Lively, well-researched history focused on powerful women.



The lives of forgotten queens.

Poet and essayist Puhak makes her nonfiction debut with a dual biography of two fierce, indomitable sixth-century women: Brunhild and Fredegund, rival sisters-in-law who inspired the fictional story of the Valkyrie, immortalized in Wagner’s Ring opera cycle. Brunhild, the daughter of a Visigoth king, married King Sigibert, a son of Merovingian King Clothar; Fredegund, a slave, became the third wife of Chilperic, Sigibert’s vengeful half brother. Drawing heavily on primary sources, Puhak creates a richly detailed tapestry depicting a volatile, turbulent age. Fratricide, torture, betrayal, and execution—as well as deadly illnesses—were common: “Among the Merovingians,” writes the author, “intrafamilial violence was accepted as a hazard of the job,” and the two queens did not shrink from bloody conflict as they sought to consolidate power for themselves and their heirs and to wrest land from enemies. By the end of the sixth century, the dual queens had reigned for decades over an empire that “encompassed modern-day France, Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg, western and southern Germany, and swaths of Switzerland. Only Charlemagne would, briefly, control more territory than these two women.” Moreover, Puhak writes, they “did much more than simply hang on to their thrones. They collaborated with foreign rulers, engaged in public works programs, and expanded their kingdoms’ territories.” They knew their worth as women who, through marriage or motherhood, could consolidate realms. After Sigibert died, Brunhild married his nephew, a strategic move: “Her new husband was to depose his father and rule Neustria; her son would remain king of Austrasia.” Fredegund’s alleged “talent for assassination” led foreign kings to solicit her services. Puhak takes a sympathetic view of their plights: widowhood that might relegate them to life in a convent; the death of children from illness or foul play; and their physical vulnerability as women. Her brisk narrative rescues two significant figures from misogynist historians who, in perpetuating rumors and scandals, have diminished their significance.

Lively, well-researched history focused on powerful women.

Pub Date: Feb. 22, 2022

ISBN: 978-1-63557-491-3

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Review Posted Online: Nov. 30, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2021

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A valuable contribution to our understanding of one of history’s most vital figures.


An epistolary memoir of Nelson Mandela’s prison years.

From August 1962 to February 1990, Mandela (1918-2013) was imprisoned by the apartheid state of South Africa. During his more than 27 years in prison, the bulk of which he served on the notorious Robben Island prison off the shores of Cape Town, he wrote thousands of letters to family and friends, lawyers and fellow African National Congress members, prison officials, and members of the government. Heavily censored for both content and length, letters from Robben Island and South Africa’s other political prisons did not always reach their intended targets; when they did, the censorship could make them virtually unintelligible. To assemble this vitally important collection, Venter (A Free Mind: Ahmed Kathrada's Notebook from Robben Island, 2006, etc.), a longtime Johannesburg-based editor and journalist, pored through these letters in various public and private archives across South Africa and beyond as well as Mandela’s own notebooks, in which he transcribed versions of these letters. The result is a necessary, intimate portrait of the great leader. The man who emerges is warm and intelligent and a savvy, persuasive, and strategic thinker. During his life, Mandela was a loving husband and father, a devotee of the ANC’s struggle, and capable of interacting with prominent statesmen and the ANC’s rank and file. He was not above flattery or hard-nosed steeliness toward his captors as suited his needs, and he was always yearning for freedom, not only—or even primarily—for himself, but rather for his people, a goal that is the constant theme of this collection and was the consuming vision of his entire time as a prisoner. Venter adds tremendous value with his annotations and introductions to the work as a whole and to the book’s various sections.

A valuable contribution to our understanding of one of history’s most vital figures.

Pub Date: July 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-63149-117-7

Page Count: 640

Publisher: Liveright/Norton

Review Posted Online: April 4, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2018

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Chronology, photographs and personal knowledge combine to make a memorable commemorative presentation.


Jackie Kennedy's secret service agent Hill and co-author McCubbin team up for a follow-up to Mrs. Kennedy and Me (2012) in this well-illustrated narrative of those five days 50 years ago when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

Since Hill was part of the secret service detail assigned to protect the president and his wife, his firsthand account of those days is unique. The chronological approach, beginning before the presidential party even left the nation's capital on Nov. 21, shows Kennedy promoting his “New Frontier” policy and how he was received by Texans in San Antonio, Houston and Fort Worth before his arrival in Dallas. A crowd of more than 8,000 greeted him in Houston, and thousands more waited until 11 p.m. to greet the president at his stop in Fort Worth. Photographs highlight the enthusiasm of those who came to the airports and the routes the motorcades followed on that first day. At the Houston Coliseum, Kennedy addressed the leaders who were building NASA for the planned moon landing he had initiated. Hostile ads and flyers circulated in Dallas, but the president and his wife stopped their motorcade to respond to schoolchildren who held up a banner asking the president to stop and shake their hands. Hill recounts how, after Lee Harvey Oswald fired his fatal shots, he jumped onto the back of the presidential limousine. He was present at Parkland Hospital, where the president was declared dead, and on the plane when Lyndon Johnson was sworn in. Hill also reports the funeral procession and the ceremony in Arlington National Cemetery. “[Kennedy] would have not wanted his legacy, fifty years later, to be a debate about the details of his death,” writes the author. “Rather, he would want people to focus on the values and ideals in which he so passionately believed.”

Chronology, photographs and personal knowledge combine to make a memorable commemorative presentation.

Pub Date: Nov. 19, 2013

ISBN: 978-1-4767-3149-0

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Gallery Books/Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: Sept. 21, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2013

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