'Nzingha, Warrior Queen of Matamba'

Author: Patricia McKissack
Genre: Historical/Fiction
Publisher: Scholastic
Series: The Royal Diaries

By now I'm sure you've figured it out: this is my favorite series.
This particular book, however, was definitely not my favorite of the series. The story itself was fine, full of political intrigue and cultural struggles as the Portuguese attempt to take over Angola and 'civilize' its people, but it didn't seem as well-developed and fleshed out as it could have been. I understand the reason for this, as historical information on Nzingha is difficult to find, but it still left the story feeling somewhat thin. The book itself was much shorter than most of the books in this series, so I didn't really feel like I got to know Nzingha on a deep level like I have with so many of the other historical women featured in the Royal Diaries series. Again, I understand that historical information on Nzingha and her life is not abundant. And, this book took me from having never heard of Nzingha to knowing who she was and the role she played in fighting the Portuguese exportation of slaves from Africa. So all is not lost.
On the whole, while this book isn't necessarily one I'll read again and again for sheer enjoyment, it still introduced me to a part of history I previously knew nothing about, so it was definitely worth my while.


'A Sound Among the Trees'

Author: Susan Meissner
Genre: Historical/General
Publisher: Waterbrook

For some reason when I requested this book I was expecting a purely historical novel. I suppose the cover design was part of the reason for that. Part of the story was historical, sort of - almost a flashback. (One of the characters is reading things that were written during the Civil War.) Most of it, though, is contemporary.
The story setup and plot were excellent - a woman newly married to a widower with two children, moving into a house purported by many to be haunted. No complaints about the story.
The scene setting throughout the books was exquisite. Whether the author was describing the southern heat and humidity, a dusty old outbuiding, or a garden party wedding reception, I felt like I was there. I could feel the grass under my feet, hear the breeze in the trees, and feel the dust on my hands and clothes. My compliments to the author on crafting such a sensory treat. It's not often I find a book that really transports me into the story's setting.
I did feel like the plot was not explored and intensified to its full potential, though. When Marielle, the main character, begins believing that the house, Holly Oak, really is haunted, things could have become wonderfully exciting and thrilling... almost a modern/Civil War rendition of Northanger Abbey with a few twists. Unfortunately, in my opinion, it didn't achieve its potential in suspense and intensity. Don't get me wrong, I wasn't expecting A Sound Among the Trees to be Northanger Abbey, but it did leave me feeling like there could have been more.
It was an enjoyable read, and I wouldn't mind picking up more of this author's work in the future.
I received a copy of this book free of charge from the publisher in exchange for my review.


'The Ale Boy's Feast'

Author: Jeffrey Overstreet
Series: The Auralia Thread
Genre: Fantasy
Publisher: Waterbrook

When I agreed to review this book, I didn’t realize that it was the last book in a series—a series of which I have not read the first three. As a result, I don’t have much to say about the plot, because it didn’t make much sense to me (I am definitely looking forward to finding and reading the first three, though!).

What did stand out to me about this book was the beautiful, vivid, multi-layered descriptions the author used to bring the story to life.

In a recent discussion with a friend, I heard the complaint that the vast majority of fantasy novels contain almost no animals except for the horses necessary for the plot, a few dogs and cats, perhaps, many rats, and that’s all. Not the case with this book!

From vawns to gorrels and a host of unusual creatures in between, The Ale Boy’s Feast is full of colorful, fascinating, and sometimes unnerving creatures of all shapes and sizes.

The scene settings were another aspect of the story that intrigued me. From desolate mountains to ruined cities and underground rivers, the story is an ever-changing journey into realms the likes of which you’ve never seen before. I have no idea how Jeffrey Overstreet does it—which, for me as a writer, is infuriating—but he leaves you feeling like you’ve been there, seen it, felt it, taken part in it.

One thing I didn't particularly like was the feeling of general darkness that seemed to pervade the story, but not having read the first three of the series there could be something extremely important that I'm missing, so don't pass judgment based on that alone. : )

The Ale Boy’s Feast is well worth reading, if for no other reason than just to experience the vivid and mysterious fantasy world that Jeffrey Overstreet has created in The Expanse.

I received this book free of charge from Waterbrook Multnomah in exchange for my review. A favorable review is not required; Waterbrook is committed to gathering honest opinions about the books they publish.


"Catherine: The Great Journey"

Author: Kristiana Gregory
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Scholastic
Series: The Royal Diaries

In retrospect, it was not a good idea to read this book while outside my house it was snowing to beat the band. Wool socks, sweater, and roaring fireplace notwithstanding, I thought for sure I was going to get hypothermia reading descriptions of brutal Russian winters.
Otherwise, though, this was a great read. Catherine, a native German daughter of low nobility, is chosen to be betrothed to the Peter, heir to the throne of Russia - a cousin she barely knows. She, along with her mother, set out on a journey by sleigh from their home in Germany to the heart of the magnificent Russian empire.
There, in addition to the ever-present problem of dealing with her irrational and emotionally unstable mother, Catherine must strive for the approval of the Russian Empress Elizabeth, the woman who has the power to send her home to Germany in disgrace - or worse, banish her to Siberia.
While Catherine's mother proved a constant annoyance, her fiance Peter proved himself a spoiled child, and the empress remained an aloof and imposing source of potential threat, Catherine herself was a good-natured girl, an intelligent thinker, and a delightful person to get to know. The historical account in the back of the book (after the fictional journal section) confirmed that Catherine became a wise ruler who made great strides in bettering her people.
While not my favorite book in the series, this was definitely an engaging read and a good opportunity to learn a bit about 18th century Russia (a department in which my knowledge is sadly lacking).
Well worth picking up, if you get the chance.


'The Vanishing Sculptor' or 'The Dragons of Chiril'

Author: Donita K. Paul
Genre: Fantasy
Publisher: Waterbrook

Originally released as The Vanishing Sculptor, later re-released as The Dragons of Chiril.

To begin with, I’m not sure why the publisher changed the book’s title from the original, The Vanishing Sculptor. Personally I think the original title was a better fit with the story, but I have been unable to dig up any information on the reason behind the change, so I’ll refrain from passing judgment. I’m sure there’s a perfectly legitimate reason.

As for the book itself, let me just say that Donita K. Paul has once again created an exciting adventure that children and adults alike can appreciate and enjoy.

Her character development is astounding. The characters, real-to-life with faults and flaws, are nonetheless delightful, entertaining, and you find yourself loving them anyway, faults included. And as always, her story cast comprises a wide array of different races and… well, I suppose the term is ‘species’. Jayrus, a dragon-riding and somewhat aloof emerlindian; Rowser and Piefer, the bumbling joint-owners of a medicinal bug shop; disgruntled tumanhofer artist Bealomondore; the dignified and socially graceful Grand Parrot Beccaroon; and the ever-popular Wizard Fenworth; along with a host of other characters, together embark on an adventure to rescue a spontaneously disappearing sculptor and prevent the world disintegrating.

To do so they must locate and retrieve a set of three interlocking statues. The trouble is, the statues have been separated and dispersed to very distant locations, and time is running out.

The adventure and drama of the story are exciting and intense, but with well-timed comic relief throughout (with Wizard Fenworth around, you can’t avoid a little comic relief now and then). On the whole, another great read from Donita K. Paul. I can’t wait to get my hands on the sequel, and I recommend this one to anyone who has read and loved the Dragonkeeper Chronicles, or just to anyone who appreciates a fun fantasy adventure.

I received this book free of charge from Waterbrook Multnomah in exchange for my review. A favorable review is not required; Waterbrook is committed to gathering honest opinions about the books they publish.

"A History of Hitler's Empire, 2nd Edition"

Published by The Teaching Company
12 audio lectures by Professor Thomas Childers, University of Pennsylvania

Though not technically a book, I thought this recent addition to my library well worth a review anyway. If you're not familiar with The Teaching Company or The Great Courses, please allow me to introduce you! The Teaching Company provides college-level courses in subjects ranging from mathematics, astronomy, and chemistry, to both ancient and recent history, literature, music, art, and more. The courses are arranged in 30-45 minute lectures on CD or DVD, and taught by hand-selected professors from universities all over the world. While there is no credit offered for taking these courses, you still receive excellent information and education for a minute fraction of the cost of getting the same course in an actual university.
As for A History of Hitler's Empire specifically, I have nothing but good to say. Professor Childers did a fabulous job of explaining in great detail the exact process by which Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party came to power in Germany - something that no one had ever explained satisfactorily to me before. Most history books and classes just cut straight to "Meanwhile, in Germany, Adolf Hitler and the Nazi party had come to power and began..." without ever explaining how they actually got into power. That has always frustrated me to no end. But now, thanks to this course, I actually get it! Professor Childers goes into great detail explaining how the party came to power, how they operated, as well as banishing many common misconceptions and misunderstandings.
While the lectures do keep track of what was taking place on a global scale throughout the Nazi regime's reign of terror, Professor Childers keeps the focus very much centered on the regime itself: what was taking place within the ranks, what concerns were on Hitler's mind, what his plans and goals were.
Towards the end of the lecture, as the topic of discussion began moving more towards what is to be taken away and learned from all of this, I became a little concerned. Considering the touchy-feely political correctness of our day, I wasn't sure what sort of 'takeaway' advice or thoughts the professor would conclude with. I was extremely impressed and am happy to report, however, that his conclusions were completely spot-on. He entreats his listeners to be vigilant - it was lack of vigilance, after all, that allowed the Nazi regime to come to power. He encourages his listeners to stand up for the rights of every people group, no matter how seemingly insignificant, because if a tyrant gets away with violating one person's rights, he'll soon be coming after yours, too.
I've already told my entire family that they need to listen to these lectures for themselves (I wouldn't recommend it for young children, obviously, due to the nature of the subject), and I'll tell you the same thing. Find yourself a copy of this course and listen to it. Your understanding of the Nazi regime will increase amazingly.


"Mary, Queen of Scots - Queen Without a Country"

Author: Kathryn Lasky
Genre: Historical Fiction
Series: The Royal Diaries
Publisher: Scholastic

Really, I could some my review of this book up in two words: Loved it!
Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland since infancy, is engaged to Dauphin Francis de Valois II of France and living in his country with his family to learn the ways of the French court before marrying Francis and becoming Queen of France as well. She and her four Scottish lady's maids (all of them also named Mary) love their life in France but also struggle with homesickness and finding a balance between adopting the French lifestyle and holding onto their Scottish heritage and homeland. The results are often touching and occasionally hilarious.
The story is full of palace intrigue and adventure, as well as run-ins with numerous famous historical figures - Nostradamus, the French poet Ronsard, and of course countless members of royalty.
I think what I loved most about this book, though, is the way it reminded me of my own years as a little girl. Granted, I wasn't a queen before I turned a year old, I wasn't engaged at age four, and I didn't live in a palace, but the questions and wonderings, the angst and worries, the friendships and secrets that I guess must be a universal little-girl thing came through much more strongly in this book than in other books in this series - for me, anyway. I felt like I could identify with Mary much more closely than I have with many of the other characters showcased by this series. Who knows? Maybe it's because we share the same name. : )
Regardless, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and as always, any installment in The Royal Diaries series would make a great way to supplement any historical study. These books have a wonderful way of connecting the dots, so to speak, between historical characters and events that we don't always realize go together. If you haven't read The Royal Diaries series, you should start. ASAP. ; )


"Tyndale: The Man Who Gave God an English Voice"

Author: David Teems
Genre: History/Biography
Publisher: Thomas Nelson

Growing up in a Christian home, I've heard about William Tyndale all my life, about how he translated the Bible into English even though it was against the law and how eventually he was burned at the stake for it. But I'd never done any in-depth study on his life or work until I read this book.
In Tyndale, David Teems has done a beautifully artistic job of not only recounting the events of William Tyndale's life and work as a translator, but also of bringing to light the impact Tyndale had on the English language itself.
This book is not written in the typical 'date-event, date-event' format of most biographies. Instead, he focuses more on one particular idea or aspect or implication of Tyndale's work or mindset at a time. As a result I occasionally found myself getting confused about what was happening when, where, and to whom, but the handy time line in the back of the book made it easy to clear up my confusion. Over all, I found the format of the book refreshing and engaging.
In addition to the time line, the book has several other appendices containing bibliographies, words and phrases that Tyndale contributed to English, and more. The appendices are well worth reading for extra information and insight.
My favorite part of this book was the way in which it didn't just focus solely on William Tyndale and what he was doing when; it did a beautiful job making the connections between people and events all over Europe during the Reformation. Even if something didn't necessarily apply directly to William Tyndale, if it applied to the Reformation Tyndale was a part of, or contributed to events that pertained to him, the author explained it and went into detail regarding its impact and effect. After reading this book I feel like I have ten times the understanding of the Reformation as I did before.
I had to take this book slowly (it took me several days to get through it) simply because of the enormous amounts of information presented and the time it took to process all of the historical connections and applications the author delivered. But it was absolutely worth the effort. Tyndale is a book that will be staying in my collection for a long, long time.

I received this book free of charge from the publisher in exchange for my review. I was not required to write a favorable review, however. My opinions are entirely my own.


'Dragons: Legend and Lore of Dinosaurs'

Author(s): Bodie Hodge, Laura Welch
Genre: Non-fiction, Historical
Publisher: Master Books

This book is a relatively new release from Answers in Genesis, and I have a piece of advice for all of you: buy it! Besides being a great resource for Creationist Christians, Dragons is a fabulous book for fantasy writers. What could be a better addition to a fantasy writer's library than a book of real-life facts about real-life dragons?
Have you ever noticed that dragon lore in ancient cultures is a world-wide phenomenon? How about the fact that certain creatures described in the Bible and even depicted in cave drawings bear striking resemblance to our vision of dragons? This book will take you on a thrilling journey through those ancient legends and stories. It includes translations of ancient writings from all over the world, Biblical descriptions of dragons and dinosaurs, legends of dragons that have been passed down for centuries, and even some surprisingly modern eyewitness accounts of dragon encounters.
Besides the store of exciting information it contains, just reading the book is an adventure in and of itself. Every page boasts gorgeous artwork as well as fold-out panels, hidden doors within the pages themselves, and pockets with stories and pictures tucked inside. The book demands a re-read - you may not catch everything the first time through!