The Borgia Chronicles Review

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Review:

I’m still upset about The Borgias being cancelled, so after stumbling across The Serpent and the Pearl, by Kate Quinn, the first book in The Borgia Chronicles, at the library, I decided to give it a shot to see if it could ease my withdrawal a bit.

The Borgia Chronicles, which include The Serpent and the Pearl and The Lion and the Rose, are told from the perspective of Giulia Farnese, the celebrated Italian beauty and mistress of Rodrigo Borgia (Pope Alexander VI), and two fictional servants: Giulia’s cook Carmelina and her bodyguard Leonello, a dwarf who reminded me of Tyrion Lannister from Game of Thrones thanks to his sharp wit and love of books. Quinn’s Giulia starts out as a young and naive girl, but matures over the course of the series into a kind and caring young woman. She is an entirely different creature than the elegant Giulia of The Borgias or the energetic Giulia of Borgia: Faith and Fear, but I have to say, I like all three. So little is known of the real Giulia Farnese that any one (or none) of the three portrayals could be accurate.

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The Borgia family comes across fairly accurately, based on my understanding of their real life personalities, with one glaring exception related to the portrayal of Cesare in the first book that was resolved somewhat more satisfactorily in the second.

Quinn has a very pleasant and absorbing writing style that’s rich in period detail and sensory descriptions that bring the era to life. I repeatedly found myself reading much more in a sitting than I’d intended! I especially enjoyed her mouthwatering descriptions of Carmelina’s cooking, which are based on actual recipes from cooks of the period such as Bartolomeo Scappi (who is also a character in the books).

My biggest issue with the series was Quinn’s tendency to force me to suspend my disbelief over certain plot choices, which kept tossing me out of what were otherwise a pair of very enjoyable novels. I’ve already mentioned the issue with Cesare’s portrayal, which greatly marred my enjoyment of the first book, but though that eventually got resolved in a somewhat more probable manner, the second book went and did it again with an ending that seemed overly pat and tidy, not to mention improbable.

SPOILERS [click to view]

Despite having spent a third of the series reading Leonello’s thoughts, I never had the slightest suspicion that he was in love with Giulia, and I usually have a sharp nose for that sort of thing, so that seemed completely out of the blue to me. I could buy Giulia returning his feelings more easily, but despite the convenient sham marriage to the gay lord, I had trouble accepting that a noblewoman of Giulia’s era would just be allowed to shack up with a common dwarf for the rest of her life. Nor could I buy that Cesare would just take Leonello’s word that he’d killed Carmelina, given their history (however antagonistic it sometimes was). My romantic side was all fluttery and overjoyed that everybody ended up happy and free of their dangerous entanglement with the Borgia family, but my skeptical side was not so easily convinced.

My rating:3.5 Stars (3.5 / 5)

Humans of New York Book Review

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Review:

I have been to New York City only once, when I was 7 years old. I barely remember it. On top of that, as a lifelong resident of “flyover country” I’ve always felt a certain resentment at the amount of screen and page time devoted to stories about the city, at the expense of almost every other American city but LA (and perhaps Washington DC), and even worse, the common (though not universal) attitude of New Yorkers themselves that their city is the center of the world and anyone not lucky enough to live there (or at least visit regularly) is blighted, uncultured, and backwards. I mean, I’d like to go back some day, just so I can say I have, but it’s substantially lower on my list than, you know, visiting all 59 national parks or something like that. I have exactly ZERO interest in living there, even for a year. Big cities are not my forte to begin with and New York is both populous and compact. The very thought of all that humanity piled on top of itself practically makes me break out in hives.

So it was much to my own surprise that I found myself pulled in by the popular blog Humans of New York, by photographer Brandon Stanton. I think what makes the blog so wonderful (for me) is how it distills the essence of all that humanity – the wit and wisdom, the beauty and eccentricity, the stories – without the stench and noise and claustrophobia of it all.

If the blog is distilled essence of humanity, the book is distilled essence of blog – 400 of Stanton’s best and favorite photos from his first three years of photoblogging. It’s a beautiful book – by turns uplifting, thought-provoking, and funny. Not bad to look at either.

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My rating:4 Stars (4 / 5)

A Gentleman of Fortune Book Review

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Review:

I picked this up at the library the other day and found it to be an enjoyable read. Advertised as a cross between Jane Austen and Miss Marple, it’s a respectable addition to both the cozy and historical shelves of the mystery section. The heroine and sleuth, a Regency spinster named Dido Kent, wasn’t as memorable as some, but was clever and appealing enough to spend a few afternoons with, and the mystery itself kept me guessing. On the downside, I found part of the solution to be improbable to the point that it broke my suspension of disbelief, but I still enjoyed it enough that I plan to read some of the other Dido Kent mysteries.

My rating:3 Stars (3 / 5)

The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction Book Review

Review:

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Despite being fascinated by the topic and partial to the author (who’s one of the best science writers working today, in my opinion), it took me years to actually sit down and read The Song of the Dodo because it’s well over 600 pages (not counting footnotes) – dauntingly long for a mom of young kids. However, I finally managed it!

Quamman is able to successfully make the sometimes quite technical subject of island biogeography both accessible and fascinating. The study of island biogeography – which is essentially studying what lives where, and why, with particular attention to islands – has been critical to developing our understanding of the processes of both evolution and extinction. The Song of the Dodo includes a long and fascinating account of the early history of evolutionary science, with a focus on the life and travels of Alfred Russel Wallace. Wallace is famous to most people as the guy who came up with the idea of natural selection independently of Darwin and almost got credit for it, but he played a larger role than Darwin in the early development of the study of island biogeography.

Island biogeography is important to evolutionary science not only because of the incredible profusion of unique and bizarre creatures on the world’s remote islands, but also because it was the study of patterns of distribution of island flora and fauna that demonstrated most plainly to Darwin, Wallace, and other evolutionary biologists both past and present that if God had a hand in evolution (as the theory of special creation, the dominant theory in Darwin’s time, assumed He did), He followed some very strict rules in determining the distribution of island species… rules that just happened to be indistinguishable from what you would expect to find from a close study of the dispersion ability of different species.

For example, islands tend to have a lot of birds, which can fly or be blown across stretches of open ocean, but few amphibians, whose moist skin makes them sensitive to saltwater and incapable of surviving extended ocean voyages. Many of the most remote volcanic islands, such as Hawaii or the Galapagos, have no native amphibians at all. Observations like these led to Wallace’s deduction that “Every species has come into existence coincident both in space and time with a pre-existing closely allied species” – an insight which seems like simple common sense today, but which was a game-changing flash of genius at the time it was made.

Islands have also been critical to our understanding of extinction, and here is where island biogeography becomes important not just to the history of science and the residents of islands, but to the entire world. Human activities are increasingly carving up mainland wilderness into patches of habitat that are, in many cases, isolated as effectively from other patches of wilderness as the remotest volcanic island is from the shore. And because island ecosystems tend to have higher rates of extinction than mainland ecosystems, we can study island extinction patterns to learn what is in store for species trapped in isolated refuges on the mainland. (Spoiler: extinction, frequently.)

Quamman unfurls all these points with literary style and copious use of real world examples, collected in his extensive travels and interviews with working scientists on islands both literal and de facto. My only complaint about the book is his fondness for extended digressions. They are generally as fascinating as everything else (watching komodos, trying to find a thylacine, sharing the story of an extraordinary teenage naturalist from Madagascar and his work with lemurs), but it leads to a lot of hopping around in space and time, which lends the book a somewhat disorganized feel at times.

I also wonder if, with a tighter narrative, there might have been more room for discussion of the practical applications of island biogeography, which didn’t get much attention in Quamman’s book. For example, wildlife managers use insights from island biogeographers about how to maintain viable populations in the face of human encroachment to develop conservation corridors that allow species to safely travel between isolated patches of habitat. Fortunately, corridors and other topics in practical conservation ecology are discussed at length in books such as Rewilding the World: Dispatches from the Conservation Revolution.

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My rating:4 Stars (4 / 5)

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Eleanor & Park Book Review

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Review:

A fairly angsty teen romance between an Irish/Korean boy and an overweight redhead with a bad family situation, set in a working class neighborhood in Omaha in the 80s. Beautifully written, and I thought it did a good job of capturing the intensity of young love, and the teen years in general.

My rating:4 Stars (4 / 5)

Journey Book Review

Journey (Hardcover)
by Aaron Becker

Price: $10.78
128 used & new available from $5.06
4.7 out of 5 stars (467 customer reviews)

Review:

This book got rave reviews but I wasn’t wowed as much as I expected. The art is certainly lovely and imaginative, but it didn’t resonate with me on the same level as, for example, the similar messages found in Calvin & Hobbes strips such as this favorite:

kazam

My rating:3 Stars (3 / 5)

Austenland Book Review

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Review:

I didn’t much like the movie based on this book, but I decided to give the book a chance because I almost always like a book better than its movie. Austenland proved no exception. I still felt the characterization was shallow and overly convenient, but the book made better use of the fun premise and the secondary characters were no longer reduced to ridiculous caricatures, which was a huge relief and made the whole thing make much more sense. 

My rating:3 Stars (3 / 5)