A Rum Tale

Empire of Blue Water: Captain Morgan's Great Pirate Army, the Epic Battle for the Americas, and the Catastrophe That Ended the Outlaws' Bloody ReignEmpire of Blue Water: Captain Morgan’s Great Pirate Army, the Epic Battle for the Americas, and the Catastrophe That Ended the Outlaws’ Bloody Reign by Stephan Talty
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I took in the audio version of this book, narrated by a gravelly-throated John H. Mayer. He turned the history into a tale that could’ve been told at the back of a dim sailor’s dive, a place packed with rowdy pirates and privateers and buccaneers all whipped from salt and wind, all with scars, some with missing appendages. Havin read a few pirate romances, I knew reality wouldn’t paint them in such a swashbuckling, to-die-for light, and sure enough, they were greedy cutthroats who pillaged and plundered and then went back to Port Royal (home base for the English pirates) and gave it all away to barkeeps and whores. Giving, in that way, I suppose. Still, every profession has its code of conduct. What impressed me was how egalitarian they all were. All got an equal vote, all got a fair share of the booty, right down to the cabin boy. They even had a version of worker’s comp for those injured during the course of action. The captain ruled only during times of battle at sea. And if you were a pirate under the command of Captain Morgan you were in safe hands. Oh, but he was a cunning man. Again and again the wiry Welshman outsmarted the dastardly Spanish. The Spanish in this telling are cast as the villains because they won’t allow trade on their lands which the English find appalling. The King and his bureaucrats encouraged the pirates and privateers (pirates with official commissions to wreck havoc) until eventually, the English signed a treaty with the Spanish and the highwaymen of the sea were suddenly deemed to be criminals. For you see, pirates, despite all their wild courage and larger-than-life exploits, were, in the end, political pawns. How that all came to be is a well-spun yarn thanks to Mr. Talty and Mr. Mayer. I’ll remember you both fondly every time I toss back my shot of Captain Morgan.

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Mercy and other God-given talents

Sorry if I get any story facts wrong here, because the day after I finished Grave Mercy, I lent it out. It’s meant to be shared. A lot of others have talked about how cool it is to have an assassin novitiate as a heroine, and I think that’s because Ismae’s paradoxical profession gets to the crux of it all. How do you serve Mortain, god of Death and still remain a decent human being? Ismae is trained at a convent in the deadly arts and excels, except for the womanly arts of seduction which are—as we all know—also considered lethal. All the girls there are misfits, and are happy to have a place to call home, even if it means offing whoever the God of Death messages to the seeress who then passes the message along to the abbess who then sends out one of her trainees. Ismae completes two missions when she’s assigned to become the mistress of Gavril Duval, whom the abbess suspects of playing double agent. But when Gavril Duval proves his loyalty time and time again, Ismae must question the authenticity of her calling. What’s the right thing to do? What is the price of following your heart? And can the heart be trusted?
Of course, Robin LaFevers does all the right things in her debut novel. She writes a superbly paced novel, creates a sense of place and enlivens all her characters without making them overlap and make me flip unduely to the front to remind myself who is what. Some have complained that the romance angle is flat but this isn’t a romance, unless you define it as LaFevers did, in the way that medieval romances were tales of loyalty, intrigue and love, too. This is about making up your own mind, and deciding how best to use our God-given talents, even if they’re from the God of Death.

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Blame Sarah for My Weeds

A Rogue By Any Other Name (The Rules of Scoundrels, #1)A Rogue By Any Other Name by Sarah MacLean
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was my first Sarah MacLean and what a fab way to lose my SM virginity. I tore through this book on a sunny Saturday morning, neglecting family, yardwork and common sense. I can see how some might feel that Bourne is too vindictive, especially in his treatment of his childhood friend Thomas. For me, that just more of a bend in his character arc. There was also the delicious introduction of the other H/Hs and the story ended with a great teaser for the next instalment which want to be released like RIGHT NOW.

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Not So Dumb After All

DreamingDreaming by Jill Barnett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Actually, my rating’s closer to 3 1/2 stars, only because I read the kindle edition which had annoying typos throughout and because overall the story was tad conventional BUT I was surprised into liking Letitia. She initially comes across as being extremely ‘blonde’ despite her chestnut-hair. The first part of the novel is one mishap after another, a kind of slapstick muddle-up that very nearly made me categorize her as too-stupid-to-live. Yet. Yet, her genuine love for the victim of her disasters, Richard, is so, so unabashed, so unconditional that I found myself rooting for her. Motherless and friendless for most of her 19 years, she has not learned social graces but the lesson she has taken to heart comes here (I don’t think I’m spoiling): “You think I’m a child and I know nothing about the world or about love. But I know about love. I know about loss. And I know about loneliness, and goodbyes, and about never being able to voice those feelings again.”

Suddenly, she was not so silly.

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The Jewel that Kinda Glitters

The Jewel of St. PetersburgThe Jewel of St. Petersburg by Kate Furnivall
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Jewel of St. Petersburg has got everything I look for in a good novel: historical events that matter , vivid people making hard choices, a heart-felt love story, a heart-pounding plot. Kate Furnivall captures so well the bitter irony of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution: the revolutionaries became the tyrants they overthrew. She shakes all kinds of details into the novel to make it rich: the names of cars, the description of the Neva River, daily life at a hospital, the dangerous sewers.
The love story between Jens and Valentina were real enough. Her tenacious love for her sister and Jens pushed her into places and decisions that kept me whipping through the pages.
So I’m trying to figure out why I didn’t like it more. ***SPOILER*** I know I’m irked by the inclusion of the first chapter of The Russian Concubine at the end of the novel. It should’ve come with its own spoiler alert because it completely derails (quite literally) how The Jewel concludes. And yes, I know that The Jewel is a prequel and the fate of Jens and Valentina is already ‘out there’. So, there has to be more to my dissatisfaction. I think it has to do with the execution of the love story. The two love each other practically at first sight and rarely fight beyond some irritating tiffs about Valentina’s intended. That’s all well and fine–I’m getting kinda annoyed with stories where the couples fight about everything and we’re supposed to call it sexual tension. I guess given the extreme social and political upheaval they were in, I wanted to see their love undergo a trial, too. But I fully admit that could just be me. It’s definitely worth reading and deciding for yourself.

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By Small and Gradual Changes

The Evolution of Calpurnia TateThe Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

By small and gradual changes are great things achieved. That’s one of the defining principles of evolution, and of Calpurnia Virginia Tate, the heroine in this novel. I finished reading her story aloud to my 11-year-old daughter last week. I suppose she’s too old for read-alouds, but I’m not telling her. Already we don’t do it every evening as we used to, which means I have the time to write reviews while she splits a gut with her father over a Netflix comedy. One of those small, gradual changes.
Calpurnia’s eleven in 1899, living near Austin, Texas with her well-to-do traditional family, the only girl of seven governed by her harried, proper mother and her responsible father who operates a prosperous pecan and cotton farm. There’s the grandfather who all the children are alarmed by. He and Calpurnia strike up a relationship bound by their fascination with the natural world. In the ramshackle former slave quarters he’s converted into his laboratory, he introduces her to the ever-expanding world of science. Always there are careful questions, little discoveries, small accidents that lead to a rather grand discovery, though I’ll be good and not say what it is. The other force in Calpurnia’s life, as intractable as gravity, is her mother who has high aspirations for her only daughter. She intends to make her daughter marriageable. It is, after all, the task set before all young women, one that tears at Calpurnia as she sees the walls close about her. She loves her family. The way she talks about them, you can’t help love the whole bunch, including the domestic help, with their romantic mishaps and comic doings and dinnertime dramas.
And here I am, more than a century later, reading it to my daughter and getting choked up because Calpurnia’s dilemma is still mine and will be my daughter’s. Family or career? And if both, how? And if one and not the other, how to reconcile yourself to the loss? Homeschooling my two, I understand the pull to get myself out there. Wasting my life on laundry and dirty floors, I am. At one point, I had to stop reading and my daughter wrapped her arm around my shoulder and pressed herself against me. And that made me feel worse because I don’t want her to feel resented. I hate to think she thinks I begrudge her.
And it’s not only a gender-specific quandary. One of the more touching scenes is with Calpurnia’s youngest brother, four-year-old JB. For supper, the family is presented Calpurnia’s pie, a sorry patched creation that the family chokes down. JB, the boy, asks why he can’t make a pie, and his mother explains that his wife will make him one. He’s not satisfied. And I wonder how many modern men aren’t either?
Maybe by small, gradual changes Calpurnia, JB and my daughter and son can make their pie and eat it, too.

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A Ripping Yarn, or Where I Wax Academic

The Thirteenth TaleThe Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I don’t think I can add more glory to this book than it has already received, so I’ll just say I felt almost honored to have read it. It’s about big themes: loss, redemption, sacrifice, memory. It’s also a tale about The Other in whatever form it takes. Twins figure large in the tale, and to go into it to any degree might spoil it, so suffice to say, it is about bonds that can go beyond the grave. But for me, and I’m sure for everyone else here at Goodreads, the most intriguing connection to The Other (Okay, this capitalization makes it sound like I’m talking about aliens!) is with books. I can’t imagine my existence without them; a great story can transform me on the almost cellular level. As the great dame novelist said in this tale, “…nothing is more telling than a story.”

And what The Thirteenth Tale told me was that a story is the place where the storymaker and the storytaker are prepared to be changed. Vida Winter’s cathartic tale brought peace to her and Margaret Lea. It also changed me, though I’m sure that’s not what Diane Setterfield had in mind. Still I was inspired and gratified, riveted and restored.

Now before this review spins off into rhapsodic nebulae, let me ground it by saying that the Tale is a ripping good yarn. There’s a crumbling mansion, old books, a dead body or two, a handsome man, a ghost or two, and a madwoman. So you can read it and not fear being changed. Just don’t be surprised if you are.

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