Tag Archive: history

Book Reviews Feb 2014

This year I am trying to read at least 300 books again. I’m doing pretty well so far, having read 39 books. I’m hoping to tackle more Newbery books in audiobook format as they are usually so short, and I’m on a bit of an audiobook lull at the moment (at least in regards to adult books). I finally finished Book 3 of the Song of Ice and Fire series (Game of Thrones to the uninitiated). I’m currently reading an ARC called The Setting Sun: A Memoir of Empire and Family Secrets by Bart Moore-Gilbert. I’m currently listening to another Newbery-winning book The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron.

As always, I rate things from 1 – 5 stars, one being the lowest and 5 being the highest. The Caldecott Challenge, which I started last May, is my attempt to read all of the Caldecott Honors and Award winners from 1938 – the present. I’m also completing a Newbery Challenge, where I’m reading all the award winners and at least one honor book. I will include some photos of illustrations that I like with the reviews.


The Goodnight Train written by June Sobel, illustrated by Laura Huliska-Beith

The Goodnight Train

Feeding into my son’s train fascination, this book is another great example of imaginative writing. Set to a rhyming text, the story is about a train full of beds and small children that is going through a magical countryside, on the way to Dreamland. My son loves this book and has requested it pretty much every night for a week. Recommended for ages 2-6, 4 stars.

I Love Trains! written by Philomen Sturges and illustrated by Shari Halpern

This was a cute but very simple book about a young boy who loves trains, not only the different parts of the train, but also because his daddy works in the caboose of one. I like the brightly colored blocky illustrations, which are perfect for toddlers. Recommended for ages 2-6, 3 stars.

No T. Rex in the Library written by Toni Buzzeo, illustrated by Sachiko Yoshikawa

I like books about the library and am always on the lookout for picture books in that setting. I figured this one would interest my son as it has dinosaurs. A woman puts her daughter Tess in time-out for ten minutes for being a “little beastie” in the library and causing mischief, and while there Tess imagines a T Rex coming out of one of the books she knocked over and causing plenty more mischief and mayhem in the library, including ripping books. For this, Tess punishes the dinosaur by putting it in time out and back inside its book. I get that they’re trying to teach kids to have good behavior in the library, but that message kind of gets lost about halfway through the book.  My son loves it though, mostly just because there is a roaring rampaging dinosaur, so this book gets three stars from me instead of two. Recommended for ages 3-6, 3 stars.

The Boy Who Loved Trains written by Jill Kalz, illustrated by Sahin Erkocak

I picked this one up because my son likes trains. Not the best book, as I thought the story fell a little flat and the illustrations weren’t that good, but it would be good for a beginning reader, which is the intended audience. The book is about a young boy who is obsessed with trains, in fact the only words he will say is “Woo! Woo!”. It is his birthday and he gets a new present from his aunt, a shiny race car, so soon afterwards he is obsessed with cars and the only words he will say is “Vroom! Vroom!”. My son enjoyed the book more than me. Recommended for ages 3-6, 2 stars.

The Little Engine that Could written by Watty Piper, illustrated by Loren Long

I never really wanted to read this book, though of course I knew about it as it has been around since 1930. Again, influenced by my son, I picked it up in desperation after not being able to find many train books at the library. I actually enjoyed the story, though it is rather lengthy for reading out loud to small children. My son loved the story though, so that made it worth it.

A small happy train is pulling cargo of toys and good things to eat for the boys and girls on the other side of the mountain, when he suddenly breaks down. The toys ask three passing trains to help them to get to the children before daybreak, but each refuse. When all seems lost, a fourth smaller train happens by and she agrees to take them, though she has never hauled cargo before. All the way up the mountain, she chugs “I Think I Can” to herself, and manages to make it to the top. The toys are ecstatic as they make their way down to the little town in the valley of the mountain. This is a cute story that teaches children about determination and perseverance. Recommended for ages 3-7, 4 stars.

The Caboose Who Got Loose written and illustrated by Bill Peet


I’ve been fascinated by Bill Peet ever since I read his autobiography for the Caldecott Challenge. I knew he wrote some children’s books, but had no idea that he did so many (34 total). His work reminded me a lot of Dr Seuss, with the crazy rhymes for the book. I guess you have to get pretty creative when working with the word “caboose”. He worked for Walt Disney and you can definitely see the influence in the way he draws houses and even Katy Caboose, from his work on the animated shorts Susie the Little Blue Coupe and The Little House.  I loved the rhyming storyline and it had great illustrations. As this was a train-related book, my son kept wanting me to read it over and over to him.

Katy spends her day at the end of a very long freight train and longs to be free and surrounded by nature. It is only after she is near a switchman’s house that wants to be her because her life looks so glamorous that she gains appreciation for herself. Her wish for freedom is unexpectedly granted when the train she is hooked up to is coming up a steep curvy mountain track, and she is accidentally uncoupled. She flies off the track and is caught between two evergreen trees and the rescue team is unable to find her. And so she lives out the rest of her days in nature with a great view. Highly recommended for ages 3-7, 5 stars.

Smokey written and illustrated by Bill Peet

Yay for Bill Peet! While I didn’t like this one as much as Katy the Caboose, my son kept wanting me to read it. Smokey is an old engine who is a bit worn down. After overhearing some other engines talk about how will be retired to the junk yard, he decides to go on an adventure. He is chased by Native Americans who misinterpret his smoke signals (this part was a little racist, but the book was written in the 1960s, so congruent with the times). He is almost run off the rails by a fast freight train and end up in a farmer’s duck pond. After the farmer complains to the North Central Line, they come and rescue him and bring him back to the train yard. His smoke stack has been bent in his fall into the pond, and now he can puff letters and numbers. A teacher returning from summer vacation sees the letters and gets her school board to buy Smokey from the North Central Line, where the kids fix him up. He goes from a sad black and white engine to a colorful one, after the kids paint him. He learns simple words and happily teaches the kids for many years. Recommended for ages 3-7, 3 1/2 stars.

Steam Train, Dream Train written by Sherrie Duskey Rinker and illustrated by Tom Lichtenheld

Steam Train Dream Train - Turtle Cars

I loved the book Goodnight Goodnight Construction Site, as it was a great book for my son, so when I found out the author/illustrator did a train book, I leapt at the chance to read it. She did not disappoint. How can kids not love a book with trains, animals, and dinosaurs! The book tells the rhyming story of a group of animals who help load a train with supplies and when the finish, they board the train and go to sleep. My son especially liked the polar bears and penguins loading ice cream, the elephants loading colorful paint and the dinosaurs. It has fantastic illustrations that really draw you into the story. Recommended for ages 3-7, 5 stars.

Sidney, Stella, and the Moon written and illustrated by Emily Yarlett

Sidney, Stella and the Moon

I picked this one up in the New Book section of the Children’s Room. It looked interesting and it was about the moon, which my son loves reading about, so I gave it a try. I must have British book radar, because I always seem to gravitate towards British writers, even if I have no idea where they are from are to begin with. I really liked the artwork, which was a blend of digital art and collage. The story was kind of boring though.

Sidney and Stella are twins who do everything together. One day, they are fighting over a bouncy ball, when it slips from their grasp, bounces way up and shatters the moon. What are two children to do! Why, they must fix it before anyone can find out. Of course, it is all over the news so it is not a secret for long. Sidney eventually finds a partially eaten round of cheese to replace the moon and with his sister’s help, the put it back in the sky. Recommended for ages 4-7, 3 stars.

No Such Thing written and illustrated by Bill Peet

This was an odd book. It was almost like Peet was trying too hard to be like Dr. Seuss with his descriptions of crazy original creatures and their abilities. My favorites were the colorful narcissistic horses called Fandangoes and the Snoofs, mountain goats whose horns are so long they can use them for skis. Recommended for ages 4-7, 2 1/2 stars.

The Adventures of Obadiah written and illustrated by Brinton Turkle

The Adventures of Obadiah

I love Obadiah! He is so precious. I was so excited after having read the Caldecott honor winning book Thy Friend, Obadiah by the same author, that he did a few more books on our Quaker boy Obadiah.

In this book, Obadiah keeps getting in trouble with his teacher and family for telling outrageous fibs. The family’s big event in the story is a sheep shearing and fair, where they go with all the other Quaker families to socialize. Obadiah is warned against going to the sideshow tents. While there, he is separated from his family but finally makes his way back to them at the end of the day. He tells them what seems like another crazy story about him riding an out-of-control sheep when he was saved by a sideshow performer who showed him around the area. He got to see fire-eaters and go dancing. That is pretty exciting stuff for a young Quaker boy. They don’t believe him, until his story is confirmed by a neighbor. Recommended for ages 4-8, 5 stars.

Tea Rex: A Young Person’s Guide to Tea Party Etiquette written and illustrated by Molly Idle

Tea Rex

I really picked this up for me rather than my son, though I thought he might like the dinosaur. I enjoyed the concept of this book, but the execution would be hard for small children to enjoy. A lot of the story ideas were visual, which were hard to explain to a two-year old. It would be fun for a slightly older child who can pick up on visual clues.

The book is a guide for children who want to have a tea party and shows the correct and not-so-correct ways to handle guests and put on a successful tea party. As a child who grew up with tea parties, both real and imagined, I found the idea of a huge roaring T Rex trying to be genteel and hold a cup of tea hilarious, and the pictures made it even more so. Recommended for ages 5-8, 4 stars.

The Flying Tortoise: An Igbo Tale retold by Tololwa M. Mollel, illustrated by Barbara Spurll

The Flying Tortoise

I found this book at the library book sale this weekend and picked it up because I love folktales and my son loves turtles. The story reminded me of the West African stories about Anansi the spider, as he is also a trickster, although Mbeku the tortoise seems much more greedy and unredeemable compared to Anansi.

The story comes from the Igbo people of Nigeria. Mbeku the tortoise had a beautiful shiny shell. He tricked the birds into giving him their feathers and becoming their spokesman after they were all invited to the Skyland for a feast. Mbeku got his friend the lizard to create some wings for him, which he uses to fly up with the birds and eat all their food. In punishment, they destroy his wings and leave him stranded in the sky. He plans on jumping down, but after the birds learn that he has fooled them for a third time, they sabotage his soft landing. Mbeku falls and breaks his shell, and his friend the lizard tries to repair it but it is now rugged and ugly. Recommended for ages 5-10, 4 stars.

Caldecott Challenge

Fish in the Air written and illustrated by Kurt Wiese

I managed to slip this short read into our bedtime story routine in one night. The book won a 1949 Caldecott Honor. This is only my second Kurt Wiese book but he seems to predominantly write books about China and the books are a little dated, as evidenced by the clothing in the story. This was a cute story about a young Chinese boy named Young Fish who wants to fly the biggest Fish kite. His father, Old Fish, buys it for him and on the way to flying it, Young Fish promptly gets swept away by a strong wind and end up in the river. He is caught by a napping fisherman, and rescued by his father. He quickly decides that he would much rather have the smallest fish kite. Recommended for ages 3-7, 3 stars.

Bambino the Clown written and illustrated by Georges Screiber

I wasn’t a huge fan of this book because it just came off as super creepy and slightly pedophilic to me, though I know it wouldn’t have been considered this way when it was written. It won a 1948 Caldecott Honor. Bambino the Clown is a man who sees a little boy crying and decides to take him under his wing by inviting him back to his house to see how he turns himself into a clown. He is invited to the circus the next day and we are treated to Bambino’s show with his seal companion Flapper. Recommended for ages 4 – 7, 2 ½ stars.

Children and YA

The Mark of the Dragonfly by Jaleigh Johnson

The House of Hades (Heroes of Olympus #4) by Rick Riordan, narrated by Nick Chamain

This book was a non-stop action fest, but also had plenty of character development as well to keep the story going. As usual, this series introduces me to lesser-known Greek and Roman mythology that I might not have seen unless I was very thorough. I applaud Rick Riordan for his addition of a gay main character, something I’ll admit I wasn’t expecting from a well-known children/young adult author who also happens to be Southern (I am also Southern and unfortunately we are not known for our open-mindedness – with exceptions of course).

The story picked up right where The Mark of Athena left off. Frank, Piper, Hazel, Leo, and Jason are taking the Athena Parthenos statue to Epirus, Greece to stop Gaia and close Doors of Death from the mortal side. Nico has joined the crew as well, as is the only one who can locate the doors. Meanwhile, Percy and Annabeth who fell into Tartarus in the last book are attempting to close the Doors from the Underworld. Only no mortal has ever survived walking through Tartarus, so there is a lot of pressure from their end. All of the demigods do a lot of growing up in this book, which in Frank’s case is literal and everyone else’s figuratively. The Greek and Roman gods are warring with each other, so they’re no help at all. The demigods must rely on themselves and each other if they are going to get through this. The book ended on a cliffhanger though, so I’m dying to know what happens next (have to wait a year till next book comes out L). Recommended for ages 10+, 5 stars.


The Dark-thirty: Southern Tales of the Supernatural written by Patricia C. McKissack, illustrated by Brian Pinkney

I probably would not have picked this book up except that it won a 1993 Newbery Honor and a Coretta Scott King Author award. But I’m very glad I did. The book is a fascinating glimpse into African-American folktales from the Southeastern US. I’ve never heard any of them. Patricia McKissack is a fabulous storyteller. There’s a little bit of everything in this book: ghosts, voodoo, Sasquatch, daring escapes, demons and protector spirits and monsters. The woodcut illustrations by Brian Pinkney are great, though I wish there were more of them. My favorites were “We Organized”, “The Woman in the Snow”, and “The Gingi”. Recommended for ages 7-12, 5 stars.

A Single Shard written by Linda Sue Park, narrated by Graeme Malcolm

At first, I was wondering why they picked this particular narrator to voice a story about a young Asian boy, but Graeme Malcolm had a very nice range of different voices and intonations and did an excellent job. I could picture Tree Ear in my mind after listening to his narration and really rooting for him to succeed. This book made me smile and cry, but still ended on a happy note.

Tree Ear is an orphaned boy about twelve years old who lives with his friend one-legged Crane-Man under a bridge in Ch’ulp’o, a small Korean village, a place known for its fine celadon pottery. One day, Tree Ear’s curiosity gets the better of him and he accidentally breaks a piece done by Min, the finest potter in the village. As penance, he has to do back-breaking labor for nine days for free. After completing this, he is taken on as an apprentice to Min, though he will not let him throw a pot on the pottery wheel. To create a beautiful vase is Tree Ear’s dream, so he is heartbroken. One day, an emissary comes to the village to select a potter for a royal commission. One of the other potters in town Kang has created a new style of incising designs into the pottery. He gets a royal commission because it is new and different, but the emissary prefers Min’s work as Kang is not as skillful. Tree Ear is charged with bringing two vases with the incised style done in Min’s more skilled hand to the emissary. Will he be able to make it? If he does, will he finally learn how to throw pots? To find out, read this beautifully written book, which won a 2002 Newbery award. Recommended for ages 9-12, 5 stars.

Young Adult

Library Wars: Love and War, Volume 9 written and illustrated by Kiiro Yumi

I had totally forgot about this series until I was browsing manga on my local library’s website the other day. This series is a little predictable, but I still enjoy it and want Kasahara to find true love, whether or not that turns out to be her “prince”.

In this volume, Kasahara is acting as bait for a groper in the library, who felt up the deaf girl Marie. Once the groper is caught, Marie is given a whistle to blow in an emergency. Since finding out that Instructor Dojo is her “prince”, things have been awkward between the two, especially after she blurts out that she’s grown out of her prince one day. The test for the next rank of Sergeant is coming up, and Kasahara and Tezuki have to take a written test and a skills test, which involves entertaining a group of kids. Kasahara passes the skills test with flying colors, and barely passes the written (thanks to tutoring from Instructor Dojo), while Tezuki aces the written and manages to hold the attention of the children. Kasahara realizes that despite her best efforts, she may be falling for Instructor Dojo for real. Recommended for ages 13+, 4 stars

Library Wars: Love and War, Volume 10 written and illustrated by Kiiro Yumi

In this volume, the enemy of the Library Task Force (the Media Betterment Committee) is censoring a piece of artwork in the Museum of Modern Art in the hometown of Kasahara, and she is chosen along with Dojo and the others to represent the Task Force in the town. They are going to protect the freedom of speech of the artist. The only problem with this is that Kasahara’s parents do not like the idea of her being in the Task Force to begin with, as they say it is unladylike. Once there, Kasahara is tormented by the female librarians, who do not like that she is there with the Task Force. She manages to work her way through it and holds her own, which Dojo praises. The bonus manga was very fascinating, and makes me wonder if Dojo really likes Kasahara as well. Can’t wait till the next volume comes out! Recommended for ages 13+, 4 stars.


Madam: A Novel of New Orleans by Cari Lynn and Kelli Martin

At the King’s Table: Royal Dining Through the Ages by Susanne Groome

As I am fascinated by British Royalty and food history, this seemed like a very appropriate topic for me to read. It gives a history of royal dining from the time of Richard II in the mid 14th century to the present day. As far as styles of cooking goes, there was a lot of French influence on the British court, depending on whether or not they were at war with the French at that time or not. The earlier courts pretty much up until King George II had prodigious appetites, then there was a lull during the reign of Mad King George III due to his illness and his wife’s pickiness. The banqueting picked up again during George IV’s reign as he was a prodigious eater, followed by a lull during the Victorian era due to Victoria and Albert’s strict upbringing of their children, and renewed again by their son Edward VI. He was a lover of all things French and it was during the Edwardian era that the French style of cooking really came into prominence in Great Britain. Once you get into modern times, the World Wars effectively put an end to the multiple-course menus. I loved all the illustrations in the book, which really set the stage for the history. Highly recommended, 5 stars.

A Storm of Swords: A Song of Ice and Fire #3 by George R.R. Martin

I thought the last book was crazy, but this one was even more so. I ended up giving this book 4 1/2 instead of 5 stars because it really dragged in the beginning and middle. I guess that’s because he was building up so much storyline to really sock it to you at the end, and boy did he. I mean how ballsy is the author to kill off 3 ½ major characters (the half part is explained in the epilogue) and at least two secondary characters all in the second half of the story!

This book picks up about where the other book left off. First, we visit the Starks and family, which leads into the rest of the major characters. Catelyn Stark has gotten this crazy idea in her head that if she releases Jaime Lannister to the care of Brienne of Tarth (her sworn protector after Renly Baratheon was killed in the previous book), and delivers him to King’s Landing that Cersei will give her back Sansa and Arya. So she does and that causes a mighty uproar with her son Robb, the King in the North, as he was a valuable bargaining chip. We actually get to see Jaime as a real person and not just as the “Kingslayer”. Jon Snow has joined the wildings, under orders from a Night Watch superior, to see what they are planning for the Black Brothers. He definitely gets a little life experience under his belt after he claims Ygritte for his own. I found the character of Mance Rayder to be particularly interesting as there were only hints of his character before. John really came into his own in this book and grew up a bit.

Arya is still on the run and falls into the hands of Lord Beric Dondarrion, the lightning lord, who runs with group of commoners. He is another follower of the Lord of Light. She spends some time with the Hound, who has been on the run ever since Stannis Baratheon was defeated at the Battle for King’s Landing. She also manages to tick a few names off her death wish list, some through her actions and some through others. Bran, Hodor and the Reed heirs (retainers of his father) have escaped from Winterfell and are heading North. King Joffrey breaks his marriage plans to Sansa and is engaged to be married to Margery Tyrell, the former wife of Renly Baratheon. Sansa spends most of the book being bullied by Joffrey and his thugs. After the Battle for King’s Landing, and despite his great role in protecting the city, Tyrion is essentially discarded and his father Tywin takes over the role of Hand to the King. Daenerys is becoming totally bad-ass after conquering a few eastern cities and getting a warrior-eunuch army to follow her. The dragons are growing up.

Davos Seaworth gets rescued and brought back to “King” Stannis who first throws him in prison and then names him Hand of the King. The Others, the undead horde that keep following the Night’s Watch, attack the small army set up by Lord Commander Mormont. Samwell Tarly kills one of the Others with an obsidian blade given to him by Jon. Afterwards, they are staying at Craster’s (a wildling who sometimes gives aid to the Black Brothers) house, when some of the remaining Brothers rebel, and kill Mormont. Samwell manages to escape with the help of Gilly, who has just given birth. He must bring them back to Castle Black to safety.  To find out more about the story, read this excellent third book in A Song of Ice and Fire series. 4 1/2 stars.

Murder as a Fine Art written by David Morrell

I picked this book on a recommendation from one of my favorite historical fiction/mystery YA authors, Y.S. Lee. She had read the book and gave it positive reviews for accuracy and I love this type of book so decided to give it a try. I had no idea that the author originally became famous for writing First Blood, the book that first introduced Rambo to the world. Morrell was very thorough in researching for this book, and shares his sources in the back. Although I had never read anything about Thomas de Quincey, I had heard of his famous book. I am definitely interested after reading this book.

A man brutally murders a young family and their servant in the East End of London and the city’s newly created Scotland Yard is on the case. Inspector Ryan and his associate Constable Becker are assigned to the case and begin to explore what might have happened. Eventually they decide to involve the author Thomas de Quincey in the investigation. He is the author of the infamous book The Confessions of an English Opium Eater, the world’s first real book about drug addiction, a very taboo subject during the Victorian era. Thomas de Quincy believes the murders are from a copycat killer of an earlier set of murders done in the same area of Ratcliffe Highway. They are meant to cause panic and riots so that the police won’t be able to catch who is responsible. De Quincey and his daughter Emily help Ryan and Becker, but De Quincey is himself implicated in the murders due to his continued laudanum use and the fact that he knows so much about the earlier killings. Will Ryan and Becker be able to stop the murderer before he strikes again? Will they be able to solve the case and free de Quincey? To find out, read this incredible Victorian thriller. 5 stars.

How to Cook Everything Vegetarian: Simple Meatless Recipes for Great Food by Mark Bittman

How can you not love a man who is both detailed in research and precise in cooking directions? I’ve been a fan of Mark Bittman for awhile, and after reading his VB6 book and liking the idea but wanting more vegetarian options, I got this book. This book is a behemoth at about 900 pages, but like I said before, Bittman is very thorough in his description of every kind of vegetable and fruit imaginable, plus whole grains, different kinds of breads and a small dessert section. I figure I found at least 20 new ways to prepare things, but with recipes that won’t overwhelm me. Some of the recipes I’d like to try include Raw Beet Salad, Wheat Berry Salad with Roasted Peppers, Goat Cheese  and Mushroom Tart with Potato Crust, Smashed Edamame and Potatoes with Miso, and Plum Rosemary Upside-Down Cake. 5 stars.

Friday Jan 31st was “Inspire Your Heart with the Arts” day, so I was inspired to write another art post, as I haven’t done one since last fall. Sorry for the delay in posting it but with work and real life, I’ve been swamped. I’ve been wanting to write about an art post about John Everett Millais for awhile now, ever since listening to the audiobook biography about his wife Effie Gray and their relationship back in October. I’ve known about his work since my undergraduate career but never really thought too much of it. I mean it was nice, but I preferred Dante Gabriel Rossetti or Edward Burne-Jones more. The audiobook definitely gave me more of an appreciation for his work though, and made me want to study it further.

John Everett Millais was part of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (or PRB). As I have said in a previous post, They called themselves “Pre-Raphaelite” because the artists in the group imitated artwork done in the Medieval through Renaissance style before Raphael. According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s website on the Brotherhood, it was:

“an art characterized by minute description of detail, a luminous palette of bright colors that recalls the tempera paint used by medieval artists, and subject matter of a noble, religious, or moralizing nature. In mid-nineteenth-century England, a period marked by political upheaval, mass industrialization, and social ills, the Brotherhood at its inception strove to transmit a message of artistic renewal and moral reform by imbuing their art with seriousness, sincerity, and truth to nature.”

One of his most famous paintings done during his time with the PRB, and the one usually recognized by the most people, was Ophelia. Despite the fact that it was rejected by critics when it was originally created, it has been voted the public’s all-time favorite PRB painting in Tate Britain, where the painting currently resides. I personally think there are better more interesting PRB paintings out there but that’s just my opinion. However, I will say that he is excellent at painting the coloring in her face, really makes her look alive (close-up of her face shown here). The subject matter was taken from the Shakespeare play Hamlet. The painting shows the moment that Ophelia has gone crazy after Hamlet, her lover, killed her father Polonius. She has fallen into the water after collecting flowers from a tree hanging over a river, and she starts singing to herself before she drowns. This is not seen by the audience in the play, but rather described by Hamlet’s mother Queen Gertrude.

Ophelia, 1851-52

Ophelia by John Everett Millais, 1851-52

The model for the painting was the famous Elizabeth Siddal, who was the muse and later wife of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, although she modeled for several of the PRB. Ms. Siddal modeled by laying in an antique gown in a slightly-heated bathtub for hours upon hours, resulting in a serious illness that her father demanded the artist pay for (he later did). Millais painted the landscape part of the painting in nature, which was not something usually done during that time period (a technique which was also made famous by the Impressionists in France). By painting in nature, he was able to be incredibly detailed, especially in his depiction of the flowers and plants. Millais’ son John Guille said the flowers were so realistic that “a professor teaching botany, who was unable to take a class of students into the country, took them to see the flowers in the painting Ophelia, as they were as instructive as nature itself.” In fact, according to Tate Gallery, some of the symbolism is taken directly from the play.

“The weeping willow symbolizes forsaken love. The nettle on the willow’s branches represent pain. The daisies floating near Ophelia’s right hand represents innocence. The pink roses symbolize youth, love and beauty. Violets are a symbol of faithfulness and they can also symbolize chastity and death in the young. The pale blue forget-me-nots in the immediate foreground carry the meaning of their name. The red poppy represents sleep and death.”

The second painting I would like to discuss is The Order of Release 1746. The painting’s subject matter is taken from the Battle of Culloden, where the Scottish and Bonnie Prince Charlie were massacred by the English, lead by Prince William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland (a younger son of King George II) on April 16, 1746. Here one of the Jacobites is being released from prison. According to the Tate Gallery, “Millais appears to have invented the incident, but may also have been inspired by the novels of Sir Walter Scott, which provided a wealth material for artists and illustrators in the second half of the 19th Century.”

The Order of Release 1746, 1852-53

The Order of Release 1746

The Jacobite soldier is wounded and exhausted from battle, and leans on his wife for support. She, in turn, is cradling her fast-asleep daughter as she hands over her husband’s release papers to the Redcoat guard. Their daughter has brought flowers to greet her father, but they have mostly fallen to the floor in her deep sleep. The dog is overjoyed to see his master and jumps up on him to show it. We can’t quite read the wife’s expression. The Tate Gallery believes that “she appears strangely detached from the action, and the suggestion is that she may have been forced to sacrifice her virtue in order to save her husband.” I don’t know whether that is true or not, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it was. I think she might just be worn out. She looks like most mothers, taking care of  everyone and making sure everything is in order. Being the comforter, supporter, and responsible party is hard work. The cool thing about this painting, according to Sally King, is that “Millais designates primary power to the woman in this picture, contrasting the typically passive female figure he features in many of his paintings. The woman provides the emotional and physical balance to the picture.” Neither the wife nor the husband look out at the viewer has meaning. The husband is almost hiding his head in shame, probably from being defeated in battle, being captured and probably also from being released by his wife.

He used his future wife Effie Gray for the model of the wife, though he darkens her hair. He is incredibly detailed in describing the scene, making it almost photorealistic. “Millais’ photorealism upset many of his viewers at first, who could not see the point of rendering such a strange picture with such precision. In fact, it suits the genre of this piece, enhancing its life-likeness and suggesting that the scene actually occurred.” He made sure to copy an actual Order of Release, and took pains to get the tartans on the daughter and father right. According to the Tate Gallery, “For the tartans he consulted Robert McIan’s Highland Clans. The Jacobite wears the Gordon tartan and the little girl the Drummond, presumably the mother’s clan.” The work was greatly received by the public when it was exhibited in the Royal Academy’s Exhibition of 1853, so much so that they had to install a police officer to move the crowds along. It was one of the first paintings of Millais to move away from the Pre-Raphaelite style, which caused Williams Morris (who later helped Dante Gabriel Rossetti revamp the Pre-Raphaelite movement) to dismiss him saying “a genius bought and sold and thrown away”.

Portrait of John Ruskin, 1853-54

Portrait of John Ruskin - Millais

The next painting I would like to discuss is the portrait of John Ruskin. I will admit that I had seen this work way before I knew who the subject was or the story behind it. Ruskin stands on the rocks in front of a waterfall in Glenfinlas, Scotland in the Trossachs (near Stirling). Similar to the way he painted nature in Ophelia, Millais is incredibly detailed. You can almost hear the waterfall falling behind him. Ruskin wanted the picture to be painted outdoors in nature versus being created in a studio because he was hoping Millais would be the next great landscape, like his idol J. M. W. Turner. The portrait was commissioned by Ruskin for his father.

While it is an interesting piece, I think the story behind it is much more interesting. Renowned art critic John Ruskin invited John Everett Millais to Scotland with him and his wife Effie Gray in the summer of 1853. As mentioned above, Effie had posed as the female model for The Order of Release 1746. According to Dr. Rebecca Easley,

“The relationship between the young artist and the established critic began when Ruskin wrote two letters to The Times defending the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in 1851. Millais wrote to thank Ruskin, and Ruskin discovered a young artist he thought worthy of molding. Millais found the experience of [of painting the portrait] difficult, as Ruskin was an extremely controlling mentor, directing much of the production of the painting. He painted the background landscape of the painting during that summer, but Ruskin did not come to model for the actual portrait until January of 1854, but it was not finished until December 1854 when Ruskin’s father paid for the painting.”

While on holiday in Scotland, Millais and Ruskin’s wife Effie Gray fell in love. Her marriage to Ruskin was not happy. He was very controlling and they ended up annulling the marriage in April 1854 due to the non-consummation of their five year marriage and his “incurable impotence”.  She ended up marrying Millais about a year later and they had eight children together. Being a divorced woman in Victorian times was a huge social stigma, and for Effie this was accentuated by the fact that Queen Victoria herself wouldn’t receive her in court (she later did after a death bed plea from Millais). Thankfully Millais was eventually rewarded for all his hard work by being awarded a barony in 1885 and becoming the President of the Academy shortly before his death.

Madam: A Novel of New Orleans

Madam cover

Madam: A Novel of New Orleans by Cari Lynn and Kellie Martin

I am fascinated by the role of prostitution as it pertains to women’s history  because until the end of the 19th century, the only real profession for lower-class women were servants, teachers or prostitutes. Plus prostitutes in the 19th century in Europe at least played such an interesting role in art, but I digress. Mary was an interesting character and it was intriguing to see the world of a       prostitute through her eyes,  as it is usually seen through the eyes of the customer. Her story was       particularly captivating as she rose from a common lady of the night to a woman of high stature in that community. I loved the vintage photographs of the area at the beginning of each chapter, as they really helped visualize the setting of the story and its characters. My only big gripe was that story focused so much on her beginnings, and I would’ve really wanted to know more about Storyville and her time there.

Mary Deubler is a poor prostitute working on Venus Alley in New Orleans in 1897. Mary wants more than this profession that her mother had before her, for herself and her brother, sister-in-law and unborn niece. However, her growth is stifled by a overbearing pimp named Lobrano. She finally gets her chance to move up in the world after a politician decides to create a separate area (later nicknamed Storyville) for the prostitutes and bars, away from decent folk. Seemingly overnight, she is transformed from the worn-down Mary Deubler into the nearly respectable Madame Josie Arlington, in charge of her own bordello.

The authors have done a great job of really making you feel like you are in New   Orleans at the turn of the 20th century, trudging down the dirty back alleys with the bars and whores and their johns. You can almost hear Buddy Bolden playing his trumpet with his band, or Ferdinand De Menthe (or Jelly Roll Morton as he will soon become) tickling the ivories. You could walk into the shop of Eulalie Echo, the Voodoo priestess, for remedies or curses. I enjoyed the character of E.J. Belloq, the famous photographer, who helped publicize Storyville to the visitors to The Big Easy. I had no idea that people in New Orleans during that time period were open to allowing Creoles (a mix of French, African and Spanish) to mix with white society, or at least more so than regular mixed-race people. 4 stars.

Disclaimer: I received this book via NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

The Revenant of Thraxton Hall

The Revenant of Thraxton Hall

The Revenant of Thraxton Hall: The Paranormal Casebooks of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle by Vaughn Entwistle

I’ve been fascinated by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle for awhile now, ever since  watching the most recent Sherlock Holmes movies, directed by Guy Ritchie, and the BBC series with Martin Freeman and Benedict Cumberbatch. I’ve never actually read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s books, though I would definitely like to in the future. This book wants me to read it even more. The same thing is true of Oscar Wilde’s works. I’ve been fascinated by his personal story, but never have managed to read any of his books or plays. I was drawn to this book by the title, as it sounded very Gothic and by the book cover (and yes I know you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but I will admit that I do just that). You can tell the author is English or at least got a good English education from the excellent vocabulary used in the book. I enjoyed the       Author’s Note at the end of the book as it confirms that the author was very in-depth with his historical research, something I always appreciate when reading historical fiction.

Arthur Conan Doyle (henceforth referred to as Arthur) has just killed off the famous Sherlock Holmes and people are rioting in the street and cancelling en masse their subscription to The Strand magazine, where the stories were published. Arthur is relieved as he wants to start a new project. His beloved wife, Touie, is dying of consumption (tuberculosis). He is summoned to a darkened house to help a young beautiful woman named Hope solve a murder, her own. He thinks it is all poppycock and leaves, but finds himself thinking about her in not-so-innocent ways afterwards. He is invited to a conference with the Psychical Society, which is meeting at Thraxton Hall, which Arthur soon discovers is the ancestral home of the lady he has just met. He decides to go with his friend Oscar Wilde, who provides the perfect foil for Arthur’s serious demeanor. Will they be able to uncover who is the murderer and save Lady Thraxton in time? To find out, read this exciting first book of The Paranormal Casebooks of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle series.  Can’t wait to read the next book! 4 stars.

Disclaimer: I received this book via NetGalley in exchange for my honest review.

Disenchanted & Co., Part 1: Her Ladyship’s Curse by Lynn Viehl

I love steampunk books, so when I saw this in the Teen/Young Adult section, I had to give it a try. I will say that I don’t agree with their classification. I think a lot of people try to put all steampunk as a teen-only genre, and I heartily disagree with that.  I love that she got help from one of my favorite steampunk writers, Gail Carriger, while writing it. One of the first things I will say about this book is the author has superb world-building skills. The book is set in an alternate history version of the US, called Toriana or more appropriately “The Provincial Union of Victoriana,” and set in the middle to late 19th century in Rumsen, basically the equivalent of San Francisco in our world. In this history, the US has lost the Revolutionary War and are still British subjects. The author has gone so far as to create a whole dictionary in the back of the book to interpret words used in the book, a mixture of English slang and made-up terminology. Most of the stuff I could figure out living in Scotland and having an English spouse. In addition to the alternate history, add various kinds of mages and magic users and steam-powered carriages and mechs. It makes for one very interesting world. Then of course we have our main character Charmian Kittredge, Kit for short, who makes a living debunking magic frauds. That’s where the story opens up, on Kit getting another client, this one a nob from up on the Hill (where the most wealthy in Rumsen live). Lady Walsh is convinced that someone has cursed her and wants Kit to investigate, but when she does she gets dragged into a lot more than she wanted. For one, she has to deal with the slimy Lord Dredmore, a death mage who does not take kindly to her intrusion onto the Hill. She ends up meeting a ghost, which causes her to find out about her own family history. Will Kit be able to unmask the truth behind Lady Walsh’s curse? Will she finally figure out who her family is? To find it, read Part 1 of this exciting series! I personally can’t wait to read the second part, though I’m not sure I can wait till December. 5 stars.

Disclaimer: I was given this book as an Advanced Reader’s Copy e-book by Netgalley and but it has not influenced how I reviewed this book.

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