Thursday, April 29, 2010

The Last Queen - CW Gortner

the last queen
cw gortner
c. 2008
359 pages
completed 4/27/2010

read for: what's in a name challenge, year of the historical challenge

*may contain spoilers*

Midnight has become my favorite hour.

At sixteen, Juana is sent to Flanders to marry the future Duke. Juana only agrees to the marriage in order to provide security against France to her beloved and newly united Spain. She looks to the marriage as nothing more than duty, but upon meeting Philip falls quickly in love. They spend four years happily and passionately married, but during that time three consecutive heirs to the Spanish throne die, leaving Juana next in line with Philip as her grudging subordinate. Unwilling to yield power to his wife, Philip challenges Juana's right to the throne and their marriage quickly sours, leaving the two former lovers in a bitter rivalry for the throne.

I had to read this book in like two days because I realized it was due back at the library and someone else had a hold on it so I couldn't renew it. Got it in only one day late, so only a quarter fine added to my bill which I swear one day I'll pay. There is a fine on my account that is at least four years old but they don't cut off your card or send a collection agency after you until you reach fifty dollars so I've got time.

So anyway I totally rushed through this book. Thankfully it fully held my attention and didn't put me to sleep (as most books do, even the ones I really like). Again, this is an area of history I'm fuzzy about. England at this time I'm great with, but let's be for real, I got this book positive it was about a queen of Portugal. Nope. So obviously I won't even pretend to comment on historical accuracy. I'm always excited when books come with a historical map in the front to help the reader follow along, and the map was especially clear and helpful. I still have some confusion over what constituted the Holy Roman Empire (and Emperor) so I should probably look into it instead of just glossing over it. I think it's always good when a historical fiction novel like this inspires the reader to do their own research. And by research I mean Wikipedia (God's gift to the digital age).

As for the characters, I thought they were interesting and engaging. Everyone seemed so conflicted. There were very few who thought of much other than their own gains (the exceptions being the Admiral, Beatriz, and Soraya, all of whom I loved). So naturally there was a lot of intrigue, never quite knowing whose side anyone was on. I tend to latch onto rather random, insignificant characters for some reason, so while she wasn't really in too much of the novel, I think Philip's sister Margaret was my favorite. She was kind and joyous with just the right amount of raunch to make her a bit spunky but not obnoxious. And she had my favorite line of the novel, "but for the burden of others, my own might be too great to bear." I don't know, but that stuck with me.

I really enjoy historical fiction, especially about actual historical figures, but I have really read some downers lately, this one being no exception. I realize these are probably the more interesting stories and figures, but someone needs to write about someone that ended up okay. No more Debbie Downers, people, just Positive Pattys!


The Adventures of David Simple - Sarah Fielding

the adventures of david simple
sarah fielding
c. 1744
282 pages (102 read)
stopped reading 4/26/2010

read for: before i die challenge, penguin classics

*may contain spoilers*

Mr. David Simple was the eldest son of Mr. Daniel Simple, who kept a Mercer's Shop on Ludgate Hill.

After the discovery of a major betrayal at the hands of his previously beloved brother, David Simple takes to the streets of London to try to find someone who could be completely worthy of the title "friend." Written as a commentary on social groupings of the day, David flits from group to group experiencing the myriad social trappings and failings.

Seeing as I didn't finish this book, I don't know if David ever found somebody worthy enough to be called a friend. To be totally honest, I hope he didn't. As he continued to judge and find fault with one person after another, all I could think was maybe David should have tried to bestow that title on himself. Not once in the 100 pages I read did he look in on himself and recognize his own similar shortcomings and vices. Maybe if he did he would be more likely to look past the foibles of others and appreciate what they had to offer. True friends accept you unconditionally. Though again, I didn't finish so maybe he did by the end. I doubt it, but you never know.

It's difficult for me to read early novels like these. I think there were still a lot of things that were being figured out about what the novel was supposed to be, so plot and character development were often a little thin. In their place was some major social commentary and satire. And for me, while that can be enjoyable and interesting, I can only deal with so much before something in the plot has to move forward. As nothing ever did, I decided to quit. Though that does make me feel like a failure.


Monday, April 26, 2010

The Potter's Field - Ellis Peters

the potter's field
ellis peters
c. 1989
230 pages
completed 4/20/2010

read for: brother cadfael chronicles

*may contain spoilers*

Saint Peter's Fair of that year, 1143, was one week past, and they were settling down again into the ordinary routine of a dry and favorable August, with the corn harvest already being carted into the barns, when Brother Matthew the cellarer first brought into chapter the matter of business he had been discussing for some days during the fair with the prior of the Augustine priory of Saint John the Evangelist, at Haughmond, about four miles to the northeast of Shrewsbury.

As a field newly attained by the Shrewsbury Abbey is plowed, the monks make a startling discovery. Buried at the very edge of the field, with hands neatly folded around a crude wooden cross, is the remains of a woman. With only a mane of black hair to identify her, Hugh Beringar is hard pressed to give the skeleton a name. Various tales of missing dark haired women begin surfacing, such as the companion of a peddler who dodges fee collectors at the Abbey's annual fair or the former wife of a newly tonsured brother of Shrewsbury. Brother Cadfael and Hugh Beringar must first identify their victim before they can even begin to discover her murderer.

I really don't want to keep reading the Cadfael books because I know that soon they're going to end. If I quit, I'll know there will always be more. I think I only have three more to go. I'll be so sad when they're all over. :(

Once again, I find it difficult to review a book where I have seen the movie so many times (I say movie, but I guess technically it was a television series). Also, seeing as this is the seventeenth Cadfael book I've read, I'm kind of running out of things to say. I always love the characters, Hugh especially. I love that there are always different reasons for the murder to take place. And this is no exception. In fact, I always felt that this particular mystery was quite surprising. What really happened is so hard for Cadfael and Hugh (and so the reader) to make out until all is revealed that even though I knew the movie really well, there were several times I honestly thought the outcome was going to be different in the book (ps, it wasn't). So I suppose that's quite good mystery writing.

I'm sorry this review is kind of boring...the book is not!


Saturday, April 17, 2010

Mistress of the Revolution - Catherine Delors

mistress of the revolution
catherine delors
c. 2008
451 pages
completed 4/13/2010

read for: year of the historical challenge, reading western europe challenge

*may contain spoilers*

I read in the papers this morning that the corpses of the late King and Queen of France, by order of their brother, the restored Louis the Eighteenth, were exhumed from their graves in the former graveyard of La Madeleine, which has since become a private garden.

Now living in London in 1815, Gabrielle de Montserrat, formerly a baroness of France, writes her memoirs. She tells of her learning the heartaches of first love between an aristocrat and a commoner, a forced marriage at fifteen to an aging and abusive baron, and finally the desperation of being a widowed mother at seventeen with a family who refuses to take her and her daughter back into their home. As her only other option was taking the veil and joining a convent, Gabrielle takes her daughter to Paris where she enters the world of Marie-Antoinette. At first life is good for Gabrielle, she is befriended and educated and happy, but as revolution approaches her life is soon in danger and her only hope is the intervention of someone from her past.

I will be the first to admit that most of my knowledge of the French Revolution comes from the musical version of Les Miserables, which let's be for real is not even about the French Revolution (as it's about the June Rebellion of 1832). The rest of what I know is just white knowledge. Oh, and also how the French Revolution was a major factor in the development of political parties in the United States government. So I cannot really comment on the history of this novel (except to say this is probably the first time I'd ever read, heard, or seen Robespierre portrayed in anything remotely resembling a positive light), and as such I am just going to assume that everything was accurate, or if it wasn't there was an artistic reason or interpretation for being inaccurate, and comment only on the story itself.

I have read some comments regarding the main character of Gabrielle that complained that she was somewhat inconsistent and unpredictable, that sometimes she was fragile and helpless and other times she was tough as nails. And while I agree that her personality was a bit contradictory at times, I didn't find any cause for complaint about that. I find that most people are often contradictory. Everyone has faults, everyone is fallible, and a person's nature is often contingent on circumstances. Also, she arrived in Paris at seventeen already a widow and mother. What seventeen year old really has them self together enough to have a completely steadfast, unfaltering personality? I kind of felt bad for Gabrielle. She never quite fit in anywhere. She was too wild and unrestrained for life on her brother's and then her husband's country estates (like when she taught herself to ride a horse astride or wanted to re-befriend her commoner childhood playmate), and was too modest and thoughtful for aristocratic life in Paris and at court. While she managed to move well in Paris society with a few somewhat fickle friends, I was glad they weren't the only people there and she was able to find some friends who could be truly devoted to her and who she could be truly devoted to in return, people like the Duchess, and Manon, and even Lauzun.

The historical details, obviously an important part of the story, I though were well integrated into the story. The descriptions never got too textbook-like or stopped the action and flow of the story, which is something that can really detract from a story.

I do have one criticism, and that is it would have been nice if there could have been one major male character in Gabrielle's life who did not turn out to be abusive in some way. The Marquis and the Baron were just horrible. Villers was great at first, being extremely gentle and kind and patient, but he kind of went crazy as the Revolution grew, and then even Pierre-Andre who was supposed to be Gabrielle's great love had some violent tendencies. I can't believe that every man in France possessed that streak of cruelty. Despite that one complaint, I was still thoroughly entertained while reading this.


Saturday, April 10, 2010

Sister Carrie - Theodore Dreiser

sister carrie
theodore dreiser
c. 1900
501 pages
completed 4/9/2010

read for: hstaa303 (modern american civilization), penguin classics, 1001 books

*may contain spoilers*

When Caroline Meeber boarded the afternoon train for Chicago, her total outfit consisted of a small trunk, a cheap imitation alligator-skin satchel, a small lunch in a paper box, and a yellow leather snap purse, containing her ticket, a scrap of paper with her sister's address in Van Buren Street, and four dollars in money.

Sister Carrie is a small town girl who arrives in the big city of Chicago at the turn of the twentieth century. As the country, especially in the cities, is becoming more defined by consumerism, Carrie is swept along with it, longing for the nicer things in life. With a constant increase in her desire food nice clothes, nice food, and a nice house as her driving force, Carrie rises up from the menial world of the working class to a life of security and luxury. Carrie has to learn what this material world is worth.

I am taking a modern American history class this quarter and we read this book as one of our primary sources which led to a very interesting discussion on whether fiction of whatever medium (literature, movies, etc) should be considered as reliable source material for historical study. In my opinion, I think it absolutely can. This book is a great example. Written about the time period it was written in, it gives an incredibly detailed look at a lot of different aspects of like in the 1890s and 1900s. Books like this can give the reader a lot of insight into how the public viewed certain social and political aspects of the day. Sure, you have to be careful and do your research on the author and who the audience was meant to be, but you need to do that with any primary source. And fiction that is not written about the time period it was written in or not written directly about the subject it's commenting on can give the same sorts of insights. Again, you need to be careful not to read too much into what you're reading (sometimes King Kong is just a big gorilla), but metaphorical and allegorical fiction can also provide incredible insight (sometimes King Kong is a reflection on Western imperialism and treatment of aboriginal peoples). So yes, in my opinion, fiction just as much as anything else produced in any given time period reflects on its society in a way people can learn from.

Anyway, onto the book itself. With a lack of any sympathetic characters, it was hard to root for anyone and I like a book where I can root for someone. All three main characters, Carrie and her two gentlemen friends Drouet and Hurstwood, are all obsessed with attaining and maintaining wealth and social status. They were interesting enough for me to want to know what was going to happen to them, especially after Carrie and Hurstwood relocated to New York, but for me the characters were not exactly what made this book enjoyable for me. Instead, I was pretty fascinated by the detail of daily life that was included and really enjoyed the addition of important currant events. There were intricate descriptions of factory work, what areas of the city were considered fashionable, how the poor were treated, and some kind of unorthodox relief services for the unemployed and a long segment on the Pullman car strikes that involved one of the characters as a scab.

This book provided a lot of commentary on many social aspects of the turn of the century, most especially the nation turning to be defined by consumerism. But also interesting was the way it kind of challenged ideas on what was morally acceptable for a woman and on gender roles in particular. For example, there was a lot of controversy when this book was first published. Carrie makes some decisions that were maybe not the moral norm of the time, but nowhere throughout the book is she censured for these decisions.

So to sum up, I definitely enjoyed this book and thought it was a great choice for a class studying the beginning of the twentieth century. The story is entertaining, the rise of Carrie and the decline of Hurstwood, but like I said the characters aren't exactly sympathetic. But I think you could get over that, especially if you were interested in the time period.


Thursday, April 1, 2010

By the end of April...

I did pretty good with my plans for last month. I made it onto the last book. Let's see if I keep it up what with Spring Quarter starting up...

To Be Read by the End of April
Mistress of the Revolution - Catherine Delors
The Adventure of David Simple - Sarah Fielding
Angela's Ashes - Frank McCourt
The Last Queen - CW Gortner

Here we go...

ETA: So my library does not have a copy of Shauna Robert's Like Mayflies in the Stream so I've had to put in a library loan request to get a different library to loan it to my library and that can sometimes take a while. So I've erased that from my list of April books and replaced it with the next book for that particular challenge and will just read it whenever it comes in.

To be read...

Jamaica Inn - Daphne Dumaurier
The Wayward Bus - John Steinbeck
Almost Home - Pam Jenoff
Red Dog, Red Dog - Patrick Lane
When I Was Five I Killed Myself - Howard Buten
My Splendid Concubine - Lloyd Lofthouse
The Captive Queen - Alison Weir
Impatient With Desire - Gabrielle Burton
A Hollow Crown - Helen Hollick
The Writing on My Forehead - Nafisa Haji
Flow: The Cultural Story of Menstruation - Elissa Stein and Susan Kim
Admit One - Emmett James
The Blasphemer - Nigel Farmdale
Cloud Atlas - David Mitchell
The Disappeared - Kim Echlin
The Illuminator - Brenda Rickman Vantrease
The Other Hand - Chris Cleave
The Creator of Eve - Lynn Cullen
A Northern Light - Jennifer Donnelly
Victorian Sensation - Michael Diamond
Mister Slaughter - Robert McCammon
Taroko Gorge - Jacob Ntari
Hothouse Flower and the Nine Plants of Desire - Margot Berwin
Pieces of Sky - Kaki Warner
Of the Ring of Earls - Juliet Dymoke
The Book of Awesome - Neil Pasricha
The Coroner's Lunch - Colin Cotterill
Solar - Ian McEwan
Next to Nature, Art - Penelope Lively
She-Rain - Michael Cogdill
The Uninvited - Geling Yan
The Lute Player - Norah Lofts
Cold Mountain - Charles Frazier
Venetia Kielly's Traveling Show - Frank Delany
31 Bond Street - Ellen Horan
The Language of Secrets - Diane Dixon
The Queen's Governess - Karen Harper
Still Life - Louise Penny (1st in a series)
Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries - Dorothy L Sayers (series)

37 new books and 2 new series. Could you all please quit reading for a little bit so I quit finding all these books to add to my list?