Rec-post: Alexander the Great

I really like history, and I really like ancient history, but Alexander the Great is probably my favorite historical subject. I have a bad habit of finding books about Alexander whenever I wander into a physical or virtual bookstore;  I enjoy reading them even though they’re all hypothetically telling the same story and relaying the same facts. Alexander historians have a LOT OF OPINIONS and they disagree most of the time, which keeps it interesting if I ever get tired of the Siege of Tyre and the invasion of Persia (spoiler: I don’t).

If you are interested in reading a book about Alexander, or you have read some but want more, or you have read a LOT and want to tell me how wrong I am, look no further! Listed below are my favorite books on Alexander the Great, whether they’re novels, biographies, or picture books.

If you have Alexander the Great recommendations for me, please share them in the comments!

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A famous mosaic or whatever 

 

Nonfiction

The Age of Alexander by Plutarch: If you don’t know anything about Alexander the Great, this would be my first nonfiction recommendation. Plutarch was a Roman historian who wrote a few centuries after Alexander, but he was working off of the primary sources (biographies written during or soon after Alexander’s lifetime). That being said, he is an anecdotal writer, so he embellishes where he feels he needs to, and slathers his Roman bias all over everything. Still, it’s a great place to start and pretty entertaining to read. Plutarch knows how to tell a good story. Later biographers tend to use Plutarch and Arrian the most.

The Campaigns of Alexander by Arrian: Arrian is probably the best, most comprehensive source in existence for Alexander. Like Plutarch, Arrian was a Roman writer using the primary sources to write his own Alexander biography, but Arrian does his best to accurately record Alexander’s military exploits. Arrian has less fun storytelling than Plutarch, but more accuracy (in relative terms) and lots of specifics military details.

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Everyone knows that Alexander the Great didn’t have pupils.

The History of Alexander by Quintus Curtius Rufus: If you really want to cover all the main secondary sources, you should tackle Rufus as well. He has really strong opinions about Alexander, like the others he slathers his Roman bias all over everything, but he’s a lot closer to the source material than we are. Rufus gets only a half-hearted recommendation from me because he includes a lot of embellished speeches, he is obsessed with Darius (king of Persia) and he kind of hates Alexander.

Note: Other main sources include Diodorus and Justin, but I haven’t read those guys yet.

Alexander the Great and the Macedonian Empire (Great Courses) by Kenneth Harl: I listened to these lectures but there are DVDs available as well. This is a fantastic and  comprehensive run-down of Alexander, his historical context, and his legacy. My only complaint is that Harl has a huge crush on Alexander, and tends to rationalize or justify some of Alex’s less awesome choices. If you like audiobooks, this would be my #1 rec.

Alexander of Macedon by Peter Green: This is the best biography; I want to eat it up. This and the Harl lectures are the best of the more modern biographies I’ve come across so far. Peter Green doesn’t hate Alexander, and he doesn’t love him, but he respects Alexander is a megolomaniac genius and admires his skill in manipulating everything and everyone around him. I subscribe to this view also, in part because of this book.

The Nature of Alexander by Mary Renault: This is Mary Renault’s nonfiction treatment of Alexander the Great; see below for her fiction treatment. Like Harl, Renault has a huge crush on Alexander and she will stop at nothing to justify any torture, genocide, or palace burnings that her dear Alex gets up to. Like, relax. Sometimes people do bad things but they can’t be boiled down to that one bad thing.

Alexander the Great by Paul Cartledge: This book is repetitive and boring at times, but Cartledge does a great job of analyzing the sources and rejecting the less plausible versions of Alexander episodes. This book isn’t as readable or engaging as some (see Freeman, below), but it is one of the more accurate biographies, and Cartledge has a dry humor that comes out in places.

Alexander the Great by Philip Freeman: If you’re new to Alexander the Great, this is a nice contemporary overview of his life. It’s very readable, but Freeman is not very discriminating with his sources. He’s here for the sex, drugs, and rock and roll.

Fiction

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Alex’s mom Olympias gets a bad rap but at least she got some good coinage out of it.

Stealing Fire by Jo Graham: This book is set after Alexander’s death, but has a lot of flashbacks to various points in his career. It’s told from the perspective of one of Alexander’s officers, who made his way up through the ranks from being a groom. who The plot revolves around the theft of Alexander’s body by one of his generals, and that same general taking over Egypt. You know, the fun stuff. This is a great historical fiction book with some fantasy elements. My main complaint is that Alexander isn’t physically present for most of the events depicted, but his presence is felt throughout by the other characters and in the flashbacks.

Fire From Heaven and The Persian Boy by Mary Renault: These books have a couple of big problems: Mary Renault has a huge crush on Alexander, and the female characters are generally thrown into the whore or witch categories. However,  Renault tries to give an accurate, engaging view of what happened and illustrate what kind of man Alexander was personally. He comes across very positively in these books which is problematic in some cases, but as a work of fiction, it is well-crafted. I haven’t read the third book in the trilogy, The Funeral Games, because it’s post-Alexander and I’m not about that.

Alexander the Great by Demi: If I was going to make a picture book version of Alexander, this is what it would look like. Yes, it’s very idealized. Yes, it mostly draws on Plutarch anecdotes which may or may not be have actually happened. But the storytelling is coherent, and as a broad character study, you get the gist of Alexander’s personality and goals. The art is gorgeous, and the use of gold is absolutely perfect. I want to stare at every page for hours. There’s an epic quality to the illustrations that, yes, romanticized, but go big or go home, unless you’re satirizing the guy. He’s Great, after all.

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These sarissas were 18-feet long so that ancient Macedonians could fit all their enemies on one shish-kabob.

A Choice of Destinies by Melissa Scott: This is my favorite Alexander novel I have read so far, but it’s an alternate history. This book explores what might have happened if Alexander hadn’t gone to India, had an heir that’s old enough to have a chance once Alexander dies, and various other differences. I don’t recommend reading it if you don’t know much about Alex, because you will be very very confused and probably be convinced that he fought Romans. The book doesn’t make clear if Alex still dies of a fever in Babylon, but it does emphasize that his Empire is stabilized in his lifetime and survives for a long time. It has science fiction undertones, but what I love most about this book is how believable the alternate events are, and how well Scott characterizes everyone believably considering the historical sources. I also love the emphasis on Alexander’s engineers: those guys were smart and crucial to Alexander’s campaigns.

 

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Summer Challenge Wrap-up

Back at the beginning of the summer, I challenged myself to read some of the books that have been sitting on my shelves for a bit, either because they looked difficult or because I just hadn’t had sufficient motivation to pick them up. I chose two poetry volumes, two nonfiction, and two fiction. Below are my brief thoughts/reviews on them.

The Complete Poems by Anne Sexton: Girl had issues but she had a way with words. I love her odd imagery, but less so the weird sex imagery (although I’m sure many people enjoy it). My favorite collections are To Bedlam and Part Way Back and Transformations. I wrote about a couple of her poems here.

Another E.E. Cummings ed. by Richard Kostelanetz and John Rocco: This book tries to show other facets of E.E. Cummings besides his more famous poems; it gives a taste of his prose, translations, and memoir, as well as some of his less-read poems. I liked it as a survey, but I don’t think it collected his best work.

Queer Science: The Use and Abuse of Research Into Homosexuality by Simon LeVay: This is a really good overview and discussion of the studies and “treatments” of homosexuality done over the last 100 years. It tries to answer the questions “what makes someone  homosexual?” and “Who cares?”I was very ignorant going into this book but it was reasonably accessible and comprehensive.

The History of Alexander by Curtius Rufus: Roman guys sure love their rhetoric! This reads like history for the most part, but with a bunch of headcanon speeches added in; everyone gets pages and pages of monologues. Curtius Rufus really loves Darius and really hates Greeks.

The Oresteian Trilogy by Aeschylus: The trilogy includes Agamemnon, The Libation-Bearers, and The Eumenides, and takes place soon after the events of The Iliad. I can see why mythology was so popular back in the day if plays like this were bringing them to life. Agamemnon returns home to Greece only to discover that his wife isn’t thrilled about his new girlfriend slave or the fact that Agamemmnon sacrificed his own daughter. Shenanigans ensue as various family members deal with the curse laid on them.

The American by Henry James: Like most of Henry James’ work, I’m not certain whether we’re supposed to sympathize with his protagonist or judge him. I certainly don’t like Christopher Newman, and I spent half of the book hoping that Madame de Cintre would destroy him emotionally so that he would learn that she’s not an object to possess, and the other half hoping Newman would destroy a few other people emotionally.

I was glad I challenged myself to read these books, so I’m going to do the same thing for fall. My list is:

  • The Country of the Pointed Firs and Other Fiction by Sarah Orne Jewett
  • The Awkward Age by Henry James
  • The Complete Works of Horace
  • Sophocles I: Three Tragedies
  • The Generalship of Alexander the Great by J.F.C. Fuller
  • The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni

What about you? Do you try to challenge yourself or approach reading more whimsically? How do you get yourself to read “difficult” books?

Hamilton Book Tag

I finally got around to doing the Hamilton book tag! You can watch the video below, or just read my answers to the prompts even further below.

Let me know if you end up doing this, too, because I want to read your answers!

THE QUESTIONS:

The Room Where It Happens (book world you would put yourself in): I would definitely choose Middle-Earth! I’ve spent years thinking about, reading about, and writing about that stupid place. I know all the best places to live, stop for coffee, or buy a horse.
The Schuyler Sisters (Underrated Female Character): Anne Elliott from Persuasion. She’s amazing and deserves so much more love than she gets. She’s sensible, not a show-off, kind, compassionate, observant, and loyal.
My Shot (A character that goes after what they want and doesn’t let anything stop them): I mean, I’m not sure if I should apply this in a good way or a bad way, but the first character that sprang to mind was Nathaniel from The Amulet of Samarkand. He is terrifyingly ambitious but also I love him.
Stay Alive (A character you wish was still alive): WOW UM SPOILERS for “The Tale of Beren and Luthien” (from The Silmarillion) but I’m still really upset about Finrod Felagund. I will probably always be really upset about Finrod Felagund.
Burn (The most heartbreaking end to a relationship you’ve ever read): SPOILERS for Doctrine of the Labyrinths series by Sarah Monette – um Felix and Gideon from The Mirador messed me up real bad.

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You’ll Be Back (Sassiest villain): Piper Greenmantle from The Raven Cycle. I mean, she’s also terrifying and ice-cold, but she can be pretty hilarious. I almost picked her husband Colin but I think she’s better.
The Reynolds Pamphlet (A book with a twist that you didn’t see coming): Any book by Megan Whalen Turner, several books by Timothy Zahn
Non-stop (A series you marathoned): SO MANY but I’ll mention The Lord of The Rings because it involved stealing from my brother, and honorary mention goes to The Mortal Instruments trilogy because I could barely put those books down even though it was the middle of a college term and it was INCREDIBLY STRESSFUL.
Satisfied (Favorite book with multiple POVs): The Son of Neptune by Rick Riordan, or any book in that series (The Heroes of Olympus).
Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story (A book/series you feel like will be remembered throughout history): The Lord of The Rings – I know I keep giving Tolkien answers but I can’t help how I feel! It’s already a classic, obviously, and so many of the themes and characters are universal, that even with its problematic elements I think it’s going to last a good long while!

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BONUS QUESTIONS:

Helpless (A relationship you were pulling for from the very start): I can’t think of any that I didn’t think were going to eventually get together. But I really liked Kate and Curran from the Kate Daniels series immediately, and shipped them, even though they are both kinda jerks at first.
Ten Duel Commandments (Favorite fight scene): Any of the duels in Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner, but especially the opening chapter.
Say No To This (Guilty pleasure read): I don’t believe in guilty pleasure reads. I read them and love them or I don’t. But I think manga is the thing I get the most side-eyes for reading, and I know I’ve had to justify Fruits Basket more than once (even though it’s one of the best comic series, period, ever written).
What Comes Next (a series you wish had more books): The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison, or Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones (there are 2 sequels but I want more, obviously).

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Right Hand Man (Favorite BROTP): Sherlock Holmes and John Watson from Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories.
What’d I Miss (a book or series you were late to reading): I’m late to EVERYbook, let’s be real. I just recently read The Oresteian Trilogy by Aeschylus and that party has been around for over 2000 years…

Top 10 Tuesday: Summer Beach Reads

Today’s theme was a “Summer Freebie,” intended to help us recommend books for summer vacation, on the beach, or whatever. Personally I don’t think my reading increases during the summer, and I don’t think I understand the term beach read, but hey! Freebie! Gonna do what I want!

And what I want is: classics.

I love classics. Sure, a lot of them are boring. Sure, a lot of them are real downers. Sure, a lot of them use weird techniques like stream-of-consciousness so you don’t know which way is up much less which character is doing what.

But all of them are significant in some way, and more importantly, a lot of them are just plain entertaining, good books. “Some of my favorite books are classics!” she protests while clutching her totebag.

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Here are my top 10 recommendations for summer reading. I tried to pick short-ish ones so no Crime and Punishment and no Middlemarch.
  • Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle: Detectives! Crime! Occasional murder!
  • The Europeans by Henry James: Romance! Snobby relatives! Summer?
  • Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons: Woodsheds! Reform! Romance?
  • Another Country by James Baldwin: James! Effing! Baldwin!
  • Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson: Pirates! Treasure! ISLAND!
  • Kim by Rudyard Kipling: Spies! India! SPIES?
  • The Blue Castle by L.M. Montgomery: Found family! Romance? Nature!!!
  • Hamlet by Shakespeare: Ghosts! Murder! Duels!
  • Beowulf: Monsters! Mayhem! Madness!
  • Persuasion by Jane Austen: Love! Friendship! Persuasion???

 

Top 10 Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and The Bookish.

Myth Monday: Retelling Recs

Last week on Myth Monday: Sea of Monsters, monster recap

You can check out all Myth Monday posts here.

Today I have two recommendations for myth-lovers. They’re both retellings of very old stories, from the perspectives of characters who are overlooked and mostly voiceless in the original. Both are beautifully written, and both made me cry.

Till We Have Faces by C.S. Lewis (1956)

17343This book is a retelling of the Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche. Quick premise of the myth, if you’re unfamiliar with it: Pysche is a beautiful princess who people start comparing to Venus, the goddess of love. Venus gets upset (as she tends to do) and tells her son Cupid to curse Pysche to fall in love with something horrible. Instead, Cupid falls in love with Pysche and through a complicated form of kidnapping, arranges for Pysche to wind up in his palace. Pysche visits him at night but never sees his face. Eventually, her sisters visit her and, jealous of her new life and status, make Psyche question why she never sees her husband. Is he a monster? Typical hijinks ensue.

Till We Have Faces tells the story from the perspective of Orual, one of Psyche’s sisters. In this version, Orual is possessive of her sister Psyche and loves her obsessively. She is both jealous of Psyche’s possible good fortune, but doesn’t believe that it could happen, and regardless she wants Psyche all to herself. We barely see anything of Psyche’s part of the story, so we, like Orual, have to decide if Psyche is brainwashed or making it all up.

Orual herself is a very tragic character. She isn’t valued by her father or other men because she’s a woman and not very attractive. She sets herself to learn everything she needs to in order to rule a kingdom, and also becomes a warrior. She becomes an excellent leader in her own right, but she remains cynical, and obsessed with bringing Pysche back to her. In spite of the fact that she loves Psyche, all of her actions toward her sister damage Psyche’s happiness, rather than support it. Orual’s journey to self-awareness lasts her whole life, and showcases the different forms of love, both healthy and sick, that people develop for each other.

Despite this, Orual is an extremely sympathetic character. She has to struggle against so many things during her life, and she is determined to be a good ruler, better than the ones before her. She wants love and friendship, and gains tremendous loyalty from those who know her. There’s a cast of supporting characters that help reflect Orual’s character and the core relationship between Orual and Psyche, including Fox, their Greek tutor, Redival, their other sister, and Lord Bardia, Orual’s friend and ally.

Lavinia by Ursula K. Le Guin (2008)

2214574This book is a retelling of part of the Aeneid by Vergil. The Aeneid is focused on Aeneas, a prince who has escaped the fall of Troy and is searching for a land for himself and his people to settle. Aeneas discovers the land that will become Rome (according to the myth), and sets himself to marry Lavinia, the daughter of the local chief. Lavinia never speaks in the epic poem, but a war is fought over her between Turnus, her previous fiancé, and Aeneas. Spoilers: Aeneas wins.

Lavinia is Le Guin’s attempt to give this character a voice of her own. The story is unchanged from the six latter books of the Aeneid, but from the perspective of Lavinia, who wants to live her own life, and failing that, to save her people from war. When she is unable to stop the war (which is prophesied and therefore unchangeable), she sets herself to doing what she can to stop the infighting, even after Aeneas has won and married her.

Plot is a lot less important to this book than simple character exploration. Who is Lavinia? What did she want? What she did know, and feel, and discover, through the action of the poem? Lavinia explores all of those questions, almost as a loose, prose translation of Vergil’s poem. It adds a lot of complexity and depth to Vergil’s poem, and interacts with it as well on certain levels that I don’t want to spoil.

Aside from all other reasons to read it, Lavinia is beautifully written and a joy to read.

 

Coming up on Myth Mondays: more Percy Jackson, more book reviews, and some exploration of one of my favorite Greek gods!

 

Top 10 Tuesday: Best Reads of 2016

Today’s topic is Top 10 Best Books of 2016. However, I gave up on the concept of “10,” and then I gave up on the concept of “numbers,” so the books listed below are my favorite books that I read this year overall.

Young Adult/Middle Grade Fiction:

The Hidden Oracle by Rick Riordan (filed under: Mythology Shenanigans, Riordan’s Final Form)
Seraphina by Rachel Hartman (filed under: Oh My Dragons, Dragon Narrative Of My Heart)
The Raven King by Maggie Stiefvater (filed under: Found Family, Magical Shenanigans, Welsh Kings)
Half Lost by Sally Green (filed under: Worst Mentor Ever, Trees Are The Worst, Fantastic Character Arcs)
We Are The Ants by Shaun David Hutchinson (filed under: Aliens I Guess, Hopeful Books)
Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo (filed under: Magic Heists, Leave Him In The Snow)
Kaleidoscope collection edited by Alisa Krasnostein and Julia Rios (filed under: STRONG COLLECTIONS, God Bless Us Every One)
Last Seen Leaving by Caleb Roehrig: (filed under: Fight The Patriarchy, Clever Girl)

Adult Fiction:

Middlemarch by George Eliot (filed under: Want To Read Again Immediately TBH, Knitted Arcs)
Penric’s Demon by Lois McMaster Bujold (filed under: Unlikely Friendships, I Want 5 Seasons and a Movie)
Attachments by Rainbow Rowell (filed under: RomCom, Y2K, That Got Too Real)
Brothers in Arms by Lois McMaster Bujold (filed under: Attack of the Clone, Science Shenanigans, Miles No)
Kindred Spirits by Rainbow Rowell (filed under: A Star War!, Meet Cute)

Nonfiction:

How To Read and Why by Harold Bloom (filed under: Good In Spite of The Patriarchal Bias, How 2 Read)
Darwin’s Black Box by Michael Behe (filed under: Oh No I Am Reading A Science, How To Argument)

Children:

The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All The Way Home by Catherynne Valente (filed under: Perfect Books, Fairy Tales, Orange)
The Mark of the Horse Lord by Rosemary Sutcliff (filed under: Wow Rosemary Wow, Mess Me Up, Horses and Their Girls, Boys and Their Plans)
The Sleeper and the Spindle by Neil Gaiman ( filed under: Fairy Tale Retellings, Lady Knights)

Graphic novels/comics:

Adulthood is a Myth by Sarah Andersen (filed under: About Me)
Kanan Volume 1: The Last Padawan by Greg Weisman (filed under: Mess Me Up, A Star War!)
Irmina by Barbara Yellin (filed under: World War II, I Have A Sad)
Step Aside, Pops by Kate Beaton (filed under: Marry Me Kate, Lit Jokes)

Top 10 Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and The Bookish.

 

Top 10 Tuesday: Best Books That Were Recommended to Me

Top 10 Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and The Bookish. Today’s topic: Book recs! I love recommending books to (i.e. throwing books at) pretty much anyone and everyone, but I also love hearing what books other people have read and enjoyed. These are (some of) my favorite books that have been recommended to me by other people – in no particular order.

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1. And Only To Deceive by Tasha Alexander: I read a review for this on someone’s blog but I DO NOT REMEMBER WHO. I am so sorry because if I did I would link you and love you forever. A few years ago I came across the review and it sounded like exactly what I wanted in a cozy book: mystery, romance, feminism, set in Victorian England, protagonist has a Homer obsession….And Only to Deceive is the first (and best so far) of Tasha Alexander’s “Lady Emily” series. I highly recommend it for mystery-lovers.
2. The Queen’s Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner: I am 90% sure snazel recommended this one to me so don’t tell me if I’m wrong. The first book appears to be a straightforward quest/heist story but it’s filled with twists and turns, along with having A+ worldbuilding, iconic characters, and layers of backstory, history, and mythology. The sequel, Queen of Attolia, is even better and the third is even better etc etc etc. Book #5 comes out next year.
3. The Chosen by Chaim Potok: I had heard of this book before but bughuff pretty much forced me (and our book club) to read it and I am so glad she did. I’m scared to summarize the plot because it will sound boring but it’s REALLY WONDERFUL and pretty much anyone who reads should pick it up.
4. Three Signs of a Miserable Job by Patrick Lencioni: I don’t even like nonfiction, especially how-to or self-help but this is a really straightforward book about how to be Strong and Brave at work, or how to know when it’s time to  make a diversion and flee. There was a lot of practical advice and information that anyone can apply to any job. It was recommended to me by gamedevftw.
5. William Shakespeare’s Star Wars series by Ian Doescher: The idea of retelling Star Wars in the form of Shakespeare plays sounded REALLY gimmicky to me, but gingernifty persuaded me to give it a try. I LOVE THESE BOOKS. They make the Star Wars films seem fresh again (which is impressive because I’ve been watching them since I was a tiny Bahnree), and made me look at them in new and interesting ways. I’m really impressed with how Doescher turns the visuals of the movie into monologues and iambic pentameter. HOW DO U WORD??
6. Feet of Clay by Terry Pratchett: When I lived with kemendraugh for a year in college, I picked up Feet of Clay one day when she wasn’t – no, wait, when she was definitely looking right at me. It was my first experience with the Discworld series and I laughed my way through it. Besides the humor, though, it’s a really fun, engaging fantasy book with lots of mysteries, twists, and EXCELLENT characters.
7. The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson: This is another snazel recommendation, and one of my favorite YA novels. It’s the first of a trilogy about a girl who is cursed or blessed with a “Godstone” that she must use to complete the one task she was born to do. There’s arranged marriage, rebellions, fencing, fighting, torture…revenge…TRUE LOVE! MIRACLES! I love it.
8. The Thrawn trilogy by Timothy Zahn: Once upon a time I was at my cousin’s house with nothing to do so my older cousin handed me Heir To The Empire and suggested I try it. If it was too hard for me to read, I could give it back. I was still reading it when it was time for me to leave and he very kindly let me borrow it (and then the other two in the trilogy when I needed them). I adore these books: they’re cozy and fun and so very, very Star Wars, and the characters in them have stuck with me since I first read them.
9. The Perilous Gard by Elizabeth Marie Pope: This is either a kemendraugh rec or a rec by another friend of ours, Emily. I’ve talked about this book at least once before on this blog but imma do it again. This is a combination of historical drama, Tam Lin retelling, Faerie tale, mystery madness, and fun time, and I love it.
10. Alexander of Macedon by Peter Green: This was on ilvalentinos ‘ recommended reading list for Alexander the Great, and it’s by far my favorite Alex book (I’ve read…a few). It’s comprehensive but interesting to read, and does a really good job on evaluating the sources we have on Alexander and basing its information on the most solid ones. I also appreciate that Peter Green respects Alex in a way but doesn’t idealize or demonize him.