Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Constant Princess by Philippa Gregory

Constant: 1. not changing or varying. 2. regularly recurrent. 3. steadfast or resolute. 4. something that does not change or vary. 5. Queen Katherine of Aragon, daughter of Spain and 1st wife of King Henry of England, even though he dumps her in a far away castle, takes away her title, tries to divorce her, disinherits their daughter, and then marries in secret that scheming tease Anne Boleyn.

Ah, but that’s only how the story ends. You’ll have to read The Other Boleyn Girl to learn of that version. To learn how that song goes, “Every new beginning starts with some other beginnings end,” in this case the end of Queen Katherine of Aragon’s beginning.

So The Constant Princess tells her story, and it starts with Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain and their war against the Moors. A child of the battle field and by the age of three, the future Princess of Wales and daughter of these two great monarchs, Catalina, is already betrothed to King Henry the Seventh’s (and newly self-anointed King of England) firstborn son Arthur as part of a peace treaty with Spain.

We all know what happens, that Arthur dies right after their teenage marriage, and that she waits seven long years in England to marry his younger brother, Henry, when he is seventeen and she is twenty-three. But what is not generally known is what happens in between these years. Was her marriage to Arthur really not consummated? How was she able to cope with his loss, and seven long years alone in a foreign country, friendless, and unable to speak the language? Can you imagine what it must’ve been like for her? Philippa Gregory does a pretty good job of filling in the blanks with the believable details that we, who are interested in English history, are often wondering about.

For the most part, I liked this book. To write about one of history’s most inspiring women was a daunting task, and I feel Gregory did her homework here. I enjoyed learning more of early Spain and its Arab influences. This is one thing she does well as an author; she makes history readable and interesting, and most of all personal. My only complaint would be the sizable gap she leaves at the end between when Katherine’s first son dies and the Papal Legat hearing twenty years later. It felt too rushed to me, like she was in a hurry to finish the book.

I’ve always wondered why Henry the Eighth was how he was with women, and where his great desire for power and vindication came from. Gregory explores it very little here, but I guess the story wasn’t really about him; it was about his long-suffering first wife. But still, now I have more questions than ever about how a man, who knew and loved this woman almost his entire life, from the age of eleven on, and for twenty years they ruled England together, yet at the drop of a crown-shaped hat he leaves her stranded for another woman, all because she wouldn’t give him a son? Was King Henry really that shallow? Perhaps he was. Men, ugh…3.5 stars

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Villette by Charlotte Bronte

Caution – longest review of all time, and some awesome girl fighting ahead. Proceed at your own risk.

Jane Eyre vs. Lucy Snowe – Which one was more like Charlotte Bronte?

Round One – Personality

“Who would love me?” asked Jane Eyre. “I am poor and little and plain.” That is Jane in a tiny little nutshell. She’s young and insecure, soft and pliable, untouched by love but from a rare friend. She’s an excellent teacher. People are drawn to her. On the surface she’s shy and unsure of herself, often naive – Hellooo, a psycho lady lived in her house how many months and she never figured it out? But still I was able to forgive her faults because almost immediately she lets you in. She was strong yet meek at the same time. Bad things happen to her, yet still she trusts; she hopes. Her heart is open.

Lucy Snowe is quite the opposite of Miss Jane Eyre. An older, street-wise version if you will. She’s generally friendless, an orphan with no living family whatsoever; she would rather be alone than pressed for company. Teaching is something she does because she must. By going to London and then to France all by herself, she shows us she’s able to swallow her fear and be brave. She’s wise, sarcastic and has caustic whit, barely able to contain her biting tongue, admitting “a disclaimer burned on my lips, but I extinguished the flame.” To stop it was “a hard submission.” Unlike Jane’s tiny nutshell, Lucy’s heart is locked within a giant clam, and like a stubborn mollusk, must be pried open with a big stick until finally the contents are revealed, and a tasty treat lies within for those that get to witness it.

Winner: Lucy by a swing to the nose. Perhaps Jane Eyre represents a younger, more naïve version of herself, but having written Villette towards the end of her life and right after the death of her last two sisters, Charlotte was definitely more melancholy and reflective. It shows in her writing. Having said it was her hardest book to finish, she was more honest I think, and I believed revealed more of herself through her pen than in Jane Eyre. Such poetry and deeply personal verse I shall probably never read again. It took a toll on me physically it was so heart felt and real.

Round Two - Taste in men

Cranky Mr. Rochester vs. the robot, St. John:
Do I love Mr. Rochester because he’s young and handsome, always happy, and makes his intentions known from the start? Does Jane? Seriously, there has rarely been a more difficult man inked in literature. He’s old and cranky, and according to Jane, not at all handsome. He refuses to coddle her, yet he teases her beyond reproach, toys with her as he tries to draw her out, grabs her and shakes her until finally she succumbs with a violent cry, “Do you think I am a machine with no feelings?” Mr. Rochester is unlike St. John in every way, the latter a handsome but cold, serious man who only needed a wife for his church work. He was hardly a hero to Jane’s heroine. In the end, she chose not the face, money or superior intellect. She chose those now infamous words, “Jane–my hope–my love–my life!”

The hot-tempered Monsieur Paul Emanuel vs. the conceited Dr. John Graham Bretton:
Lucy falls for the handsome doctor almost immediately, although she quickly talks herself out of it. His initial kindness when she was alone and friendless in a foreign country eventually does her in, but in the end he considers her a sister more than a love interest; a sister who always speaks truth. Her broken heart can only be mended when an unlikely, unfriendly savior appears in the form of a short, bald, fellow professor, by the name of Monsieur Emanuel. They fight almost every time they come in contact with each other. He frowns and scolds her more than he smiles. Yet, finally in the end she finds him more a kindred spirit than anything else. He doesn’t win her with words like Mr. Rochester does with Jane. He wins her with actions.

Winner: Sorry, but Mr. Rochester still reigns victorious. The passion, the fire within! Ah, be still my beating heart I love that man. Let us gaze upon him a brief moment...hmm.
But who would’ve Charlotte chosen?
It is generally known she fell in love with her French professor while attending his school in Brussels. But he already came attached with an unfortunate wife – whom Charlotte clearly makes fun of by mimicking her in a most unflattering main character in Villette. The woman quickly ended their relationship by supposedly tearing apart their letters in a jealous rage. Charlotte’s taste in men – she declined several marriage proposals - like her strong female characters clearly lacked in some areas. Perhaps Mr. Rochester was a combination of all the men in her life, and as an impossible standard, could never truly exist.

Charlotte did not decide to finally marry until after she was quite famous, to a poor curate in a country village, who persisted even though she kept rejecting him, and besides the fact that her father thought him beneath her intellectually. Based on how unattractive her male leads always were, I doubt he was much to look at. But he proved he loved her, and that was enough. She died within six months of their marriage while pregnant with her first child.

So after reading these two fantastic books, I’m convinced that Patrick Bronte had magical powers. He was a wizard, a sorcerer perhaps; something beyond this Earth, because only someone with special unworldly abilities could produce so many offspring with such astounding gifts, and outlive them all. Of course the Bronte children died young. God rarely suffers greatness of mind to leave His presence for long. They leave their mark, and then move forward without us; all the while our hearts pine for more. I count Villette among those left wanting. A must read for anyone who likes these outstanding women. 5 stars

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Fatally Flaky by Diane Mott Davidson

Nothing satisfies a sweet tooth like a Goldy Schulz novel. She’s a crime fighter armed with killer blueberry-cream pie, chocolate glaze to die for, and vanilla buttercream frosting that will soften even the most hardened criminal.

Fatally Flaky is number 15 in this series about the in’s and out’s of catering in the murder capital of the United States: Aspen Meadow, Colorado, and boy, does our highly caffeinated Goldy have her hands full! Apparently Aspen Meadow is a bit like the Hellmouth in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but instead of supernatural activity being at its center, murderous behavior seems to gravitate to this location. What a real estate market they must have!

This time around, instead of a string of dark and stormy nights, it’s been a long, rainy summer for Goldy Schulz. Doc Finn, a local beloved physician and dear friend of her godfather, has just been murdered. With a string of wedding receptions to cater, including one with Bridezilla herself, Goldy has never been busier. She doesn’t have time to solve this mystery, but when you’re the wife of the chief investigator of the Furman County Sheriff’s Department, and your godfather’s somehow gotten himself mixed up in the mess (much to his peril), what’s a blond, curly-headed sleuth to do?

Break out the recipe book of course, and cook. As always, we are treated to a slew of straight from Martha Stewart’s vaulted library recipes, all made with unsalted butter, sea salt and “best-quality” ingredients. One of which I tried and will include at the end of this review. Apparently caterers eat very well.

Having now read all 15 of these culinary mysteries, I generally rate each by two standards: how believable was the story and did any of the recipes look interesting. This one was not my favorite of the series, but was just interesting enough to finish. The plot line was predictable, but well written. There are very few surprises in this one. I knew well in advance what was going to happen. Perhaps Davidson tried to stir things up by introducing a main character in Goldy’s life that I think would’ve been mentioned by now, like in book 2, and some of the characters names? Billie Attenborough? Doesn’t really roll off the tongue does it. I think she ran out of good names by book 6.

Aside from that, as always, there’s a great cast of returning characters. Her sixteen-year-old lanky son Arch is learning to drive, and her swimmingly handsome, vegetarian assistant Julian is back from college again. Goldy’s good friend and sisterly ex-wife to the Jerk, Marla, as usual has all the best lines, but I would’ve liked it better if Goldy’s husband Tom, a character I enjoy immensely, was more involved in the story line.

Now, on to the superbly named recipes. Hmm. Usually there are at least one or two, maybe more that I would actually make, but this time most were too…how can I put this…off-the-charts hard. Who would really make these recipes? Enough with the nuts and bits of candied fruit! Seriously, they’re only good together at Christmas time. We know you like them. Time to add other ingredients to your cakes, cookies, and breads.

I did try the Fatally Flaky Ice Cream Cookies. See my slummed up version below, sans the sea salt, pure vanilla, best quality cocoa and real vanilla ice cream, and of course, unsalted butter. (My butter is plenty salted thank you very much!) These little chocolate numbers were tricky and not much to look at, but pretty dang good. Beware if you use the recipes in these books. Be prepared to have bits of oats and brown sugar fall out from the pages if you choose to reread it again. Unfortunately, I probably won’t have that problem with this one. 3 stars.

Fatally Flaky Cookies – The Peasant Version
½ cup unsalted butter
¾ brown sugar, packed
1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa
1 ½ cup quick-cooking oats
1 tablespoon flour
1 tsp baking powder
¼ tsp salt
1 egg
2 tsp vanilla

Preheat oven to 350. Melt butter in a pan over low heat. Add sugar. Stir until mixture bubbles, about 3-5 minutes. Remove from heat and let it cool while you mix the other ingredients.

In large bowl, combine cocoa, oats, flour, baking powder, and salt. In another bowl beat together the egg and vanilla. Add to oat mixture and then add the cooled butter mixture. Stir well.

Using a 1-tablespoon ice-cream scoop, measure out the batter onto cookie sheets. Bake 10-12 minutes or until cookies are completely cooked. Allow to cool on the sheet for 5 minutes, then carefully transfer to cooling racks.

Layer with ice cream or vanilla frosting. Makes about a dozen sandwiched cookies.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Eats, Shoots & Leaves - A Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss

If you're like me you ask yourself this question once a decade, if at all: does punctuation really matter? We, who live in a world of “Netspeak” and emoticons (both excuses for not putting the right words in the right places), do we think the age of the appropriately placed semicolon, dash or parenthesis is dead?

I personally murder the semicolon on a daily basis it seems. I tire of pursing my lips in thought at the end of every sentence I write (or send as it were), wondering if I should use that uppity mixture of comma and full stop, or slice off its bottom (and more lovely) half, until I start drooling uncontrollably and mumble gibberish to myself. Who really cares after all? Ah, and see ¬– therein lies the problem: someone always cares.

With the advent of the internet and millions of us fancying ourselves “writers” when really we are “senders”, there are – for the good of those with stock in the makers of red and blue pens; I’d hate for them to suffer – some still left in the world, hiding in corners waiting to pounce on the first ill-used word; shouting with their fists in the air, “Sticklers unite!”

Lynne Truss is one of those standing in the picket lines, with her blue pencil in hand of course, editing everyone’s protest signs and encouraging all to read her book, Eats, Shoots & Leaves, a book about a misplaced comma and a panda with a gun....ahem. Truss is a woman on a mission; a personal journey that nimbly gyrates from the grocer, and the newspaper;

to the sign on the building,

and the Hollywood marquee.

This woman is extremely anal (and seriously frowning in this lovely pic), perhaps even bordering on obsessive- compulsive, but I don’t think she cares. For her punctuation marks are the traffic signals of language: they tell us to slow down, notice this, take a detour, and stop. But did I learn something, which after all, is probably her point, regardless of her nit pickiness. I would say, yes I did.

Mainly, it was this: in a lot of cases, it’s a matter of personal taste. If it burns deep within your bosom to place a semicolon after a sentence, then by all means – do it! Want to put a comma after the word and? Apparently it depends on which country you’re from. What? So, besides the fact that someone at the New Yorker doesn’t find her book very accurate, I thought it very witty and fun, and most of it made sense. Do I now feel more paranoid about those pesky dots and dashes? Not really, but just in case I’ll continue to avoid the caffeine beverages and try to remember that writing a sentence is a bit like adding paint to a blank canvas. Each is unique and subject to personal taste. Whoopety-do. 4 stars

Lost in Austen

No, this is not a book but for all of you die hard Pride and Prejudice fans you might like this movie. It is a 4-part series that played on PBS recently, but you can also rent it from Hastings. Apparently they are also planning on turning this into a movie for the theaters.

Amanda Price loves the novel Pride and Prejudice and the Colin Firth movie and has read and watched them numerous times. She is unhappy with the romance in her life and the modern world and wishes things were more like the Austen novel that she loves. One day Elizabeth Bennet shows up in her home and they end up switching places and Amanda finds herself in 19th century England living with the Bennet family as their guest.

The whole novel unfolds with Amanda right in the middle of it trying to make everything happen as it should, but, of course, chaos ensues beginning with Bingley eyeing her and not Jane! Oh no! :) As you can imagine, it is pretty funny.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Witch Child by Celia Rees

I am Mary. I am a witch. This is the beginning of Mary Newbury journal in 1659. After watching the witch trial of her grandmother, Mary escapes the prejudice of England and sets sail for America. She joins unlikely companions, the puritans. We are aware that this is a dangerous decision, yet what other choice is there? Is she really a witch? Did she really live? These questions are for you to find out as you read her journal.
This story reads very much like a journal would. There is not a lot of description of the drama. She cuts to the point quickly. I wish there had been a little more suspense to the story. And just when the story was getting good, it ends. There is a sequel to the book and I will definitely read it. This story made me think about what my life would have been like if I was born at this time. Would I have been considered a witch? Let's see
1. I am a nurse. I know healing powers and therefore have the power to kill (this came from the book)
2. I am opinionated. Not exactly a great point for women back then.
3. I read and write. It is not natural for a women to be educated. We should all be pious.
4. I love to dance. Didn't you know that we only dance when the devil has taken over our bodies.
5. I know how to swim. I would have failed the witch trial for sure. Well, they did tie your hands and feet together so I may have had a more difficult time swimming.
6. I don't like other people telling me what to do.
7. I like to wear pants, go out at night, wear bright clothes.
8. My husband loves the indians.

I am sure I would have been burned or hung as a witch. What a fascinating time period. These people lived in such fear and superstition and yet superstition was seen as a tool of the devil. Very confusing.

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

By Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

To start with I will say that I loved this book. It was the characters that did it for me. But, (doesn’t everyone have a big but?) I was hit in the face with something I hate: Nazi Germany. I knew what the story was about, but I assumed I was safe since it was post WWII. I just didn’t count on the flashbacks!!

The story is written completely in letters. The main character, Juliet, is an author who stumbles on to the members of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. They correspond with her for a while and she gets to know them and the hardships they faced during the war. I learned so much about what happened on the Channel Islands (Guernsey is one of those islands) during WWII. The Islands were occupied by the Germans in their quest to conquer all of England. The story takes place in 1946 and the people on Guernsey are trying to get their lives back to somewhat normal.

I liked the fact that it was all written in letters. It definitely worked for me, probably because the parts I wished I didn’t have to read were short and to the point. Still, there are images in my head that I wish weren’t there. The characters had so much strength and were so resilient. They were likable and sometimes I forgot that I don’t really know them. I wish I did. How fun is it to read about a woman who discovers Jane Austen for the first time? Or a little girl who has a box she carries everywhere with her and no one knows what is in it? Or an editor who has a secretary named Billie Bee? And did anyone know that Oscar Wilde’s full name was Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde?

It was just a beautiful story that was so pleasant to read. I will give it an A-, or 4 ½ stars only because I personally struggle with certain historical events. It left me happy, and that’s the kind of ending I love!

Friday, May 8, 2009

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies

By Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: The Classic Regency Romance – Now with Ultraviolent Zombie Mayhem is summed up quite tidily by its title. It’s Pride and Prejudice almost word for word…with zombies!

With that in mind, what is your honest reaction?
a) I am horrified that anyone would defile Jane Austen’s masterpiece with evil undead!
b) I am horrified that anyone would defile the horror genre with lame girly stuff!
c) This sounds stupid. And gross.
d) Why didn’t anyone think of this sooner!

I’m relatively certain that your response to the title alone will predict how much or how little you will like this book. Austen purists will consider it a travesty. Die-hard horror fans will find the source material dull and complain that there isn’t enough zombie mayhem. Most will simply sniff in disdain. But if you’re anything like me (slightly macabre sense of humor, a fan of both classics and the more…er…trashy), you’ll want to pick up this book posthaste.

The juxtaposition of two so unlike genres really tickled my funny bone. Austen is still very much present in these pages, and it was simple enough to immerse myself in her familiar world, only to be delightfully shocked by Grahame-Smith’s gruesome embellishments. When Elizabeth’s sisters prattle on and on about dancing and balls, Elizabeth finds herself very much tempted to lop their heads right off. Elegant dinner parties are interrupted by ravaging zombies. Elizabeth answers Darcy’s proposal by smashing him into the mantelpiece. Awesome! And while we’re on the subject, the illustrations and discussion guide? Also awesome!

If you want to nitpick, I think Mr. Collins’s exit from the book is out of character, and Mr. Wickham’s come-uppance is so outrageous that I could hardly believe it, let alone accept that Wickham would actually agree to it, but if you can’t suspend disbelief while reading about zombies invading England, then maybe this is not the book for you. Personally, I think critiquing Grahame-Smith for his writing style or Regency-era accuracy is kind of silly, too. It’s a zombie novel, for pity’s sake!

So this book isn’t particularly edifying; in fact, it’s rather absurd. But it was kind of refreshing to laugh at death for a change. If you answered D above, this is just the kind of book you can sink your teeth into (ha!).

Readers, be warned: in addition to zombie mayhem, there is a good deal of juvenile humor (think Dumb & Dumber) and double entendres (all that talk of balls, you know).