Sunday, July 29, 2012

White Heart by Sherry Jones

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Obtained from: Personal Kindle Library
Read: July 28, 2012

A woman's power lies in her beauty. For years, Blanche de Castille, the White Queen of France, has lived by this maxim—passed on by her grandmother, ElÉonore d'Aquitaine, as she took the girl to marry King Louis VIII. When her husband dies unexpectedly, however, Blanche finds that beauty is not enough to hold, and command, a kingdom against usurpers eager to wrest the Crown from her woman's grasp. Faced with an English invasion, barons' uprisings, and slanderous rumors, Blanche must look within herself for the strength she needs to guard the throne for her young son. Her bold response shocks the kingdom and shapes her into the formidable, seemingly heartless mother-in-law to Marguerite of Provence, wife of King Louis IX (Saint Louis) and the eldest of the "Four Sisters, All Queens" in Sherry Jones's forthcoming novel.

═══════════════════════════ ❧  ═══════════════════════════

I finished Sherry Jones' White Heart yesterday and my head is still spinning. See, I hadn't planned on revisiting the Capets so soon after reading Sophie Perinot’s Sister Queens. Not being overly familiar with the family, I had hoped to do a little research of my own before attempting another fictionalized account of their history. Oh well, best laid plans right?

I had never even heard of Blanche prior to reading Sister Queens and I was quick to grow annoyed with the bitter, manipulative, controlling dowager Perinot created. It wasn’t until reading Jones’ novella that I bothered giving 'the dragon' much thought. Who was this woman? Where did she come from? What sort of hand had life dealt her? It is a testament to both Jones’ imagination and pen that I could so quickly alter my opinion of the French Queen, even more so as her novella is only fifty eight pages long.

Jones doesn't elicit the reader's sympathy by portraying a vulnerable or demure widow. Rather, she sparks their curiosity, painting a dynamic, pragmatic and feisty woman who puts aside her personal needs and desires out of devotion for both her country and her son. It is a beautiful and intriguing characterization placed against an equally alluring backdrop. 


Would that this were a longer piece. I was so impressed by it I can't help wanting more. Highly recommended to any lover of historic fiction. 

═══════════════════════════ ❧  ═══════════════════════════
You may win the battle by killing your opponents, but you secure your kingdom - in this life, and the next - by winning their devotion. 
 ═══════════════════════════ ❧  ═══════════════════════════

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Drinking with Dead Women Writers by Elaine Ambrose, & A.K. Turner

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Obtained from: Personal Kindle Library
Read: July 27, 2012

Essays on drinking with Louisa May Alcott, Jane Austen, Erma Bombeck, The Bronte Sisters, Willa Cather, Emily Dickinson, George Eliot, Margaret Mead, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Margaret Mitchell, Carson McCullers, Flannery O'Connor, Sylvia Plath, Ayn Rand and Virginia Woolf. Most early female writers used pen names because women weren't regarded as competent writers. Margaret Mitchell wrote only one published novel in her lifetime, but Gone with the Wind won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1937 and sold more than 30 million copies. Emily Dickinson was so paranoid that she only spoke to people from behind a door. Carson McCullers wrote The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter at age 22. Her husband wanted them to commit suicide in the French countryside, but she refused. Ambrose and Turner explore these and other intriguing facts about the most famous (but departed) women in literary history.

════════════════════════════ ❧  ════════════════════════════

Some of you may know that I am addicted to kindle freebies. I’m ashamed to say my digital library is flooded with titles I’ve downloaded at no charge. Thing is, I’ve found that most of these books are decent at best. I try to review them, give my honest feedback and all but I’ve made it a sort of personal mission to find something worth recommending. Usually, I come up short and occasionally I have to concede defeat but I have found reason to hope. Ambrose and Turner’s Drinking with Dead Women Writers is amusing, creative and, in my opinion, worth the 2.99 it is now going for on Amazon.

In a nutshell, the book is a compiled set of mock interviews between the Ambrose, Turner and some of the most well-known literary women of the underworld. Chapters are short, a few pages each but distinctive. I had worried Ambrose and Turner would run out of steam but this wasn’t the case. I was as tickled by Margaret Mead as I was Ayn Rand. Dorothy Parker and Erma Bombeck literally had me giggling through my lunch break. Giggling I tell you! Really my only quibble is the final line of Ambrose’s sit down with Margaret Mitchell. Rather than channel her own work into her dialogue as do our other interviewees, the deceased opted to advertise her appreciation for artistic license and screen legend Clark Gable. It’s funny really; I never would have thought the author would prefer the film adaptation to her own work. Go figure.

Engaging and revealing, but most of all, flat out funny. Will definitely be on the lookout for the next installment, Drinking with Dead Drunks, this fall.

════════════════════════════ ❧  ════════════════════════════
Come and see me sometime at Winchester Cathedral. I’ll be hovering over the nave, making fun of pompous people.
════════════════════════════ ❧  ════════════════════════════

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Mistress of Mourning: A Novel by Karen Harper

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Obtained from: Local Library
Read: July 24, 2012

London, 1501. In a time of political unrest, Varina Westcott, a young widow and candle maker for court and church, agrees to perform a clandestine service for Queen Elizabeth of York, wife of Henry VII. The queen’s eldest child and heir to the throne, newly married Prince Arthur, has died suddenly under mysterious circumstances. Elizabeth wants Varina and royal aid Nicholas Sutton to travel into the Welsh wilderness to investigate the death. But as the couple unearths one unsettling clue after another, they begin to fear that the conspiracy they’re confronting is far more ambitious and treacherous than even the queen imagined.

════════════════════════════ ❧  ════════════════════════════

Can I be honest? I think it helped that I didn’t have any expectations going into this one. I was excited about the premise of Karen Harper’s Mistress of Mourning but because I didn’t have any preconceived ideas about the book, I wasn’t upset that it fell on the lighter side of historic fiction. The story isn’t bad, I just think if I’d been craving a hard hitting historic piece as is more my norm, this one would have left me wanting.

The characters fit the time period which is more than I can say for a lot of published works. Varina is a great example in that she is possessed of an independent streak yet she isn’t so modern minded as to seem inappropriate in Tudor England. Henry VII, Elizabeth of York, Arthur and Catherine read a little flat for my tastes but as they are largely supporting characters it is something I’m willing to overlook. Really the only character I didn’t like was young Henry VIII. I think Harper allowed history to dictate her storytelling a little. Just once I’d love to see an author downplay the younger Tudor prince and really guide the reader towards Arthur. Here, as with most if not all the Tudor fiction I’ve read, the Prince of Wales gets less face time with the reader and though his death is key to the plot, his character is largely overshadowed by the Duke of York.

I really liked what Harper did with Arthur’s death in terms of resolving the circumstances of his demise but I wasn't as thrilled with the story of Elizabeth’s brothers. Harper started out strong, interweaving the two story lines but the finale left me feeling ‘eh.’ Maybe it was too much to tie together. Maybe it was because we never got into our villain’s head or really understood his motivations. Maybe I’m bias in that I am unconsciously comparing Mistress in Mourning to Robin Maxwell’s To the Tower Born. Maybe I just feel the latter solution seemed anticlimactic against the drama of Arthur’s situation. Whatever the reason I think the combined plots were a little too much for Harper to take on.

Finally, I don’t think Harper played the setting to its best advantage. I’ve read books featuring Ludlow before and I’ve seen an author bring this particular setting to life. Guess I’m just a little sad that Harper seemed to let it fall by the way side. Researching is easy; anyone can look up the historic notes on a particular place and time. To my mind, the key in fictionalizing the past is not simply recreating people or events, the same care needs to be taken in re-imagining the world they inhabit. There isn't anything wrong or particularly upsetting in what Harper achieved here, I've just think there is room to improve. 

As always I would like to note that I’m harder on historic fiction writers than I am authors of any other genre. They are my favorite storytellers and so I hold them to a slightly higher standard. My commentary here comes off as nitpicky and critical but I really did enjoy Harper’s work and look forward to reading more of it in the future.

════════════════════════════ ❧  ════════════════════════════
Plotting was afoot, and not just mine. I had suspected before that someone close to me was not to be trusted but who?
════════════════════════════ ❧  ════════════════════════════

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Lost Wife by Alyson Richman

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Obtained from: Local Library
Read: June 2, 2012

In pre-war Prague, the dreams of two young lovers are shattered when they are separated by the Nazi invasion. Then, decades later, thousands of miles away in New York, there's an inescapable glance of recognition between two strangers. Providence is giving Lenka and Josef one more chance. From the glamorous ease of life in Prague before the Occupation, to the horrors of Nazi Europe, The Lost Wife explores the power of first love, the resilience of the human spirit- and the strength of memory.

═══════════════════════════ ❧  ═══════════════════════════

I flagged this book as 'to read' in October 2011. I skimmed the blurb at that time and added it to my list based on the time frame alone. World War II is sort of my thing after all. It wasn't until I noticed the book at the library that I actually absorbed the basic premise of the story and to be honest, my first thought was 'uh-oh.' I knew the minute I picked it up that it would be coming home with me, I couldn't say no, but I wasn't sure I'd enjoy the book as much as I have other war related fiction. The Holocaust is an important chapter of the war but it is far from my favorite sub topic. I was nervous. 

Two days later I finished the last page and came up for air. Alyson Richman's writing is nothing short of breathtaking. I've encountered plenty of authors with a gift for storytelling but only a handful have ever struck me as truly gifted in their ability to manipulate the written word. The Lost Wife is easily one of the most beautifully composed pieces I've ever picked up. 

As to the plot, Lenka and Josef experience great sadness in the course of their lives, each struggling with their own personal demons. Despite the somber tone of the book I really enjoyed the story Richman crafted for her characters from their first meeting in Prague to their reunion decades later in the United States. Personally I would have liked to see more of Josef's life during the war, more of Lenka's after it, maybe a scene or two after their reunion - I felt a little cheated there, but for the most part I was very satisfied with the piece. I even found aspects of the concentration camp interesting as I had never before studied life at Terezin. Richman didn't change my mind on Holocaust lit but she did craft an exquisite story of strength, love, faith and hope. 

On a side note I find it amusing that several of the reviews express surprise and/or disgust that the end of the story is given away in the opening pages of the book. It is true that we first meet our leading characters in their old age, but, quite frankly, that is disclosed in the blurb. I wonder if these individuals bothered to read the back cover or if they merely opened the title without much thought to the premise. Perhaps it is just me, but I don't think it is particularly fair to denounce a title for something so clearly stated in the description. This isn't a book about where a couple ended up, it is about how they get there. 

Go out, find a copy, and experience it for yourself. The Lost Wife is not one to be passed up. 

═══════════════════════════ ❧  ═══════════════════════════
I have come to believe that love is not a noun but a verb. An action. Like water, it flows to its own current. If you were to corner it in a dam, true love is so bountiful it would flow over. Even in separation, even in death, it moves and it changes. It lives within memory, in the haunting of a touch, the transience of a smell, or the nuance of a sigh.
═══════════════════════════ ❧ ═══════════════════════════

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...