Thursday, October 24, 2013

Loving Will Shakespeare

Loving Will Shakespeare. Carolyn Meyer. 2006. Harcourt. 272 pages. [Source: Book I Bought]

Loving Will Shakespeare was the very first Carolyn Meyer novel I ever read. It was LOVE. Loving Will Shakespeare was also one of the very first novels I ever reviewed here at Becky's Book Reviews. (To be precise, it was my SECOND review.) So I have wonderful memories of this one. I recently decided to reread it. 

Loving Will Shakespeare is the fictional memoir of Shakespeare's wife, Anne Hathaway. After a brief framework is provided, the novel opens with the christening of William Shakespeare. Agnes Hathaway is in attendance. (I believe she is seven?) The age difference between these two is obvious from the start. The obstacle for the author to overcome is how to create a romance between the two in a believable way when the time comes.

Why did I love Loving Will Shakespeare? I think one of the main reasons is that it was so incredibly rich in detail. I really got a sense of what it was like to live during this time. Through Agnes (or Anne) readers get a chance to see this world up close. The lambing, the sheep-shearing, the sowing and reaping, the holidays and festivals, Twelfth Night and May Day. There is a great sense of community. Also the uncertainty of life. The health risks of living during this time in history. The recurrence of the plague that proves devastating or heartbreaking. The risks every single woman faces with each pregnancy and childbirth. The need for remarriage, the blending of families, etc. 

The other reason may be the presence of Will Shakespeare himself. Though this is a mixed blessing. Will is presented as having a way with words, a true gift, a BIG dream. He doesn't quite fit in his setting. He wants more. He can be charming and work hard. It's not that he's dreaming so big that he's lazy. Readers see him in cozy friendship with Agnes for many years. What he is thinking of this older woman readers can't quite be sure of. But from her point of view, this friendly young man is good fun but not a potential mate. She isn't wow this fourteen year old boy is oh-so-dreamy.

Will Shakespeare is not Anne's first love-interest. She has been disappointed in the past in her crushes and suitors. One man she truly loved--the two were even engaged--but he died of the plague. The wooing between the two [Will and Anne] occur when he's seventeen or so. He's started writing poems--sonnets--and songs. And he's a great dancer. He is persistent and she's willing.

But if this love story has a romantic ending, it's definitely bittersweet. For after just a few years of marriage...Will Shakespeare leaves his wife and three children to go to London to make himself into SHAKESPEARE. He becomes famous and successful. And his family is largely not a part of his life in any meaningful way. Anne is not a nagging wife; one to beg her husband to stay. She lets him go with grace and courage believing that he will do great things.

If music be the food of love, play on...
To be or not to be...

© 2013 Becky Laney

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Caroline the Queen

Caroline the Queen. Jean Plaidy. 1968. 415 pages. [Source: Library]

Caroline, The Queen was my first introduction to the historical writer Jean Plaidy. (It is the third book in the Georgian Saga.) The novel opens shortly before the Prince of Wales, George Augustus, learns that his father (whom he REALLY hated) has died and he is now king. Caroline, his Queen, may be the main character of this one, but she is not our only point of view--far from it. This novel tells many stories from many different points of view.

Husband and wife. The novel spends some amount of time with George II and his wife, Caroline. She is presented as being oh-so-clever. Readers are never allowed to forget for a moment that Caroline is smarter and wiser than her husband. George is presented as a complete fool: short, ugly, boring, bad-tempered, easily flattered. Caroline loves being married to him because she can rule through him. But she has absolutely no respect for her husband. Caroline is presented as noble because she tolerates her husband's many mistresses.

King and mistresses. The novel mentions George II having many mistresses both in England and Hanover. His mistresses are presented as a necessary, oh-so-expected habit. Kings have mistresses, he is now king, therefore, to show how kingly he is, he must have mistresses, the people will love him even more because he is acting like other kings. Future kings must have mistresses as well. To be Prince of Wales gives you freedom to gather as many mistresses as possible and put them on display. Some of George II's mistresses are quite "old" by the time he is king. He visits them on schedule not out of desire but out of habit. The last half of the novel focuses on the King acquiring much younger, much prettier mistresses.

Family. The glimpses we get of Caroline and George as parents is disturbing, at least in my opinion. Frederick, the prince of Wales, is DESPISED by both of his parents. He is their oldest son, but both of his parents HATE him and wish that he'd never been born. Neither wants him around. And he knows it. He hates them both. At one point he's shown as hating his mother even more than his father because he feels his father is just being ruled. Some time is spent on their other children. But I can't say that Caroline and George were extraordinarily good parents to any of their children. Anne, the oldest girl, is given some time in the novel.

Prince of Wales. Some time is spent with Frederick and his friends and mistresses. Readers see people trying to get close to him so they can use him, people trying to get favors. Some spy on him and tell all to the powers-that-be.

Politics. Caroline has several politician friends--notably Sir Robert Walpole and Lord Hervey. She loves power and politics and manipulating things behind the scenes so that George does precisely what they want without being wise to the fact that he's being manipulated. 

The novel was quite interesting and very readable. The characters were all believably flawed; I found no one sympathetic, however. I liked this one. 

© 2013 Becky Laney

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Prince of Foxes

Prince of Foxes. Samuel Shellabarger. 1947. 433 pages. [Source: Library]

I really enjoyed reading Prince of Foxes by Samuel Shellabarger. (Thanks Semicolon for the recommendation!) This historical novel was originally published in 1947. It is set circa 1500 during the Italian Renaissance. It features glimpses of four Borgias: Pope Alexander VI, Cesare, Lucrezia, and Angela--a cousin. The hero is an ambitious but not ruthless young man initially in the service of Cesare Borgia. His name is Andrea Orsini. He's been sent to Ferrara in order to pave the way for Lucrezia's third marriage. (The potential groom--or the potential in-laws--are NOT thrilled or receptive to the idea of this marriage.) But Andrea Orsini is good at what he does. He even compels the assassin who was sent to kill him to switch sides. (His name is Mario Belli). But while he is satisfied to stay in Cesare's service when it suits him, when it gets a little too personal, well, he takes a stand for better or worse.

Prince of Foxes is historical romance at its best. Andrea Orsini is a great little hero. He falls hard for the (married) woman that Cesare Borgia promised him. If or when Cesare conquers that city (kingdom-state), Orsini will receive her as his reward for loyal service. Her name is Lady Camilla. She becomes very friendly with him, even flirty, I suppose. But she is a good wife who never leaves Orsini's company without urging him to do EVERYTHING in his power to protect her husband's life. Because his love for her is so strong, so transformative even, he no longer wants to "win" her as a prize. He knows that this husband's death is practically essential to his ambitions, and more importantly to Cesare's ambitions, and, so the conflict will end with him having to make a big decision.

I really loved this one! It is so well written too!

Orsini did not conceal the twinkle in his eyes. "No doubt. There are few who can match the divine genius of my lord Cesare."
"Of course," Lorenzo agreed. He would have liked to add: "Fratricide! Assassin! Bandit!" but he said merely, "Divine genius is well put."
"And let me tell you," smiled Orsini, "that he is not the monster that you people of Venice make him. Is not gossip the mother of monsters, Maestro? He has great ends and lets nothing distract him. Perhaps merely he's too consistent. Hard, if necessary; selfish, yes (and who isn't?); but able, of great virtu and splendor. A valiant prince...I'd wager you'd love him, Messer Lorenzo, unless you stood in his ways."
"Probably," said Lorenzo, doubting it. "I rejoice to learn about him."
"Look you" -- Orsini leaned forward -- "if he were a painter, he would use rich colors. Life is his canvas." (7)
Decidedly, thought Andrea, the illustrious Duke Valentino played in luck. He did not even have to pursue his victims: they came to him. But what could Orsini do about it? Indeed, what did he wish to do? (85)

© 2013 Becky Laney

Monday, October 21, 2013

Charlotte & Leopold

Charlotte & Leopold: The True Story of the Original People's Princess. James Chambers. 2007. 256 pages.

During her life, Princess Charlotte was the most popular member of the royal family. She was more popular than her grandfather, George III, and her father, the Prince Regent (George IV). Her life was certainly interesting. Her father and mother were CHARACTERS. They often made fools of themselves to the media and society in general. They were always fighting one another, always bickering, always trying to outdo one another. I'd already read a biography of Caroline. The focus on her parents is almost necessary to explain her childhood and upbringing. It also helps explain her popularity, to a certain degree.

The second half focuses on her love life, on her suitors and would-be suitors. The book focuses, of course, on the man she married, Prince Leopold. He's an interesting character as well! And his story does not end with his wife's death. The last chapters of the book follow his life...

I liked this one. I did. I also really loved Becoming Queen Victoria: The Tragic Death of Princess Charlotte and the Unexpected Rise of Britain's Greatest Monarch. The books overlap on their focus of Princess Charlotte. Both books bring the Georgian royalty to life, highlighting some of the more interesting members of the family!

© 2013 Becky Laney

Monday, October 7, 2013

Great Tales From English History, vol. 3

Great Tales from English History, volume 3. Robert Lacey. 2008. Little, Brown. 320 pages. [Source: Library]

This is the third volume in Robert Lacey's Great Tales from English History. I have reviewed both previous volumes: one, two. It covers the years 1690-1953. Diverse subjects are covered as well: religion, politics, science, philosophy, war, inventors and inventions, explorers and travelers. One thing I definitely noticed was the focus is less on royalty and the aristocrats.
The job of the historian is to deal objectively with the available facts. But history is in the eye of the beholder and also of the historian who, as a human being, has feelings and prejudices of his own... So let me try to be candid about some of my own prejudices. I believe passionately in the power of good storytelling, not only because it is fun, but because it breathes life into the past. It is also through accurate narrative--establishing what happened first and what happened next--that we start to perceive the cause of things, and what influences human beings to act in the noble and cruel ways that they do. I believe that nobility actually secures more effective outcomes than cruelty, though the story of the slave trade in the pages that follow might seem to challenge that. I also believe that ideas matter, that change is possible, that knowledge dispels fear, and that good history both explains and facilitates all those things. (3)
Overall, this series has been wonderful. I've loved these short tales. I've loved the focus on individuals, loved the chronological arrangement, loved seeing the big picture come together. I enjoyed the first two volumes in this series a little bit more than this third and final volume. But I am so glad I discovered the series!!!

Highlights from this volume include:
  • John Locke and Toleration
  • Union Jack
  • Britain's First Prime Minister
  • Born Again
  • Dick Turpin -- Stand and Deliver
  • God Save the King!
  • Dr. Johnson's Dictionary
  • The Madness of George III
  • Wellington and Waterloo
  • Stone Treasures Mary Anning and the Terror Lizards
  • I Will Be Good -- Victoria Becomes Queen
  • Prince Albert's Crystal Palace
  • Women and Children First -- The Birkenhead Drill
  • The Lady of the Lamp and the Lady with the Teacup
  • The Great Stink and the Tragedy of the Princess Alice
  • The King's Horse and Emily Davison
  • The Greatest History Book Ever
  • Dunkirk -- Britain's Army Saved by the Little Boats
  • Battle of Britain -- the Few and the Many
  • Code-making, Code-breaking - 'The Life That I Have'
  • Decoding the Secret of Life
Horrible Histories connections:

Dick Turpin
George the I Doesn't Understand English (Creation of First Prime Minister)
Born 2 Rule (The 4 Georges) (song)
Bonnie Prince Charlie
Queen Victoria and Albert(song)
Victorian Inventions (song)
Transportation Song
Florence Nightingale 
Mary Seacole Song
Suffragettes Song
RAF Song
Stinky Parliament
Napoleon Report

© 2013 Becky Laney

Friday, October 4, 2013

Roses Have Thorns

Roses Have Thorns: A Novel of Elizabeth I. Sandra Byrd. Simon & Schuster. 336 pages.

I just LOVED this one! I remember really enjoying Sandra Byrd's previous novels in this series--the Ladies in Waiting series, but this one may just be my favorite!!! The first novel is To Die For; the second novel is The Secret Keeper.

The heroine of Roses Have Thorns is Elin von Snakenborg (aka Helena, Marchioness of Northampton). Elin travels to England in the service of a Swedish princess; she remains in Britain to serve Queen Elizabeth. Elin has fallen in love and plans to marry. Until the time her marriage can take place--certain things have to be put in order first--she will joyfully serve Queen Elizabeth. There is some adapting to be done, of course, but Helena does settle into her new life.

Roses Have Thorns is dramatic and romantic. And as you might have come to expect from any book on this time period--politics! If you love reading about the Tudors, then Sandra Byrd's series is a must!!! I've read a handful of books set during Queen Elizabeth's reign, and this is one that presents her at her best and worst. In other words, she's believably human.

I loved so many things about this one!!! I loved getting to know Helena. I loved seeing the details of court life! The writing is wonderful!
© 2013 Becky Laney

Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Secret Keeper

The Secret Keeper. Sandra Byrd. 2012. Simon & Schuster. 352 pages.

I really enjoyed Sandra Byrd's To Die For. I equally enjoyed her newest novel, The Secret Keeper. Like To Die For it is set during the reign of Henry VIII, readers get the opportunity to view Henry VIII's last wife through the eyes of one of her closest friends. Juliana is our heroine, and she's in the service of Kateryn Parr. These two companions come to be close friends through the years which gives Juliana plenty of perspective on court life and the king and his three children.

While the book doesn't exclusively focus on the English Reformation--the Protestant Reformation--it certainly is one of the strengths of this one. Faith, religion, politics, and power struggles, this book has them all. The book also explores women's roles and rights. Intelligent, strong-willed, passionate-for-a-cause women who spoke out were taking a big risk. The book suggests to a certain degree that women had to use their power subtly and behind the scenes.

The narrative is personal, and it's a redemptive love story in a way. I definitely liked it and would recommend it.

© 2013 Becky Laney

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

To Die For

To Die For: A Novel of Anne Boleyn. Sandra Byrd. 2011. Howard Books. 332 pages.

There are many ways to arrive at the Tower of London, though there are few ways out.
Sandra Byrd's To Die For is an excellent historical romance novel. The narrator is Meg Wyatt, sister to Thomas Wyatt; she is best friends with Anne Boleyn. While I've read plenty of historical fiction set during this time period, it's rare for Anne Boleyn to be presented so sympathetically. I really came to care for both Meg and Anne. The novel begins in 1518 and ends soon after Anne's death. While the focus is definitely on life in the court of Henry VIII, one can also see it as a novel about the English Reformation. It highlights that while for some the Reformation was a convenient way for the King to get his own way all the time, that there were many, many people in England who were true Reformers, and genuinely believed in the Reformation and were eager to get their hands on an English Bible and read the Scriptures for themselves.

In addition to the "romance" between Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII (he is not presented sympathetically), the novel tells Meg's story. Her life being as good an example as any as to what a woman might expect from life at this time.

This historical romance was very enjoyable. Loved the writing, loved the characterization, loved the setting. It felt very personal, in a way, getting a glimpse of the close friendship between two women. For example, Meg being there for her during the birth of her daughter, Elizabeth, and for her two miscarriages. This was a very emotional novel for me, and I definitely wasn't expecting to feel such a strong connection with the heroines.

© 2013 Becky Laney

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Great Tales From English History, vol. 2

Great Tales From English History, vol. 2. Robert Lacey. 2004. Little, Brown. 288 pages. [Source: Library]

There are three volumes in Robert Lacey's series entitled Great Tales From English History. I loved, loved, loved the first volume. One of the reasons this series is so wonderful is the author's philosophy on history.
Our very first historians were storytellers--our best historians still are--and in many languages 'story' and 'history' remain the same word. Our brains are wired to make sense of the world through narrative--what came first and what came next--and once we know the sequence, we can start to work out the how and why. (xiii)
Great Tales From English written by an eternal optimist--albeit one who views the evidence with a skeptical eye. In these books I have endeavored to do more than just retell the old stories; I have tried to test the accuracy of each tale against the latest research and historical thinking, and to set them in a sequence from which meaning can emerge. (xiv)
The things we do not know about history far outnumber those that we do. But the fragments that survive are precious and bright. They offer us glimpses of drama, humour, frustration, humanity, the banal and the extraordinary--the stuff of life. (xvi)
The second volume begins in the reign of Richard II and ends during the reign of William and Mary. Highlights from this volume include:
  • Geoffrey Chaucer and the Mother Tongue
  • The Deposing of King Richard II
  • Turn Again, Dick Whittington
  • Henry IV And His Extra-virgin Oil
  • We Happy Few -- the Battle of Azincourt
  • Joan of Arc, the Maid of Orleans
  • House of Lancaster: The Two Reigns of Henry VI
  • The House of Theodore
  • House of York: Edward IV, Merchant King
  • Whodunit? The Princes in the Tower
  • The Battle of Bosworth Field
  • King Henry VIII's Great Matter
  • Let There Be Light -- William Tyndale and the English Bible
  • Divorced, Beheaded, Died...
  • ...Divorced, Beheaded, Survived
  • Lady Jane Grey -- The Nine Day Queen
  • Bloody Mary and the Fires of Smithfield
  • Elizabeth -- Queen of Hearts
  • Mary Queen of Scots
  • By Time Surprised
  • 5/11: England's First Terrorist
  • King James's Authentical Bible
  • Roundheads v. Caviliers
  • Behold the Head of a Traitor
  • Charles II and the Royal Oak
  • London Burning
  • Titus Oates and the Popish Plot
  • Monmouth's Rebellion and the Bloody Assizes
  • The Glorious Invasion
I loved this second volume. I just LOVED it. Lacey has such a narrative gift. He informs and entertains! I loved his selection of stories. I read it in one sitting; I just couldn't put this one down!

Favorite quotes:
For England, Agincourt has inspired quite a different national myth. London welcomed Henry home with drums, trumpets and tambourines and choirs of children dressed as angels. Flocks of birds were released into the air and gigantic carved effigies spelled out the meaning of the victory--a David defeating Goliath.
'We few, we happy few, we band of brothers', were the words with which Shakespeare would later enshrine Agincourt's model of bravery against the odds--the notion that the English actually do best when they are outnumbered. This phenomenon came to full flower in 1940 during the Battle of Britain, when Britain faced the might of Germany alone and Churchill spoke so movingly of the 'few.' To further fortify the bulldog spirit, the Ministry of Information financed the actor Laurence Olivier to film a Technicolor version of Agincourt as depicted in Shakespeare's Henry V. 'Dedicated to the Airborne Regiments' read a screen title in medieval script as the opening credits began to roll. (22)
If the Wars of the Roses were fought by the men, it was the women who eventually sorted out the mess. By the late 1400s the royal family tree had become a crazy spider's web of possible claimants to the throne, and it took female instinct to tease out the relevant strands from the tangle. The emotions of mothers and wives were to weave new patterns--and eventually they produced a most unlikely solution. (38)
Wars and Roses...we have seen that roses were rare on the battle banners of fifteenth century England. Let's now take a closer look at the 'wars' themselves. In the thirty-two years that history textbooks conventionally allot to the 'Wars of the Roses,' there were long periods of peace. In fact, there were only thirteen weeks of actual fighting--and though the battles themselves were bitter and sometimes very bloody, mayhem and ravaging seldom ensured. (46)
 Connections to Horrible Histories:

Plague Song
Owain Glyndwr Song
Agincourt the Movie
Joan of Arc
War of the Roses Reports & Richard III Song 
Wives of Henry VIII
Philip and Mary Love Story
Mary Tudor Song
The Axe Factor
William Shakespeare & The Quills
Spanish Armada Movie
Blue-Blooded Blues
English Civil War (Bob Hale)
English Civil War Song, Cromwell Laws, King of Bling

© 2013 Becky Laney

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

A Houseboat on the Styx

A Houseboat on the Styx. John Kendrick Bangs. 1895. 194 pages. [Source: Bought] 

Earlier this year, I read The Autobiography of Methuselah by John Kendrick Bangs. I enjoyed it very much. I knew he had a series of books set in the underworld that would be PERFECT for R.I.P reading.

Thanks to an amazing college professor (who was a wee bit obsessed with Samuel Johnson and James Boswell) AND Horrible Histories, I LOVED, LOVED, LOVED this collection of short stories. The first story starring Charon sets up the rest. This ferryman is asked to run or manage a houseboat, the other shades use this houseboat as a club. The 'associated shades' are famous historical and/or literary figures: Dr. Johnson, James Boswell, William Shakespeare, Sir Walter Raleigh, Demosthenes, Blackstone, Confucius, Sir Francis Bacon, Nero, Cassius, Diogenes, Mozart, Napoleon, Homer, Ptolemy, Baron Munchausen, Noah, Adam, etc. The book is humorous, full of lighthearted gossip and teasing among ghosts. The book has a surprising cliffhanger ending.

Here is a bit from chapter two. It will give you a taste of what to expect. I can't promise that you'll find it as giddy-making as I did. But I just LOVED, LOVED, LOVED the banter and spirit of it.
How are you, Charon?" said Shakespeare, as the Janitor assisted him on board. "Any one here to-night?"
"Yes, sir," said Charon. "Lord Bacon is up in the library, and Doctor Johnson is down in the billiard-room, playing pool with Nero."
"Ha-ha!" laughed Shakespeare. "Pool, eh? Does Nero play pool?"
"Not as well as he does the fiddle, sir," said the Janitor, with a twinkle in his eye.
Shakespeare entered the house and tossed up an obolus. "Heads-- Bacon; tails--pool with Nero and Johnson," he said.
The coin came down with heads up, and Shakespeare went into the pool- room, just to show the Fates that he didn't care a tuppence for their verdict as registered through the obolus. It was a peculiar custom of Shakespeare's to toss up a coin to decide questions of little consequence, and then do the thing the coin decided he should not do. It showed, in Shakespeare's estimation, his entire independence of those dull persons who supposed that in them was centred the destiny of all mankind. The Fates, however, only smiled at these little acts of rebellion, and it was common gossip in Erebus that one of the trio had told the Furies that they had observed Shakespeare's tendency to kick over the traces, and always acted accordingly. They never let the coin fall so as to decide a question the way they wanted it, so that unwittingly the great dramatist did their will after all. It was a part of their plan that upon this occasion Shakespeare should play pool with Doctor Johnson and the Emperor Nero, and hence it was that the coin bade him repair to the library and chat with Lord Bacon.
"Hullo, William," said the Doctor, pocketing three balls on the break. "How's our little Swanlet of Avon this afternoon?"
"Worn out," Shakespeare replied. "I've been hard at work on a play this morning, and I'm tired."
"All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy," said Nero, grinning broadly.
"You are a bright spirit," said Shakespeare, with a sigh. "I wish I had thought to work you up into a tragedy."
"I've often wondered why you didn't," said Doctor Johnson. "He'd have made a superb tragedy, Nero would. I don't believe there was any kind of a crime he left uncommitted. Was there, Emperor?"
"Yes. I never wrote an English dictionary," returned the Emperor, dryly. "I've murdered everything but English, though."
"I could have made a fine tragedy out of you," said Shakespeare. "Just think what a dreadful climax for a tragedy it would be, Johnson, to have Nero, as the curtain fell, playing a violin solo."
"Pretty good," returned the Doctor. "But what's the use of killing off your audience that way? It's better business to let 'em live, I say. Suppose Nero gave a London audience that little musicale he provided at Queen Elizabeth's Wednesday night. How many purely mortal beings, do you think, would have come out alive?"
"Not one," said Shakespeare. "I was mighty glad that night that we were an immortal band. If it had been possible to kill us we'd have died then and there."
"That's all right," said Nero, with a significant shake of his head. "As my friend Bacon makes Ingo say, 'Beware, my lord, of jealousy.' You never could play a garden hose, much less a fiddle."
"What do you mean my attributing those words to Bacon?" demanded Shakespeare, getting red in the face.
"Oh, come now, William," remonstrated Nero. "It's all right to pull the wool over the eyes of the mortals. That's what they're there for; but as for us--we're all in the secret here. What's the use of putting on nonsense with us?"
"We'll see in a minute what the use is," retorted the Avonian. "We'll have Bacon down here." Here he touched an electric button, and Charon came in answer.
"Charon, bring Doctor Johnson the usual glass of ale. Get some ice for the Emperor, and ask Lord Bacon to step down here a minute."
"I don't want any ice," said Nero.
"Not now," retorted Shakespeare, "but you will in a few minutes. When we have finished with you, you'll want an iceberg. I'm getting tired of this idiotic talk about not having written my own works. There's one thing about Nero's music that I've never said, because I haven't wanted to hurt his feelings, but since he has chosen to cast aspersions upon my honesty I haven't any hesitation in saying it now. I believe it was one of his fiddlings that sent Nature into convulsions and caused the destruction of Pompeii--so there! Put that on your music rack and fiddle it, my little Emperor."
Nero's face grew purple with anger, and if Shakespeare had been anything but a shade he would have fared ill, for the enraged Roman, poising his cue on high as though it were a lance, hurled it at the impertinent dramatist with all his strength, and with such accuracy of aim withal that it pierced the spot beneath which in life the heart of Shakespeare used to beat.
"Good shot," said Doctor Johnson, nonchalantly. "If you had been a mortal, William, it would have been the end of you."
"You can't kill me," said Shakespeare, shrugging his shoulders. "I know seven dozen actors in the United States who are trying to do it, but they can't. I wish they'd try to kill a critic once in a while instead of me, though," he added. "I went over to Boston one night last week, and, unknown to anybody, I waylaid a fellow who was to play Hamlet that night. I drugged him, and went to the theatre and played the part myself. It was the coldest house you ever saw in your life. When the audience did applaud, it sounded like an ice-man chopping up ice with a small pick. Several times I looked up at the galleries to see if there were not icicles growing on them, it was so cold. Well, I did the best could with the part, and next morning watched curiously for the criticisms."
"Favorable?" asked the Doctor.
"They all dismissed me with a line," said the dramatist. "Said my conception of the part was not Shakespearian. And that's criticism!"
"No," said the shade of Emerson, which had strolled in while Shakespeare was talking, "that isn't criticism; that's Boston."
"Who discovered Boston, anyhow?" asked Doctor Johnson. "It wasn't Columbus, was it?"
"Oh no," said Emerson. "Old Governor Winthrop is to blame for that. When he settled at Charlestown he saw the old Indian town of Shawmut across the Charles."
"And Shawmut was the Boston microbe, was it?" asked Johnson.
"Yes," said Emerson.
"Spelt with a P, I suppose?" said Shakespeare. "P-S-H-A-W, Pshaw, M- U-T, mut, Pshawmut, so called because the inhabitants are always muttering pshaw. Eh?"
"Pretty good," said Johnson. "I wish I'd said that."
"Well, tell Boswell," said Shakespeare. "He'll make you say it, and it'll be all the same in a hundred years."
Other quotes:
The first guest to arrive was Confucius, and after him came Diogenes, the latter in great excitement over having discovered a comparatively honest man, whose name, however, he had not been able to ascertain, though he was under the impression that it was something like Burpin, or Turpin, he said. 
"You ought to be up-stairs in the lecture-room, Boswell," said Shakespeare, as the great biographer took his seat behind his friend the Doctor. "Doesn't the Gossip want a report of the debate?"
"It does," said Boswell; "but the Gossip endeavors always to get the most interesting items of the day, and Doctor Johnson has informed me that he expects to be unusually witty this evening, so I have come here."
"Excuse me for saying it, Boswell," said the Doctor, getting red in the face over this unexpected confession, "but, really, you talk too much."
"That's good," said Cicero. "Stick that down, Boz, and print it. It's the best thing Johnson has said this week."
Boswell smiled weakly, and said: "But, Doctor, you did say that, you know. I can prove it, too, for you told me some of the things you were going to say. Don't you remember, you were going to lead Shakespeare up to making the remark that he thought the English language was the greatest language in creation, whereupon you were going to ask him why he didn't learn it?"
"Get out of here, you idiot!" roared the Doctor. "You're enough to give a man apoplexy."

"Hullo! here's Hamlet."
As the Doctor spoke, in very truth the melancholy Dane appeared in the doorway, more melancholy of aspect than ever.
"What's the matter with you?" asked Cicero, addressing the new-comer. "Haven't you got that poison out of your system yet?"
"Not entirely," said Hamlet, with a sigh; "but it isn't that that's bothering me. It's Fate."
"We'll get out an injunction against Fate if you like," said Blackstone. "Is it persecution, or have you deserved it?"
"I think it's persecution," said Hamlet. "I never wronged Fate in my life, and why she should pursue me like a demon through all eternity is a thing I can't understand."
"Maybe Ophelia is back of it," suggested Doctor Johnson. "These women have a great deal of sympathy for each other, and, candidly, I think you behaved pretty rudely to Ophelia. It's a poor way to show your love for a young woman, running a sword through her father every night for pay, and driving the girl to suicide with equal frequency, just to show theatre-goers what a smart little Dane you can be if you try."
"'Tisn't me does all that," returned Hamlet. "I only did it once, and even then it wasn't as bad as Shakespeare made it out to be."
"I put it down just as it was," said Shakespeare, hotly, "and you can't dispute it."
"Yes, he can," said Yorick. "You made him tell Horatio he knew me well, and he never met me in his life."
"I never told Horatio anything of the sort," said Hamlet. "I never entered the graveyard even, and I can prove an alibi."
"And, what's more, he couldn't have made the remark the way Shakespeare has it, anyhow," said Yorick, "and for a very good reason. I wasn't buried in that graveyard, and Hamlet and I can prove an alibi for the skull, too."
"It was a good play, just the same," said Cicero.
"Very," put in Doctor Johnson. "It cured me of insomnia."

In all the clubs I have known the house committees have invariably taken the ground that the complaint-book was established to guard them against the annoyance of hearing complaints.

An Authors' Club, where none but authors are admitted, is a good thing. The members learn there that there are other authors than themselves. Poets' Clubs are a good thing; they bring poets into contact with each other, and they learn what a bore it is to have to listen to a poet reading his own poem. 

© 2013 Becky Laney

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Light on Lucrezia

Light on Lucrezia: A Novel of the Borgias. Jean Plaidy. 1958/2011. Crown. 384 pages. [Source: Bought]

Light on Lucrezia is the sequel to Madonna on the Seven Hills. The novel opens with the moody Lucrezia preparing for her second marriage. The marriage has been arranged for her by her father, the Pope. She happens to be marrying Sanchia's brother, Alfonso. (Sanchia is her sister-in-law.) The two are a great couple; however, Lucrezia isn't to be allowed her happily ever after for politics and family interfere once again. After her husband's murder, Lucrezia's life is a bit of a mess. A third marriage is arranged after a time, but, it's less than ideal. At least as depicted by Plaidy! But though Lucrezia's fate is the happiest of the Borgia family, that really is not saying much considering what happens...

Reading Light On Lucrezia is like suffering through the last half of Gone With The Wind. There are highlights, of course, but overall it just gets more depressing and hopeless with every single chapter until the dreariest of endings. Is the ending inevitable? Sure. It is (very loosely) based on history. Cesare's fate is set in stone. And Lucrezia's childbearing misfortunes are realistic enough, but it was so very sad to read of all the miscarriages and the babies that died so very young. 

Madonna of the Seven Hills and Light on Lucrezia have recently been published as one novel. Plaidy's depiction of the Borgias is interesting. They have their fascinating-but-troubling moments to shine. And the first novel, at least, had some lightness and frivolity to it. I think Plaidy's characterization is better than say, The Borgia Bride, but not as wonderful as Blood and Beauty.  I really want Sarah Dunant to write another Borgia novel!!!

© 2013 Becky Laney

Monday, September 23, 2013

Madonna of the Seven Hills

Madonna of the Seven Hills: A Novel of the Borgias. Jean Plaidy. 1958/2011. Broadway. 320 pages. [Source: Bought]

What disturbs me most about Madonna of the Seven Hills is that Jean Plaidy bothered listing The Life of Cesare Borgia by Rafael Sabatini in her bibliography. If indeed she read the biography, she chose to disregard it completely. For this novel breaks all of Sabatini's rules. This novel thrives on the LEGENDARY sins of the Borgia family. It builds up this fantastical, sensational notion of what the family was like.  The most sympathetically presented is, of course, Lucrezia.

Two of Plaidy's novels are devoted to Lucrezia Borgia. The second is Light on Lucrezia. This novel tells her story up to the point of her (supposed) mysterious pregnancy following her scandalous divorce. It ends with her learning that the father of the child (supposed father, I should say) has been murdered by her family (presumably Cesare) and so has her maid because she knew too much.

Obviously, Madonna of the Seven Hills is SO MUCH BETTER than a certain romance novel I read in the summer, The Borgia Bride.  (That one was so awful). The characterization might be a bit biased, assuming that Cesare and Rodrigo are always up to no good and almost certainly being immoral or unwise, but it wasn't completely unpleasant either. Cesare comes across as mad, bad, and dangerous to know. Plaidy was perhaps, in her own little way, presenting him as the ultimate swoon-worthy bad boy. So Cesare and Rodrigo though they are presented as murderers and poisoners come across as quite likable at times. I found her presentation of Sanchia to be quite entertaining!

The book was a quick read. I didn't necessarily agree with her conclusions and presentation. But it was entertaining.

She, who had known so many men that she read them easily, was aware of this, and she determined now to make Cesare forget his ambitions in his pursuit of her. They were both experienced, and they would find great pleasure in surprising each other by their accomplishments. Each was aware of this as they danced; and each was asking: Why delay longer? Delay was something which neither of them would tolerate.
"You are all that I heard you were," Sanchia told him.
"You are all that I hoped you would be," he answered her.
"I wondered when you and I would be able to talk together. This is the first time it has happened, and all eyes are on us now."
"They were right," said Cesare, "when they said you were the most beautiful woman in the world."
"They were right when they said there was something terrifying about you."
"Do you find me terrifying?"
She laughed. "No man terrifies me."
"Have they always been so kind?"
"Always," she said. "From the time I was able to talk, men have been kind to me."
"Are you not weary of my sex, since you know it so well?"
"Each man is different from all others. That is what I have found. Perhaps that is why I have always discovered them to be so fascinating. And none that I have ever known has been remotely like you, Cesare Borgia; you stand apart."
"And you like this strangeness in me?"
"So much that I would know it so well that it ceases to be strangeness and is familiar to me."
"What tales have you heard of me?"
"That you are a man who will never take no for an answer, that men fear your frown, and that when you beckon a woman she must obey, in fear if not in desire. I have heard that those who displease you meet ill fortune, that some have been discovered in alleys, suffocated or with knives in their bodies. I have heard that some have drunk wine at your table and have felt themselves to be merely intoxicated, only to learn that they are dying. These are the things I have heard of you, Cesare Borgia. What have you heard of me?"
"That you practice witchcraft so that all men whom you desire fall under your spell, and that having once been your lover none can ever forget you."
"And do you believe these tales of me?"
"And do you believe the tales of me?"
She looked into his eyes and the flame of desire in hers was matched by that in his.
"I do not know," she said, "but I am determined to discover."
"Nor do I know," he answered; "and I think I am as eager to make my discoveries as you are."
His hand tightened on hers.
"Sanchia," he said, "this night?"
And she closed her eyes and nodded. (190-91) 

© 2013 Becky Laney

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Not so Gorgeous Georgians

From Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery. Eric Metaxas. 2007. HarperCollins. 304 pages.
Americans have an outsized tendency to romanticize the past, to see previous eras as magically halcyon and idyllic, and of no era would this be truer than the eighteenth century in Britain. Visions of powdered wigs and liveried coachmen dance in our heads. If forced to think of something negative about that time, we might come up with the charming anachronisms of chamber pots and wooden teeth. Perhaps someone will bring up the absence of anesthetics. But if the subject of slavery comes up, we will probably think of it as a grotesque aberration, as a single monstrous evil without much connection to an otherwise genteel and civilized society. That would be a gross mistake.
Entirely surprising to most of us, life in eighteenth century Britain was particularly brutal, decadent, violent, and vulgar. Slavery was only the worst of a host of societal evils that included epidemic alcoholism, child prostitution, child labor, frequent public executions for petty crimes, public dissections and burnings of executed criminals and unspeakable public cruelty to animals. (69)
King George III himself, it must be pointed out, stood out as a rare and notable exception to the advanced moral decay of those around him. He was deeply sensitive to his symbolic position as the head of the country and sincerely wished to set an example for the subjects he ruled. He was a faithful husband to his wife, Queen Charlotte, and a doting father who read the Bible to his daughters every night. But the moral seriousness, temperance, and uxoriousness that marked George III's character did not make the generational leap to his sons. There was an almost sublime bestiality to George's sons, a cadre of pleasure-choked buffoons who set the behavioral bar so low for the rest of society that one suspects they had perhaps thrown it into the basement. (72)
The eldest son, the Prince of Wales, was the undisputed leader of the unfiltered pack and is believed, among other accomplishments, to have bedded seven thousand women; he is said to have snipped and kept a lock of hair from each of them. Had this eventual tonnage of hair been sold to wigmakers, it might have made a dent in his astronomical gambling debts, which, with other debts, amounted to £660,000 in 1796, a figure that in twenty-first century dollars cannot be fathomed by anyone outside the Pentagon. (Thanks to his friends in Parliament, Charles James Fox and Richard Sheridan, the prince was routinely bailed out by the Royal Treasury.) But these hairy souvenirs, alas, were not sold but were merely cataloged by the future Monarch and Defender of the Faith in envelopes, each with the name of the lucky girl to whom it had belonged before her good fortune in being chosen as one of the seven thousand whom this discerning fellow found appealing and who had a pulse.
George was followed in the royal line by his brother Frederick, the Duke of York, who was followed by William, the Duke of Clarence... The Duke of Wellington would later refer to the sons of George III as "the damnedest millstones about the neck of any Government that can be imagined." (72-3)
Finally, in this world of cruelty, vulgarity, and hopelessness, we come to prostitution, which was so rampant one can scarcely imagine it. No less than 25 percent of all unmarried women in London were prostitutes. There were brothels that exclusively offered the services of girls under fourteen, and the average age of a prostitute in London during those years was sixteen. (76)
© 2013 Becky Laney

Friday, September 20, 2013

Book Review: The Life of Cesare Borgia

The Life of Cesare Borgia: A History and Some Criticisms. Rafael Sabatini. 1912. 326 pages. [Source: Bought]

Rafael Sabatini would NOT have approved of Horrible Histories' Borgia Family. The truth is, however, that I would never have sought out Sabatini's biography of Cesare Borgia if I'd not fallen in love with the video. It was Mat's "I am the mostest, powerfulest, evilest of all" that made me curious and seeking. I wasn't that impressed by my first attempt to learn more. The fictional Borgia Bride was awful. Fortunately, I discovered Sabatini's biography. It was LOVE.  It wasn't love because it fit into any preconceived notions about how I wanted the Borgia family to be. It was love because it respected human nature and historical fact. It embraced common sense and used dry wit, in part, to argue and persuade.

I journaled my reading in four parts. The first post tackled the preface and introduced Sabatini's goal in writing. It was WONDERFUL. The second post examined Cesare's father, Alexander VI (Rodrigo). The third post focused almost exclusively on Cesare. The fourth post focused on Sabatini as an author, his narrative style, his technique of criticizing other authors and sources. 
Life is an ephemeral business, and we waste too much of it in judging where it would beseem us better to accept, that we ourselves may come to be accepted by such future ages as may pursue the study of us.
But if it be wrong to judge a past epoch collectively by the standards of our own time, how much more is it not wrong to single out individuals for judgement by those same standards, after detaching them for the purpose from the environment in which they had their being? How false must be the conception of them thus obtained! We view the individuals so selected through a microscope of modern focus. They appear monstrous and abnormal, and we straight-way assume them to be monsters and abnormalities, never considering that the fault is in the adjustment of the instrument through which we inspect them, and that until that is corrected others of that same past age, if similarly viewed, must appear similarly distorted.
Hence it follows that some study of an age must ever prelude and accompany the study of its individuals, if comprehension is to wait upon our labours.
Sabatini just came across to me as practical, witty, sometimes wise, and sometimes poetic.
Mind being the seat of the soul, and literature being the expression of the mind, literature, it follows, is the soul of an age, the surviving and immortal part of it; (6)
Anyway, here is Sabatini's thesis--his goal for writing this biography. If you can embrace this premise, then chances are you'll find this one well worth the read!!!
Before we admit facts, not only should we call for evidence and analyse it when it is forthcoming, but the very sources of such evidence should be examined, that, as far as possible, we may ascertain what degree of credit they deserve. In the study of the history of the Borgias, we repeat, there has been too much acceptance without question, too much taking for granted of matters whose incredibility frequently touches and occasionally oversteps the confines of the impossible. (12)
If the author has a mercy to crave of his critics, it is that they will not impute it to him that he has set out with the express aim of "whitewashing"—as the term goes—the family of Borgia. To whitewash is to overlay, to mask the original fabric under a superadded surface. Too much superadding has there been here already. By your leave, all shall be stripped away. The grime shall be removed and the foulness of inference, of surmise, of deliberate and cold-blooded malice, with which centuries of scribblers, idle, fantastic, sensational, or venal, have coated the substance of known facts.
But the grime shall be preserved and analysed side by side with the actual substance, that you may judge if out of zeal to remove the former any of the latter shall have been included in the scraping.
If Sabatini was alive to refute current fictional portrayals of Cesare in romance novels...
Women play no part whatever in his history. Not once shall you find a woman's influence swaying him; not once shall you see him permitting dalliance to retard his advancement or jeopardize his chances. With him, as with egotists of his type, governed by cold will and cold intellect, the sentimental side of the relation of the sexes has no place. With him one woman was as another woman; as he craved women, so he took women, but with an almost contemptuous undiscrimination. 
The biography is rich in detail. It doesn't just focus on Cesare. It tries to cover more than that--to look at an age, to capture a time and place. It is ALL ABOUT context for Rafael Sabatini. And I really enjoyed his technique overall. 

© 2013 Becky Laney

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Blood & Beauty

Blood & Beauty: The Borgias. Sarah Dunant. 2013. Random House. 528 pages. [Source: Library]

I loved, loved, loved Sarah Dunant's Blood & Beauty. It is a novel of the Borgia family. Readers get an 'inside' glimpse into the lives of Alexander (Pope Alexander VI, Rodrigo Borgia), Cesare (Cardinal Valencia, Duke Valentinois), Juan (Giovanni, Duke of Gandia), Lucrezia, and Jofre. The best thing about this novel? Every single character--every major character, every minor character--has substance and depth. There is a richness, a complexity that was lacking in another Borgia novel I read earlier this year. The characters are all too human. Yes, characters are flawed, but dynamically so.

(Other characters include Vannozza (Alexander's former mistress, the mother of the four children), Giulia Farnese (Alexander's mistress while he was the pope), Sancia of Aragon (Jofre's wife), Pedro Calderon (family messenger and sometimes personal bodyguard for Cesare), Michelotto (personal body guard for Cesare), Giovanni Sforza (Lucrezia's first husband), Alfonso d'Aragon (Lucrezia's second husband, brother to Sancia) Alfonso d'Este (Lucrezia's third husband).

The novel opens with Rodrigo Borgia hopeful that he can indeed bribe the cardinals into making him the next pope. Victory is his within the first few chapters, and then the dynasty-making truly begins. The family dynamics is interesting, very complex. He loves all his children, but, some he loves more than others, and some he trusts more than others. I loved getting stories on ALL of his children. Juan has an army; he can be reckless and impulsive; he also LOVES women. Wherever he goes, he ends up being talked about. The same can almost be said about Cesare, except, he's presented as being more in control, more calculating, more intellectual. He's a strategist, capable of seeing the big picture, seeing possible outcomes, calculating risks, making bold moves when needed. He has his share of women too. And he's presented as being very charismatic. Lucrezia's portrayal is interesting. This was the first time I really saw her as being so young. Her father and brother manage her relationships to a certain degree. They arrange her first marriage. They arrange when her husband can come visit her, stay with her; they are the ones to decide if she's to stay in Rome or go to live with her husband. They are the ones to analyze the 'success' of the marriage and decree it not worth keeping. They encourage strongly the need for an annulment. And that's marriage number one... Lucrezia is depicted as being clever and observant, as being bold enough to give advice and ask questions of her father and brother; she's seen as young, religious, compassionate. She is not portrayed as a sexually immoral woman. However, her sister-in-law, Sancia, is, the novel mentioning her relationships with all three Borgia brothers. Joffre, the youngest, is depicted as being immature and not as bright as his two older brothers. He idolizes his brothers, envies their strength and popularity. But he is presented as not being smart enough or charismatic enough to be politically useful.

I loved the depth to the characters. The book was fascinating and entertaining. I appreciated the author including a bibliography that showed her research into the time period, into the family. This is very much a novel about power--political and military power--and ambition.

© 2013 Becky Laney of Becky's Book Reviews

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Haunting of Charles Dickens

The Haunting of Charles Dickens. Lewis Buzbee. With illustrations by Greg Ruth. 2010. October 2010. Feiwel & Friends. 368 pages.

London. Mid-summer night nearly upon us. Meg Pickel stood, as she had every night for six months now, at the edge of her family's roof-garden, and stared into the City, towards the massive black dome of St. Paul's Cathedral.

Meg, our heroine, is searching for her missing brother, Orion, while Mr. Charles Dickens, our heroine's godfather, is "searching" for his next novel. Can they succeed if they work together? Read and see for yourself in The Haunting of Charles Dickens by Lewis Buzbee.

I really enjoyed reading Steinbeck's Ghost. So I was excited to see Lewis Buzbee's next novel. While Steinbeck's Ghost had a modern day hero "discovering" Steinbeck through his works, The Haunting of Charles Dickens goes beyond that. Meg knows Charles Dickens. Or she knows certain aspects of him at least. He is more than an author she loves and adores. He is her friend. Readers "meet" Charles Dickens--as envisioned by Lewis Buzbee. (I'm not convinced Buzbee's Dickens resembles the actual Charles Dickens, but that's another story. Readers meet a kid-friendly Dickens minus some of his flaws.) It's a book about social injustices.
"We're all haunted, my friends," Mr. Dickens practically sang. "By what we forget. Now that we are un-forgetting, we must cease to be haunted. We must act...We must find Orion, Campion," he said. "You and Julia and myself, and Meg--Meg most of all--we must find Orion!"
Her father stood awkwardly and moved away from Mr. Dickens, his back to him. Aunt Julia leaned forward, suspended. Mr. Dickens waited. Her father turned.
"Charles, don't be so melodramatic. This isn't one of your novels."
"Not yet it isn't!" (83)
To call this head-dress a hat would be a gross injustice to all hats. What the lady wore on her head seemed quite undecided; it could not choose whether it wanted to be a very small piece of architecture or a rather large piece of French pastry. It was a head-dress, Meg thought, of considerable ambition. Along with its ambition, and its height--which matched its ambition--were the golden ornaments that hung about it, hiding here and there in the massive structure like sparrows in a hedge. (182)
I thought there were times when the writing worked well--Buzbee's descriptions were a nice touch. But it's not a perfect novel. There were times the writing seemed forced--like it was trying too hard, if that makes sense. (I'm not sure the Beatles references exactly fit.) But. I enjoyed reading this imagined behind-the-scenes story of Our Mutual Friend. And I enjoyed the illustrations. So while I didn't love, love, love it, I did like it. 

© 2013 Becky Laney

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The Redheaded Princess

The Redheaded Princess. Ann Rinaldi. 2008. 224 pages.

The Redheaded Princess. What can I say about this one? It's a fictional novel--for teens--about Princess Elizabeth. The novel opens when she's a child and she's still estranged from her father, King Henry VIII. The novel closes with the death of her sister, Queen Mary, a.k.a Bloody Mary. In between, there are many ups and downs along the way. Her semi-reconciliation with her father and his newest and latest wife, Katharine. Her relationship with her half-brother, Edward, the boy who would become King (and did in fact become King) yet who never really "reigned" on his own. Too young. Too sickly. Her very, very strange relationship with Thomas Seymour. Her turbulent relationship with her older half-sister, Mary.

Elizabeth's life was strange. No doubt about it. Never knowing her mother, only really hearing about how she had "bewitched" the King into divorcing his wife. She was presented to the girl as a whore and a witch. Someone dangerous to imitate. She had a distant relationship with her father. Sometimes in favor and in court, other times forgotten and left to fend for herself in the country. Not that she was alone. She had her servants, her friends, her tutors. But still. Without parental guidance let's say. And she didn't have normal family relationships with her brother and sister either. When one sibling has the power of life and death over the others, the power to imprison, things can get messy very very quickly.

The plotting. Oh the plotting. The scheming. It seems that there was never an end to the number of people who wanted to use these three children as pawns to gain favor, esteem, wealth, and power. Manipulations. Trying to turn the family against one another time and time again.

The religion. I wonder if readers grasp just how big this Catholic versus Protestant issue was back in the day. Where being one or the other could cost you your life. To realize just how opposing and judgmental they were of one another. It is hard, I think, for readers to grasp until they've studied the era, studied the writers of that time period. This was really and truly life and death stuff. And believers had to be ready to die for how they chose to worship. For how they viewed the sacraments.

Anyway, if you're already familiar with the Tudors, with Henry VIII and his children (Mary, Elizabeth, Edward), then you won't learn much more than you already know. If you're not that familiar, this would be a nice place to start.

This novel would be a good companion to Rinaldi's previous novel, Nine Days A Queen: The Short Life and Reign of Lady Jane Grey.

The real question may be how does this one compare to Carolyn Meyer's series on the Young Tudor women.
Mary, Bloody Mary. Doomed Queen Anne. Patience, Princess Catherine. Beware Princess Elizabeth. And the answer to that would be purely subjective.

© 2013 Becky Laney

Monday, September 16, 2013

The Trumpeter of Krakow

The Trumpeter of Krakow. Eric P. Kelly. 1928. 208 pages.

It was in late July of the year 1461 that the sun rose one morning red and fiery as if ushering in midsummer's hottest day. His rays fell upon the old city of Krakow and the roads leading up to it, along which rolled and rocked a very caravan of peasants' wagons. 

Don't judge a book by its cover. Or, at least don't judge this book by its cover! For appearances can be deceiving, The Trumpeter of Krakow is anything but boring! It's an exciting adventure story with elements that reminded me of some great fantasy novels! (It stars an alchemist and his "student" who is obsessed with finding the philosopher's stone.)

The Charnetski family has come to Krakow seeking protection. The father (Andrew Charnetski) has relatives in the city, and he's hoping to find sanctuary there until he can have an audience with the King (Kazimir Jagiello). But when he arrives, he learns that his relative has died--been murdered--and that the rest of the family has fled. Knowing that his family is in great danger--especially if the man seeking to prevent him from entering the city comes back to cause trouble--he returns to the market to think out his options. Joseph, the son, happens to rescue a young woman from an attacking dog, and in doing so wins the gratitude of her uncle. An invitation is extended to Joseph and his family, and lodgings are arranged. Around the same time, Andrew meets an important man in the city, Jan Kanty, who listens sympathetically and offers great advice. Sell your horses and your cart, change your name, and become the trumpeter in the tower of the Church of Our Lady St. Mary. Andrew is happy to follow this advice closely. He even teaches his son to play the trumpet hymn (Heynal) that is to played four times every hour. There is a story about this hymn, and a legend of sorts about a trumpeter. Readers learn of this at the very beginning, for it is set several centuries before this adventure even begins.

There is never a dull moment in The Trumpeter of Krakow. For there are the neighbors above and below to keep things interesting. The most interesting, perhaps, being the alchemist, Kreutz, he is the distracted uncle of the grateful girl, Elzbietka. He has a student, Johann Tring, a young man that makes many--including Joseph and Elzbietka--nervous. The two--in varying degrees--are obsessed with finding out the secret of how to make gold, fascinated with the philosopher's stone. The niece feels that Tring is a bad, bad influence on her uncle, and that Tring is leading her Uncle into dangerous territory.

And of course, never for a minute forget that this family is being pursued. Why? Well, the family DOES have a secret, they have something in their possession that drives people mad, something that people are willing to kill to have.

The novel is exciting. It has action and adventure, and a bit of magic as well. I do believe this one is more plot-driven than character-driven, but that didn't bother me at all. For it was enough that I wanted to find out what happened next. And the writing, I felt, was pleasant.

© 2013 Becky Laney

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Frightful First World War

Today's reading list is of books (mainly fiction) set during World War I.

The Belgian Twins. Lucy Fitch Perkins. 1917. 124 pages.
Rilla of Ingleside. L.M. Montgomery. 1921. 280 pages.
War Horse. Michael Morpurgo. 1982/2010. Scholastic. 176 pages
Yesterday's Dead. Pat Bourke. 2012. Second Story Press. 232 pages.
Dear America: The Diary of Lydia Amelia Pierce, Like the Willow Tree, Portland Maine, 1918. Lois Lowry. 2011. Scholastic. 224 pages.
 Day of the Assassins. (Jack Christie #1) Johnny O'Brien. 2009. Candlewick. 224 pages.

Hattie Big Sky. Kirby Larson. 2006. Random House. 290 pages.
My Brother's Shadow. Monika Schroder. 2011. FSG. 224 pages.
All Our Worldly Goods. Irene Nemirovsky. 1947/2008. Vintage Books. Translated from the French by Sandra Smith. (French title: Les Biens de ce Monde.) 265 pages.
And The Soldiers Sang. J. Patrick Lewis. Illustrated by Gary Kelley. 2011. Creative Editions. 32 pages.
Wings of a Dream. Anne Mateer. 2011. Bethany House. 319 pages.
A Heart Most Worthy. Siri Mitchell. 2011. Bethany House. 384 pages.
A Bond Never Broken. Judith Miller. 2011. Bethany House. 384 pages.
Moon Over Manifest. Clare Vanderpool. 2010. October 2010. Random House. 368 pages.
Leviathan. Scott Westerfeld. 2009. October 2009. Simon & Schuster. 448 pages.
Behemoth. Scott Westerfeld. 2010. October 2010. Simon & Schuster. 485 pages.
Crossing Stones. Helen Frost. 2009. FSG. 184 pages.
Best Bad Luck I Ever Had. Kristin Levine. 2009. Penguin. 264 pages.
Winnie's War. Jenny Moss. 2009. Walker Books. 
The Last River Child. Lori Ann Bloomfield. 2010. Second Story Press. 280 pages.

Unraveling Freedom: The Battle for Democracy on the Home Front During World War I. Ann Bausum. 2010. November 2010. National Geographic. 96 pages.
The War to End All Wars: World War I. Russell Freedman. 2010. August 2010. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 192 pages.

© 2013 Becky Laney

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Journaling Rookwood #2

From Rookwood. William Harrison Ainsworth. (1834)
"Ay, a song, Mr. Palmer, a song!" reiterated the hinds. "Yours will be the right kind of thing."
"Say no more," replied Jack. "I'll give you a chant composed upon Dick Turpin, the highwayman. It's no great shakes, to be sure, but it's the best I have." And, with a knowing wink at the sexton, he commenced, in the true nasal whine, the following strain:
"One foot in the stirrup, one hand in the rein,
And the noose be my portion, or freedom I'll gain!
Oh! give me a seat in my saddle once more,
And these bloodhounds shall find that the chase is not o'er!"
Thus muttered Dick Turpin, who found, while he slept,
That the Philistines old on his slumbers had crept;
Had entrapped him as puss on her form you'd ensnare,
And that gone were his snappers—and gone was his mare.
How Dick had been captured is readily told,
The pursuit had been hot, though the night had been cold,
So at daybreak, exhausted, he sought brief repose
Mid the thick of a corn-field, away from his foes.
But in vain was his caution—in vain did his steed,
Ever watchful and wakeful in moments of need,
With lip and with hoof on her master's cheek press—
He slept on, nor heeded the warning of Bess.
"Zounds! gem'men!" cried Turpin, "you've found me at fault,
And the highflying highwayman's come to a halt;
You have turned up a trump—for I weigh well my weight,—
And the forty is yours, though the halter's my fate.
Well, come on't what will, you shall own when all's past,
That Dick Turpin, the Dauntless, was game to the last.
But, before we go further, I'll hold you a bet,
That one foot in my stirrup you won't let me set.
A hundred to one is the odds I will stand,
A hundred to one is the odds you command;
Here's a handful of goldfinches ready to fly!
May I venture a foot in my stirrup to try?"
As he carelessly spoke, Dick directed a glance
At his courser, and motioned her slyly askance:—
You might tell by the singular toss of her head,
And the prick of her ears, that his meaning she read.
With derision at first was Dick's wager received,
And his error at starting as yet unretrieved;
But when from his pocket the shiners he drew,
And offered to "make up the hundred to two,"
There were havers in plenty, and each whispered each,
The same thing, though varied in figure of speech,
"Let the fool act his folly—the stirrup of Bess!
He has put his foot in it already, we guess!"
Bess was brought to her master—Dick steadfastly gazed
At the eye of his mare, then his foot quick upraised;
His toe touched the stirrup, his hand grasped the rein—
He was safe on the back of his courser again!
As the clarion, fray-sounding and shrill, was the neigh
Of Black Bess, as she answered his cry "Hark-away!"
"Beset me, ye bloodhounds! in rear and in van;
My foot's in the stirrup and catch me who can!"
There was riding and gibing mid rabble and rout,
And the old woods re-echoed the Philistines' shout!
There was hurling and whirling o'er brake and o'er brier,
But the course of Dick Turpin was swift as Heaven's fire.
Whipping, spurring, and straining would nothing avail,
Dick laughed at their curses, and scoffed at their wail;
"My foot's in the stirrup!"—thus rang his last cry;
"Bess has answered my call; now her mettle we'll try!"
Dick Turpin, at the period of which we treat, was in the zenith of his reputation. His deeds were full blown; his exploits were in every man's mouth; and a heavy price was set upon his head. That he should show himself thus openly, where he might be so easily betrayed, excited no little surprise among the craftiest of the crew, and augured an excess of temerity on his part. Rash daring was the main feature of Turpin's character. Like our great Nelson, he knew fear only by name; and when he thus trusted himself in the hands of strangers, confident in himself and in his own resources, he felt perfectly easy as to the result.
Turpin was the ultimus Romanorum, the last of a race, which—we were almost about to say we regret—is now altogether extinct. Turpin was the ultimus Romanorum, the last of a race, which—we were almost about to say we regret—is now altogether extinct.
Lest any one should think we have overrated the pleasures of the highwayman's existence, they shall hear what "the right villainous" Jack Hall, a celebrated tobyman of his day, has got to say on the subject. "His life—the highwayman's—has, generally, the most mirth and the least care in it of any man's breathing, and all he deals for is clear profit: he has that point of good conscience, that he always sells as he buys, a good pennyworth, which is something rare, since he trades with so small a stock. The fence [27] and he are like the devil and the doctor, they live by one another; and, like traitors, 'tis best to keep each other's counsel. He has this point of honesty, that he never robs the house he frequents"—Turpin had the same scruples respecting the Hall of Rookwood in Sir Piers's lifetime—; "and perhaps pays his debts better than some others, for he holds it below the dignity of his employment to commit so ungenteel a crime as insolvency, and loves to pay nobly. He has another quality, not much amiss, that he takes no more than he has occasion for"
He has reason enough to be bold in his undertakings, for, though all the world threaten him, he stands in fear of but one man in it, and that's the hangman; and with him, too, he is generally in fee: however, I cannot affirm he is so valiant that he dares look any man in the face, for in that point he is now and then, a little modest.
The last of this race—for we must persist in maintaining that he was the last—, Turpin, like the setting sun, threw up some parting rays of glory, and tinged the far highways with a luster that may yet be traced like a cloud of dust raised by his horse's retreating heels. Unequalled in the command of his steed, the most singular feat that the whole race of the annals of horsemanship has to record, and of which we may have more to say hereafter, was achieved by him. So perfect was his jockeyship, so clever his management of the animal he mounted, so intimately acquainted was he with every cross-road in the neighborhood of the metropolis—a book of which he constructed, and carried constantly about his person—, as well as with many other parts of England, particularly the counties of Chester, York, and Lancaster, that he outstripped every pursuer, and baffled all attempts at capture. His reckless daring, his restless rapidity—for so suddenly did he change his ground, and renew his attacks in other quarters, that he seemed to be endowed with ubiquity,—his bravery, his resolution, and, above all, his generosity, won for him a high reputation amongst his compatriots, and even elicited applauses from those upon whom he levied his contributions. Beyond dispute, he ruled as master of the road. His hands were, as yet, unstained with blood; he was ever prompt to check the disposition to outrage, and to prevent, as much as lay in his power, the commission of violence by his associates. Of late, since he had possessed himself of his favorite mare, Black Bess, his robberies had been perpetrated with a suddenness of succession, and at distances so apparently impracticable, that the idea of all having been executed by one man, was rejected as an impossibility; and the only way of reconciling the description of the horse and rider, which tallied in each instance, was the supposition that these attacks were performed by confederates similarly mounted and similarly accoutred.
All concurred in thinking him a fine fellow; could plainly read his high courage in his bearing; his good breeding in his d├ębonnaire deportment; and his manly beauty in his extravagant red whiskers. Dick saw the effect that he produced. He was at home in a moment. Your true highwayman has ever a passion for effect. This does not desert him at the gallows; it rises superior to death itself, and has been known to influence the manner of his dangling from the gibbet!
Many a pretty lass has thought it an honor to be kissed by Turpin.
Dick wended towards his mare. Black Bess uttered an affectionate whinnying sound as he approached her, and yielded her sleek neck to his caresses. No Bedouin Arab ever loved his horse more tenderly than Turpin.
"'Twill be a hard day when thou and I part!" murmured he, affectionately patting her soft and silky cheeks. Bess thrust her nose into his hand, biting him playfully, as much as to say, "That day will never arrive." Turpin, at least, understood the appeal in that sense; he was skilled in the language of the Houyhnhnms. "I would rather lose my right hand than that should happen," sighed he; "but there's no saying: the best of friends must part; and thou and I may be one day separated: thy destination is the knacker—mine, perhaps, the gibbet.—We are neither of us cut out for old age, that's certain. Curse me if I can tell how it is; since I've been in that vault, I've got some queer crotchet into my head. I can't help likening thee to that poor gipsy wench, Sybil; but may I be scragged if I'd use thee as her lover has used her. Ha!" exclaimed he, drawing a pistol with a suddenness that made his companions, Rust and Wilder, start, "we are watched. See you not how yon shadow falls from behind the wall?"
Dick himself would have been the last man to own it; nor shall we do the memory of our undaunted highwayman any such injustice. Turpin was intrepid to a fault. He was rash; apt to run into risks for the mere pleasure of getting out of them: danger was his delight, and the degree of excitement was always in proportion to the peril incurred. After the first glance, he became, to use his own expressive phrase, "as cool as a cucumber;" and continued, as long as they permitted him, like a skilful commander, calmly to calculate the numerical strength of his adversaries, and to arrange his own plan of resistance.
This spark was a no less distinguished personage than Tom King, a noted high-tobygloak of his time, who obtained, from his appearance and address, the sobriquet of the "Gentleman Highwayman." His acquaintance with Turpin was singular, and originated in a rencontre. Struck with his appearance, Dick presented a pistol, and bade King deliver. The latter burst into a laugh, and an explanation immediately ensued. Thenceforward they became sworn brothers—the Pylades and Orestes of the road; and though seldom seen together in public, had many a merry moonlight ride in company. Tom still maintained three mistresses, his valet, his groom—tiger, we should have called him,—"and many a change of clothes besides," says his biographer, "with which he appeared more like a lord than a highwayman." And what more, we should like to know, would a lord wish to have? Few younger sons, we believe, can boast so much; and it is chiefly on their account, with some remote view to the benefit of the unemployed youth of all professions, that we have enlarged so much upon Tom King's history. The road, we must beg to repeat, is still open; the chances are greater than they ever were; we fully believe it is their only road to preferment, and we are sadly in want of highwaymen!
A man should always die game. We none of us know how soon our turn may come; but come when it will, I shall never flinch from it. As the highwayman's life is the fullest of zest, So the highwayman's death is the briefest and best; He dies not as other men die, by degrees, But at once! without flinching—and quite at his ease!
Let the lover his mistress's beauty rehearse,
And laud her attractions in languishing verse;
Be it mine in rude strains, but with truth to express,
The love that I bear to my bonny Black Bess.
From the west was her dam, from the east was her sire,
From the one came her swiftness, the other her fire;
No peer of the realm better blood can possess
Than flows in the veins of my bonny Black Bess.
Look! Look! how that eyeball grows bright as a brand!
That neck proudly arches, those nostrils expand!
Mark! that wide flowing mane! of which each silky tress
Might adorn prouder beauties—though none like Black Bess.
Mark! that skin sleek as velvet, and dusky as night,
With its jet undisfigured by one lock of white;
That throat branched with veins, prompt to charge or caress
Now is she not beautiful?—bonny Black Bess!
Over highway and by-way, in rough and smooth weather,
Some thousands of miles have we journeyed together;
Our couch the same straw, and our meal the same mess
No couple more constant than I and Black Bess.
By moonlight, in darkness, by night, or by day,
Her headlong career there is nothing can stay;
She cares not for distance, she knows not distress:
Can you show me a courser to match with Black Bess?
We cannot command our luck; but we can make the best of the span allotted to us. You have your game to play. I have mine. May each of us meet with the success he deserves." "Egad! I hope not," said King. "I'm afraid, in that case, the chances would be against us."
Turpin, the reader already knows, was a crack rider; he was the crack rider of England of his time, and, perhaps, of any time. The craft and mystery of jockeyship was not so well understood in the eighteenth as it is in the nineteenth century; men treated their horses differently, and few rode them as well as many ride now, when every youngster takes to the field as naturally as if he had been bred a Guacho. Dick Turpin was a glorious exception to the rule, and anticipated a later age...He rode wonderfully lightly, yet sat his saddle to perfection, distributing the weight so exquisitely that his horse scarcely felt his pressure; he yielded to every movement made by the animal, and became, as it were, part and parcel of itself; he took care Bess should be neither strained nor wrung. Freely, and as lightly as a feather, was she borne along; beautiful was it to see her action—to watch her style and temper of covering the ground; and many a first-rate Meltonian might have got a wrinkle from Turpin's seat and conduct. We have before stated that it was not Dick's object to ride away from his pursuers—he could have done that at any moment. He liked the fun of the chase, and would have been sorry to put a period to his own excitement. Confident in his mare, he just kept her at such speed as should put his pursuers completely to it, without in the slightest degree inconveniencing himself. Some judgment of the speed at which they went may be formed, when we state that little better than an hour had elapsed and nearly twenty miles had been ridden over. "Not bad travelling that," methinks we hear the reader exclaim.
© 2013 Becky Laney

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Spotlight on You Wouldn't Want To Be...

Scholastic has published an extensive series of nonfiction picture books for young readers. Their titles are diverse and quite interesting. What I appreciate most--at the moment, at least--is how closely some these books can be linked to Horrible Histories!!! For example, You Wouldn't Want To Be an 18th Century British Convict ties in perfectly with Australia. And You Wouldn't Want to Be An Aztec Sacrifice goes perfectly with Aztec Priests' Song.

You Wouldn't Want To Sail in the Spanish Armada
You Wouldn't Want To Be A Crusader
You Wouldn't Want To Be A Victorian Servant
You Wouldn't Want to Be An 18th Century British Convict
You Wouldn't Want to Be A 19th Century Coal Miner in England
You Wouldn't Want To Work On the Great Wall of China
You Wouldn't Want To Be Cleopatra
You Wouldn't Want To Be An Inca Mummy
You Wouldn't Want to Be A Sumerian Slave
You Wouldn't Want to Be in the First Submarine
You Wouldn't Want to Be A Suffragist
You Wouldn't Want To Be A Viking Explore
You Wouldn't Want to Be A Greek Athlete
You Wouldn't Want to Be in Alexander the Great's Army
You Wouldn't Want To Be A Victorian Mill Worker
You Wouldn't Want To Be Mary Queen of Scots
You Wouldn't Want to Explore with Marco Polo
You Wouldn't Want to Be A Salem Witch
You Wouldn't Want To Be On the First Flying Machine
You Wouldn't Want to Meet Typhoid Mary
You Wouldn't Want to Sail on the Titanic
You Wouldn't Want To Meet A Body Snatcher
You Wouldn't Want To Be A World War II Pilot
You Wouldn't Want to Be A Civil War Soldier
You Wouldn't Want to Be On The Hindenburg
You Wouldn't Want to Be A Chicago Gangster
You Wouldn't Want To Work on the Brooklyn Bridge
You Wouldn't Want to Be Sick in the 16th Century
You Wouldn't Want to Live In a Wild West Town
You Wouldn't Want To Be A Shakespearean Actor
You Wouldn't Want to Be a Skyscraper Builder
You Wouldn't Want to Be A Worker on the Statue of Liberty
You Wouldn't Want to Explore with Sir Francis Drake
You Wouldn't Want to Be On Apollo 13
You Wouldn't Want to Sail on an Irish Famine Ship
You Wouldn't Want to Be an American Pioneer
You Wouldn't Want to Be At the Boston Tea Party
You Wouldn't Want to Sail on the Mayflower
You Wouldn't Want to Sail on a 19th Century Whaling Ship
You Wouldn't Want to Work on the Hoover Dam
You Wouldn't Want To Be A Pony Express Rider
You Wouldn't Want to Be An Aristocrat in the French Revolution
You Wouldn't Want to Be in a Medieval Dungeon
You Wouldn't Want to Be An American Colonist
You Wouldn't Want to Be An Aztec Sacrifice
You Wouldn't Want To Be A Roman Gladiator
You Wouldn't Want to Be A Slave in Ancient Greece
You Wouldn't Want to Be A Mayan Soothsayer
You Wouldn't Want to Be Tutankhamen
You Wouldn't Want to Be A samurai
You Wouldn't Want to Be A Nurse During the American Civil War
You Wouldn't Want To Work on the Railroad
You Wouldn't Want to Explore with Lewis and Clark
You Wouldn't Want to Sail with Christopher Columbus
You Wouldn't Want to Live in Pompeii
You Wouldn't Want to Be Cursed by King Tut
You Wouldn't Want To Be A Pirate's Prisoner
You Wouldn't Want to Be A Medieval Knight
You Wouldn't Want to Be A Roman Soldier
You Wouldn't Want to Be Joan of Arc
You Wouldn't Want to Travel with Captain Cook
You Wouldn't Want to Be An Egyptian Mummy
You Wouldn't Want to Be A Ninja Warrior
You Wouldn't Want To Be A Secret Agent During World War II
You Wouldn't Want to Work on a Medieval Cathedral
You Wouldn't Want to Be A Mammoth Hunter
You Wouldn't Want to Be a Polar Explorer
You Wouldn't Want to Be A Pyramid Builder
You Wouldn't Want To Be An Assyrian Soldier
You Wouldn't Want to Be In Forbidden City
You Wouldn't Want to Live In a Medieval Castle

© 2013 Becky Laney