Sunday, January 31, 2010

The White Queen

The White Queen, by Philippa Gregory, is the story of Elizabeth Woodville, the wife of Edward IV, during the struggle for England’s throne between the Lancastrians and Yorkists. Spanning a period of two decades, this book begins in 1464 with a widowed twenty-seven year old Elizabeth boldly standing in the road, waiting for the newly victorious king to pass her way so she can beg for the return of her lands in order to provide for her two sons. Five years her junior, Edward is renowned as much for his conquests of women as he is his enemies on the battlefield. So when he arrogantly tries to seduce Elizabeth, sexual tension simmers as she rebuffs his overtures and keeps him at arm’s length.

Madly in love with him despite her resolve, Elizabeth is swayed by his persistence and they are secretly married. While Elizabeth’s parents view the match as a calculated risk that could advance them in royal society, it is Elizabeth’s oldest brother, Anthony, who doubts Edward’s sincerity and warns her of the consequences. Even Elizabeth herself becomes skeptical, so she is as surprised as anyone when Edward, during a meeting in which his advisors are pushing him to choose his future bride, confesses that he is already married – to her.

So begins Elizabeth’s new life. Aware of how quickly favor and fortune can fade, Elizabeth manages to quickly entrench her family into the royal web of marriages and titles, and thus the Riverses vault into power – evoking the jealousy of those who have been bypassed.
For much of this story, Elizabeth is either pregnant or barely recovered from her latest birth. But even in confinement, she manages to keep a finger on the pulse of the kingdom and stay abreast of ongoing plots and happenings within England. Gregory handles the enduring love story between Edward and Elizabeth admirably, beginning with the sizzling encounters of a newfound passion, and carrying through the stages of jealousy that flare up as Edward’s appetite for other women resurfaces, followed by reconciliation and on to a more mature mindset of the connection that inexorably ties these two together.

At a few points during the story, Elizabeth gives lengthy recounts of some of England’s most pivotal battles. While vividly detailed, they occasionally feel a bit detached in comparison to the rest of the story; however, Gregory manages to unfold a very complex time in England’s history, while still managing to keep the many threads and players involved distinct.

Throughout, there is an interwoven element of witchcraft and the myth of the water goddess Melusina. At first, this component’s relationship to ongoing events may not be entirely clear, but in time it becomes a very interesting twist that adds a unique element to this story.

All in all, The White Queen is a dazzling tale of romance, ever-shifting loyalties, and one of history's greatest outstanding mysteries – the death of the two princes in The Tower – as lived through an incredibly strong and determined heroine. Perennial Gregory fans will not be disappointed, as this is one of her finer works.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Conceit by Mary Novik

Winner of the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize

Longlisted for Scotiabank Giller Prize

A Quill and Quire Book of the Year

CONCEIT is the engaging story of Margaret More Donne (Pegge), the daughter of John Donne, a famed preacher and Jacobean author known for his sexual and bawdy poetry.

Set in 17th century England, the novel opens with the Great Fire of London in 1666. The story moves back and forth through the decades by way of flashbacks and the introspection of its colourful characters.

The romance between Pegge's parents, John Donne and Ann More, is immediately endearing. Ann, a young woman of means, secretly falls in love and marries John Donne in a highly unusual marriage ceremony against her father’s knowledge. When the marriage is discovered, Donne is arrested and kept in gaol until he can prove the marriage is valid. As a result, Donne is stripped of his diplomatic post and loses his means to support his wife and growing family. Later, King James granted him the post of Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral and earned a comfortable living.

The love between John and Ann is splendidly portrayed. The reader gets an immediate sense of its depth and near obsessive passion. To this day, it is thought that it was his love for Ann which served as the catalyst of inspiration for his erotic writing, which he tried to downplay all his life because of his role as a religious leader.

When Ann dies in childbirth, Donne is left to raise the children on his own. Of his children, Pegge is the one who suffers the most. At a young age, she contracts small pox which forever scars her face. As she matures into womanhood, she falls in love with Isaak Walton, a fisherman and author of sorts. But the love is unrequited, for Isaak has an unrequited love problem of his own when he falls in love with Pegge’s own sister Constance who spurns him.

One of my favourite parts of the book is when Pegge becomes a writer in her own right. Her passion, like that of most authors, compels her to write to the extent she often neglects her housely duties, much to her husband’s chagrin. It brought a chuckle because I know this is something even modern-day writers can immediately associate themselves with.

There is no doubt that it is the beauty of the prose that attracted the scrutiny of so many prestigious awards. The book demands the reader’s undivided attention because of its many points of view and switches back and forth through time. The story is unusual in its details, which intrigues and absorbs the reader. It is a tale of unrequited love, of death, of obsession, and of overcoming obstacles in a search for happiness.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Pirate Latitudes by Michael Crichton

Having read and loved, ‘Timeline’ by the same author, I was intrigued to see if he could teach me anything new about the 17th Century. I shouldn’t have been so confident, for he managed it on page three!

Pirate Latitudes takes place in the Port Royal of 1665, when Charles II’s Jamaican colony is under serious threat, besieged on every side by the voracious Spanish empire. The king wants the island farmed, but sends no farmers to till the infertile soil. He also wants as much Spanish gold as he can get, but is not willing to send troops to Jamaica to protect it, so the Governor is forced to employ privateers to do his work for him.

As a result, Port Royal is a refuge for criminals of all kinds who live and double-deal amongst its taverns and brothels. Privateers plunder the Spanish outposts at will, with an agreed cut of the spoils going to the Governor and King Charles.

When a treasure galleon lies at anchor off the heavily protected Spanish island of Matanceros, Captain Charles Hunter takes an interest. Capturing this ship mean he will be able to take on Philip of Spain's most ruthless enforcer, Cazalla. The scene is ripe for a swashbuckling adventure with all the excitement of the best pirate novel, and Michael Crichton does not disappoint.

The story begins with a colourful description of life for the British in Jamaica, the arrival of a convict ship, where the governor takes his pick of the female criminals, a new secretary with outmoded ideas about how the colony should be run and the hanging of a pirate thrown in for good measure.

The story then takes an unexpected curve into black humour and wit, fun and turns out as a jolly good romp through 17th Century West Indes, where life is cheap, everything is up for grabs if you are brave enough and law is pretty much non–existent.

If you like a combination of Eroll Flynn’s Captain Blood and Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow, you will enjoy this lively story.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Other Queen by Phillipa Gregory

Phillipa Gregory's story of Mary Queen of Scot's imprisonment under the guardianship of George, Earl Shrewsbury and his wife, Bess of Hardwick starts well with the inner thoughts of the three protagonists. Mary, a devout Catholic, is a constant threat to her cousin Elizabeth I, who is not only a Protestant, but also somewhat peeved at Mary for claiming herself the Queen of England while married to the French dauphin.

Mary’s disastrous love life comes to a dramatic climax with a double murder and a reckless lover which forces her to flee from Scotland and into her cousin's hands. Elizabeth’s chief advisor, Cecil persuades her to keep Mary under guard with his faithful friend, Bess of Hardwick.

Bess is now in her fourth marriage, to the distinguished Earl of Shrewsbury. The pair take on the task, hoping it will advance their position with Queen Elizabeth, but neither take into account Mary’s persuasive and manipultaive nature, not to mention the vast cost of housing Mary and her large entourage. Both Bess and George establish their own close relationship with Mary which causes raised eyebrows amongst the court, jealousy between man and wife, not to mention accusations of collusion and treachery.

I am a fan of Phillipa Gregory's earlier books, even when she puts her own interpretation on historical events and writes them more as she imagines they might have been. However the three narrators made the characters difficult to engage with as they chopped about from one head to another. The story starts well by setting up the ambitions of the three main characters, but nothing much happens, and what action there is, tended to be repetitive, and dealt with abortive plots to put Mary on the throne of England - which mainly happened elsewhere - and which she invariably denied having any involvement. Not to menton Mary being shunted back and forth between Chatsworth which she loved, and Tutbury which she hated. Even I began dreading the inevitable order to pack her bags!

Bess’s constant complaints about money make her into a harridan, which is not my impression of the lady at all from other sources. George is weak and lacks insight in his blatant worship of Mary, while Mary spends a lot of time expounding her own charms – and her innocence of any wrongdoing.

Mary never seemed to appreciate the seriousness of her situation, why she was in prison in the first place and what she should do to get out of it. Her unshakeable belief that she would be restored to the throne in Scotland as well as England became irritating, as did her complaints about her unfair treatment. She maintains an aloof, ‘I’m queen’ attitude that reminded me of Miranda Richardson. Another odd aspect was Mary’s execution being written as a dream sequence, partly I suppose because the event is still fifteen years in the future.

Anyone interested in the imprisonment of Mary Queen of Scots, but doesn’t mind the liberties taken with Bess’s character will enjoy this book. However as a fan of Bess of Hardwick and her triumph over personal trials, it wasn’t very compelling.

I normally cannot put a Phillipa Gregory down, but I’m afraid I only completed this book for the purposes of this review. Otherwise I would have given up before the end.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Recollections of Rosings

"Recollections of Rosings" by Rebecca Ann Collins is book 8 in a series of tales that follow after Jane Austen's masterpiece, "Pride and Prejudice."

First line: "It was the morning after the wedding of Darcy Gardiner and Kathryn O'Hare."

Back Jacket cover: "Sisters Catherine Harrison and Becky Tate, daughters of Charlotte Lucas and Mr. Collins, have very different personalities and temperatments. Both gre up in the shadow of Rosings Park, domain of the formidable Lady Catherine de Bourgh, but as adults their paths diverged dramatically.

When a catastrophe at Rosings Park brings Becky back to visit her sister, the two clash about their aspirations for the marriage of Catherine's young daughter, and both woman are forced to confront the ghosts of the past - in particular, Lady Catherine's cruelty and deception.

As the shocking truth emerges, the Darcy and Bingley families rally. But it may be too late for the sisters to find the love and happiness they were denied so long ago."

Ms. Collins has paid assiduous attention to the time period's history, technological and political advancements as well as to mode of speech, dress, etc., but I believe she may have done so at the cost of plot and character development. There is only one strong moment in which one of the characters faces difficulty. All the rest are moments of potential tension, which are glossed over by the characters agreeing with one another. For the most part, the characters do not have goals or intentions toward one another, or, if they do, they are not hindered from accomplishing those goals.

That said, I enjoyed this novel. It takes place a generation after the events of "Pride and Prejudice" and the world had changed enough from Austen's time that I appreciated the author's examination of world circumstances. I thought that approach refreshing as most romance novels don't dwell on the problems of this period. I spent several hours at a time engrossed in the characters and only wished that the author had attempted to give them more difficult challenges and motives for change.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir

Lady Jane Grey was a great-niece of Henry VIII, and the cousin of Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I, and grew up knowing she could never throw off the chains of her destiny. Her intelligence and strength of character carry the reader through the vicious twists of Tudor power politics, to her devastating nine-day reign as Queen of England and its unbearably poignant conclusion.

I was nervous about reading this book as having read, Bess of Hardwick I had already been given an insight into Jane Grey’s miserable childhood and neglectful parents. It was almost too much to have to do it all again. However, Alison Weir gives Jane’s mother, Frances Brandon, an vivid, if cruel character in her disappointment at not having provided a living son with a claim to the throne through Mary Tudor. Poor Jane becomes the brunt of her anger and when Frances produces another two daughters, they fare little better.

As is well known, Jane’s fate is a forced marriage and the executioner's block at sixteen. Her childhood and her short, tragic marriage is vividly, and horribly portrayed in this story, mainly told by Jane herself, takes us up to her death through those who shaped her fate, including the Duke of Northumberland, Queen Mary Tudor and the cruel, neglectful parents who should have protected her and instead, used her horribly and then let her die.

In fact all three Grey girls, Jane’s sisters Katherine and Mary had unhappy lives, due to their closeness to the throne and the reigning monarch’s determination that they didn’t get any closer.

The storytelling is so colourful, I couldn’t help wondering if all the anecdotes were true. Then I found the "historial note" chapter which explains which parts were historically accurate in those included to keep the story fast moving. Which I shall not reveal here, you will have to read it yourself.

Ms Weir's prose is easy to read and I found myself grateful for Jane's nurse, as being the only person in her life who showed her unconditional love. Or in fact any love at all.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Radium Halos by Shelley Stout

Review written by Cori Van Housen
Radium Halos is a based-on-truth fictional account of a woman whose life is irrevocably altered by taking on a summer job at the Radium Dial Company in the 1920s. Stout tells the story through her central character, Helen Meisner, in folksy North Carolinian vernacular. As Helen relates the details of her job training (for painting luminescent numbers onto clock and watch faces) one can’t help but cringe with informed hindsight. After exposure to radium, the results play out like the ticking of a neglected timepiece left to run down. And as if that weren’t enough—a grim event that fateful summer forever binds Helen, her sister and friends in a secret nearly as toxic as the radium itself.

Stout’s Helen is striking, a study in simplicity. At turns humorous, feisty, and heartrendingly childlike, Helen’s narrative voice is powerfully blunt. The young Helen and her cohorts are like lost children, groping through life and unfolding tragedy. Looking back from the perspective of sixty five years and into the uncertainties of her own future, Helen’s hinted-at secrets are slowly brought to light as if her mind itself were a chamber of suspense from which it is difficult to extricate things locked inside. “Nobody,” she says repeatedly, “can make me talk if I don’t want to.”

Radium Halos reminds us of workers’ conditions, women in particular, during the last century. Shelley Stout knows the ground well: she is acquainted with Leonard Grossman whose father legally represented the women of Radium Dial before Stout’s birth. Her book highlights the type of inequities which drove the struggle for women’s rights; it is upon the ashes of lives such as are represented here that we now stand. So it is, on one hand, a sobering story. Yet Helen’s earthy naivetĂ©, for all its pitfalls, also serves her well. She endures through tragedy and confusion, never expecting much of good or evil, nor ruminating too much on either. Ever the lost child, she merely perseveres, illuminating this poignant story with hope.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Scent of Rosa's Oil by Lina Simoni

First Line: Madame C was combing Rosa's hair when a stray gust of wind forced its way into the caruggi, the old downtown streets, passage-ways so narrow sunlight hardly reached below the level of the rooftops.

Back Cover Blurb:

Set in the beautiful port city of Genoa, Italy, at the turn of the century, The Scent of Rosa's Oil is a magical story that attests to the strength of longing, the consequences of betrayal, and the nostalgic memories only a one-of-a-kind fragrance can evoke.

The only home Rosa has ever known is the Luna brothel, where she's lovingly cared for by Madam C and all the women who work there. Madame C shelters Rosa from what really goes on at the Luna by telling her they play a gam with the men who visit. Naturally, Rosa is curious and can't wait until she grows up so she can also play the game.

But when a twist of fate forces Rosa to leave the Luna after her sixteenth birthday, she goes to stay with her new friend Isabel, an old woman who distills oils. The strange smells and smoke that emanate from Isabel's shack have deemed her a witch to the locals, but only Rosa sees a lonely, tender woman with a passion for making beautifully-scented oils. Enchanted by the intoxicating fragrances around her, Rosa becomes Isabel's apprentice, learning the art of extracting a flower's essence and selling the oils in the town square.

Soon everyone in Genoa is talking about the pretty, young girl with the lush locks of red hair who sells aromatic oils in the piazza. Some say she has the oil to cure whatever ailment one has, while others say her oils will capture the heart of a special person. Indeed, Rosa has learned Isabel's secret for creating her own "perfect oil" - a unique fragrance that holds a mysterious power.

Now Rosa needs a miracle to make Renato, the man she has fallen in love with, see past the ugly rumors he's heard about her and the Luna Brothel. Disguising herself with a black wig and dabbing her special fragrance on her wrists, Rosa sets out to win Renato. But how long can Rosa keep her true identity hidden? And when destiny intervenes, challenging their love in unforseeable ways, they'll need a magic even greater than the scent of Rosa's oil...

Lina Simoni has written an enchanting tale about a young woman coming of age who finds herself at odds with her past and her destiny. The author's roots are in Genoa, so her firsthand experiences regarding descriptions of sights, smells, locations, shine from every page.

The Scent of Rosa's Oil is the kind of book you can escape into with memorable characters, unusual circumstances, and love and warmth. A pleasure to read and one I do not hesitate in recommending.

I encourage you to visit the author's website at: you can see her lovely artwork in addition to her intriguing author's bio and future works.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

King Abdullah's Tomb

King Abdullah’s Tomb, by Linda and Gary Cargill, is an adventurous, plot-driven novel that starts on the ill-fated 1915 voyage of the RMS Lusitania. The protagonist of the story is one Dora Benley, a sharply intelligent girl with an inquisitive mind and an observant nature. Dora and her parents are traveling on the British ocean liner, whose departure is plagued by a series of threats from the Germans. The young girl spies a mysterious man rummaging through other people’s luggage and connects him to a series of suspicious events onboard, the least of which is an attack on her cabin itself. Unfortunately for her, curiosity does not come without a price. The stranger is convinced that Dora is hiding an object of great value, one he will not hesitate to kill over. With the help of a few friends, Dora escapes from his clutches, only to find that the Lusitania has been torpedoed by the Germans. But that’s only where the story begins.

As Dora tries to adjust to a new life after surviving her harrowing ordeal, she finds herself only drawn deeper into intrigue. The mysterious stranger has followed her to Britain and then on to America. While she tries to outwit the stranger, all the while waiting got her new fiancé to return from war, she realizes that her soon-to-be family is connected to the object the stranger is after.

This novel follows the quest for the enigmatic object, taking the reader from America to Britain onto Persia, and back. Although the pace of the story was, at times, slow and the plot structure chaotic, the authors bring forth the atmosphere of WWI vividly and with great detail. The Cargills use an epistolary approach to tell a story within a story, a clever device for giving us crucial information that helps connect characters and their adventures from across the world together, and bring the mystery to a satisfying conclusion. Readers will appreciate the historical research as well as a story that stays with you right until the twist at the end.

Friday, January 1, 2010

The Memoirs of Mary Queen of Scots

The Memoirs of Mary Queen of Scots by Carolly Erickson is a sweeping 16th century saga that follows the tumultuous life of Mary Stewart from her days in France until her death. Mary inherits the throne of Scotland as an infant, leaving her mother, Marie de Guise, to serve as her regent. Although wed at a young age to the meek King Francis, Mary settles into the comforts of French court life and has little desire to return to her homeland. But when Mary is eventually widowed, it is the arrival of the charming and roguish James, Earl of Bothwell, that convinces her to return to Scotland with him.

Mary, however, is not prepared for the power struggles that divide her country and the anti-Catholic reception she receives and thus her authority is never firmly established. Bothwell becomes her closest advisor, but his obligation to marry another woman drives Mary to seek a husband elsewhere. When the self-absorbed Lord Henry Darnley arrives in court, Mary, like so many others, is drawn to his physical beauty, despite his selfish behavior. Although Bothwell warns her from him, Mary weds Darnley. The marriage is disastrous from the outset, the only blessing being the birth of her son, James. When Darnley is murdered, both Bothwell and Mary are implicated; but Bothwell manages to have his marriage annulled and he and Mary soon marry. Fighting the tide of public condemnation, they must take to the battlefield, where they are eventually forced to terms: Bothwell flees into exile and Mary is taken into captivity. In time, desperate to escape her Scottish enemies, Mary seeks refuge under the protection of her cousin, Queen Elizabeth of England.

But Mary has reason to believe that her cousin seeks her death and she manages to escape her English captors to visit the Pope, who supports her efforts to reclaim her throne. But hopes gradually erode as plans fail to materialize and, after a long period wandering, Mary once again finds herself a prisoner of her indomitable cousin, Queen Elizabeth.

Although Erickson freely admits that some of this book’s events are her own interpretations, it is an enjoyable and worthwhile read for those interested in Mary Stuart or the period. It may even have benefited from expanding on some events, as Mary’s story is indeed a complicated and tragic one. The prose is unencumbered and Mary’s transition – from an indifferent adolescent queen, to the young woman in love with a hotheaded Scottish earl, to the wiser, more regal ruler who bears the responsibility of her birthright with grave determination – is believable and engaging. Erickson’s portrayal of Queen Elizabeth as a very complex, sometimes enigmatic and decidedly imperative figure adds an intriguing layer to this standoff between royal cousins. By far, the highlight of The Memoirs of Mary Queen of Scots is the enduring love story between Mary and Bothwell, which one only wishes could have had a happier ending.