that we not only had to set up the currently world Liesl was living in, six months after the end of the previous story, but also her new, manic mindset.

I did really like that this book took a look at mental illness, particularly relating to bipolar disorder and depression, without calling them by name. You see a couple of the characters spiraling, but they don’t have the vocabulary (due to the time period) to really explain what they’re feeling. But we know. We see it. And I liked seeing some of that from the inside, to better understand it.

What I missed from most of this was the Goblin world. Even though that was the crux of the previous book, it wasn’t very present in this book at all. And unfortunately, that’s what I really enjoyed before. And Der Erlkonig really wasn’t in the story much either.

The reason I gave this a four instead of three is because the last 150 pages or so were pretty extraordinary. I don’t want to say there were big plot twists, necessarily, but it was really well-written. Madness, depression, and yes, a few twists made it quite an emotional ending. I liked that.

The Healer’s Apprentice (Hagenheim, #1)

Image result for the healer's apprenticeFirst Lines: The townspeople of Hagenheim craned their necks as they peered down the cobblestone street, hoping to catch a glimpse of the Duke of Hagenheim’s two handsome sons.  The topheavy, half-timbered houses hovered above the crowd as if they too were eager to get a peek at Lord Hamlin and Lord Rupert.

For over nine years, this has been on my to-read list.  Since then, more than one person has told me how much they loved this book.  But…I was hesitant once I found out it was labeled as Christian lit.  That is not a genre I tend to like, so even though this looked really good, I was reticent.

Rose has been chosen to be the apprentice to the healer of Hagenheim castle, a huge opportunity for the girl who is the daughter of a woodcutter.  And yes, Rose is ill at the sight of blood, but she’s determined to overcome it.  If she doesn’t, she’ll be forced to marry some bloated, old man and the thought of that alone turns Rose’s stomach.  When Lord Hamlin, the future duke, is injured, Rose is the only one who can help him.  And as they get to know each other, Rose discovers feelings she’s not supposed to have and wonders if Lord Hamlin feels them too.  But what they feel is forbidden, not only because of the difference in their stations but because Lord Hamlin is already engaged to a mysterious girl who has gone into hiding to avoid the wrath of an angry sorcerer.  As Rose’s life begins to spin out of control, she’ll need to take the first steps to find her new destiny.

I was initially a bit nervous about this, since I knew it was Christian lit. However, since the story is set in the 1300s in Germany, the focus on religion felt historically accurate more than anything else. In fact, I would have been surprised if religion didn’t play at least some role in a story set in that time.

The story itself was more than a little predictable, but it was a fun read. Rose is a healer’s apprentice, but she doesn’t have the stomach for it.  But she’s determined to do the job well, especially since it means she doesn’t have to marry. I liked her strength and her convictions. It would have been so easy for her to abandon her beliefs in the face of some of her struggles, but she stood her ground, even when that meant making her life harder.

Right, the plot. I saw the big twist coming waaaaay before it happened. That made some of what followed boring, as I was already three steps ahead of the characters. However, there’s enough going on in the story that there was usually still something else happening to draw me in.

I thought this was going to be more of a fairy tale (I’m told it’s supposed to be a version of Sleeping Beauty), but I definitely didn’t see it.  However, it does have some of those fairy tale tropes to it, which I liked. It feels like an original story, but it also feels comfortable and easy to sink into, like a well-known story.

This was good. I plan on looking at some of her other books now.

Shadow on the Crown (The Emma of Normandy Trilogy, #1)

Image result for shadow on the crownFirst Lines: She made a circuit of the clearing among the oaks, three times round and three times back, whispering spells of protection.  There had been a portent that night: a curtain of red light had shimmered and danced across the midnight sky like scarlet silk flung against the stars.

Ok, I want to start with a small disclaimer her that this isn’t technically YA.  However, for a long time, I thought it was because our protagonist is a teenager the whole time.  So…yeah.  And based on the fact that this is a based-on-real-history historical fiction wherein an actual 15-year-old girl finds herself Queen of England, well, I thought it deserved some mention.

The year is 1002 and 15-year-old Emma of Normandy has been sent to marry the much older King Aethelred of England.  It’s not the future she envisioned for herself, but Emma knows her duty to her family.  But from the moment Emma arrives, she realizes this is going to be harder than she ever imagined.  She doesn’t meet her husband until the actual wedding, and the man immediately distrusts her.  Her new stepsons resent her.  Rivals are fighting to push Emma away from the king.  Determined to stand her ground and show her worth, Emma slowly wins over the English people and begins forging alliances with powerful advisers.  Even then, though, it may not be enough.  For Emma is falling in love with someone who is not her husband and the constant threat of Vikings could destroy the country before he has a chance to do anything.

I’m a big fan of historical fictions and, I’m finding, especially learning about the time before the Norman Invasion and the reign of William the Conqueror. This was perfect for that.

Emma is only 15 when she’s sent across the water to England to marry King Aethelred, a man about 20 years her senior. Whip-smart and clever, Emma may be out of her depth in terms of power and understanding the culture (temporarily), but she’s clever enough to figure it out quickly on her own. That was a lot of fun to read.

The history and the fiction are expertly combined. Accounts from actual contemporary sources are used throughout the story to introduce the next part and it’s so cool to see how Bracewell put her own spin on it. There’s always far more to history than meets the eye, and I loved that she tried to go beyond the obvious while still staying true to source by giving people other motives.

I also enjoyed how this story really has four narrators to really give a full view of what was going on and why. There’s Emma, Aethelred, Athelstan (Aethelred’s eldest son), and Elgiva (Emma’s rival for political power).  Three of these four are teenagers.  It was really cool to see how they all were woven together to create a bigger picture. It was well done.

It was easy to fall into this story and not difficult at all to keep with it. I read this very quickly.

An Affair of Poisons

Image result for an affair of poisonsFirst Lines: My laboratory reeks of death.  Not of blood and flesh and decay, but the garlicky bite of arsenic, the musty essence of hemlock, and the sweet smell of oleander–like rose water and citrus.

This book caught my eye at the library because, well, it looked historical and am I really going to pass something up where the cover talks about a king killer and poison?  No, I’m not.  Not without looking a little closer first.  When it still looked good, I took it home with me.

After unknowingly helping her mother kill King Louis XIV of France, Mirabelle Monvoisin suddenly realizes her mother’s Shadow Society isn’t who they’ve always claimed they are.  They were supposed to help the poor, to aide those the king was ignoring.  It was never supposed to be about getting power and killing the king.  Josse de Bourbon is the son of a king and a maid, forced to be more of a kitchen boy than a prince.  When his father, King Louis XIV, is killed by the Shadow Society, it’s up to Josse to protect his half-siblings.  Hiding the sewers beneath the city, Josse is desperate to save his sisters, though he doesn’t know how to bring reason back to a city that seems to have lost all sense.  His path crosses with Mirabelle and the two of them begin planning.  A poisoner and a prince–the unlikely combination may be the only thing that saves Paris.

I thought this was really interesting! A genre-blending read that was something of a historical fantasy.

The story itself is fascinating and intense. Initially taken from an actual historical event, it starts with a poisoning. A poisoner named La Voisin kills King Louis XIV of France because of his decadence and neglect of his poorer subjects. (This is where it diverges from history. Louis didn’t die.) With the king dead, now La Voisin is trying to take his place as ruler, but ruling is never as easy as it looks.

Our narrators were what made the story, though. Mira’s mother is La Voisin. Mira is the alchemist in charge of making all of the tinctures and poisons she uses to help citizens. Mira’s left in the dark about the plot to kill the king and she’s devastated when she sees what her actions have caused. Mira has a good heart, but she’s a flawed character. She wants to help people, but her past keeps getting in the way. Josse is the bastard son of the king and a maid. Working as a kitchen boy, Josse becomes his half-siblings’ only means of survival because he’s the least recognizable of the five of them. His main objective is to keep his youngest half-sisters alive and he’ll do whatever he has to to secure that. He’s also a very flawed character, sometimes hotheaded and impulsive among other things.

I mean, these characters, all of them, are complex. Which is the best way to write characters. La Voisin, even, is both good and horribly despicable. None of the characters are all good or all bad and it was so refreshing to read about characters who do walk that line. You understand where they’re coming from even if it’s hard to stomach.

The fantasy elements I thought were fairly well done. Mostly that boiled down to the alchemy Mira was able to do and a little bit of magic that crept into the story. It was enough to give it a different feel to the story without making it feel like it was taking away from the actual history this was all based on.

While it took me a little while to get into the story, I did actually really enjoy this. For a debut, it’s a solid read.

Speak Easy, Speak Love

Image result for speak easy speak loveFirst Lines: Benedick Scott was on his way to freedom or profound failure or, if the usual order of things held up, both.

I heard about this a long time ago, but it’s kind of just been pushed to the back burner.  Every time I saw it, I kind of shied away from it for one simple reason: I actually hate the 1920s culture.  I hate the lawlessness, the disregard for Prohibition, the excess of the times.  (Looking at you, Gatsby.)  But…it’s a modernization of my favorite Shakespearean comedy, Much Ado About Nothing.  So it was inevitable that I would try it eventually.

After getting kicked out of her boarding school, Beatrice Clark is taken in by her uncle on Long Island.  But his home named Hey Nonny Nonny isn’t what it seems.  In the basement is a speakeasy run by Uncle Leo and his daughter, Hero–but the speakeasy is struggling and may not survive the summer.  Desperate to save it, Hero and Beatrice will do what it takes, but they’ll need some friends to help.  There’s Prince, the poor man trying to prove his worth; John, Prince’s dark brother who may be part of the local mob; Benedick, the handsome trust-fund dreamer who wants to be a writer; and Maggie, the talented speakeasy singer.  Despite the danger, love is in the air.  And more than one couple is going to find themselves in love before the summer ends.

Honestly, this was brilliant. We see the story from multiple perspectives, namely Beatrice, Benedick, and Maggie (who, in the original play, is a maid named Margaret but here is a singer at the speakeasy). This allows us to see about 3-4 completely different stories happening at once. Not only is it about their circuitous route to love, but Beatrice, Benedick, and Maggie all have their own goals in life. (This is the upside of making this a “modern” story–marriage is not the end-goal for any of them.)

The setting and everything to do with the ’20s felt realistic without smacking us in the face with it. I felt like I could picture the house, the coastlines, etc. They use some ’20s slang without going overboard with it, which was a nice touch. But it was mostly the references to the world around them at the time that was the best. Lindbergh, women’s right to vote, etc. It felt more realistic because it was more tied to the world, even if it was something mentioned casually, it’s exactly what we would do.

Oh, and the banter! Beatrice and Benedick sling mud at each other like it’s a sport and I was not disappointed by the banter in the least. There were times reading it where I was flinching away from a barb one of them threw. It was awesome. So clever, so biting.

I also want to add that Dogberry and Verges are included in this in the best possible way. The fact that their characters in this are based on real people makes it even better. Those two…holy Moses, they’re ridiculous. I loved it.

This was great. It started off a little slow, but it wasn’t long before I was pulled into the story. It’s cleverly written, makes wonderful updates to the original play, and was just a good entertaining read. I am so hoping she updates more Shakespearean plays because she has a knack for that.

(P.S. If you don’t know if you’ll like this, I totally recommend watching Joss Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing.  It’s modern as well and also fantastic.  ‘K bye.)