The Mockingbird Next Door by Marja Mills

The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper LeeSo sorry for the lack of updates over the last few weeks! I was taking an extended summer vacay (and reading plenty of new books) so there should be many reviews ahead of us ūüôā

I was intrigued by The Mockingbird Next Door: Life with Harper Lee when I first heard about it last year, blogging about it in one of my earlier posts, well before news of Go Set A Watchman erupted. So of course I finally had to get around to reading it since Watchmen was our August book club pick Рwatch out for my upcoming review!

As author Marja Mills tells it, she befriended the Lee sisters in 2001 after interviewing them for a piece in¬†The Chicago Tribune¬†about the “One Book, One Chicago” program, which encouraged the entire city to read To Kill A Mockingbird.¬†In 2004, on medical leave from her job, she moves in next door to them (apparently with their blessing, despite their previous disregard for journalists) and spends the next eighteen months sharing coffee, friendship, and memories. Among the topics largely off the table was their allegedly mentally-ill mother and the rift with Truman Capote. On the table was conversations about the South, history and literature, and¬†To Kill A Mockingbird¬†and (ironically) Harper Lee’s failure to publish another book.

Unexpectedly, this is Mills’ story as much as it’s about the Lees. I appreciated the framework this¬†provided, but I was undoubtedly not reading this book to hear about her life story so it made for some jarring transitions. For example, the book follows a relatively chronological narrative thread for Mills while jumping around wildly between topics concerning the Lees, leading to¬†redundant moments and off-topic meandering. Mills does do good work in sharing¬†Nelle’s and Alice’s characters with a curious audience, and it was fascinating to get a glimpse into the past of such inspiring women.

Unfortunately, after the book’s publication, Nelle¬†disavowed it so take its content with a grain of salt. While I enjoyed¬†the collected anecdotes¬†and selfishly appreciated that¬†it put¬†Watchmen¬†into better perspective for me, I feel bad about the abuse of trust perpetuated by both books. ¬†Perhaps its publication should’ve waited until Nelle’s death, but if you want to know more about the genius behind¬†Mockingbird, this is an insightful read.

3 Stars


Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII by David Starkey

Six Wives by David StarkeyFirst, an apology because I’ve seriously been slacking with the reviews. Sorry folks! But I should have a number of good posts up in the next few weeks.

Now, I picked up David Starkey’s¬†Six Wives: The Queens of Henry VIII¬†because I had just read Elizabeth Freemantle’s¬†Queen’s Gambit, and it always frustrates me when I read historical fiction about real important figures because I can’t separate the history from the fiction. I was debating between Starkey and Alison Weir’s¬†The Six Wives of Henry VIII, both of which had equally good reviews on Goodreads, but ultimately made my decision based on availability at the library.

And Starkey, noted British historian and Tudor expert, was a good choice though obviously I can’t compare the two (but I did not appreciate his open disdain for Weir’s work in the foreword). He divided his book up into sections, with the larger first half concentrating on Henry’s first wife, Queen Catherine of Aragon, and a slightly smaller chunk thereafter on Anne Boleyn. Unfortunately, that left the remaining book to four queens, who got short-shrifted a bit, but I guess that’s inevitable given the strong political-cultural impact of the cold war between Catherine’s and Anne’s factions. Additionally, all six queens had to share room with countless other, predominantly male courtiers, which I thought detracted from the supposed¬†focus.

I’m not going to lie, these parts of it were quite dry and Starkey’s consistent shifting between usage of titles and given names made the narrative at times confusing. However, I think he was particularly good at delving into the international political intrigue of the period and extremely thorough in his examination of various individual’s motives for their actions. While this made the reader quite sympathetic to the queens, Henry’s longing for a son didn’t excuse his foul treatment of women in my eyes nor did Starkey’s free pass make me like the author any more than the subject.

At a hefty 800 pages, it’s not a light read nor a great one. Nevertheless, for fans of the Tudor period, including fictional works like the series¬†The Tudors,¬†Starkey’s biography provides rich context to fill in any gaps in knowledge.

3 Stars

William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi GermanyWilliam L. Shirer was serving as as one of the only CBS news correspondents in Western Europe in the 1930s and 1940s, located at the perfect place and time to witness¬†firsthand the growth and eventual domination of the Nazis. Reporting from Vienna during the Austrian Anschluss and from Berlin during the early years of World War II, he eventually learned that the Gestapo was gathering evidence of his disobedience over censorship and fled the country, not to return until¬†the Nuremberg trials. Afterwards, back in America and barely a decade after the war’s conclusion, he wrote The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany.¬†

Shirer begins at the beginning, the seeds that were sown following Germany’s defeat in World War I. Then, he traces¬†the birth of Adolf Hitler, the creation of his philosophy as memorialized in¬†Mein Kampf, and the establishment of the Nazi Party. Thus, its more than halfway in before we even get to war, but that development is essential to understand the individuals and events that led to its inevitability. By now, plenty of books have been written about the war itself, but Shirer’s has a unique level of detail and blend of contemporary citations with personal observances.

It wasn’t the easiest read with copious footnotes taking sometimes up to half the page. While I flew through the first 700 pages, the last few hundred took weeks. Partially because it finally touched on the Holocaust, a topic that isn’t covered extensively as much as foreshadowed for much of the book, but one that is deeply disturbing to read about so matter-of-factly. Nor does Shirer linger much on the aftermath of the war, probably because his book followed freshly on the heels of it and hasn’t been updated since published in 1960. In this case, that limit on scope is likely for the best.

I hope to read Shirer’s biography next. It’ll be interesting to get a different perspective on his work and biases as well as read further excerpts from his Berlin Diary, published during the war in 1941. For instance, from¬†Rise and Fall, I already know that he’s at least slightly homophobic. Perhaps a product of his time, but I’d caution sensitive readers to be aware that he repeatedly remarks that homosexuality is a perversion, though obviously not to the extent of supporting Nazi persecution.

Regardless of Shirer’s own views, he did write the definitive work on Nazi Germany. Even to this day, I couldn’t find a more thorough source. For those readers interested in WWII history, this is a must read, but one that should be expected¬†to take awhile.

4 Stars


Weekend Update: Maya and Mindy

I just wanted to give y’all a quick idea of what I’m reading this weekend. Honestly,¬†neither of these felt like they could be a full review so I’m lumping them together in case anyone’s interested in either:

The MayaThe Maya by Michael D. Coe

Guys, there’s like no books about the Maya. Literally this is basically the only one I could find to give me a comprehensive overview of the civilization and¬†all the dirt about the archaeological finds at the most important ruins; however, it reads like a textbook, albeit one from like eighth grade that still has pictures. If you’re at all interested in the topic, Coe may be dry but he is your guy.

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns)Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) by Mindy Kaling

This is a question I’ve asked myself before, and I do like Mindy, who is one of the few Indian-American actors out there. Her book is very colloquial as if you’re gossiping with¬†your friend Mindy over wine and cheese. But unfortunately that’s actually a detriment because it’s all over the place – sometimes funny, other times wtf.


Best Books of 2014

Howdy, y’all! I’m feeling warm and happy after migrating down South for the holidays, and much looking forward to the new year ūüôā

Goodreads kindly sent me an email summary of the books I’ve read in 2014 – I hit 94! Don’t tell, but I’m going to cheat and round to 100, which sounds more impressive. And I’m nearly at 100 posts too, despite only writing this blog for the latter half of the year. So exciting!

In honor of 2014, here are my favorite reads in each genre with links to my reviews:

Contemporary: A Guide to the Birds of East Africa

Fantasy: The Curse of Chalion (close runners-up:¬†The Emperor’s Blades and The City of Stairs)

Historical Fiction: The Visitors

Horror: Dracula

Mystery: Big Little Lies

Nonfiction: War of the Whales (close runner-up: Dream Team)

YA Contemporary: Great (close runner-up: Love Letters to the Dead)

YA Fantasy: tie between Deep Blue and The Paper Magician

If you haven’t gotten around to these in 2014, I highly recommend all of them for 2015. With fingers crossed for another year of great new books, Happy New Year!!!

Isabella, the Warrior Queen by Kirstin Downey

Isabella: The Warrior QueenPlease note that although¬†I received an Advance Reader’s Copy (ARC) of this book from Doubleday through the Goodreads First Reads program (my thanks to you both!), this review was not influenced in any way and reflects my honest opinion.

Isabella looks a mite terrifying in this cover, no? Let’s just say even before opening this book, I thought she was pretty badass and it’s contents only confirmed my opinion.

I didn’t know that much about Queen Isabella prior to reading it, just the usual shipping Columbus to America¬†and nobody expecting the Spanish Inquisition. But apparently Isabella did a lot more than that, because Kirsten Downey’s Isabella, the Warrior Queen is long. I mean, over 500 pages long and as intimidatingly dense as a snow drift is to a corgi. Thank God I read this over Columbus Day weekend, because I seriously needed the extra day to get inspired and get through it.

What Downey does¬†so¬†right is a comprehensive overview of not just Isabella’s life, but the history and culture of the times. The text goes off on tangents at times, about syphilis or¬†the Borgias, but these seemingly random topics actually played a huge role in Isabella’s life. I appreciate biographies that are conscious of not only telling the story of a person, but showing the various factors that shaped them into the person they became. I also liked that Downey utilized numerous first-person accounts from diverse historical records to put together a well-rounded impression of Isabella and her times.

Isabella gets a bad rap in retrospect, and certainly some of that is deserved. However, she was very much a product of the period she lived in and yet her¬†rule was very progressive and change-making in certain ways. For example, not only was she a strong female ruler, she was a woman monarch who led her kingdom to one the largest military victories in Christendom, the reconquest of Grenada. Initially in her reign, she was far more tolerant of Jews and Muslims, but even when she began to crack down on those minority groups, she was always an advocate of treating Native Americans well rather than brutally killing and enslaving them. She was also ahead of her time as a staunch supporter of women’s rights, especially to education, making sure that her daughters were as knowledgeable as her son and donating to universities funding for women’s scholarships.

Because this was an ARC, the thoroughness of the content clashed with the inconsistent writing quality. Numerous grammatical and sentence structural errors made me cringe every few pages. I seriously hope they did a thorough edit before going to print. Additionally, while I was glad to see they made room for maps at the beginning of the text, my copy lacked them, which made reading slightly confusing. What I didn’t see was a page held for a family tree, an addition that would be extremely helpful to readers since Isabella’s family repeated names frequently.

Despite those flaws, I loved how much I learned from the text, and how afterwards I immediately turned to the internet to try to learn more about Isabella or find more books about her. Which reminded me of the awesome¬†Royal Diaries¬†series that I adored as a kid,¬†including a book titled¬†Isabel: Jewel of Castilla that I now shamelessly want to reread. And apparently the books were¬†turned into a TV movie¬†series – how did I miss this?!? (Sidebar: there’s also a currently-running Spanish show about Isabella, which looked excellent but unfortunately I haven’t found a version dubbed/captioned in English.)

I would definitely recommend this book to any history buffs out there, because it presents a strong overview of this pivotal era in international political history, or to those who are interested in military or religious history.

3.5 Stars

Comment¬†on the rating: I considered my rating to be a rating of the¬†ARC. It’s entirely possible that the editors have since corrected some of the issues that bugged me and the finished product could be 4 Stars. But I felt it would be dishonest to give it that without seeing the published version.

Duel with the Devil by Paul Collins

Duel with the Devil: The True Story of How Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr Teamed Up to Take on America's First Sensational Murder MysteryDuel with the Devil: The True Story of How Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr Teamed Up to Take on America’s First Sensational Murder Mystery¬†– Paul Collins’ long-winded title pretty much sums this book up, although it’s way more dramatic than the story warrants.

Most Americans may recall from their U.S. History classes that Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr were two Founding Fathers on the opposite sides of the political spectrum, whose differences ended in tragedy when Burr shot and killed Hamilton during a duel. Very few individuals probably realize that they were both lawyers and politicians in New York City and, while opposing each other frequently, also occasionally teamed up. Historian Paul Collins tackles America’s¬†oldest cold-case, a turn-of-the-century murder mystery and the sensational ensuing trial, to reveal a new side to these historic figures.

It’s 1799 in New York City, the Federalists led by Hamilton and the Republicans led by Burr were fighting fiercely for political power in the fledgling country. With a swing election on the horizon and both men gunning for the presidency, a large aspect of the struggle for votes centered on the Manhattan water supply. But when the body of young Quaker woman Elma Sands was found in Burr’s newly constructed Manhattan Well and her rumored suitor Levi Weeks was considered the chief suspect, their indebtedness to Week’s brother Ezra drew these rivals together to bring justice and save their client.

Collins weaves multiple stories together. On one hand, there is the inquiry into what happened to Elma Sands, followed by the trial of Levi Weeks and the hypothesized solution to the crime. On another, it delves into Hamilton and Burr’s personalities/personal histories as well as their relationship to the city and country they helped build. Additionally, Collins includes side discusses on topics including sanitation, tabloid journalism, carpentry, and the day-to-day life of the average Manhattanite in the early 19th century.

I found the balance between these threads to be choppy. I began the book assuming it would focus on the true crime aspect, which it certainly did in parts, but I felt distracted by all the other pieces he wove in as my interest wavered in the drier sections. While I enjoyed his speculation on the true story behind these events, there wasn’t quite enough mystery behind this murder to live up to my expectations.

3 Stars