The Romanovs
by Simon Sebag Montefiore

March 24, 2016 Book Reviews, Books 0



The Romanovs: 1613-1918 by Simon Sebag Montefiore | May 2016 | Knopf | Hardcover $35

In this fascinating chronicle, Simon Sebag Montefiore focuses his gifts as historian and storyteller on the greatest and most complex of the emperors and empresses of the Romanov dynasty (1613-1917), on how their courts worked, and on the meeting of personality and power in each reign. Scouring archives that opened up only after the fall of the USSR, the author reveals the real world of the most storied and myth-shrouded rulers — Catherine the Great, Nicholas II and his wife Alexandra — and introduces readers to the lesser-known but even more scandalous Elizaveta (daughter of Peter the Great) and Alexander II (whose wild sexual passions were bestowed upon a teenage mistress). The author illuminates the eighteenth-century Age of the Imperial Petticoat; makes clear the full extent of the remarkable political-amorous partnership between Catherine the Great and Prince Potemkin; and uncovers a deep vein of decadence and stupidity underneath the accepted, romantic portrait usually presented of Nicholas II, the last of the Tsars. As with all of his previous and widely acclaimed works of history, Simon Sebag Montefiore gives an absolute scholarly and archival foundation to a book that is both exceptionally informative and dazzlingly entertaining from first to last.

The Romanovs is due to be published in the US in May 2016 (it’s already out in the UK). This review is based on a digital ARC from the publisher, Knopf, via Edelweiss.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Despite its impressive length — nearly 800 pages! — this is still a rather whirlwind tour of Russian history. After all, the Romanovs ruled the country for over 3 centuries, and any one of the tsar or tsarina’s lives would make for an interesting book alone.

The book is divided into “Acts” (sections/parts/whatever) and “Scenes” (chapters). Each chapter begins with a cast of characters and concludes with a handful of notes regarding various events and people that might help clarify some points for the reader. This was particularly helpful for me, because I was reading this book in little half-hour chunks during my lunch breaks over the past month or so.

Being only passingly familiar with a few events in Russian history (most of them fairly recent, in the grand scheme of things), I admit that I got a bit lost at some points. It doesn’t help that royalty likes to recycle names, or that Russian names can begin to look like little more than a bunch of letters randomly strung together if you aren’t comfortable with the language. Montefiore did try to alleviate the confusion a bit by referring to each major player with a consistent name or nickname, though.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

I did enjoy the occasional little references to what all was going on in the rest of the world while Tsar So-n-So was forcing religious reform or Tsarina Such-n-Such was beheading all her enemies. I’m much more familiar with the history of a couple of other European countries, so this was particularly helpful for my own comprehension.

One thing I was surprised by (though I shouldn’t have been, really) was the impressive amount of violence perpetrated both by the Romanovs and against them. Public torture, dismemberment, and death by impalement were common occurrences during the reign of Alexis I (and later reigns as well), while his contemporary Louis XIV in France resorted somewhat less enthusiastically to execution by the slightly more civilized guillotine. The murder of the last of the Romanovs, Nicholas and Alexandra and their children, was frenzied and bloody.

On a similarly disconcerting topic, serfdom was the fate of the vast majority of people in feudal Russia up until the mid-19th century, while feudalism in Western Europe had been mostly done away with after the dark ages, or by the end of the 1700’s at the very latest. Blood and oppression made up the foundation of the Romanovs’ autocratic dynasty — as well as the foundation of Russia’s current autocratic state.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

The book is obviously well-researched and — be still, my heart! — includes plenty of notes and citations. Montefiore writes in such a way that it is obvious that he’s trying to make his subject accessible to non-scholars, too, but I still had to look up a lot of terms and events on Wikipedia just to catch up and figure out what the heck was going on.

Overall, I’d say that this is a good summary of the long rule of the Romanov family over Russia, though it might not be the very first title a person should pick up if they’re just getting started on Russian history. Anyway, I’m quite glad I got a chance to read it.


Publication information: Montefiore, Simon Sebag. The Romanovs: 1613-1918. New York: Knopf, 2016. EPUB.
Source: Publisher via Edelweiss
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.

30 by 30 Project Check-In

March 23, 2016 Just for Fun 0

Another year older now — both me and my little blog. I’ve been working (off and) on this little 30 by 30 Project, a list of 30 goals I want to reach by the time I turn 30 years old. 2 years down, 1 more to go! Here’s a little progress report:

  1. Read at least 250 books
  2. Read at least 20 new-to-me classic books
  3. Participate in SpoT High 2014-2017
    ✓ Grade: B

    I had back out of this commitment after only 1 year, because my job changed and I am no longer working in teen services or building teen book collections at our local public library. Still, I worked really hard on this committee’s project while I was a member, so I’m calling this an overall win.

  4. Write at least 40 book reviews
    ✓ Grade: A
  5. Write at least 100k words for my multi-year NaNoWriMo project
  6. Finish cataloging our home library
  7. Research my family tree
  8. Build a genealogy website to share with my family
    ✓ Grade: B

    Started building it in May of 2015, and started keeping track of my research and posting about particularly interesting finds in January of 2016. It definitely still needs some work, though.

  9. Organize + digitize all of our personal photos
  10. Organize and back up my hard drives
  11. Have a movie marathon
  12. Visit a vineyard or attend a wine festival
  13. Go on a picnic
  14. Go to a geekish con or fest — bonus points for cosplay
  15. Leave the state for a vacation
    ✓ Grade: A

    We went to San Diego in October of 2014.

  16. Spend a day at a spa
  17. Have a party at our place
    ✓ Grade: B
  18. Write a fan letter
    ✓ Grade: C

    I wrote a letter to my all-time favorite author, Terry Pratchett. Knocked off a few grade points because I only managed to write it after he died.

  19. Give up video games for good
  20. Lose weight — ideally, about 50 pounds
  21. Go a month without fast food or delivery
  22. Visit a dentist
  23. Stitch at least 10 wearable/usable things for myself
  24. Sketch or paint at least 10 things
  25. Craft at least 5 gifts for other people or pets
  26. Cook, really cook, at least once per week
  27. Cook my way through a cookbook or food blog
  28. Start a custom recipe book
  29. Vote at least once
    ✓ Grade: A

    Voted in the Texas state + local elections in 2014.

  30. Buy a house
    ✓ Grade: A

    We closed on our first house in September of 2015.

Many of these goals are in progress, meaning I’m either actively working on them or have definitive plans to do something about them in the near future. For example, I’m currently researching my family tree (as evidenced by the genealogy website!) and I’m planning to dress up and go to the Ren Fest next fall!

Trimming the ol’ TBR list

March 7, 2016 Books 0

This weekend was moderately eventful for us.

We went to a shell auction put on by a local conchology club, which was… well, actually kinda fun, even though I’m not a sheller myself. (My husband is the big mollusk fan in this family. I’m trying to convince him to let me post some of the lovely shell photos he’s taken here on the blog.) We also did a bunch of housekeeping/gardening stuff, and I spent several hours trying to sort out our taxes.

I also spent a few hours sorting out my Goodreads shelves. I love Goodreads for organization and tracking purposes, but I think I’ve been abusing it a little bit lately. When I find a book that seems even vaguely interesting, I stick it on my virtual “to-read” shelf… and about half the time, I completely forget about it after that. The whole thing is getting out of hand, so this past weekend I sat down and did something about it!

Starting TBR count: 1140

Actually, before even getting to the to-read shelf, I spent a little time reorganizing all of my shelves. For example, I consolidated some country-specific shelf tags into regional tags. I changed the names of some shelf tags, too, like changing “religious” to “religion and spirituality” (just for clarification).

Then I went through the shelves with the most books on them and started weeding.

I started with some of the more highly populated shelves, like “biography” or “classics” with the intention of simultaneously cleaning them up and cleaning them out. For example, I had quite a few books shelved as biographies when in reality they were autobiographies or memoirs/journals, which I have separate shelves for. I also just had a lot of biographies that I’m not super gung-ho about reading at this point (if I ever was), so out they went.

Ending TBR count: 1040

Wow, 100 books knocked off of that stack! I didn’t intend for it to be exactly 100 books, but I’m illogically pleased that it turned out that way.

Yeah, I can stand to lose WAY more than just 100 books from my TBR. For one thing, it includes a ton of YA books that I felt obligated to read when I was a teen librarian… and since that’s no longer my job, keeping up with whatever is hot off the press or winning awards in that arena isn’t something I’m worried about (but I am still interested as a casual YA reader). But when I started going through that YA to-read list, I got super overwhelmed and kinda shut down. So this is something that I still need to tackle!

What about you — do you have to clean up your TBR list every once in a while? How do you keep track of what you want to read, and how do you keep it up to date?

Ready Player One
by Ernest Cline

March 6, 2016 Book Reviews, Books 0



Ready Player One by Ernest Cline | November 2011 | Broadway Books | Paperback $16

In the year 2044, reality is an ugly place. The only time teenage Wade Watts really feels alive is when he’s jacked into the virtual utopia known as the OASIS. Wade’s devoted his life to studying the puzzles hidden within this world’s digital confines, puzzles that are based on their creator’s obsession with the pop culture of decades past and that promise massive power and fortune to whoever can unlock them. When Wade stumbles upon the first clue, he finds himself beset by players willing to kill to take this ultimate prize. The race is on, and if Wade’s going to survive, he’ll have to win — and confront the real world he’s always been so desperate to escape.

I didn’t actually intend to review this particular book here on the blog — about 1/3 to 1/2 of the books I read will just get a few stars and maybe a quick paragraph or two on Goodreads, especially backlist stuff that I’m not reading for a particular challenge/event.

But I’ve been in a little bit of a reading slump lately. Not that I’m not reading, because I am, but I’ve been taking it pretty slow, plus I just don’t have much to say about what I’m reading. So maybe it’s more like a reviewing slump. So when I felt like blathering on just a little bit about Ready Player One, I figured I’d better seize that feeling and run with it!

– – –

My husband received this book a few months ago in his Loot Crate, a monthly subscription box that delivers themed “loot” for geeks — he’s gotten all kinds of things, from a Fallout Vault Boy bobblehead to a World of Warcraft hearthstone stress ball thing. Now our dog gets a monthly box (Loot Pets), too, and they get matching t-shirts. It’s adorable.

Anyhow, mi esposo really enjoyed Ready Player One, and even though our taste in books doesn’t always match up he was pretty sure that I’d like it, too.

Plus, get this: Spielberg is working on a movie based on this book, due out in 2018!

– – –

But… I almost DNF’d this book before I even got through the first couple chapters. It starts off like just another YA dystopia, all doom and gloom and “energy crisis” this and “giant evil tech corporations” that. Which, y’know, I get it. The human species is slowly suiciding and taking this little planet with it, yes, OK, but after a while the dystopia fatigue starts to set in. And the beginning of Ready Player One seemed to me like just another teenager bemoaning the predictably broken state of the world… which I was frankly just not in the mood to pay attention to.

Anyway, I’m glad I continued on with it. Once the plot picks up, the pacing and tension and character development help keep it moving and make the book pretty hard to put down. There are a lot (A LOT) of fun references to 1980’s pop culture — not just video/arcade games, like you’d expect with a title like Ready Player One, but also tabletop games, movies and TV, music (lots and lots and lots of music), and technology.

– – –

My only real complaint is the unnecessary amount of exposition, especially at the beginning of the story. And listen, I’m normally one of those readers who loves exposition. I can’t resist a carefully built, detailed world, and I don’t do well with stories are so plot-centric that they have barely a sketch of a setting/history. So, you know the exposition must be pretty excessive if even Louise is getting tired of it. The first quarter or so of the book is like 90% infodumping!

I’m also not sure how to categorize this book for my review index. I think it is being marketed mainly as an adult SFF because the whole focus on 1980’s pop culture probably appeals mainly to grown-ups who lived through that time period. But the age of the characters, some of the experiences they go through, and the kind of “stick it to The Man” mentality are all very YA-ish. Anyway, Ready Player One did get an Alex Award for “books written for adults that have special appeal to young adults” from the American Library Association’s YALSA group, so I guess it really does have some serious crossover appeal.


Read My Own Damn Books Challenge Image

This book also counts for my #ReadMyOwnDamnBooks challenge.

Publication information: Cline, Ernest. Ready Player One. New York: Broadway Books, 2011. Print.
Source: Loot Crate
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.

Movie Musicals Challenge –
The Wizard of Oz

March 5, 2016 Just for Fun, Movies 2


I finally got around to watching another selection from the Movie Musicals Challenge!

I’m so behind on this challenge already… and it doesn’t help that right now, I’m trying to manage a behind-the-scenes blog move. So, I’ll be brief with this post.

I chose to watch The Wizard of Oz because I got a copy on DVD as a gift this past Christmas, along with a set of the books by L. Frank Baum. (I’m thinking of doing a read-along or something like that with them soon, but don’t hold me to it.)

I’ve seen the movie many times before, of course, and it’s something of a comfort-watch for me now. I watched part of it the night that our cat died a couple of months ago. I was too torn up to sleep, but there was something so calming about listening to Judy Garland sing “Over the Rainbow”… it was just what I needed at the time.

This time I did it properly and watched the whole thing, popcorn and root beer in hand. I admit that I sang along just a little bit. (Um. Maybe a lot. Maybe every word?) And don’t let Gary fool you — he sang along just a little bit, too. He was playing some sort of violent video game in the other room, but he was still enjoying the movie from afar. It’s just one of those movies that grabs you like that, I guess!

It’s interesting, the things you see when you rewatch an old favorite again after a gap of a couple of years. I never noticed before how mature Dorothy looks for her supposed age — of course, Judy was about 16 years old at the time. Apparently she was forced to stick to an abusively strict diet and wear a special corset to help her look more child-like. Some of the acting and staging is so exaggerated as to be silly, but of course movies were still being made like modified stage plays back in the 1930’s.


But let’s be honest, Toto is the real star of this show!

Have you watched The Wizard of Oz lately, or read the book(s)? Do you have any favorite scenes?


Women in Science History Challenge

March 4, 2016 Books 0


I’ve decided to follow the lead of Katie over at Doing Dewey and join up with the Women in Science History Challenge!

The goal is to, well, read about women in science history of course! This is a topic close to my own heart. Hit that banner up there for a link to the sign-up page.

I’ve been meaning to read Jane Goodall’s In the Shadow of Man, her 1971 book about her experiences observing wild chimpanzees in Tanzania. It’s on my Classics Club list, plus it counts towards this year’s Women’s Classic Literature Event. Perhaps I’ll pick up a copy at the library, or maybe I’ll just buy myself an early birthday present….

I encourage anyone with an interest in science or women’s history to join up, too. The more, the merrier.

A Closer Look @ My Classics Club Reading List

February 29, 2016 Books 0

Two years ago, I joined the Classics Club and resolved to read 50 “classic” books over the next 5 years.

Here’s that book list.

Lately, I’ve been pretty interested in analyzing my own reading choices. Partly just out of curiosity, partly out of some vague feeling that I might need to read more diversely or something. Anyway, I took a look at the 50 books on my Classics Club list and this is what came up!

Categories & Genre

When I made the list, I separated the books into 5 categories (basically broad genre labels).

As you can see, my CC list is 50% general fiction (20th century and pre-20th century), with the bulk of the rest being made up of speculative fiction (SFF, a.k.a. science fiction/fantasy).

I broke this down a little more into common genre labels.


Here we can see the breakdown of “fiction” a little better — there’s still a lot of what I think of as general fiction, but also some historical fiction, adventure, etc.

Of course, there are always going to be books that fit more than one genre label. For example, I didn’t distinguish between general fiction and speculative fiction under the “Teen” label. (I tried to get more specific originally, but the chart got out of hand.)

Number of pages

Most of the books on my list are at or under 600 pages. There are just a few doorstoppers. The longest was The Count of Monte Cristo; the shortest was The Yellow Wallpaper.

Original language

Wow, this is where things start to get just a little embarrassing. Nearly all the books I chose for this list were originally English language, with just a smattering of 2 other European languages.

Author’s ethnicity

Please note that in this case only, “American” = U.S. and Canada — I was going for a continental perspective, rather than by country.

I guess it is no surprise, given the language breakdown, that many of the authors on my list are white Europeans and Americans. Most of the Europeans are Brits, by the way. You can also see that I wasn’t quite sure how to categorize the Jewish authors. Some of the Jewish people I’ve known would consider that their primary culture/ethnicity, but some wouldn’t.

In any case, it’s pretty clear from this graph and the previous one that I didn’t give much thought to the diversity of the authors on my CC list when I was making it. If I choose to do another CC list after this one, I’ll definitely want to give this matter some more thought. I’ll be missing out on so much important literature from around the world if I just stick to the “Western” canon.

Author’s gender

About 1/3 of the authors on this list are women. It isn’t even close to equal representation, but it isn’t as bad as I feared it would be.

Publication year

It’s easy to see from the “stacks” above that most of my CC books came out of the mid-to-latter part of the 20th century, with quite a few from the 19th. For some reason I’m surprised that I didn’t have anything pre-1800 on this list. Again, this is definitely something I’ll want to address if I choose to do a second list after finishing this one.

Popularity with other Classics Club members

Keep in mind that these numbers are based on when I originally looked at the CC review list (here) while compiling this post in January 2016. Perhaps by the time I get around to finishing my list, the numbers will have changed.

In any case, it looks like a great many of the titles I chose are unique. This is probably because I chose to focus partly on nonfiction and SFF classics, which most other CCers don’t seem interested in.

I did find it interesting that 10 of these titles have 10 or more other reviewers, though. They must be popular for a good reason!

– – –

If you are a fellow Classics Clubber, have you done any number-crunching like this, or otherwise really given some thought to the diversity of your list? I’m interested in whether any of these results are typical of Classics Club lists in general.


Backlist Love | A Particulary Useful Cookbook

February 28, 2016 Backlist Love, Books 0

Backlist Love is an informal series on “older” books that I hope you’ll find interesting. These aren’t so much reviews as quickie recommendations, so check out Goodreads or your favorite book review sources if you want more info.


Betty Crocker Cookbook: Everything You Need to Know to Cook Today (General Mills, 2005; originally published 1969)

Betty Crocker Cookbook

From foolproof, dependable recipes to reliable how-to advice, the Betty Crocker Cookbook has everything you need for the way you cook today. Whether you’re a new or experienced cook, the Betty Crocker Cookbook is the book for you.

Why I liked it

This cookbook, out of all the ones I’ve read, is probably the one I’ve actually used the most often. It just has a lot of basic, solid dishes that involve easy-to-find and cheap ingredients. Plus it includes lots of “helper” info, like where on an animal various cuts of meat come from, or step-by-step photos for a few cutting methods.

My mother gave me this cookbook ages ago… I’m pretty sure it was a gift for my high school graduation, and I think her own mother did the same for her, so this cookbook is something of a family tradition. Even though this cookbook is over 10 years old I still use it on a regular basis.

Who I’d recommend it to

This is a great resource for beginning cooks who are ready to try out a variety of recipes. It’s especially helpful for people who enjoy “American” food like casseroles and that sort of thing — although there is a pretty good choice of flavors/variations to choose from to please just about any palate.



Consider the Fork
by Bee Wilson

February 27, 2016 Book Reviews, Books 0


★ ★ ★

Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat by Bee Wilson | January 2012 | Basic Books | Hardcover $26.99

Since prehistory, humans have braved sharp knives, fire, and grindstones to transform raw ingredients into something delicious—or at least edible. Tools shape what we eat, but they have also transformed how we consume, and how we think about, our food. Technology in the kitchen does not just mean the Pacojets and sous-vide of the modernist kitchen. It can also mean the humbler tools of everyday cooking and eating: a wooden spoon and a skillet, chopsticks and forks.

In Consider the Fork, award-winning food writer Bee Wilson provides a wonderful and witty tour of the evolution of cooking around the world, revealing the hidden history of everyday objects we often take for granted. Blending history, science, and anthropology, Wilson reveals how our culinary tools and tricks came to be, and how their influence has shaped modern food culture.

I don’t know about you, but I rarely ever give much thought to the basic technologies that facilitate (or complicate) my cooking and dining experiences. I mean, whoever actually does consider the fork? Bee Wilson, apparently.

This book includes some fascinating insights, like the details of the mid-century kitchens on display at the exhibition where Nixon and Khrushchev had their Kitchen Debate discussions over the merits of communism vs. capitalism in the context of model American homes. And there was quite a lot of detail included about each featured technology, from the long evolution of the “simple” table knife to the quite literally life-saving advent of refrigeration.

– – –

So, yes, the information presented in this book is interesting and the writing certainly isn’t bad, but something about the flow of it all didn’t click for me. The book felt, at times, more like a collection of essays than a comprehensive history of food tech, and at other times it seemed to ramble and drift from whatever point or thesis the author was trying to get at. But, again, I think that’s more of a stylistic preference issue than a quality issue.

I do wish there had been more in the way of footnotes or endnotes. I suppose, given the extensive bibliography tacked on at the end of the book and the author’s professional reputation, that it must have been very well-researched. I guess I just prefer the more academic way of citing things when it comes to nonfiction like this.

– – –

The only thing that really rubbed me the wrong way was the low-level but pervasive snark towards whatever cooking techniques/attitudes the author isn’t fond of. I don’t agree with her idea that cooking isn’t really (or shouldn’t be) a science — because ignoring all the science (accidental or otherwise) that goes into producing a meal is willfully, well, ignorant.

I also really don’t care how silly she thinks the American way of using cups and other volume measures rather than metric weight is — that’s how we do it and it’s a ridiculous thing to make an issue of. Americans are happy to put our flour in measuring cups, pour gravy over our biscuits, and dump your stupid tea straight into the harbor.

– – –

I’m afraid that’s all I have to say about Consider the Fork. My brain is feeling a bit fuzzy lately (blame it on allergies, terrible sleep habits, measuring cups, or whatever) and it’s all I could do to concentrate on this book long enough to make it through a chapter or so at a time. But I’m glad I read it and get to count it towards my Foodies Read challenge this year.


Read My Own Damn Books Challenge Image

This book also counts for my #ReadMyOwnDamnBooks challenge.

Publication information: Wilson, Bee. Consider the Fork: A History of How We Cook and Eat. New York: Basic Books, 2012. Print.
Source: Purchased from public library used bookshop.
Disclaimer: I am not compensated, monetarily or otherwise, for reviews of books or other products.

Reevaluating My Reading: Battle of the Sexes

February 20, 2016 Books 0

A little while ago I did some quick number-crunching to figure out where the authors of the books I’ve read over the past 5 years have come from.

Here’s my intro from that post:

I’ve been seeing more and more buzz about diversity in the book world lately, and I got curious:

How diverse are my reading habits?

There are lots of ways to measure this. Author or character gender, LGBT orientation, ethnicity or culture, disability or mental illness, and on and on and on. Today, though, I just want to focus on gender.

Just a quick note: Yes, I am aware that there is a difference between gender and biological sex. Read the section below if you want more info about my methods. Otherwise, just trust that I did my best to make sure each author was represented as accurately as possible.

– – –

This section is all blahblahblah about how I gathered the stats, so skip to the bottom if you just want to see some pretty pie charts mkay?

First, I decided to stick with author gender/sex instead of that of the characters because I frankly didn’t want to struggle with the problems of nonfiction, multiple MCs/POVs, or other weirdness.

As with my last stats-gathering post, I had to figure out what to do about series, because if I read 10 books in a series by one author in a year that could really skew the results! So like last time, I decided that each author would only count once per series within one year. If I continued reading the series the next year, or if I read another non-series book by the same author, I could count them again.

Now let’s talk about gender and sex. For the purposes of this post, I assumed that whatever gender the author presents as is what they actually identify as. If for some reason gender wasn’t obvious but they claimed a particular biological sex, I decided to go with that (though I ended up not needing to rely on this). Genderqueer and intersex (in other words, non-binary) authors were counted separately (… except it turns out that none of the books I read had genderqueer or intersex authors), though I decided to count any transgender people as whichever gender/sex they present as.

– – –

So, here’s the breakdown of the authors of books I’ve read over the past 5 years (2011-2015):


Interesting! I suspected I may have read more books by women than men, for a couple of reasons. First, I’ve simply been drawn to them and their work, especially when it comes to the YA genre. Second, there seems to be a higher proportion (relatively) of female to male authors writing on many of the subjects I like to read about in the nonfiction category.

It’s interesting to compare this unconscious habit to my planned reading for the Classics Club, which has almost the exact opposite percentage (2/3 men, 1/3 women).

Do you know what your ratio of male to female to nonbinary, etc. authors is? Do you make a special effort to read authors of one gender or sex in preference over another?