Empire of Sin: a Review

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Title: Empire of Sin: A Story of Sex, Jazz, and Murder and the Battle for Modern New Orleans

Author: Gary Krist

I’ve been on a true crime kick lately, but historic true crime, if that makes sense. I love mysteries, and I love history, so a book that combines the two in a well written way is a home run for me. This one did better with the history part than the mystery, but it’s still recommended.

It covers New Orleans steamier side during the turn of the 20th century. Loved the part about the birth of jazz. I also enjoyed reading about the Italian influence on NOLA. I had no idea!

I would recommend this book of you love New Orleans, music, crime, or US history.

 

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What Are We Reading Now?

Hey bookies! How was your weekend? We had a fun time around here with a trip to the library, a very nice little session of Dungeons & Dragons, church, and plenty of reading! This week I’m planning another viewing of Black , and I have a new book I want to write! Here’s a teaser – it’s a twist on a fairy tale.

As for what I’m reading right now, I have 3 nonfiction titles going.

The first is from Net Galley and it’s called Soonish: Ten Emerging Technologies That’ll Change and/or Ruin Everything, by Kelly Weinersmith. It’s a little rough to read because the ARC copy throws the formatting off a little. It’s kinda fun, but not compelling or anything.

I’m also reading one called What Wizards Ate and Kings Drank by Krista Bell. It’s also kinda fun, but not the sort of book you want to binge read. I’m falling behind with it.

Finally, I’m enjoying the audio version of The Templars by Dan Jones. Definitely becoming a fan of his.

Sam the cat 🐱 says hi! He survived his first trip to the vet, but we discovered why he has a certain odor about him. Apparently his teeth are bad! So expensive repairs are needed. Super excited about that.

Hope you have a good reading week and tell me what you’ve enjoyed lately in the comments!

Encore Review – cool nerdy science book!

 

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This review appeared earlier.

Themes: science vs. religion, triumph of the underdog, the self educated working scientist vs. the elite theorist

I’ve been a fan of Winchester’s since I read The Professor and the Madman several years ago. Sure, he can go on a bit, like in Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded, where he spent lots and lots of time on Continental Drift and not enough time on exploding volcanoes. But when he’s on, he’s really on. So I was happy to get a copy of this book at the used bookstore.

I’d have to rank it up there with my favorites. Winchester’s geology background really shows in this book, but that’s not a bad thing. First of all, who but a geologist, or a scientist anyway, would choose to write a biography of someone like William Smith, who never did anything sexy or cool, but simply wandered all over the British isles, improving drainage, of all things, digging canals and mines, and making a map?

But what a map. A map that really did, in its own way, change the world. He’s called The Father of English Geology, which doesn’t sound like an especially cool epithet to me, but to each his own. But his map made possible the huge advances in the dating of the earth of understanding Continental Drift, as mentioned above, and finally allowed us to understand what fossils actually were, not Figured Stones, but relics of previous living things. That was huge.

I loved the cover. It’s a copy of his map that unfolds. I loved that there is another copy of the finished map inside, in full color, and a modern map with it for comparison. I wish they had added a color portrait of the subject as well. Color I guess doesn’t really matter, but the full page size would have been nice. There’s a glossy of geologic terms at the back, but the few words I looked for weren’t there. Oh, and I *really, really loved* that this was a story of a brilliant man of humble origins who made a huge discovery, was ridiculed and victimized because of it, and then was vindicated. How cool is that?

If you are interested in reading about science, I would recommend this one. If you like stories that feature real life triumphs of the underdog, I would definitely recommend this. It’s not your usual take on the subject, but it’s all true, and it makes a great story. 4.25 stars

Flashback Friday

Here’s a review I published earlier that I hope you will enjoy.

Themes: weather, adversity, family, faith, science
Setting: January 1888, Dakota territory, Iowa, Minnesota, and Nebraska

January on the prairie is never exactly balmy. The weather had been very cold all month. Then it warmed up for a while – not a lot, but enough that people seized the chance to get outside and tend to a few neglected chores, repairing the roof, feeding the livestock, bringing in more fuel for the fire, and sending the kids to school. All of which put them into danger.

Weathermen today love to talk about the “warm before the storm,” and this was a classic example. The storm hit with incredible power, bringing punishing winds and very fine, stinging snow that covered everything outside in minutes. Those folks caught away from home were in big trouble. And many of them were the school children.

Laskin seems to have done his research on this one. The stories of the children were amazing and often heartbreaking. That part was very good. But what I didn’t enjoy as much was the story of the Signal Corps and the effort to place blame for the number of deaths caused by the storm. It was a blizzard. The blizzard was to blame.

Seriously, it’s hard to see how things could have ended any differently. It was 1888. There were no satellite weather imaging thingies. There wasn’t even reliable radio. The weather stations themselves weren’t even equipped with telegraph lines linking them up to each other. And if there were, how were they supposed to broadcast their weather forecasts? Forecasting then was even more a matter of absolute luck and guesswork. But there was no way to make them public anyway. They had some sort of flags and alerts they issued, I wasn’t quite clear on that, but no one in the little prairie towns could have known about them. It wasn’t like they put the forecasts in the newspaper or on the radio.

I felt that this technical part took too much focus away from the part that I really found good, which was about the storm itself and how people managed to survive or didn’t. This other bit about the science of it all was just a distraction. I wound up skipping most of that. Still, it was a good book and I would recommend it. It’s just that compared to The Worst Hard Time, I knew that it could have been much better. 3.25 stars

Encore review: After the Prophet

Title: After the Prophet: The epic story of the Shia/Sunni split in Islam

Author: Lesley Hazelton

Puzzled by some of the anger and infighting in the Middle East? Have a hard time keeping groups straight? Wonder why they can’t all just work things out? Turns out the seeds of that anger go way back. all the way back to the 7th century AD.

This remarkably written book traces the conflict between the Sunni and the Shi’a Muslims, how it began, and what the consequences are for today. While her focus is on the history, the implications for today are clear. With every development, she draws the modern parallels and explains how it would shape the future.

I really recommend this one. I admit to being one who just skims through the developments in the Middle East, tired of the fighting and the violence, and resigned to the fact that I don’t understand it at all. Well, this was a good place to start. I’m still confused about a lot of the current figures, but this gives the reader a solid underpinning on the motives behind it all.

Top Non-Fiction of 2017

Hey bookies! It’s time to share my favorite reads of the year. This will books that I read this year, not books that were first published in 2017. There were a few that were rereads, but I pulled them out, so this is books that I read for the first time this year. They are in no particular order, just  as I found them in my list.

Three Singles to Adventure by Gerald Durrell. This one took me a bit to read because I only had one copy of it, but it was so funny and entertaining. It’s a memoir of Durrell’s time collecting specimens for zoos and museums. Great because I could pick it up and jump right in to a different world.

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March by John Lewis, et al. In this graphic novel, Congressman John Lewis writes about his experiences with the Freedom Riders during 1962-1963. Powerful and especially timely. This one refers to the 2nd in the 3 book series.

Both of those are 5 star reads. These are 4 star reads. Still extremely good.

 

Atlantic: Great Sea Battles, Heroic Discoveries, Titanic Storms, & a Vast Ocean of a Million Stories by Simon Winchester. Lots of stuff packed in here, from Winchester’s own travel experiences to natural history and geology to commerce and all kinds of other fascinating stuff.

The Wright Brothers by David McCullough. Great story of determination and daring. Loved this look at early aviation.

American Colonies: The Settling of North America by Alan Taylor. Comprehensive look at the early United States before it became a country. Most complete of any book on the subject I’ve read and very readable.

The Day of Battle: The War in Sicily and Italy, 1943-1944 by Rick Atkinson. A sobering look at the realities of World War II. At times depressing, but worth reading all the same.

 

 

Throwback Thursday – Princesses

Since I have a book about Norman Queens on here, I thought I would rerun this post about princesses, as a sort of companion piece. Enjoy!

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Title: Princesses Behaving Badly: Real Stories from History – Without the Fairy Tale Endings

Author: Linda Rodriguez McRobbie

Setting: worldwide, across history, across time

If you’re thinking Disney has the scoop on princesses, you are so far wrong. Real princesses are fierce, ruthless, vain, spendthrift, ambitious, violent, mystical, proud, and occasionally, mentally ill. Not really all at once, but as a whole, they are about as far from the sweet virginal doll as it’s possible to get.

This is a book club read and it’s going to be  a fun discussion next month. McRobbie sorts the women out by type – heroes, warriors, madwomen, etc. Some of these stories were totally shocking. And some were already familiar to me. I knew quite a bit about Hatshepsut, who started as a princess right enough but wound up as a pharaoh in her own right.

But others were entirely new to me. Princess Olga of Kiev was absolutely dedicated to the cause of revenge. When her husband was murdered, she embarked on a terrific campaign of getting her own back against the country responsible. When she was through, hundreds of men were dead and she was a national hero.

This was an extra treat since the author picked such a wide range of princesses. Instead of the usual choice of white Europeans, she went world wide – African, Asian, all over. She also makes an effort to tell the whole story, not the traditionally accepted Eurocentric story. The book is organized generally by the accepted story first, then the real story after. Some of the stories are quite short, but others are really long.

As far as the “mad” princesses go, it was enlightening to see the way women with mental illness were treated throughout history. Some of them clearly  needed restraint or something, but it was sad to think that so many of them could have been helped with modern treatment. One princess with an eating disorder and a distorted body image seemed especially sad to me.

Some of the stories were a little racy, many were violent, and some were seriously messed up, so I wouldn’t recommend this one for kids, but teens would get a kick out of it. Nothing deep, but a good introduction to the real stories behind this figures. There are also suggestions for further reading.

Who is your favorite real life princess? Tell me in the comments.

Queens of the Conquest: A Review

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Title: Queens of the Conquest: England’s Medieval Queens, Volume 1

Author: Alison Weir

Source: NetGalley

Setting: roughly 1050 – 1200 England and Normandy

Publishers Synopsis: The story of England’s medieval queens is vivid and stirring, packed with tragedy, high drama and even comedy. It is a chronicle of love, murder, war and betrayal, filled with passion, intrigue and sorrow, peopled by a cast of heroines, villains, stateswomen and lovers. In the first volume of this epic new series, Alison Weir strips away centuries of romantic mythology and prejudice to reveal the lives of England’s queens in the century after the Norman Conquest.

Review: This book was a beast. If you’ve ever wanted to know anything at all about the Norman Queens of England, the answers are in here. What they ate, what they looked like (probably), what historians said about them, their families, their children, their hobbies, how they dressed, what they did, and most of all, who they were – it’s all in here.

It’s just very slow to get through. I felt like I read this book for a month and I barely got through it. It’s not the writing. That was pretty entertaining, and I liked that Weir’s own opinions were in here. I think it was the format. I read this on my phone, and that made it feel like a chore to read.

I would recommend it, if you like dense, meaty history with a lot of detail. Just don’t expect it to be a quick or easy read.

Band of Brothers – Review

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Encore review

Title: Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne

Author: Stephen E. Ambrose

Genre: History, WWII

This non-fiction book is the basis for the TV miniseries of the same name. It focuses on an American paratrooper company, the first of its kind, and takes them right through World War II. It highlights some of the soldiers and officers and gives an account of them through every action. Their first battle was on D-Day and they stayed in the center of things in Europe right through V-E Day and beyond.

Some things the book did well. For the first time, I really understood why so much looting occurs after a battle. It also gave a really good picture of how this company became so close and why that is important for survival during a battle.

However, the names and places sort of all blurred together in my mind. Major Winters was one exception, but for the most part, I had a hard time telling the soldiers apart. I liked the ‘Where Are They Now’ section in the back, but what would have really helped would have been more pictures. Same with the places. I am not strong on geography, and some of these places were pretty small. I don’t know why they didn’t include a single map, but it was a major oversight.

The story got me interested enough to do a little research on my own. I found that this book is a little controversial – not everyone involved felt it was an unbiased account, and some felt that Ambrose’s scholarship was a little sloppy. However, it was a good story and now I’d like to read more from some other writers about their own experiences. Recommended, but it could have been a better book.

American Colonies: Review

Title: American Colonies: The Settling of North America

Author: Alan Taylor

book description:

“With this volume, Alan Taylor challenges the traditional story of colonial history by examining the many cultures that helped make America. Transcending the usual Anglocentric version of our colonial past, he recovers the importance of Native American tribes, African slaves, and the rival empires of France, Spain, the Netherlands, and even Russia in the colonization of North America. Moving beyond the Atlantic seaboard to examine the entire continent, American Colonies reveals a pivotal period in the global interaction of peoples, cultures, plants, animals, and microbes. In a vivid narrative, Taylor draws upon cutting-edge scholarship to create a timely picture of the colonial world characterized by an interplay of freedom and slavery, opportunity and loss. “

my thoughts:

This is the most comprehensive book on pre-Revolutionary America that I’ve ever read. It covers everywhere and virtually everyone, from the Pilgrims that you always read about, to the slaves, women, and native people that are usually overlooked. It is sometimes grim reading. Europeans were frequently cruel to the natives. There’s a lot about the conditions the slaves lived in. So many massacres, so much bloodshed.

But it’s not all dismal. Some of it talks about politics, land speculation, exploration, trade, and social customs. Even if you thought you knew about pre-Revolutionary America, you’re going to find a lot of stuff you didn’t know. I enjoyed listening to this, but I think it would have been better in print with some maps. Fortunately, I know basic American geography so I was able to follow along. I really recommend this one.