Mother Tongue: My Family’s Globe-Trotting Quest to Dream in Mandarin, Laugh in Arabic, and Sing in Spanish by Christine Gilbert

Mother Tongue: My Family’s Globe-Trotting Quest to Dream in Mandarin, Laugh in Arabic, and Sing in Spanish by Christine GilbertMother Tongue: My Family's Globe-Trotting Quest to Dream in Mandarin, Laugh in Arabic, and Sing in Spanish
by Christine Gilbert
Published by Avery
on May 17th 2016
Pages: 336
Format: Hardcover
One woman’s quest to learn Mandarin in Beijing, Arabic in Beirut, and Spanish in Mexico, with her young family along for the ride.

Imagine negotiating for a replacement carburetor in rural Mexico with words you’re secretly pulling from a pocket dictionary. Imagine your two-year-old asking for more niunai at dinner—a Mandarin word for milk that even you don’t know yet. Imagine finding out that you’re unexpectedly pregnant while living in war-torn Beirut. With vivid and evocative language, Christine Gilbert takes us along with her into foreign lands, showing us what it’s like to make a life in an unfamiliar world—and in an unfamiliar tongue.Gilbert was a young mother when she boldly uprooted her family to move around the world, studying Mandarin in China, Arabic in Lebanon, and Spanish in Mexico, with her toddler son and all-American husband along for the ride. Their story takes us from Beijing to Beirut, from Cyprus to Chiang Mai—and also explores recent breakthroughs in bilingual brain mapping and the controversial debates happening in linguistics right now.Gilbert’s adventures abroad prove just how much language influences culture (and vice versa), and lead her to results she never expected. Mother Tongue is a fascinating and uplifting story about taking big risks for bigger rewards and trying to find meaning and happiness through tireless pursuit—no matter what hurdles may arise. It’s a treat for language enthusiasts and armchair travelers alike.

I received this book for free from in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.


When I was 8 years old, my school district had something called Summer Enrichment. It wasn’t just summer school. You didn’t have to go if you didn’t want to. It was fun classes. You could take Art, Newspaper, the kind of PE classes you DID like, like swimming, printing (little did I know I’d wind up in the field), and foreign languages. I was desperate to go, because, crazy little me loved to learn.

I went for years, until I aged out, and I learned lots of fun things I would have never learned without SE. One of those things was French. I took it for several summers and retained enough to excel at French in high school and then college. In fact, my college professor really wanted to pursue a degree in it, but I knew I would never want to leave home and that degree would necessitate it.

Now, I find opportunities to speak French with some French Ghana friends I have made around campus. The French I use the most? The French I learned in Enrichment. I have often regretted not learning a more useful (for me) language, such as Spanish, since my part of NC has a rich Latino population, but French was, and remains, my love. I have often dreamed of learning other languages, but fear I’m too old.

So, when a representative from Avery (a division of Penguin Random House) contacted me about Mother Tongue, I jumped at the chance. What better way to see if I’m too old to learn something as difficult as a new language, than to read the escapades of a woman trying to do just that?

It was eye opening.

Gilbert and her family travel to China, Beirut, and Mexico in an effort to fully immerse in the culture and the language and learn. Just learn. How to speak, how to converse, how to read, how to understand. And they have varying degrees of success and I admire how Gilbert dealt with the situations AND that she owned up to them in her book. Learning a new language at (most) any age is not easy and Gilbert doesn’t sugar coat it. She worked her ass off and it shows. This book is fascinating not only from the learning aspect, but the glimpses of the different cultures Gilbert encounters and how her husband and son deal with those changes as well. At times repetitive, this book is still a fascinating look at what taking a huge risk can earn one who takes the chance.

Rave Review: Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel

Rave Review: Sleeping Giants by Sylvain NeuvelSleeping Giants
by Sylvain Neuvel
Length: 8 hours 28 minutes
Published by Penguin Books
on April 26th 2016
Pages: 320
Format: eARC
A page-turning debut in the tradition of Michael Crichton,World War Z, and The Martian, Sleeping Giants is a thriller fueled by an earthshaking mystery—and a fight to control a gargantuan power.

A girl named Rose is riding her new bike near her home in Deadwood, South Dakota, when she falls through the earth. She wakes up at the bottom of a square hole, its walls glowing with intricate carvings. But the firemen who come to save her peer down upon something even stranger: a little girl in the palm of a giant metal hand.

Seventeen years later, the mystery of the bizarre artifact remains unsolved—its origins, architects, and purpose unknown. Its carbon dating defies belief; military reports are redacted; theories are floated, then rejected.

But some can never stop searching for answers.

Rose Franklin is now a highly trained physicist leading a top secret team to crack the hand’s code. And along with her colleagues, she is being interviewed by a nameless interrogator whose power and purview are as enigmatic as the provenance of the relic. What’s clear is that Rose and her compatriots are on the edge of unraveling history’s most perplexing discovery—and figuring out what it portends for humanity. But once the pieces of the puzzle are in place, will the result prove to be an instrument of lasting peace or a weapon of mass destruction?

I received this book for free from in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.


I’m not sure where I first heard about this book (perhaps Litsy?). I’m not even sure why I wanted to read it so badly. But as soon as I saw it, I KNEW I had to read it. When it showed up in an email from Penguin Audio, I hurried to download it and added it to my queue. I started it on a Wednesday afternoon, when I was doing some really menial, repetitive (read: boring) work at work. I went in blind. I had no idea what it was about (serious, WHY did I want to read it so badly) and I certainly didn’t know that the story was told in interviews, journal notes, and such and I really didn’t know it had multiple narrators.

At first, since I didn’t know the narrative structure, I was a little put off. The main narrator, the one questioning all the other characters, was a little off-putting. Yet, as it went on, it became quite compelling. I couldn’t help but be interested in a woman who, as a child discovered a metal hand, grew up to study that hand – and the rest of the giant robot that went with it! As each character was introduced, they were so interesting and well-formed! I wanted to know more!

The next thing I knew, the work day was over and I was over a quarter of the way through the book! I listened all day Thursday, barely pausing to talk to anyone at work because I didn’t want to stop listening. I finished Friday morning and felt bereft. Especially with the way the book ended. I’m ready for the next book, without a doubt.

By the end of the book, I really appreciated Neuvel’s choice in telling his story and, since I listened to the book, I can’t imagine reading it any other way. The actor’s really shined in their parts and completely made the book for me. I don’t mind multiple narrators, especially when they are in an audiobook, so in my opinion audio is the way to go here. It was just fantastic and I think it would make a great beach read.

That Time When a Book was More Than I Thought….

That Time When a Book was More Than I Thought….The Penguin Lessons: What I Learned from a Remarkable Bird
Narrator: Bill Nighy
Length: 6 hours 6 minutes
Published by Random House Audio
on October 27, 2015
Genres: Memoir
Pages: 240
Format: Audiobook
Source: Audible
I was hoping against hope that the penguin would survive because as of that instant he had a name, and with his name came the beginning of a bond which would last a life-time.'

Tom Michell is in his roaring twenties: single, free-spirited and seeking adventure. He has a plane ticket to South America, a teaching position in a prestigious Argentine boarding school, and endless summer holidays. He even has a motorbike, Che Guevara style. What he doesn't need is a pet. What he really doesn't need is a pet penguin. Set against Argentina's turbulent years following the collapse of the corrupt Perónist regime, this is the heart-warming story of Juan Salvador the penguin, rescued by Tom from an oil slick in Uruguay just days before a new term. When the bird refuses to leave Tom's side, the young teacher has no choice but to smuggle it across the border, through customs, and back to school.

Whether it's as the rugby team's mascot, the housekeeper's confidant, the host at Tom's parties or the most flamboyant swimming coach in world history, Juan Salvador transforms the lives of all he meets - in particular one homesick school boy. And as for Tom, he discovers in Juan Salvador a compadre like no other... The Penguin Lessons is a unique and moving true story which has captured imaginations around the globe - for all those who dreamed as a child they might one day talk to the animals.

Okay, I admit it. I picked this book for the cover. So sue me. In my defense, LOOK at that cover. Is there anything cuter than a penguin wearing a long scarf? Okay, I could probably go for an owl or a fox wearing a long scarf, or a Doctor (wink), but not many animals, or people, can pull off this look.

Judging by the cover, I was expecting a sweet, slightly whimsical, and completely charming story of a man and his penguin. I got all of that. But I also got so much more, for during the time Michell owned his pet penguin, he lived in Argentina and it was an Argentina in turmoil. It is the post-Perón years and it is a time period I absolutely knew nothing about. So, intermingled with adorable stories of a penguin who rules a boarding school in Argentina are stories of coups and all the problems of living in an impoverished country where violence, deprivation, and uncertainty run rampant.

Now really. Is there a better way to learn some history about a time period and place you know little about? Surround any history lesson with stories of a cute penguin (or an owl, fox, or octopus to name a few others) and I think one could teach anybody anything.

The absolutely icing on the cake, for me, was Bill Nighy’s narration. Yes, ole Davy Jones himself reads the book and he reads it masterfully. He can read to me, anything, anytime. Loved it.

Diary of a Submissive by Sophie Morgan

If you’re looking at this and thinking something along the lines of, “I can’t believe Heather read this,” you’re not alone.

I can’t believe I read it either.

Firstly, let’s talk about what this book is about, then we’ll discuss why I read it, and if I came even close to liking it.

Diary of a Submissive is exactly what it sounds like. Sophie Morgan is a “21st century woman.” She’s smart, she has a successful journalism career, she has some snark; she just also gets off on being the submissive in a S&M relationship. This “diary” follows Sophie’s story of her sexual life. From the early days in college where she was first spanked to later in life where things get a little… crazy…. To put it in today’s terms, Sophie meets her Christian Grey (50 Shades of Grey reference!) and the whole reason her book got published, I expect. Sophie doesn’t pull any punches, or hold back the details. What follows is a straight-forward discussion of sexual fetishes. It’s no-holds-barred, explicit, and (to me) a little unnerving.

Okay, a lot unnerving.

I am not what I would call a prude. However, okay, yeah, I do have a bit of the prude about me. I just believe there is a time and place for every conversation. I think sex lives are best left (mostly) private. Yet, I found myself curious. I’ve BEEN finding myself curious. Not about the lifestyle, per se, but about this sudden influx of erotic literature into the market. I know it’s always been around, but ever since 50 Shades of Grey took the world by storm, I’ve been curious. What IS it about this kind of literature that is attracting so much attention? From all I’ve heard, 50 Shades of Grey is horrible. I’ve had no desire to read it. Yet. What was I missing?

Apparently not much.

Yes, Diary of a Submissive is daring. It’s bound to be controversial. After all, this does purport to be a true story. I know I don’t see the appeal of this lifestyle. Not only does it seem slightly dangerous, it seems demoralizing, and I can’t see how a good relationship can grow from such a thing. I had hoped perhaps Ms. Morgan would help me see the light a bit, but sadly, she didn’t. I finished the book feeling… well… a little dirty. And in probably not the intended way.

I can just imagine the kind of discussion a book like this could generate. So, join in. Come visit BlogHer all month to discuss the book and find out just what other people think of Diary of a Submissive.

Disclaimer: This is a paid review for BlogHer Book Club but the opinions expressed are my own. Seriously. MY OWN.

The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty

I received this book twice. Once as an audiobook, pretty much unsolicited, and once as a hardbook which pretty much was. It wasn’t hard to pick which one to read. My decision to listen was pretty easy, when I saw that Elizabeth McGovern, Cora from Downton Abbey, read the book. I mean, really, the choice was so completely EASY. And, when I started the book, it was love at first listen. Publishers, please get Elizabeth McGovern to read all the books.

The Chaperone starts in 1920s Wichita, Kansas with Cora Coffman Carlisle escorting a 15-year-old aspiring dancer and actress named Louise Brooks to New York to attend a dance class with a prestigious dance school. This is Louise Brooks:

Photo Credit:

Yes, she was a real person. Louise Brooks was a silent film star in the 20s and 30s, whose career petered out with the advent of talkies. Louise was a wild, arrogant, beautiful girl who cared little for what people thought or said about her. Cora, 36, with a peculiar innocence one wouldn’t expect from a married 36-year-old mother of twins to have. Cora is extremely naive. She’s very…trained…in how she should act, how she should dress, what she should think…the way most women were in these times. Louise is a shock, or a breath of fresh air, depending on how you look at it. As they travel to New York and as they move through the city, the narrative flashes back and forward between present and Cora’s past and we learn just why she is so innocent, so…complacent. The summer brings unexpected changes for Cora, thanks to her experiences with Louise, unexpected changes that will have affects for years to come. Without a doubt, Louise changes Cora for good.

I honestly don’t want to say much more than that. Cora is a completely amazing, complicated, stubborn character, who undergoes what I think is best called a coming-of-age in New York. Her worldview shifts into something unexpected and completely fascinating. Elizabeth McGovern’s narration is so perfect. She IS Cora for me. If they ever make a movie of this book, they should get her. Being from the mid-West, she has the accent and I know she could pull of Cora’s poise. Her voice is so soothing, yet can deepen and roughen depending on the sex of the character in a convincing way. Simply put she is marvelous and I’m already bemoaning the fact that I can only find two more audiobooks she’s read. McGovern outshines any problems I have with this novel.

Because there are a couple. Moriarty’s writing has come a long way. I read her first book ages ago and, while I enjoyed that book (The Center of Everything), I wasn’t bowled over by it. The Chaperone shows a lot of growth, in my opinion. A few of her characters feel a little one-note in this novel, but Cora shines in such a way that it almost doesn’t matter. Several fade to the background; Alan, Cora’s husband in particular feels forgotten at times. The twins, so important to Cora and her character, rarely appear in the story. I would have liked to have seen them more, but, since this IS about Cora, it’s a minor quibble. Honestly, I think my opinion of the book is strongly influenced by just how much I enjoyed Elizabeth McGovern’s reading, however all in all, The Chaperone was an great read that I’m pretty sure will stay with me for quite awhile.

Many thanks to Penguin for sending me both copies of this book! I was compensated for this BlogHer Book Club for my review but all opinions expressed are my own.

What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty

Alice has it all. She’s 29 years old. She’s married to Nick, a man she adores. She’s pregnant with her first child, nervous, but excited to welcome this new life into her own. She already adores that little tiny life growing inside her. She has a mother, a sister, an honorary grandmother… life is pretty perfect. So, when she opens her eyes on the floor of a gym, a wicked headache blooming behind her eyes, and she only recognizes Jane, the woman she works with, she’s a little freaked out. When she’s told she was in “her weekly spin class” and that she fell and hit her head on the neighboring bike and that it’s 2008 and she’s 39, she understandably freaks out a little bit. Then, she finds out she has 3 kids, she doesn’t work, her mother has married her atrocious father-in-law, and that her husband hates her and they are getting a divorce. And she doesn’t remember a bit of it. Things are… confusing.

Elizabeth, Alice’s sister, feels like she has nothing. She’s married to a lovely man named Ben, she has a tenuous relationship with her sister Alice. She loves her nieces and nephew, but something is missing. She wants nothing more than to be a mother. She obsesses over it. But after 7 years, 12 IVF cycles, and several miscarriages, she’s ready to give up. Motherhood is not in the cards for her and she is bitter. After an incident at the local coffee shop, she has to see a therapist, and her story is told in her “homework for Dr. Hodges.” She just went and had the last embryo implanted and she already knows this one won’t take either. She is completely without hope.

Liane Moriarty’s novel, What Alice Forgot, feels a little like chick-lit. I really didn’t realize it was until I got into the story. It’s been quite awhile since I read any chick-lit. I grew tired of the formulas, the stock characters, and the fluffy story-lines. Apparently chick-lit has changed quite a bit since I stopped reading it, because this book enraptured me! I sped read it in the last 3 days, not only because this review was due, but because I couldn’t put it down. Moriarty’s characters grabbed my heart and wouldn’t let it go until the last. 39-year-old Alice, acting like the 29-year-old Alice, is so lovely. She’s such a wonderful, conflicted, heartbreaker of a character. Her 29-year-old self is so endearing, with her complete adoration for her husband Nick, her completely true-to-life feelings on motherhood and marriage, and her, just, joy in living. As she slowly discovers the changes that led to her marriage breakup, the three lovely, crazy, kids she has no memory of, and the complete change in her relationship with her sister, she held my heart in her hands. I felt an instant kinship with her. And Elizabeth was, well, I wanted to smack her, but at the same time, I’ve felt myself there, wanting a child more than anything and not understanding why I couldn’t carry a child. I’ve had a miscarriage, granted, only one, so I’ve only had a small taste of the pain Elizabeth has, and it was so completely believable. Liane Moriarty’s characters are so well drawn. Only a couple didn’t feel fully realized, and that may be only because I didn’t identify with them as strongly as I did Alice and Elizabeth.

Due to time constraints, I chose to listen to the audio edition of this book instead of reading the novel. Tamara Lovatt-Smith was a great choice to read What Alice Forgot. The novel is set in Sydney, Australia, and Lovatt-Smith’s accent was pleasant and not at all distracting. I thought having her read it a plus, because instead of my own broad Southern accent telling the story, I had a real Australian accent in there; always a plus. She doesn’t change for voice for any characters, but she has an appealing way of reading that I quite enjoyed. The production value was great. All in all, I’m really glad I listened to the audio. It’s the way to go with this one.

If you’ve read the book or are at all interested, I encourage you to join the discussion over at the BlogHer Book Club. They are always interesting and very insightful. It will go on for 4 weeks, so you have time to get a copy and join in!

This is a paid review for BlogHer Book Club but the opinions expressed are my own. Penguin did supply a copy of the book, but I acquired my own copy of the audiobook from Audible.

What Alice Forgot
By Liane Moriarty
Read by Tamara Lovatt-Smith

ISBN-13: 9781101555019
Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
Publication date: 9/20/2011
Length: 13 hours and 32 minutes
Edition description: Unabridged

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

Hazel is 16 years old and living on borrowed time. At 12, she was diagnosed with terminal thyroid cancer. She fought the good fight, almost lost the fight, but an experimental “miracle” drug shrank her tumors and bought her a few more years of life. Now, she has finished high school, started taking college classes, and is waiting to die. Her parents, understandably, worry for her. Believing her depression to be a side-effect of the cancer (no, says Hazel, it is a side-effect of dying) they encourage her to get out of the house.

This means going to Cancer Support Group.

Which is the last place Hazel wants to go. As she kinda hates it.

Because it is depressing.

She gives in however, and let’s her mother take her to group. Once there, she meets Augustus Waters, in remission from bone cancer, all around hottie and, in typical John Green fashion, wit extraordinaire. Hazel is totally unprepared to, well, live again, but Augustus Waters is going to make her do just. that.

I’m sure you’re thinking, that sounds kinda manipulative. Cancer kids. Terminal. Falling in love. With maybe only years to live. And honestly, it does sound that way, but it’s really not. Because this isn’t a book about dying of cancer. It’s about living with cancer. It’s about learning to appreciate the time you have left, about worrying about those who will be left behind, about trying to carry on under such circumstances. It’s about these two teenagers learning to love, giving into love, despite being a grenade about to go off any second. As Hazel says, “I’m a grenade and at some point I’m going to blow up and I would like to minimize the casualties, okay?” I leave it to you to find out if that grenade goes off before the end of the book.

All that said, I do want to say, I wasn’t as enamored of this book as I have been in the past with John Green. And I HATE TO SAY THAT. *sigh* Oh my goodness, do I hate to say this! I love John Green. I ADORE HIM. Looking for Alaska completely gutted me with its awesomeness. An Abundance of Katherines was fantastic. Paper Towns was amazing. But oh my goodness, this is the fourth book he’s written with his “manic dream pixie girls” (although I would argue that Augustus is actually the “pixie girl”), smart wisecracking kids, and a freaking ROAD TRIP. Yes, it’s a formula that works for him, but geez louise, and I feel awful for saying this as he’s one of my favorite authors but I really want him to grow as a writer, can we please break the mold a little bit. Grow a little. Branch out. Try. Something. New.

End rant.

Seriously though, I did really like the book. It wasn’t Looking for Alaska good FOR ME but it was good. And I’m glad I read it, if only for these little nuggets:

There are infinite numbers between 0 and 1. There’s .1 and .12 and .112 and an infinite collection of others. Of course, there is a bigger infinite set of numbers between 0 and 2, or between 0 and a million. Some infinities are bigger than other infinities. A writer we used to like taught us that. There are days, many of them, when I resent the size of my unbounded set. I want more numbers than I’m likely to get, and God, I want more numbers for Augustus Waters than he got. But, Gus, my love, I cannot tell you how thankful I am for our little infinity. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. You gave me a forever within the numbered days, and I’m grateful.

There will come a time when all of us are dead. All of us. There will come a time when there are no human beings remaining to remember that anyone ever existed or that our species ever did anything. There will be no one left to remember Aristotle or Cleopatra, let alone you. Everything that we did and built and wrote and thought and discovered will be forgotten and all of this will have been for naught. Maybe that time is coming soon and maybe it is millions of years away, but even if we survive the collapse of our sun, we will not survive forever. There was time before organisms experienced consciousness, and there will be time after. And if the inevitability of human oblivion worries you, I encourage you to ignore it. God knows that’s what everyone else does.

“Without pain, how could we know joy?’ This is an old argument in the field of thinking about suffering and its stupidity and lack of sophistication could be plumbed for centuries but suffice it to say that the existence of broccoli does not, in any way, affect the taste of chocolate.”

I was compensated for this BlogHer Book Club review but all opinions expressed are my own. Obviously, since I’m one of the very few people who had a tiny negative thing to say about this book.

Sea Change: A Novel by Jeremy Page

I don’t quite know what I want to say about this novel. I enjoyed it. And I didn’t.

Let’s start with what it’s about, shall we? Then we’ll get down to it.

The book starts with an idyllic picnic. Guy and his adorable daughter Freya are walking through a field admiring all the gorgeous nature around them, Guy’s wife and Freya’s mother Judy lounging under a tree with a book of poetry. Freya is precocious, in a charming, not precious, way, with her four-year-old’s curiosity about things and her clear adoration of her father; an adoration that is obviously mutual. The sweet details of a baby’s breath that smells malty, laundered cotton dresses and a child’s happiness serve to bring the reader immediately closer to this obviously delightful child.

So, when what happens so quickly in the first 18 pages happens, the reader (if they are not a cold-hearted shrew) is heartbroken and looking for answers. The next chapter starts up 5 years later, with Guy, alone, and drifting in a cold sea in an old barge. He’s making it through his days by writing in a journal at night, writing of how things could have been if that terrible thing had not happened.

And here lies the heart of my problem with this book. While I was delighted with the way Page can turn a phrase, the book is borderline poetic, and am in love with the slow, meandering way he took to unfold this story of Guy and how he learns to live with that “heartbreaking thing”, I can’t help but feel manipulated a little bit.

And I mean manipulated like Nicolas Sparks or Jodi Picoult manipulated.

I can take sad. I can take tragic. I can’t take writing that feels like the clear intent is to make me sad. I need resolution. I need the feeling that this is sad for a reason more important that just making me cry; which is how the two Nicolas Sparks I managed to choke down made me feel. I loved Jodi Picoult until the final chapter of My Sisters Keeper. Now THAT was manipulation.

Now, this could just be me. I wasn’t really in the mood for a book this depressing. I do love Jeremy Page’s writing enough to look up his first novel, Salt. His writing is gorgeous. Witness:

This is his moment, Guy knows, and he reaches out into the thick, nothingness between him and the giant ship and he asks for her, he asks whether she’s here with him, with him now. You are, aren’t you, he says and his voice sounds like two voices- one, so full of acceptance, the other, so afraid. On no, he says, oh God not now. And then he grabs the top of the wheelhouse, bracing pathetically, as the cliff edges of the container ship overhang, bear down, then slide enormously alongside the Flood in an impenetrable solid shadow.

And that’s just picking a page at random. You can pick any page at random and find just lovely ways of putting things, the kind of writing I could eat like dessert. I wish this novel had found me at the right time. I’m almost certain it would have made a difference.

This was a paid review for BlogHer Book Club but the opinions expressed are my own. Thanks to Penguin for supplying my copy of this book.

Quotable Monday – Sea Change by Jeremy Page

I started a new book today and, from page one, the writing has grabbed me.

Within each horseradish leaf, where it unwinds from the steam, there’s a small bead of rainwater. He sees one there, shining brilliantly in the morning sun, as if it’s been placed, a jewel, pure and dazzling. It’s perfect. This will be lovely he things, leading his daughter toward the plant, her hand so small and cool in his own, both of them crouching over the leaves till their shadows merge. Briefly, the sunshine becomes extinguished from the drop of water, he repositions himself and it sparks back to life. He images a direct unbending shaft of light, taut and without substance, stretching between the sun and its own captured sparkle, a miniature sun in itself, caught in some bend of the refraction.

She is captivated. Surprises like this, especially beautiful ones, always bring a brightness in her, too. She’s four years old, and already there is a sense of such conspiracy between them, father and daughter, such gorgeous intimacy.

I don’t know why, but that passage just struck me as so beautiful.

Theodora: Actress, Empress, Whore

Okay, y’all need to tell me something. Why on EARTH did I quit reading Historical Fiction? It took reading Theodora: Actress, Empress, Whore to remind me. And oh, what a way to be reminded.

Theodora was, if you were like me and really not sure, the wife of Justinian, the Byzantine emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. Justinina was commonly known as Justinian the Great, and ruled from 527 to 565. A Roman historian by the name of Procopius wrote The Wars of Justinian, in which her beauty and piety were much praised. Later, he wrote another book about the couple, called Secret History, where he basically the beloved couple to proverbial shreds. Stella Duffy has taken these two Theodora’s and merged them into a stunningly well written and engaging book on the life and adventures of Theodora. And what a lovely conflicted, perfectly flawed, and powerfully strong woman she has drawn from these brief sketches of a woman who lived almost 1500 years ago.

Theodora, of documented fact and of Duffy’s novel, was born into humble beginnings. The Theodora of Duffy’s novel is precocious and shrewd from a very early age. Here I will divert from historical fact and talk only about the novel. By the age of 5, Theodora had lost her father to death and her mother to remarriage and a new family. To give her daughter(s, Theodora was the middle child between Comito and Anastasia) the only help she could, their mother delivered them into the performing life of the stage as dancers, actress, and, eventually, whores. There Theodora thrived from the attention she got from her audience. Okay, mainly the attention of men. Though not attractive, Theodora knew how to work her audience and made them love her. She learned very young the power she had over men and she exploited it to for her own interests.

And exploit them she did.

How? Well now, don’t you think you should read the novel to see how?

Stella Duffy, my dear, where have you been all my life? I felt the same way reading Theodora as I did when I read my first Sarah Waters, my first Emma Donoghue, my first, oh, any book that grabbed me by the hair on my brunette head. I love a good character. I adore a great character. And my friends, I adore Theodora. Duffy has written a fantastic character here, multifaceted, strong, yet not without her flaws and vulnerabilities. Her Theodora recognizes her strengths, her weaknesses, how to get what she needs and what she wants. Which Theodora is true? The sainted Empress Theodora of the Orthodox Church? The power hungry ambitious Theodora of Procopius’s Secret History? Or the combination of the two in Duffy’s Theodora? No one really knows for sure, obviously, but I prefer to think of her as something like Duffy’s Theodora, a character you can’t miss meeting.

Interested in learning more? Have you read this book too and are anxious to discuss it with someone? Want to read an excerpt to see if this book is for you? The book discussion of this book launched today over at the BlogHer book club, so come on over and join us! You’ll be glad you did!

I was compensated for this BlogHer Book Club review but all opinions expressed are my own.