the bookish life

my geeky love for books and bookish things

Tag: history

Book Review – The Spy by Paulo Coelho

This book was a complete cover buy. And I’ll admit, I’ve yet to read any of Coelho’s other books – this was my first. I’m impressed.

the spy

When Mata Hari arrived in Paris she was penniless. Within months she was the most celebrated woman in the city. As a dancer, she shocked and delighted audiences; as a courtesan, she bewitched the era’s richest and most powerful men. But as paranoia consumed a country at war, Mata Hari’s lifestyle brought her under suspicion. In 1917, she was arrested in her hotel room on the Champs Elysees, and accused of espionage. – Goodreads

The Spy is a novel about Mata Hari, written in the format of her final letter to her lawyer before execution. Her voice is quite unique, with a tendency to brag and gloss over details. So much so, that I was left wondering what part of her narrative was actual truth. The novel ends with a letter to her from her lawyer, which unveils some of her lies and glossed over details. It almost made her sound delusional. It was a nice touch for an ending, although the sudden change in tone threw me a little.

So was Mata Hari a feminist before her time, punished for living freely? It’s definitely a question I want to explore a bit more, as I know quite little about her. And now I’m definitely interested in reading some more of Coelho’s work.


Book Review – The Other Einstein by Marie Benedict

I have been fascinated with Albert Einstein and his work since I was in high school – I’ve read a lot about him over the years. So, you can imagine how thrilled I was when they announced the TV series Genius. Needless to say, I loved every minute of it. Last week my local library featured the ebook The Other Einstein on their homepage and naturally I snapped it up. It’s a fictional retelling of his first marriage and I was definitely intrigued.

Other Einstein

In 1896, the extraordinarily gifted Mileva is the only woman studying physics at an elite school in Zürich. There, she falls for charismatic fellow student Albert Einstein, who promises to treat her as an equal in both love and science. But as Albert’s fame grows, so too does Mileva’s worry that her light will be lost in her husband’s shadow forever. – Goodreads

This book bothered me – a lot. It’s well written, with a solid narrative through the voice of Mileva, but that’s where the good parts end. Benedict has taken the barest outline of history and created a rather nasty bit of fiction, portraying Mileva as a martyr and Albert as a monster. There is no historical basis for her claims (which she fully acknowledges in the afterward) and states that this is simply an innocent reimagining. But this is far from innocent. The average reader will finish this book and assume that much of it is based on fact. So what’s inaccurate about it? Where to start!?

Benedict centres much of the conflict around the four papers Albert Einstein wrote as a young patent clerk – the papers that made him famous. Benedict posits that Mileva discovered the theories on her own, with Albert just helping to polish them. Then in a fit of cruelty, he published each under his name alone. There is no historical basis for this fiction – letters between Mileva and Albert have survived and while Albert would touch on his latest theories in them, Mileva stuck to more practical topics. The only reference to collaboration between the two occurred during their school years – long before those 4 papers were conceived. Mileva failed her university exit exams twice and never got her degree. Historians agree that she seemed to give up science to raise her family instead, and that Albert likely used her as a sounding board while establishing his theories.

The life of Mileva Marić is fascinating all on it’s own – she overcame disability and societal limits due to her sex in order to study one of the most complicated scientific fields. She suffered depression long before people really understood what that was. She lost a child far too young and raised two others. Her marriage was rocky, with Albert’s indiscretions and his seeming inability to balance scientific pursuit and his relationships. Her life was interesting! I would have loved to have read a narrative that more accurately covered her life.

If you’re looking to explore an accurate account, take a look at Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson. It’s excellent. And pass on The Other Einstein.



Book Review – The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith

I’ve been having pretty good luck with books lately, which (of course) I’m really happy about – it’s always more fun to write positive reviews! As you can probably guess, The Last Painting of Sara de Vos is another good one.

Sara de Vos

In 1631, Sara de Vos is admitted as a master painter to the Guild of St. Luke’s in Holland, the first woman to be so recognized. Three hundred years later, only one work attributed to de Vos is known to remain–a haunting winter scene, At the Edge of a Wood, which hangs over the bed of a wealthy descendant of the original owner. An Australian grad student, Ellie Shipley, struggling to stay afloat in New York, agrees to paint a forgery of the landscape, a decision that will haunt her. Because now, half a century later, she’s curating an exhibit of female Dutch painters, and both versions threaten to arrive. – Goodreads

This story is set in three time periods, but all are centred around Sara de Vos and her famous painting. The entire book jumps back and forth, from Sara in the 1630’s, to Ellie as a grad student, to Ellie in her later years. Normally I find this format a bit confusing, but Smith manages to make it easy to follow. Have you ever watched the movie The Red Violin? If you haven’t, you really should. It’s a movie about the travels of this very unique violin, and involves several jumps through history to tell it. I love that movie, and Sara de Vos is very similar in format and tone.

The language Smith uses is straightforward, but beautiful. The pace is slow, but builds steadily to an expected confrontation that had me anxious to get to that scene. But the confrontation really wasn’t what I was expecting – and in hindsight, I’m glad it wasn’t. Because Smith clearly had a better idea in mind.

A book joins my shelf of favourites if it fulfills a couple of conditions: it is worth a future re-read, and it blew me away/made me think. Sara de Vos is definitely being added to that shelf.


Book Review – The Orphan’s Tale by Pam Jenoff

I received this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

I can already tell that this book is going to be one of my favourites of this entire year. Yup, I’m declaring it in February.

Orphans Tale

Sixteen-year-old Noa has been cast out in disgrace after becoming pregnant by a Nazi soldier and being forced to give up her baby. She lives above a small rail station, which she cleans in order to earn her keep. When Noa discovers a boxcar containing dozens of Jewish infants bound for a concentration camp, she is reminded of the child that was taken from her. And in a moment that will change the course of her life, she snatches one of the babies and flees into the snowy night.

Noa finds refuge with a German circus, but she must learn the flying trapeze act so she can blend in undetected, spurning the resentment of the lead aerialist, Astrid. At first rivals, Noa and Astrid soon forge a powerful bond. But as the facade that protects them proves increasingly tenuous, Noa and Astrid must decide whether their friendship is enough to save one another—or if the secrets that burn between them will destroy everything. – Goodreads

The Orphan’s Tale is beautiful, emotional and so very heart wrenching. The friendship between Noa and Astrid is the main pillar of the story, but it also touches on their respective love lives, and their adoration for the child that Noa saved. Jenoff doesn’t sugar coat the brutal reality of Germany and France during the Second World War, and some scenes are not for the faint of heart. But that harshness is important – it brings into sharp relief how vital Noa and Astrid’s relationships are to their well being and ultimate survival.

I know some worry that historical books like this one can be hard to read, but Jenoff’s writing is really easy to absorb. And yes, the content is definitely heavy, but there is a hopeful tone to the end – so it doesn’t feel like a complete emotional drain. Just remember to have tissues on hand!

The Orphan’s Tale is coming out this month. Read it – you wont regret it.


Book Review – Indestructible by John R. Bruning

I received a copy of this book from Hachette Books in exchange for an honest review.

Although unintentional, it seems fitting that I’m posting this review on Remembrance Day. Indestructible is the true story of Pappy Gunn, an American pilot in WW2 who moved heaven and earth to free his family from a Japanese POW camp in the Philippines. Pappy was former Navy, living in the Philippines as a civilian with his young family. He ran a fledgling airline, and flying was an integral part of who he was. But in the chaos of the Japanese bombing and subsequent invasion, Pappy ended up in Australia with the American Army, while his family was forced into the Santo Tomas civilian POW camp. Thus began a 3 year fight to liberate his family. But it wasn’t just a fight against the Japanese army, it was also a fight against American military bureaucracy, time, distance, and limited flight technology. And in the end, he became a legend.


This biography is not a dry read. It’s told in a story-like manner, complete with reproduced conversations and detailed battle descriptions. Bruning explores the emotions Pappy must have experienced while separated from his family, going far beyond facts and figures detailing his contributions to airborne warfare. Bruning also delved deep into the Gunn family experience in the POW camp – he interviewed one of Pappy’s sons, resulting in a nuanced and emotional narrative that doesn’t hold back.

While not perfect (Bruning can get pretty repetitive), this book is definitely worth reading if you are interested in the history lesson.


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