Saturday, April 22, 2017

The Confessions of Young Nero

I read a few good reviews of this novel and decided that I had to read it.  I found it to be engrossing and read all of its 500+ pages in one sitting.  I became curious to find out what parts of the novel were historical and what parts were fiction and embarked on some research into Nero's life.

The novel begins with a 3 year old Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus being thrown into a lake by his uncle Emporer Caligula to drown as a sacrifice to the goddess Diana.  He is saved by a woman and returns home where he is being raised by an aunt. He did not know his mother, who had been sent in exile after his birth, or his father.  His father had been killed.  As Lucius learns his family history he becomes aware early in life that it is better to be cruel than dead.  He watches as his relatives scheme and poison each other in order to gain power.

Lucius/Nero is fascinated by the arts and athleticism and pursues both of them as he learns to navigate the politics of Rome.  His harshest tests come from his mother whose goal is to control the empire even if it means assassinating her son.

Lucius, later known as Nero, is obviously traumatized by the betrayals he experienced in his early life and became a harsh ruler because of it.  The novel covers his life from age 3 to 25 with a promise of a part 2 from the author in her Afterword.

The era is extremely well researched. Everything that I learned from independent Internet research into the Roman Caesars was on display in the book.  However, the author presents a different Nero.  His true interests are quite ordinary and he does not shy away from them even though it is not seemly for an Emporer to participate in them. In the end he does not care what others think because he is the Emporer and if the old rules do not work for him, he changes the rules.

This is a very entertaining book and I cannot recommend it more highly.



The Seventh Plague

I am a fan of James Rollins' Sigma Force novels.  The Seventh Plague is his 18th novel in the series and his 23rd novel to date.  The inside front cover blurb summarizes the novel as follows:

"Two years after vanishing into the Sudanese desert, the leader of a British archeological expedition, Professor Harold McCabe, comes stumbling out of the sands, frantic and delirious, but he dies before he can tell his story.  The mystery deepens when an autopsy uncovers a bizarre corruption: someone has begun to mummify the professor's body-while he was still alive.

His strange remains are returned to London for further study, when alarming news arrives from Egypt.  The medical team that had performed the man's autopsy has fallen ill with an unknown disease, one that is quickly spreading throughout Cairo.  Fearing the worst, a colleague of the professor reaches out to a longtime friend: Painter Crowe, the director of Sigma Force.  The call is urgent, for Professor McCabe had vanished into the desert while searching for proof of the ten plagues of Moses.  As the pandemic grows, a disturbing question arises:  Are those plagues starting again?

Before Director Crowe can investigate, a mysterious group of assassins leaves behind a fiery wake of destruction and death, erasing all evidence.  With the professor's body incinerated, his home firebombed, Sigma Force must turn to the archeologist's only daughter, Jane McCabe, for help.  While sifting through what's left of her father's work, she discovers a puzzling connection tying the current threat to a shocking historical mystery, one involving the travels of Mark Twain, the genius of Nikola Tesla, and the adventures of famous explorer Henry Morgan Stanley.

To unravel a secret going back millennia, Director Crowe and Commander Grayson Pierce will be thrust to opposite sides of the globe.  One will search for the truth, traveling to the plague ridden streets of Cairo to a vast ancient tomb buried under the burning sands of the Sudan; the other will struggle to stop a mad genius locked within a remote Arctic engineering complex, risking the lives of all those he holds dear.

As the global crisis grows even larger, Sigma Force will confront a threat born of the ancient past and made real by the latest science-a danger that will unleash cascading series of plagues, culminating in a scourge that could kill all of the world's children. . . decimating humankind forever."

I expected alot from this story but was disappointed.  I found myself skipping pages because I was only interested in the part about the ancient past.  This was not a thriller for me at all.  First of all, this is not your typical Sigma Force novel.  Some of the series' dominant characters had small roles and the storyline was not a usual Sigma Force plot.  Second, the subplot involving the assassins did not fit well with the rest of the story and neither did the subplot about the genius in the Arctic. I think the author should have stuck with the main plot and run with it.

Very disappointed as James Rollins is one of my favorite authors.


Monday, April 17, 2017

The Last Days of Cafe Leila

I received an ARC of this book through the Early Reviewers Club at Librarything. It is a story of three generations of the Yadegar family in post-revolutionary Iran.

Zod Yadegar has written his daughter Noor in California asking that she return home to Tehran where he runs the family business Cafe Leila.  She agrees to come and brings along her angry teenage daughter Lily.  Noor, a nurse, notices her father appears to be ill but is not aware how sick he is.  She soon learns he has terminal pancreatic cancer and decides to stay longer than the week she had originally planned to stay.  This, of course, upsets Lily who did not want to come to Tehran anyway.  While she is there, Noor gets reacquainted with longtime Cafe Leila employees Naneh Goli, Soli, and Ala who have always been considered family.

The family saga alternates between Noor's family problems, Zod's marriage and family life with Noor's mother Parvaneh, and Zod's parents Yanik and Nina who emigrated to Iran from Russia and opened Cafe Leila. Yanik and Nina created a tight family bond that begins to fall apart after Zod forced his children to leave Iran when they became college age and the country became too dangerous to live in. However, when Zod's kids return 30 years later the family bond appears to still be alive.

The setting of the restaurant and food is prominent.  All life problems seem to be solved by working hard to create an inviting place for their customers.  While Iran has changed over the years, Cafe Leila has not changed one bit and offers its customers a respite from a quickly changing society.

I loved this debut novel by Donia Bijan. The characters were loveable and I enjoyed reading about the history of this family through each generation's stories. The descriptions of the food served at the restaurant not only made me hungry but was also historical to the family.  Yanik brought his mother's recipes with him went he came to Iran.  Every aspect of this wonderful book is family related.

Highly recommended.






The Empress of Bright Moon

The Empress of Bright Moon is part 2 of a duology on the early life of Empress Wu, China's only ruling female.  The story picks up where part 1, The Moon in the Palace, ended with a dying Emporer Taizong and his son Pheasant,  formally Emporer Gaozong, being declared as his heir. Pheasant is in a relationship with Wu Mei, our protagonist.

When Pheasant becomes Emporer his uncle advises the court that Taizong made a will before his death installing the uncle as Regent over Pheasant even though Pheasant was an adult.  Pheasant is married to Lady Wang, now Empress Wang, who has been barren during their 7 year marriage. Empress Wang has become a bitter woman and treats the concubines abysmally, especially Mei whom she is jealous of. Mei has been able to produce 2 children for the new Emporer and is not only her rival but a rival of the new Regent. Mei is promoted to the Most Adored title (the Emporer's favorite) early in the story and is given another new title that is higher than the other high ranking concubines, Luminous Lady.  There are concubines titled as Talents, Graces, Beauties and Leading Ladies.  Mei struggles to obtain power as she battles her 2 rivals.

I have loved both of the books in the duology and am thinking about re-reading them soon.  They are that good. The female characters are strong but there are less of them in book 2.  The plot is mainly about Mei's problems with the Regent and Empress Wang as well as Pheasant's struggles with his Regent and the court in general.  The other high ranking concubines are not as central to the plot as they were in book 1.  Both books are well researched.  The political intrigue during the Tang dynasty and in the palace are represented well.

A must read for historical fiction fans.



















The Moon in the Palace

This book is part 1 of the Empress of the Bright Moon duology.  It takes place in 7th century China and is a fictionalized account of the early years of China's Empress Wu, the only ruling Empress in China's history.

13 year old Wu Mei is excited to be chosen as a concubine for Emporer Taizong.  She believes that she can help her family regain its standing if she is able to impress the Emporer and become his Most Adored ie, his favorite.  It is hard to be summoned by the Emporer as there are many concubines and a bedding schedule that must be followed. Being young and unfamiliar with court rules and politics she is taken advantage of by another concubine named Jewel who takes Mei's place after Mei is summoned by the Emporer and soon becomes Most Adored.

Mei meets a boy at court called Pheasant and falls in love with him.  They secretly arrange to meet on several occasions. However, Mei continues to pursue the Emporer and receives several promotions and demotions that seem to be controlled by Jewel.  One evening while she is in the Emporer's bedroom she is seen by Pheasant.  Mei discovers that Pheasant is one of the Emporer's sons and is embarrassed by her actions. Still feeling a need to help her family Mei plays court politics to her advantage but continues to be challenged by Jewel.

I was spellbound by this story and read it in one sitting.  It was impossible to put down and I was up at 2 am trying to finish reading it.  The story is primarily about the political machinations of the Emporer's concubines as they befriend, betray and befriend each other again in order to gain power.  As such, there is alot of court intrigue as they battle each other to become Most Adored or even the new Empress.

What is unusual about the story is that there are many strong female characters. These concubine are no dummies and are more than adept at court politics. Other interesting aspects of the book are the rules concerning the Emporer's wardrobe and the running of the silkworm houses.  I especially enjoyed the information on how to raise silkworms.

All in all, The Moon in the Palace was a great read.







The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane

I am a fan of Lisa See and had to pick up her latest novel.  The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane follows the life of Li-Yan, called Girl by her family as she is the only daughter in her family.  She is a member of China's Akha ethnic minority. They are animistic in belief and Ms. See covers their traditions in great detail. They live in the countryside in a remote village without electricity and running water in stark contrast to the majority of people in 1980s China and they all pick tea leaves for their livelihood.

Girl walks for hours each day with her family in order to pick pu'er tea leaves all day that are then sold to a tea collective.  Her mother is also the area's midwife and Girl is expected to learn this skill too. She is one of her school's best students and hopes to advance to higher education if her family will let her.  Girl wants to grow up and leave her village for a better life.

One day a stranger arrives looking for the rare pu'er tea.  Girl is asked to translate for her village leaders. Also at this time Girl begins to question the traditions of her village and after having a child out of wedlock refuses to kill the infant which society requires her to do. She drops her infant off near an orphanage in a nearby town and subsequently leaves her village to pursue her education and career. After getting reacquainted with the father Girl tries to get her daughter back but she has already been adopted by a California couple.  Both mother and daughter search for a stable family life through those they meet through their study of pu'er tea.

I loved this story.  While I am attracted to Asian fiction it still has to be well written to capture my imagination.  The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane does just that with loveable characters and a compelling plot.  There is alot of information about the tea industry both locally and internationally which was enjoyable to read about.  The author also writes about her Chinese culture with its family traditions, government practices, religious superstitions, and ancestor worship practices.

A fabulous read!






Tuesday, April 11, 2017

The Tapestry

I decided to read Nancy Bilyeau's The Tapestry for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge after finding it at my public library.  It is a novel of Tudor England.

The story opens with Joanna Stafford, an ex-novice nun of a Dominican Order that was destroyed by King Henry VIII, vowing to live a quiet life weaving tapestries as a home business.  However, the king hears about her talent and summons her to his court to make a tapestry for him.  When she arrives an unknown assailant tries to kill her and the noblemen at court use her to further their plots.  Joanna finds that her friend Catherine Howard is present at court and is a favorite of the king while he tires from being married to his 4th wife Anne of Cleves.  Joanna becomes involved in court politics which she had tried to avoid but could not.

After reading this book I found out that it is the third novel in a series involving Joanna Stafford.  Of course, I now have to read the first 2 because The Tapestry was an engrossing story.  While I felt that the beginning was slow the author was probably introducing alot of background information from the earlier novels.  The story quickly picked up and I could not put it down.  I read it in one sitting.

The author provides a fascinating insight into the religious passions and politics of the era.  She shows the difficulties of being Catholic in a Reformed era with characters who have been displaced from the destroyed priories and monasteries by Henry VIII.

I highly recommend this book and give it 5 out of 5 stars.  It was a fabulous read.