Dictator (Cicero, #3)Dictator by Robert Harris
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In this third volume on the life of Cicero, we finally get to see Cicero the philosopher and the writer. Exiled from Rome, he retires from politics and turns to the work that he is perhaps best known for. Seen through the eyes of his former slave and now secretary, Tiro, this is one man’s candid assessment, warts and all, of Cicero’s great accomplishments and his great failures. Because politics takes more of a back seat, at least in the first half of the book, we see a bit more of Cicero’s family, and I think a little more of Tiro as well. From afar, we see the rise and fall of Julius Caesar, and the chaos and violence following his assassination that calls a reluctant Cicero back to Rome. Ultimately, the aging statesman cannot compete with the greed and militarism of his younger compatriots. It’s tempting to draw parallels with current politics and that is not a comforting thought. The quest of right versus might is as old as mankind, along with the desire to both live well and die well.

Audiobook read by David Rintoul

Description: At the age of forty-eight, Cicero—the greatest orator of his time—is in exile, his power sacrificed on the altar of his principles. The only way to return to Rome is to pledge his support to a charismatic and dangerous enemy: Julius Caesar. Harnessing his political cunning, unrivalled intellect, and the sheer brilliance of his words, Cicero fights his way back to prominence. Yet no public figure is completely safeguarded against the unscrupulous ambition of others. Riveting and tumultuous, Dictator encompasses the most epic events in ancient history, including the collapse of the Roman Republic, the murder of Pompey, and the assassination of Caesar. But its central question is a timeless one: how to keep political freedom unsullied by personal gain, vested interests, and the corrosive effects of ceaseless foreign wars. In Robert Harris’s indelible portrait, Cicero is a deeply fascinating hero for his own time and for ours.

The Frozen Thames

The Frozen ThamesThe Frozen Thames by Helen Humphreys
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A beautiful and intriguing little book. I gave it four stars instead of 5 because it is more of a snack than a full-course meal. Each story is 3-4 pages long, fiction, but mostly based on documented events. I would have loved more historical and scientific background as a companion to each vignette. But as it is, it makes a nice meditative read on a cold night. I especially loved the story about the boy who thawed frozen birds, still alive, that had fallen from the sky covered in ice, and the story of the family that had taken two robin redbreasts into their home to shelter for the winter.

Source: Library book.

Description: In its long history, the river Thames has frozen solid forty times. These are the stories of that frozen river. Contains forty vignettes based on events that actually took place each time the historic Thames froze solid, spanning more than seven centuries—from 1142 to 1895—and illustrated with stunning full-color period art. Whether we’re viewing the magnificent spectacle of King Henry VIII riding across the ice highway (while plotting to rid himself of his second wife) or participating in a joyous Frost Fair on the ice, joining lovers meeting on the frozen river during the plague years or coming upon the sight of a massive ship frozen into the Thames…these unforgettable stories are a triumph of the imagination as well as a moving meditation on love, loss, and the transformative powers of nature.


Conspirata: A Novel of Ancient RomeConspirata: A Novel of Ancient Rome by Robert Harris
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Although it has been almost two years since I read the first book in this trilogy about the life of Cicero, I was quickly reminded of the compelling way Robert Harris writes, which sucks you right into the time and place. At the same time it feels more contemporary than historical. Perhaps that is because in many ways our country and our politics has more in common with ancient Rome than with the medieval kings and queens of Europe. We left off in the previous book just as Cicero has achieved the rank of consul, and this one covers the five-year period ending with Cicero’s exile in 59 BC. [The title of the British edition of Conspirata is “Lustrum,” which is the Latin term for a 5-year time period.] It is not necessary to have read the first book. I think each of these could stand alone.

More tightly plotted than Imperium, this book centers around the conspiracy of Catalina. While initially successful at stopping it, and executing 5 of the conspirators, Cicero’s actions will eventually cause his own downfall. We also witness a deepening rift between Cicero and Julius Caesar. Told from the point of view of Cicero’s secretary, we get to see the heroism of his dedication to the Republic, but also a man not immune to hubris and greed. I felt this got a bit muddled in the middle, and I got a little tired of all politics all the time (would love to have seen more of Cicero’s private life – his wife and children – his writing, etc.) but I am continuing on with book number 3.

Narrated once again by Simon Jones.

Description: Elected by the public, yet hated by the patricians and populists, Marcus Cicero prepares for his inauguration as consul of Rome. However, the grisly murder of a boy overshadows his induction and ignites fear throughout a city already plagued by crime and civil unrest. To add to Cicero’s worries, he hears rumors of an attack on his life by the hands of young Roman senator Gaius Julius Caesar.

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All’s Faire in Middle School

All's Faire in Middle SchoolAll’s Faire in Middle School by Victoria Jamieson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I took this home to read last summer when it came to the library in a box of advance reading copies of several new children’s books. So this review is based on an uncorrected proof, even though the book has now been published. Huzzah! I thought it was delightful! I wasn’t homeschooled, but I think anyone who has ever been to Middle School or Junior High can relate. I don’t know anyone who felt like they fit in at that age! Impy’s experiences with her family at the Faire give her some valuable tools though – she has had to get used to interacting with people, and projecting a persona. And she has a supportive family – even if they are different! Now she just needs to figure out who SHE really is. Themes include friendship, family, how to handle your emotions, fitting in, bullying, and how to make amends when you make mistakes. Target audience: ages 9-12.

Description: Eleven-year-old Imogene (Impy) has grown up with two parents working at the Renaissance Faire, and she’s eager to begin her own training as a squire. First, though, she’ll need to prove her bravery. Luckily Impy has just the quest in mind—she’ll go to public school after a life of being homeschooled! But it’s not easy to act like a noble knight-in-training in middle school. Impy falls in with a group of girls who seem really nice (until they don’t) and starts to be embarrassed of her thrift shop apparel, her family’s unusual lifestyle, and their small, messy apartment. Impy has always thought of herself as a heroic knight, but when she does something really mean in order to fit in, she begins to wonder whether she might be more of a dragon after all.

The Barn: From the Beginning

The Barn: From the BeginningThe Barn: From the Beginning by Ralph Hagen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve been a huge fan of The Barn ever since I first saw it, and I still follow it daily online. I probably bought this soon after getting my first Nook color reader quite a few years ago. The strip follows the daily adventures and mishaps of a curious (but oh so naive) sheep named Rory and a sarcastic (but lovable) bull named Stan. They live on a farm next door to the Winterburn Vet Clinic, where Rory likes to “help” with answering the phones, talking to the other animals, and playing with the rubber gloves and other equipment. Stan lives in constant dread of the butcher, and can often be found in disguise, or trying to get passing cars to rescue him. He also can’t get a date to save his life. Other characters include a very polite sheep-herding dog, a cantankerous goat, a hummingbird that doesn’t want to go south for the winter, and a frog that doesn’t hibernate and has wild winter parties. This is just the first year of the strip, and I wish that Ralph would publish this in print format -and sequels (hint, hint) but you can read the whole strip from the beginning at GoComics. I even start every morning drinking tea from The Barn mugs that I got from CafePress. Can’t have too much of Rory!

Description: It’s safe to say that animals make us chuckle. If we had to do some back-of-the-napkin math, we’d guess that half of YouTube is puppies falling asleep, head-butting deer and licking llamas.
Now you can get your laugh on with the animal crew of “The Barn.” We’re happy to welcome the feisty group of Rory, the sheep, Stan, the bull, and the rest of the birds, pigs and others to the pages of the newest and coolest e-book available. “The Barn: From the Beginning” contains the first year of strips of the beloved comic. The Barn comic has been in papers since 2008 and has found fans in Canada, across the United States and to far away places like India and the Netherlands.