Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Resurrection Of The Romanovs Anastasia, Anna Anderson, And The World's Greatest Royal Mystery by Greg King and Penny Wilson

If you’re interested in the Anastasia/Anna Anderson saga, you might or might not want to read this book, depending on how you feel about it. If you love the fairy tale story of a princess, whose name ironically means “Resurrection,” who rose from the ashes of her family’s destruction, and like to believe in it despite the DNA evidence, be forewarned, this book is going to puncture your beautiful balloon.

This is one of those books that basically tells you everything you heard or believed before has been greatly exaggerated or is completely wrong. If you read the previous Anastasia biographies by Peter Kurth and James Blair Lovell, it’s really disillusioning in comparison. It will make you feel like anyone who ever believed this story was an idiot, so in love with the ideal of a surviving Romanov princess that they were willing to believe, overlook, or excuse anything.

On the other hand, if you’re interested in how a Polish factory worker named Franziska Schanzkowska emerged from a suicidal jump into an icy Berlin canal to become the greatest royal imposter of all time, this book is right up your alley and contains loads of new information about her that, as far as I know, hasn’t been published in a book before, and I try to read everything about Anastasia/Anna Anderson.

The book is well written and thoroughly engrossing, so readers shouldn’t feel like shooting the messengers because we don’t like what they tell us. So your enjoyment of this one will probably depend on how you personally feel about the Anastasia legend.

Happy Easter!

Tabby: Diet or not, this is Easter--these treats are MINE! Happy Easter everybody!

Friday, March 29, 2013

The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin

Written in the first person, the mother of Jesus Christ tells her own version of events chronicled in the New Testament. But a word of warning--this is probably not the Mary you are expecting. This Mary is a bitter, reclusive, cynical old woman who refuses to cooperate with the Gospel writers, who views the miracles and divinity attributed to her son with a strong dose of skepticism.

Though the Gospel writers tell her that the story they are writing "will change the world" and they provide her with food and shelter, Mary never lets them get close to her. When they say Jesus died "to redeem the world" she disagrees, to this mother, the sacrifice of her son's life was not worth it. As for the disciples who followed him, she sees them as a groups of misfits and malcontents speaking in riddles and Jesus himself as indulging in strange, high-flown talk about his work as "the son of God." It kind of made this reader think of a very conservative older woman whose son has become a peace, love, and flowers type hippie.

But if this Mary is hard on others, she is also hard on herself, she castigates herself for fleeing Golgotha, for not staying with her son until the very end. The flight impulse to save her own life got the better of her.

This was an interesting book to read, but, ultimately it left me cold. I'm neither offended by it nor a fan of it, ambivalent is probably the best word to describe my feelings. I know other readers have raved about this book, and some have been greatly offended by it, but it failed to move me. I really was eager to read it, I first saw this book when I was browsing in a bookshop and I was so intrigued by it I made a point of writing down the title and author since I didn't have enough money with me that day to buy it.

As a historical fiction author myself, I know deviating from the way the public perceives historical figures can be very risky and open the author up to attack and criticism, so I applaud Mr. Toibin from being brave enough to write against the grain about a figure people feel so strongly about as the Virgin Mary. His Mary is definitely not the loving, maternal, obedient, devoted, long suffering Mary we are accustomed to seeing in artistic representations. She is also not as devout as one might expect, in this novel she takes occasional comfort in the goddess Artemis.

Any readers expecting to see a close mother and son relationship in these pages will also be disappointed; at times Mary and her son seem almost like strangers. As the crown of thorns is being thrust onto Jesus' head and he makes his tortured progress to Golgotha, his mother is distracted by her sandals hurting her feet. Too human, or maybe even too honest, but it just seems a little jarring and out of place, then again people do think odd things at odd times.

Those expecting revelations about the virgin birth will also most likely be disappointed. The subject isn't really discussed, Mr. Toibin kind of pussyfoots around it, letting his Mary speak of the joy and fulfillment of pregnancy, of that special feeling of having a second heart beating inside her, but no divine revelations.

Overall, it's not a bad book. Those who take their faith very seriously and don't feel this is an area where they can comfortably welcome creative license may be offended by it, but otherwise I think it makes an interesting though lackluster read. It's a brave little book and I'm not sorry that I read it, only that I didn't enjoy it as much as I thought I would.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Property by Valerie Martin

Set in the antebellum South, over twenty years before the Civil War, this novel tells the story of Manon Gaudet, a bored, self-centered southern belle, sarcastic and sour instead of magnolia blossom sweet.

When she came to her husband’s sugar plantation, she brought her slave Sarah with her to serve as her personal maid. She didn’t count on her husband falling in love with Sarah. He refuses the girl permission to marry the man she loves and forces her to become his mistress instead. She bears him two children—deaf Walter and ugly Nell—while his wife, Manon, remains barren and her hatred for her husband and Sarah grows and festers.

It all comes to a head during a slave rebellion and cholera epidemic. And if you’re curious enough to pick up this engrossing little novel, you know I don’t want to spoil the ending for you.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

Happy St. Patrick's Day!

Interested in a copy of A Court Affair (the British edition of The Queen's Pleasure)? That emerald green gown on the cover is just perfect for St. Patrick's Day. Visit my friend Kathleen Kelly's blog for a chance to win.

Danny Boy The Legend of the Beloved Irish Ballad by Malachy McCourt

This slim volume endeavors to trace the history and legends behind the haunting Irish ballad, and sort fact from fiction, to unravel ravel its enigmatic origins.

At only two verses, a mere 155 words, "Danny Boy" is one of the most powerful and moving songs of all time. The music, known as the Londonderry Air, or The Derry Air, may have originated in Scotland in the early 1700s and spread to Ireland via itinerant musicians. Some believe it sprang from the bow of a blind fiddler or a roving piper. We do know the melody was first written down in 1851 by Miss Jane Ross, a collector of Irish folksongs and music, living in Limavady. Over the years there were many sets of lyrics composed to fit the Londonderry Air but it wasn't until 1913, a year before the outbreak of World War I, that an English barrister (lawyer) Frederick Edward Weatherly composed the immortal and enduring words of the song now known and beloved as "Danny Boy." Ironically, for such a tender and touching, soul-stirring song, it was written while he was riding on a crowded commuter train on his way to court. Frederick Edward Weatherly was a very prolific songwriter, it is estimated that he wrote 3,000 songs during his lifetime, but he is best known for "Danny Boy" and "The Roses of Picardy." He was also briefly considered as a Jack the Ripper suspect by conspiracy buffs because of his association with the Maybricks. James Maybrick, alleged author of the notorious and still hotly debated Ripper Diary, was allegedly poisoned by his beautiful American wife Florence, who spent fifteen years in prison for this crime, though many consider this a gross miscarriage of justice. James' brother Stephen was also a songwriter and an associate of Frederick Edward Weatherly.

Another mystery that surrounds "Danny Boy" is who the narrator is, just who is addressing this heartfelt farewell to the departing Danny? Sweetheart, wife, father, mother, sister, brother, parish priest, gay lover? All these theories are explored. Though the most likely, despite how beautifully the song has been sung by men, is that the narrator is Danny's mother. Weatherly was devoted to his mother, who first kindled his love of music, and his entire career, even after she was gone, often imagined her voice singing his songs as he wrote them. And there is good reason why the song can be so effectively sung by either sex, during those days when songwriters depended on royalties from the sale of sheet music, it was in their best interest to compose songs that could be sung by either gender.

Another mystery of the song is just where is Danny going? Off to war? Or is he emigrating to America to make a better life for himself or escape starvation? When their sons emigrated to America, .mothers of the era often held what were known as "American Wakes" because it was very unlikely that s they would ever see their son again. They would either die before he returned to his homeland or he might never return at all.

There is also a chapter that discusses attempts to inject the song with nationalism or military fervor by adding additional verses about dying for Ireland. The author also queries various famous people about what the song means to them including Liam Neeson, Roma Downey, and his own brother, author Frank McCourt.

The book ends with a timeline about the song's history and also a discography, which includes some of the artists who have recorded the song including Mario Lanza (the absolute best in my opinion), Judy Garland, Rosemary Clooney, Freddie Mercury of Queen, Elvis Presley (who struggled with the high notes to such an extent that after ten tries he had to record the song singing in a lower key), Sinead O'Connor, Eric Clapton, Conway Twitty, Boxcar Willie, and Bing Crosby.
This was a very interesting little book, though at barely over 100 pages, not counting timeline and discography, it had the feel of a magazine article stretched like taffy to book length.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

The End of Everything by Megan Abbott

Thirteen-year-old Lizzie and her next door neighbor Evie are best friends. And Lizzie is in awe of Evie’s glamorous big sister Dusty and adores her father, who makes jokes and takes the girls places.

But everything changes one afternoon when Evie disappears. The only clues are a maroon car Lizzie saw drive past twice after school while the girls were waiting for Lizzie’s mother to pick them up, and a pile of cigarette butts by the pear tree where a man might have stood gazing up at Evie’s window.

Panic sweeps the community and Lizzie finds herself bombarded with questions about her best friend. Was she unhappy? Upset? Had she said anything about being watched or followed? Would she have gotten into a car with a stranger?

This novel is a fascinating and masterful account of what happens after a child goes missing, and everyone is left waiting and wondering and following every little clue no matter how tenuous. 

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Woes of A Dieting Cat

Poor Tabby! At her last checkup the vet said she has to lose three pounds gradually over the course of the next year or else she is at risk of diabetes and other serious health problems. He prescribed a special dry food for her with strict portion control and said no more of her favorite gravy lovers chicken or beef canned cat food and, even worse for Tabby, no more treats.

Tabby: "I dream of Oreos; those little square cheese crackers falling like manna from heaven onto the floor; bbq potato chips so tangy and crisp; Reese's peanut butter cups mini or large; soft chocolate chip or peanut butter cookies still warm from the oven; cups of hot cocoa or Jello pudding set down within reach of my eager pink tongue; kitty cat kibble in fun colors and shapes, not these new bland, boring brown pellets (I'm a cat not a rabbit!); Friskies Party Mix Wild West Crunch and Cheezy Craze cat treats; chocolate eggs filled with scrumptious goo made by Cadbury for Easter; brownies and cake frosted with fudge or vanilla buttercream icing; and the best kisses of all--those made by Hershey!"

Poor Tabby! I love my big, beautiful fur-baby and it hurts me to deny her. 

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen

This spellbinding novel tells the story of the Waverly sisters and the enchanted apple tree in their backyard.

Claire is the in-demand caterer, whose edible flowers and plants that magically influence the mood and behavior of those who partake of them are all the rage. But Claire herself is not a people person, she’s standoffish and wary and cautious with her heart; she’s been hurt so many times it’s hard for her to let anyone get close to her anymore, including the handsome neighbor who has laid siege to her heart.

Her sister Sydney is the rebel who ran away from home just like their mother did.

When Sydney returns unexpectedly with her five-year-old daughter Bay in tow, fleeing an abusive relationship, Claire’s life is turned topsy-turvy.

This is a delightful, magical book, by an author whose books I always make a point of buying as soon as I know a new one is out.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

First Look at Cover Art for The Fallen Queen by Emily Purdy

THE FALLEN QUEEN by Emily Purdy 
(UK Edition of The Queen's Rivals by Brandy Purdy)

Uncovering the secrets of Lady Jane Grey – who ruled England for nine days before her execution – and her two sisters Katherine and Mary – who both served Elizabeth I.

An unforgettable story of ambition, lust and jealousy.

Led by love into the jaws of fate….

Lady Jane Grey is crowned Queen at the behest of Edward VI. Her reign lasts only nine days before she is executed for treason and Elizabeth takes the throne.

Lady Jane’s two sisters, Katherine and Mary, live on into Elizabeth’s reign but in family misfortune they are bound, inspiring the Queen’s wrath against them.

In secret, Katherine and Mary risk everything and disobey the royal order by marrying the men they love. Will their treachery be discovered? And must they face imprisonment in the Tower of London, just as their sister did before them?

A stunning tale of treachery and treason, perfect for fans of The Tudors and Philippa Gregory.

Please note this book will be published in the USA as The Queen's Rivals by Brandy Purdy.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Girl In A Green Gown The History And Mystery Of The Arnolfini Portrait by Carola Hicks

Painted in 1434 by Jan van Eyck, it remains one of the best known and beloved paintings in the world. But what does it really mean? Is there a secret meaning encoded in this portrait of a prosperous merchant and his well dressed, possibly pregnant, wife? Is it a memorial to a beloved wife lost in childbirth? Or is it merely a status symbol showing off the luxury garb and goods this upper middle-class couple have acquired?

This book endeavors to answer all these questions, with chapters discussing the various elements that make up the portrait like the fine clothes, furniture, the dog, prayer beads, and oranges. It also traces the history of the portrait from creation down through the hands of its various owners.

This is a fascinating book about a portrait that has always intrigued me. Sadly the author died of a cerebral hemorrhage just after finishing the first draft of this book. Her husband lovingly put the finishing touches on it for her. Ms. Hicks has also written books about stained glass during the Tudor era and a history of the Bayeux Tapestry. I am so sorry that there will be no more books from this talented author who made art history enjoyable and accessible to ordinary readers like me.