Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Review: The Empress of Bright Moon

{on Goodreads}

It's safe to say that historical fiction is my favorite genre. I love getting lost in other times and places, and I love the knowledge that I ultimately gain from immersing myself in different time periods. Right now, my fourth graders are working on writing their own historical fiction stories, and going through that writing process with them has helped me to appreciate the enormous task of crafting a well-written historical fiction novel. The Empress of Bright Moon is one of those novels that I've told my students about during this process because while reading it, I was fully immersed and caught up in every moment/emotion. I mentioned before that I generally lean towards European stories, but I've found myself increasingly interested in historical fiction set in Asia, so I jumped at the chance to read The Empress of Bright Moon

The story follows Mei, a former talent (aka concubine) to an elderly emperor, after she is exiled from the palace when her lover, the son of the emperor, comes into power. She is transported to a buddhist monastery, where she is expected to live the rest of her days in quiet contemplation. Mei defies her exile, however, when she hears that Pheasant (her lover and the now emperor) is visiting a nearby monastery. There, they are reunited, and he brings her back to the palace. Throughout the years of his rule, Mei has to navigate the dangers of court. Not only does Pheasant's regent uncle constantly undermine his power, he has teamed up with Pheasant's wife, who wants nothing more than for Mei to disappear. The story is based upon true events, and Mei eventually goes on to become the only empress of China. 

Here's what I loved about this book: sometimes in historical fiction, knowing the actual history can ruin the book. In this case, knowing that Mei becomes empress did nothing to mitigate the tension that I felt while reading. There were times when things seemed to be going so well for her, but during those parts I had the uneasy feeling that it was all too good to be true. And most of the time, it was. The story contains love, incredible heartbreak, and the kinds of intrigue and backstabbing that only comes with being royalty. Mei herself was a great character: she was headstrong, clever, fiercely loyal, protective, and, like many of the women in history that I admire, an excellent ruler. 

I will mention that I read this without having any idea that it was the second in a duology. This novel is actually the sequel to The Moon in the Palace, which I hadn't read before, but I absolutely think it can be read on its own. I did enjoy it quite a bit, so I have put the first in the duology on my to-read list. If you're interested in rich historical fiction, I'd definitely recommend giving this a try when it's released on April 1st. There's still time to get the pre-order price on Amazon!

Bottom Line Rating: 4/5

Title: The Empress of Bright Moon (Empress of Bright Moon #2)
Author: Weina Dai Randel
Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark, 2016
Expected Publication Date: April 1, 2016
Price: $15.99 (post-release price)
ISBN: 1492613592
Format: e-book
Source: Net Galley

Note: Top Shelf Text was provided with a copy of this text by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own!

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Podcast: What Should I Read Next?

I'm still on a podcast kick, and I've just stumbled across my new favorite.

You may remember that time I raved about Overdue, and how before that I could not get enough of Serial. Well, I've listened to almost every single episode of Overdue already (they post a new one each Monday, and they're great for long drives), but I found myself really unimpressed with season two of Serial. In the spirit of only using my free time for things that make me feel content, I kicked Serial to the curb and went looking for a new show to listen to.

I found What Should I Read Next? by way of one of my favorite book bloggers, who was featured as a guest on the show a couple weeks ago, and I can't stop listening!

Here's how it goes: the host, Anne Bogel, invites a guest onto the show each week. Then, she asks the guest to talk a little bit about their reading life (what do they love about reading, how did they become a reader, etc.). The guest then shares three books that he/she loves and one that he/she hates (this is my favorite part of each episode). After that, Anne asks each guest to share a little about what they want more of in their reading life. This part always makes me feel connected to the show, because I think as a population, all of us avid readers wish for the same things: more time to read, but I love how that desire comes out in different forms for different readers. After all that, Anne shares three recommendations for the guest, based on their conversation throughout that episode.

I love listening to the podcast for two main reasons:

1. I come out with recommendations galore. One book that has been mentioned several times on the podcast is All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, which I'm pretty sure my friend Lorraine has recommended to me several times over already. Apparently, it's everyone's favorite book, so I'm determined to make it part of my next library haul.

2. Every episode, regardless of the guest, is a conversation between two people who love books. That in itself makes me happy, because I could also talk about books all day long and find it totally exhilarating. 

I've implemented a new routine in my effort to find a better work/life balance (see my booklist for living well here), and that is to draw a line between the work that I bring home (generally, my school work for my grad course) and the work that I do planning lessons at school. To draw that line, I've been taking a walk each day when I get home, and I'm finding that simple choice the equivalent to hitting the reset button on my attitude each day. As I walk, I pick a podcast to listen to, and because I love any and all things books, both Overdue and What Should I Read Next? have become my go-to's for listening.

I'm still on the lookout for more though, so if you have a favorite literary-minded podcast, please send me a recommendation!
(I'm also open to recommendations for audiobooks, for those who know which ones are good!)

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Review: My Life on the Road

I mentioned a few weeks ago that I had joined a few online book clubs and I'm loving how they've encouraged me to stretch my reading in different directions. Lately I've been sticking to only a few genres and have been working my way through this favorite mystery series, so when Emma Watson's book club elected to read My Life on the Road, I knew it would be out of my comfort zone for a number of reasons. First, I've read very few memoirs, as usually when I venture into non-fiction I tend to pick historical books or biographies of ancient historical figures, so a contemporary memoir was a new field for me. Second, I didn't really know who Gloria Steinem was; I recognized her name but wouldn't have been able to tell you a single thing about her before reading the book. I felt that this made me a great candidate for judging her book, because through my reading experience she was speaking to a first-time audience member. 

Though my pace was slower and I wasn't enthralled in the same way that I am when reading fiction, I came away really liking this book. In it, she talks about everything from her childhood to her experiences attending sacred (and secret) Native American ceremonies, to standing by a friend's side as she battled cancer. I found it to be a really full account of a life -- everything from her biggest, career-making moments to the smaller, meaningful moments that happen in the everyday. In this book, I found another great female role model. Steinem tended to tackle feminist causes in places where female voices were barely whispers, planting confidence and passion where it could grow into movements and long-lasting change. Though I am moving into a professional field dominated by women, her movements made me think a lot about the power of a group of people who believe in making change for the benefit of everyone, even those who fight against it. 

By far, my favorite section of the book was Steinem's forays into Native American culture. I found her peek into their lives truly fascinating and came away from the book wanting to know more about how the culture is fighting to stay alive in modern times. I'm still searching for a book to help me learn more, so recommendations are welcome! 

In the end, I was so glad that I read this book. I felt uplifted by Steinem's words and admired her character. I'd recommend this for any book club who is looking for a non-fiction pick, to women of any age, and to any reader looking to learn more about what it means to be feminist. 

Bottom Line Rating: 4/5

Title: My Life on the Road
Author: Gloria Steinem
Publisher: Random House, 2015
Price: $16 on Amazon
ISBN: 0679456201
Format: Hardcover
Source: Public Library

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Review: The Fortune Hunter

I picked this book up at the library when I saw that it was the first pick for one of the book clubs I've joined on Goodreads, and was happy to see that it fight right into my reading preferences! Royalty? Check. Scandal? Check. Historical details? Check. Everything I look for in a book was there, and I was surprised that I hadn't yet picked it up on my own. The Fortune Hunter chronicles the scandalous love triangle that occurred between Bay Middleton, a captain in the British Army and notorious ladies-man, Empress Sisi of Austria, and heiress to the Lennox fortune, Charlotte Baird. It takes place in the late 1800's and is steeped in rich historical detail (without feeling suffocated by it). 

The story begins when Sisi comes to England to participate in the hunting season. She's unhappy -- bored and unfulfilled after a lifetime of strict and stuff social interactions -- and wants to experience freedom on the back of her horse. She's notorious for being a bit "wild," meaning that she could ride as well as the men and wasn't afraid to prove it. She was known for being the most beautiful woman of her time, with dark hair that cascaded to the floor and a 19" waist (if you don't know, that's insanely tiny) but she constantly feared that the natural process of aging would take her fame away from her. It reminded me of the queen in Snow White, always in fear of someone else taking away her title of fairest of them all. 

The love triangle comes to pass when Bay is hired to be Sisi's pilot, to ride with her throughout the hunting season. His job is to be by her side, but his heart lies with Charlotte, whom he wishes to marry. Charlotte is a young heiress, living under her brother's supervision and longing for the day when she can make her own decisions. She's eccentric -- rather than fretting over dress frills or society gossip, she likes to spend her time experimenting with photography. Charlotte falls head over heels for Bay and can't wait until the day that they can announce their engagement. But her happiness is put in peril when Bay also falls for Sisi, who is eager to have him by her side in more ways than one. 

I brought The Fortune Hunter home with me for February break, as it's over 470 pages long, but I have to be honest, I didn't get into it until almost the 300 page mark. My main complaint was that it just wasn't moving quickly enough, but I also had some qualms with the characters. First, Sisi was the only person that I felt any interest in. I wanted to know more about her history, how she came to be so unhappy in her marriage, etc. Bay I found to be insufferable in most parts -- I mean, you've just proposed to this intelligent, talented, wealthy girl, and then you go and ruin it by sleeping with an Empress? I just had to roll my eyes at some of his choices. Charlotte, however, ended up surprising me. I won't ruin the ending for you, but I will say that I was proud of her one moment and then equally disappointed the next. So, in the end, I liked the book but didn't love it, and after closing it I realized why I probably hadn't picked it up in the first place -- there's just too much romance for me, and I don't like to indulge in historical fiction where romance is the very center of the plot. However, if you do like romance and heartbreak and scandal all wrapped in a historical setting, I'd highly recommend this for you!

Bottom Line Rating: 3/5

Title: The Fortune Hunter
Author: Daisy Goodwin
Publisher: St. Martin's Press, 2014
ISBN: 1250043891
Format: Hardcover
Source: Public Library

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Currently Coveting {March}

Spring is coming, spring is coming!
(Now if we all say it together, it might really be true.)

The uptick in our temperature recently has me longing for the days when it'll be warm enough to tuck a book into my beach bag and indulge in a few hours of peaceful reading by the waves. For now, I'll just keep daydreaming.

As you know, I've been trying to read more of the books I own rather than buy new books this year. So far I've been very successful -- no books purchased yet! -- and between the local library and my own personal stash, I feel rather stocked up with books to read. Below you'll find a few of the books that I have on my list for this month.

The Accidental Empress (Sisi #1) by Alison Pataki // This is an author that I've been meaning to read for some time, and I recently read this historical fiction novel featuring the famous Empress, Sisi of Austria (review to come next week). Since then, I've been interested in reading more about the Habsburgs, and I think this is just the place to start! It has mixed reviews on Goodreads, but you can't always judge a book by others' opinions, can you?

The Forbidden Library by Django Wexler // I came across this in my Goodreads recommendations and have it on hold at the local library. There's a talking cat, a forbidden library (obviously), and a whole bunch of mystery. I've gotten out of the habit of reading middle grade fiction recently, so one of my goals in March is to read at least one book that I can (hopefully) recommend to my students!

The Fossil Hunter by Shelley Emling // I'm currently working on a rocks and minerals unit for my fourth graders, and delving into geology has me eager to learn more about Mary Anning, the woman who discovered the first dinosaur skeleton at the age of twelve. She went on to become a famous fossil hunter and the inspiration behind the tongue-twister "She sells sea shells by the sea shore." I love reading about women in history and though this is more modern than my usual picks, I am so looking forward to picking it up. 

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert // This has been on my virtual to-read shelf for quite a while, so I'm hoping to finally pick it up this month. Eat, Pray, Love is one of those books I go back to every few years, and I'm hoping Gilbert's talent for rich description comes alive in this historical fiction book as well.

Island of the Lost by Joan Druett // Another non-fiction pick, this time centering on two shipwrecks in the middle of the Southern Ocean and how the crews fought for survival -- one by banding together under incredible circumstances and one by falling apart into barbarism. This reminds me of one of my favorite non-fiction books, and since I'm always up for a tale of shipwreck & survival, I'll be adding this to my library list. 

What are you looking forward to reading this month?

Happy Reading!