Cass’s Birthday Review Bonanza

We didn’t quite hit 50 reviews on From Unseen Fire, but we’re closer than we were a month ago! I’ll call that a win, so —

As promised! 30 reviews of books I’ve enjoyed, all of which I posted to Amazon over the past 30 days! There’s a broad range here — YA and adult and even middle grade, science and history, fantasy and sci-fi and romance and more. Do yourself a favor and check some of these out!

  1. Roar, by Cora Carmack: I really, really enjoyed this. The magic is innovative and intriguing, and while the characters take the shapes of some familiar tropes, they’re tropes I thoroughly enjoy, and each has some unexpected qualities to keep things interesting. Roar in particular is someone whose feels I feel. Her emotional journey is very real, and I can’t wait to see where it goes. A gripping good read.
  2. Hunter, by Mercedes Lackey: This was a fun start to a new series! I love the way that Lackey explores magic in so many different ways, and here, she envisions a post-apocalyptic world where magic has re-emerged — and with it, all the mythic monsters from legends across the globe. I enjoyed the idea of Hunters-as-celebrities, and that’s where the book feels most like the Hunger Games, in its examination of entertainment having become the new opiate of the masses. I actually would’ve loved to have seen that aspect of the book pushed further. The heroine reminds me of the star of one of Lackey’s earlier series, Diana Tregarde, which I loved. She’s motivated by a keen sense of responsibility and the desire to protect the defenseless. I listened to this one on audio and am looking forward to enjoying the rest of the series.
  3. Never Deceive a Viscount, by Renee Ann Miller: A delightfully fun romance novel! The dialogue sparkles, and it’s wonderful to follow these characters on their journey towards happiness. I particularly love that Miller is willing to explore heroines outside of the stereotypical debutante mold — reminiscent of Madeline Hunter and Lisa Kleypas.
  4. Tyrant, by Stephen Greenblatt: Greenblatt delivers a searing indictment of the Trump regime and all those who enabled its rise — without once directly making mention of modern politics. The commentary is certainly there, though, for those with eyes to see. Greenblatt provides a walk through Shakespeare’s examinations of demagogues, civil unrest, factionalism, and patriotic duty in terms accessible for a popular audience. We can only hope that Shakespeare’s assessment that tyrants only ever enjoy short reigns will prove true in the modern age.
  5. The Poppy War, by R. F. Kuang: Enthralling but brutal. This book started off reminding me of The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss, but about two-thirds of the way through, it takes a sharp left turn into… something else. Kuang’s historical inspiration shows, and her exploration of the dark themes of war is unflinching. This is a tough read, but well worth it.
  6. The Belles, by Dhonielle Clayton: Pretty in pink with a lot of potential. The Belles explores weaponized femininity in action, but also embraces a lot of feminine tropes and values that get shunted to the side in many other works of fantasy (and, let’s be real, all of media). It was refreshing to read a heroine whose power is rooted in what lots of other books dismiss in order to have heroines who “aren’t like other girls”. And this book is gorgeously rendered with full Rococo splendor. The world-building brings up a lot of interesting and innovative uses of magic, as well as exploring the political and cultural implications of a world that has allowed itself to become so terribly reliant on the magic of a very few individuals. There’s a lot of room for these ideas to grow, and I’m excited to see what happens in Book Two.
  7. The Rogue Not Taken, by Sarah MacLean: I really enjoyed this one, even if it does fall into a few of the “why are you doing that, what on earth are you thinking?”/”I am feeling a thing/taking an action solely to provide plot conflict” holes that romance novels, much as I adore them, are often prone to. MacLean’s characters are always sparkling with just enough shades of darkness to be interesting, and this book is at its best when it’s a road trip romp.
  8. The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs, by Steve Brusatte: This was a delightful return to paleontology for someone who was once a dinosaur-obsessed kid. Brusatte’s prose is engaging and vivid, but not pop-science. He delves deep into the evolutionary transformations that created the dinosaurs, developed them, and then killed off the ones who didn’t turn into what we now know as birds. (And yes, he does come down very firmly on that point — not that birds evolved from dinosaurs, but that birds are literally dinosaurs, if a specific and somewhat odd subset of them, the way that marsupials are a specific and somewhat odd subset of mammals). I do feel like the book would have benefited from more illustrations, though, especially when he’s discussing the relative sizes of dinosaurs and their genetic brethren, or other physiological developments. Brusatte’s writing is at its best and most evocative when it it as its most imaginative: describing the fight between a T-rex and and a trike, painting the picture of the Mesozoic landscape, or chillingly rendering the catastrophic impact of an asteroid hitting what would become the Yucatan peninsula. (Seriously, that last bit put a hitch in my throat, as though it hadn’t happened 65 million years ago). Overall, this book reminded me of what joy there is in studying and imagining these creatures who once owned our world.
  9. Circe, by Madeline Miller: This wildly successful book does not need my review to help it, but I have a specific purpose: I particularly want to recommend this book to anyone who’s felt bereft of Mists of Avalon since learning about Marion Zimmer Bradley’s various crimes. CIRCE isn’t as complex as MoA, with only one point of view, and it isn’t as long, but it has the same lush immersion in a mythic world. The language is gorgeous and inundating. And Circe herself is a magnificent character, so very real and understandable. Her loneliness is palpable. I ached with her through so much of this story. But her strength is formidable as well, and her vengeance glorious. So I recommend this book, too, to anyone who’s ever called herself a witch. Circe’s magic as a path to agency resonated with me so strongly, like a piece of myself I’d forgotten was there.
    I listened to this on audio, and it was magnificent. It felt, in some ways, like the right way to hear the story, as though I were at Circe’s knee, curled up on her hearth and lounging against the flank of one of her tame lionesses.
  10. License to Quill, by Jacopo della Quercia: This book was utterly bonkers, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. It’s Shakespeare given the 007 treatment, with all the conspiratorial madness you might imagine that entailing. della Quercia bases his story around Macbeth and the Gunpowder plot, and he tosses in actual witches, a not-really-dead Marlowe, Walsingham and son as spymasters, Francis Bacon in the role of Q, and a horse named Aston. Also Medicis, because why not? What’s fun is that della Quercia clearly knows his Elizabethan/Stuart history and his Shakespeare very well — and then throws them out the window when it suits him. I think Billy Shakes would approve.
  11. City of Lies, by Sam Hawke: Thoroughly thrilling! Part espionage intrigue, part class warfare, part murder mystery, CITY OF LIES is a captivating and occasionally heart-wrenching tale. The world is full and detailed: Silasta feels like a real city, with shades of Rome, London, or Tenochtitlan, yet entirely itself. Jovan and Kalina are compelling protagonists, each with glorious strengths and touching vulnerabilities. I greatly enjoyed this and look forward to continuing the series!
  12. Gilded Cage, by Vic James: Class warfare takes on new meaning when one class can use magic and the other can’t. This book is a little like if the Death Eaters had won in Harry Potter and had used their powers to take over all of Muggle Britain… but if they’d done that a few hundred years ago, and so now everyone just perceived their dominance as “normal”. James has written a dark and captivating tale with strong characters and a fascinating central struggle. I’m looking forward to seeing how the chess pieces play out.
  13. Heroine Complex, by Sarah Kuhn: Imaginative and exciting! If you love the pop culture references and quippy snark of the MCU, you’re going to love the tone of Heroine Complex. This book has fantastic wit, and it’s wit particularly tuned for the Millennial ear. There’s a lot of good heart in here, too, with an emotional journey that feels very real. I recommend this whole series for the full effect.
  14. The Waking Land, by Callie Bates: The Waking Land immerses the reader in a lush and intricate fantasy world. Elanna is a heroine to really — dare I say it? — root for! Both the world-building and Elanna’s emotional journey are gorgeously crafted, and Bates has magnificent dexterity with words. The stakes are high and compelling, and you’ll find yourself desperately invested in both Elanna and her nation.
  15. Catullus’s Bedspread: The Life of Rome’s Most Erotic Poet, by Daisy Dunn: Catullus is my favorite ancient poet, and this is an ambitious exploration of his life — about which we, really, know quite little. I’m always a bit skeptical of attempting to reconstruct a poet’s life from their work, because it requires an assumption of autobiographical writing that is not necessarily accurate, but nothing here seemed wildly off-course. It gives a good view not only of Catullus and his poetry, but of the world he lived in — the decade or so before Julius Caesar’s most famous years. Dunn’s translations are also lively and engaging, and I’d be interested to read more of them.
  16. The Lost Queen, by Signe Pike: I’ve seen this book described as a mix between Mists of Avalon and Philippa Gregory, and to be honest, I would say it’s much more “Philippa Gregory but for someone even most history nerds have never heard of”. It lacks the epic scope and moral complexity of MoA. That’s not a bad thing in of itself! But I don’t think the MoA comparisons do the book any favors. This book has strong characters and a very clear, straightforward story. Pike renders her world in magnificent detail, and Langoureth’s story is engaging. I look forward to the next installment.
  17. Cinder, by Marissa Meyer: There are a lot of fairy tale retellings out there, but the Lunar Chronicles series has, for my money, the most inventive and compelling reworking of familiar themes. I love the whole series, and really, Cress is my favorite, but since I’m recommending these books for blog followers, you really do have to start at the beginning with Cinder. In Meyer’s version, Cinderella is a cyborg. And a mechanic. Her glass slipper is a cybernetic foot. Her best friend and faithful helper is an android. Her prince is the Emperor of the Eastern Commonwealth, a pan-Asian conglomerate that forms part of the Eastern Union. And while evading her stepmother is part of her story, a lot more of it has to do with a plague ravaging the Commonwealth and with the sinister Lunar Queen. Meyer has done incredible work creating a believable sci-fi world for her fairy tale heroines to inhabit, and Cinder is a magnificent heroine.
  18. Dealing with Dragons, by Patricia Wrede: This is my number one middle grade fantasy recommendation. You want a heroine with agency? One who stands up for herself and refuses to let others direct the course of her life? Meet Cimorene. Great for kids who’ve run through things like Percy Jackson, Land of Stories, Warriors, etc.
  19. It’s Your Universe, by Ashley Eckstein: I wish I’d had this book as a baby geeklet. That would have been impossible, though, since Ashley Eckstein & I are close in age, so I’ll settle for doing what I can to put it in the hands of every bb geek I can manage. Eckstein’s story is inspirational, but it’s really her can-do attitude that shines through in this book. Like any true Disney princess, she imbues others with the power to believe in themselves and their dreams.
  20. Labyrinth Lost, by Zoraida Córdova: An enchanting, amazing adventure. Labyrinth Lost gives readers of the modern age a true hero’s journey — with a Latina heroine who just happens to be a bruja. Córdova has created an elaborate world to enchant any reader, and Alex is a complex and wonderful heroine. I love that she’s allowed to make mistakes and not always have a perfect attitude. Her emotions are raw and real. I so enjoyed walking beside her on her katabasis.
  21. Women & Power: A Manifesto, by Mary Beard: An excellent treatise. Beard has a powerful way with words, and this manifesto, drawn from two of her lectures (which I would kill to attend), should be stapled to the head of anyone who’s ever mansplained. Beard ties the modern attempts to silence women who speak out to millennia of misogyny. I’d love to see her tackle this subject more long-form someday.
  22. The One Hundred Nights of Hero, by Isabel Greenberg: A beautiful tapestry of a story and a magnificent graphic novel. This put me in mind of Cat Valente’s Orphan’s Tales, an intricately woven story with women’s strength and voices at its core. As someone who glories in the written word and the power of storytelling, this book sank hooks into my heart in so many ways.
  23. The Storm before the Storm, by Mike Duncan: I listened to The History of Rome podcast for years and loved it. What Duncan has done here is answer a question he gets asked all the time: Is America collapsing like the Roman Empire? And his answer is, if we’re at any parallel to Rome’s history, we’re in the decades before the collapse of the Republic. As it happens, they’re some of my favorite decades in Roman history. Duncan has, as anyone who’s listened to his podcast knows, a deft hand at explaining complex situations. I enjoyed getting to experience him in a less episodic form, where he had a bit more freedom to build upon themes and investigate a central thesis. I highly recommend this not only to history fans, but to folk looking for a bit of perspective on our current political morass.
  24. The Six-Gun Tarot, by R. S. Belcher: This book is so strange in such an amazingly good way. It’s Weird West, with all that entails — eldritch creatures, steampunk curiosities, and a cast of rough-around-the-edges misfits with secrets to hide. I wasn’t sure about this book when I first picked it up, but I ended up thoroughly enjoying it. The story and characters alike drew me in and took me on an entertaining journey.
  25. The Glass Town Game, by Catherynne Valente: Somewhere between Wonderland, Narnia, and Fairyland, you’ll find Glass Town. This book has a lot of the whimsical feel of Valente’s Fairyland novels, with an added literary edge. Highly recommend this flight of fancy!
  26. You’re Never Weird on the Internet, by Felicia Day: I utterly adored this memoir, not least because it made me feel as though Felicia Day and I have a lot in common and could be friends. So many of her experiences as a young geek, a growing geek, and an adult geek resonated with me, as did her struggle with anxiety and depression. Day is candid and raw, but the entire memoir is suffused with wit and optimism nonetheless. (This is another one I did on audio, as Day reads it herself, and I feel like that added an awesome extra quality. It’s one I can happily return to when I feel like I need a boost).
  27. Rules to Catch a Devilish Duke, by Suzanne Enoch: This has been one of my favorite romance novels of the past several years, and it’s one I happily re-read, especially to warm me up during the winter. Sophia is exactly the sort of heroine I have been yearning for: cheerfully independent, even in the face of difficulties; not a virgin and not ashamed about it; knows what she wants sexually and isn’t afraid of her passions; good-natured and forgiving but not a pushover; decisive and undeterred from pursuing what she wants out of life. The most excellent thing about this book is that the hero and heroine are so beautifully well-suited for each other. Their interactions while they’re alone at his estate are just gorgeous — warm and funny, passionate and teasing, thoughtful and challenging — everything that a marriage should be. Their romance is magnificent.
  28. Longbourn, by Jo Baker: I really enjoyed this, not least because if you’ve ever worked in the service industry, parts of Sarah’s experience will resonate, despite 200 years worth of removal from her era. Longbourn retains clear affection for its source material even as it pulls at the threads that hold Austen’s society together. The view from belowstairs is well worth examining, and Baker gives it a compelling treatment.
  29. Secondborn, by Amy A. Bartol: An exciting and engaging story. With some Hunger Games-esque notes, Bartol has created a fascinating world and populated it with interesting, multi-faceted characters, including an active and tenacious heroine. The action whips along, making for a compelling read.
  30. Nabokov’s Favorite Word is Mauve, by Ben Blatt: As bad as I am at math, I really enjoy statistical analysis. Pair that with wordsmithing, and you get a book designed to appeal to the nerdiest parts of my personality. Blatt dives deep into how authors use words — how they favor some over others, how their use changes over time, how well they adhere or don’t to well-known maxims of writing (even when they’re the one who laid those maxims out). I appreciated that he didn’t only look at ~literary classics~, but included a number of genre books in his analysis as well. This book was geeky good fun!

Reading Recs for Women’s History Month

Fuse Literary (the agency that represents me) ran a reclist on Tumblr for Black History Month all through the month of February, and they’re looking to do so again in March for Women’s History Month. Since this is an area of personal interest and importance to me, I took up the challenge when they asked for some recs — and I thought I’d share them with y’all, too.

Admittedly my list cants towards medieval and Renaissance studies in England and western Europe, since that was the main focus of both my undergraduate and graduate studies, with a hefty dose of the classics thrown in for good measure. I’m hoping that the recs I see this month will help me build a diverse to-read list! I need to expand my horizons past the bounds of what I focused on in school. And yes, not all of the historical fiction is perfect from the view of historiography (neither, for that matter, are some of the older nonfiction titles) — but that’s okay. Historical fiction doesn’t have to be 100% accurate to serve the purposes of getting readers interested in the topic and of raising the visibility of women in history.  My rec doesn’t mean that the book is 100% flawless — it means I enjoyed it, I think others would, and I think it helps the cause of women’s history month.

Historical Fiction

  • Daughters-of-RomeKate Quinn’s Roman series: Mistress of Rome, Daughters of Rome, Empress of the Seven Hills, and Lady of the Eternal City, releasing this week. A fascinating era of Imperial Rome in which the women behind the fasces played a hugely significant role. I’ve really enjoyed these books — they were a major influence a few years ago when I was deciding to write Aven — particularly because there are so many different women in them. No woman has to be Everything. They can be difficult, stubborn, manipulative, unlikeable. They can — and do — make mistakes. And, they’re part of a vibrant world, one in which women played a huge role, both in public and in private.
  • catherine called birdyKaren Cushman’s Catherine, Called Birdy, a YA novel (maybe considered MG now? I have trouble with that boundary since as a kid I read whatever I wanted whenever I wanted) depicting 13th century England through the eyes of a knight’s daughter. One of my all-time favorite books. Catherine’s voice is so wonderful, and it’s a great thing when a historical book makes a nine-year-old reader see herself in it.
  • Michelle Moran’s Nefertiti and The Heretic Queen, about her niece Nefertari. I really enjoy these for how they speak to the interplay of political power and religion in ancient Egypt, and to the role that women played in the establishment of the pharaoh’s power and legacy.
  • Stephanie Dray’s Cleopatra’s Daughter series, about Cleopatra Selene, the only child of Cleopatra to actually survive to full adulthood and make a life for herself. Michelle Moran also has a book on her. They’re quite different — Dray’s takes a slight historical fantasy angle, endowing Selene with the powers of Isis — but they’re both pretty revelatory for an interesting but often-overlooked figure in early imperial Rome.
  • Gillian Bagwell’s The Darling Strumpet, a novel about Restoration actress Nell Gwynn, mistress to Charles II. This book doesn’t shy away from the ugly things about the era, but it still represents Nell as a buoyant character, in spite of all the difficulties she faces.
  • DovekeepersAlice Hoffman’s The Dovekeepers: the siege and fall of Masada through the eyes of four Jewish women. The narrative tone of this book is pretty different from a lot of historical fiction, but it’s an engrossing read.
  • Stephanie Thornton’s The Secret History, a novel of Byzantine Empress Theodora, one of the greatest true rags-to-riches stories you’ll find. I wish it spent a bit more time on her later life, but it’s still great for opening the door to one of history’s all-time most-fascinating women.
  • Jean Plaidy. Just. All of it. She wrote a ton of books from the perspectives of notable women, mostly medieval and Renaissance, mostly but not entirely English and French. She makes them all the heroines of their own stories — even when they’re the villains in each others’. They’re older books, so the historiography approach isn’t, y’know, fully modern, but I still love these books for making the women of famous eras so visible.

Nonfiction

So — What are some of your favorite books about women in history, fiction or nonfiction? I only have about eight books sitting on my to-read shelf at the moment, so clearly I need some more. 😉