Monthly Archives: August 2012

The Kingmaker’s Daughter, by Philippa Gregory

The latest installment of Gregory’s “Cousins’ War” series focuses on Anne Neville, daughter of Warwick the Kingmaker, wife first of Edward, the Lancastrian claimant to the throne, then of Richard of Gloucester, later Richard III. She’s an intriguing character in that she had a moderately close brush with being the Lancastrian queen of England (if the Warwick/Marguerite d’Anjou alliance had succeeded in deposing Edward IV, and if Anne’s husband Edward had then succeeded his father, Henry VI). Then, later, she became queen by marrying the last Yorkist king. It was certainly a life full of twists and turns, and she died before she was 30.

What makes Anne kind of a frustrating character is that, unlike some of the other powerful women of this era (Cicely Neville, Elizabeth Woodville, Jacquetta Woodville, Marguerite d’Anjou), Anne was even more of a pawn than women usually were in this time period. Interesting things happened to her, but because none of them were instigated by her, it’s very hard even to imagine the kind of woman she was. This has led to portrayals of her as everything from hopelessly in love with Richard to the miserable victim of a forced marriage, and any of these readings can be supported by the few biographical facts we know, because we never see Anne making her own decisions.

This makes her a poignant and in many ways a sad character, and that’s largely how she comes across in this book. Gregory does try to put a little more power back into Anne’s hands by having her make a few key decisions on her own, but I found this in general, while readable and enjoyable, a weaker novel in this series than some of the others (The Red Queen is still by far my favourite). She does some interesting things with point of view here, having written this series from the p.o.v. of both Yorkist and Lancastrian characters, so we get to see characters who were portrayed as sympathetic in earlier books (the Woodvilles, especially) coming off badly here. This is interesting, but there are many cases, especially in the portrayals of Richard and his brother George, that I felt the characterization was just weak and inconsistent. Richard, particularly, seemed early in the novel like he was going to be developed as a really rich, multifaceted and complex character, but he never got the promised development and so came off as “contradictory” instead of “complex.” All in all, this was an interesting and worthy effort to get inside the head of a little-known character, but I didn’t feel it was entirely successful.


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Shine Shine Shine, by Lydia Netzer

Shine Shine Shine is a quirky, unexpected kind of book, and I really loved it. On the most basic level, it’s the story of a woman facing huge changes in her life while her scientist husband is in space on his way to the moon. It’s also a meditation on what it means to be human and what it means to be normal, but there’s nothing didactic or heavy about it. 

On the surface — which is all we see in the first chapter — Sunny Mann’s life seems pretty near perfect. Her genius husband has made them rich, and they live in a wealthy suburb where she lives a wealthy suburban wife-life, with one child and another on the way. Her only problem seems to be her autistic son, Bubber. However, Bubber’s not the only one who’s not perfect. Every character in the book is damaged or flawed in some way.

Sunny, who works hard at maintaining an exterior impression of perfect normality, has her cover blown when a minor car accident causes her wig to fall off in view of some of her neighbours. Sunny has been completely bald from birth, and has been carefully hiding this fact from her friends and neighbours.

But, we learn, Sunny wasn’t always like this. Raised by her strong-willed independent mother Emma, who is now dying of cancer, Sunny was brought up as a free spirit who never tried to hide her baldness. Her closest childhood friend was Maxon, a brilliant kid from an abusive family. Maxon appears to be somewhere on the autistic spectrum, probably a high-functioning Asperger’s type (although we never see him with a diagnosis or a label) — he’s extremely smart but has huge difficulty with social interactions. Sunny and her mother help Maxon learn to be human — whatever that means — and he and Sunny eventually marry. It’s not until she’s pregnant with Bubber that Sunny begins to believe that she has to fit in, to be normal, to adapt to the world around her.

The storyline switches from present to past, and from Sunny’s point of view to Maxon’s. Over the course of a few days everything changes — Sunny stops wearing her wig, she yanks Bubber out of his preschool and off his meds, her mother dies alone in hospital, and the spacecraft with Maxon on it (he’s bringing a cargo of robots he designed himself, to establish a robot moon colony) suffers a potentially fatal accident. Meanwhile, in flashbacks, both Maxon and Sunny remember their childhoods, their early relationship, and how things have gone wrong as Sunny attempts to fit into a definition of normal that Maxon knows can never contain him.

Maxon admires his robots: the only three “human” things they can’t do, he concludes, are love, regret and forgive. Those are, of course, exactly the things Sonny and Maxon need to do, the things that make them human, whether or not they are “normal.” This is a poignant, thoughtful, beautiful little novel and I recommend it highly.

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Tiny Beautiful Things, by Cheryl Strayed

This is the third book by Cheryl Strayed that I’ve read in the last few months, and I resisted reading it for awhile. I read and loved Wild before Oprah brought it to national attention, although it was a review in magazine that first got me curious about the book. It was, however, my friend Katrina’s excitement about the release that really convinced me to pick it up, because I trust Katrina’s opinion more than Oprah’s. Anyway, they were both right — it was a great book.

Then it was Katrina again who tipped me off that Strayed had written a novel long before Wild. This was Torch which I also read and enjoyed, and I have no idea why it never seems to get talked about in any of the publicity that’s currently surrounding this wonderful author. (If you watch, for example, her long and detailed Oprah interview, you would come away with the clear impression that Wild was the first book she ever wrote and the first time she’d ever addressed the tragedy of her mother’s death in writing — when in fact Torch deals with the same story, the impact of a woman’s death on her husband and young-adult children — in fictional form). I’m sure there are other readers, like me, who have been led to Torch through their love for Wild, but I don’t understand why it’s not being talked about more.

All of this discursive history leads me up to the moment when I bought tiny beautiful things. In the same year that her memoir became a huge bestseller, Cheryl Strayed also revealed that she was the previously-anonymous advice columnist “Dear Sugar” on a website called The Rumpus. Since I’d never read the site, all I knew was that people were saying her advice columns were amazing — not so much Dear Abby as Dear Person-Who’s-Unflinchingly-Honest-and-Self-Revealing-and-Uses-the-F-Word-Sometimes — and that a book of her collected columns was coming out just a few months after Wild hit the stands.

At first I wasn’t overly interested in reading it. Advice columns? Really? But finally I got intrigued, and not only did I buy it, as I had done with Wild and Torch — I bought an actual, physical, hard copy. I buy very few paper books but somehow just felt this might be the kind of book where I would want to flip back and forth through the pages, and maybe lend it to someone else when I was done.

Really, out of the three Cheryl Strayed books I read, this one, the one I almost didn’t read, is the one that really tore me up. Her writing is just so brilliant and beautiful here, as she addresses the people who write in to her with so many complicated issues. She doesn’t write as a professional counsellor — advice columnists rarely do — but as a person who has lived, suffered and learned, and also as a writer who is used to thinking about how people are put together and what makes them tick. And she writes it all with such clear, burning prose, hammering home over and over  the message that the only truly wrong thing you can do with your life is live it dishonestly.

I don’t always agree with the advice Sugar gives to every reader. But I always admire the spirit in which it is given, and Strayed’s own willingness to say, “Here’s what happened to me, and while it’s not the same as what happened to you, here’s what I think you should learn from it.” She’s blunt, she’s funny, she’s heartbreaking and she’s never forgettable. As I read I was not only applying so much of what she said to my own life but was also thinking of other people who would love the book, which means that some of my Christmas shopping this year might already be done. In case you’re not on my Christmas list, and if you don’t mind the odd swear word, you should go pick up a copy of this book. You’ll thank me later.


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The Dovekeepers, by Alice Hoffman

Alice Hoffman’s The Dovekeepers is a beautiful and powerful historical novel which I’ve been meaning to get to for some time. It deals with a period in history which fascinates me and which I haven’t read much about — the last stand of the nine hundred Jews at Masada who killed themselves rather than be captured by the Romans. And it tells the story through the eyes of a group of strong and interesting women.

That said, I will admit it took me a long time, much longer that I would have expected, to get into this book. For much of the first section, I kept putting it down and wandering off to read other things, and I wasn’t truly hooked till about 2/3 of the way through, when the inevitable ending drew nearer and I was curious to know how Hoffman would handle it and how the characters she had created would fare in the end. From that point on I couldn’t put it down, but even though it’s extremely well-written, there were far too many points earlier in the book where I was prepared to lay it aside for days.

It’s hard to pinpoint just what went wrong for me in the early parts of the novel, because each of the four characters is interesting and has a compelling backstory that brings her to Masada. It might have something to do with voice — Hoffman is certainly a very skilled writer, but the writing is that kind of “literary fiction” voice that often sounds remote and stilted and too in love with its own beauty, thus distancing some readers (me) from the characters. And this voice remained unchanged throughout the book, even though four different characters were allegedly telling their stories. The women are all very different, but their voices all sound like the authorial voice, which may be another reason why it was harder for me to get engaged with them.

Despite these problems — which might not even be problems for some readers — this is a very well-researched book that brings to life an intriguing historical tragedy. It’s well worth reading … and if you, like me, find it a slow start, keep going!

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The Queen’s Vow: A Novel of Isabella of Castile, by C.W. Gortner

The Queen’s Vow is a good, engaging, informative novel about Isabella of Castile (she of the famous Ferdinand-and-Isabella duo). It’s told in the first-person voice and uses some predictable shortcuts to make Isabella an engaging and likeable character for the  modern reader. There’s nothing really surprising here, but it is informative for a reader who wants to know more about Spain during the period of the Reconquista or about the life of a remarkable woman leader.

Gortner goes too far, I think, in trying to make Isabella’s less politically-correct decisions, like that whole Inquisition/expulsion of the Jews thing, palatable for modern readers. It seems that so often the writers of historical fiction endow their ancient characters with modern sensibilities (for an egregious example, check out my review of Pope Joan) and then have the problem of shoehorning those characters’ actual historical actions into the person they’ve created. This leads to a bit of fancy footwork so that we can feel sorry for this terrible, heart-wrenching decision Isabella has to make, yet somehow realize that she has no other choice. I’d rather see a historical fiction writer go the way of Philippa Gregory’s depiction of Margaret Beaufort in The Red Queen and just make the character’s religious beliefs and prejudices absolutely an integral part of her character, reminding us of how truly alien these people’s mindset was to ours. But in doing that, of course, you may sacrifice character likeability.

Despite these all-too-common shortcuts of historical fiction writing, I enjoyed reading The Queen’s Vow and learned about from it. I was interested in this particular royal family after reading Sister Queens, about Isabella’s daughters Katherine and Juana, and now I see that Gortner has also written a novel about Juana. I’ll probably be reading that, since it struck me when reading the biography that Juana’s is a story that can only be told through fiction, so little being known about her life from her own perspective. 


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In the Valley of the Shadow, by James Kugel

This is the second book in a week that I bought because I heard the writer interviewed on CBC Radio, and all told this was a much better buy than Writing Movies for Fun and Profit, even if it was a bit more of a challenging read. In the Valley of the Shadow is a combination of memoir and theological (or philosophical? or anthropological?) reflection. The premise is simple enough: James Kugel is diagnosed with what appears to be terminal cancer (fortunately, his prognosis was better than originally thought and he’s still with us), and thinks about how this news affects what he thinks about God. Except that James Kugel is a professor of religion and a noted expert on the Hebrew Scriptures, so this isn’t a comforting book of devotional thoughts about how you draw closer to God when you’re faced with death. Instead, it’s a fascinating and often complex look at the origins of human religion, and there’s nothing easy or particularly comforting about it.

There were parts of this book where I didn’t quite follow or understand everything Kugel was saying, which is fine by me — I like books that stretch me a little — but he keeps bringing the philosophy, anthropology and theology back to the personal level at the beginning of each chapter as he relates his own cancer experience. Essentially, Kugel found that after his diagnosis, faced with the possibility of his own death, his “self” felt smaller, occupied less space, then it had when he was healthy. Instead of the large, autonomous, individualized self that most of us in the Western world unconsciously have — a sense of ourselves as in control of the world around us, masters of our fate — Kugel found that his post-cancer self felt small, stripped-down, not particularly powerful or autonomous. He was, after all, in the hands of a greater power which would decide his fate no matter what he did: Cancer.

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Writing Movies for Fun and Profit, by Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garrant

Of all the many, many things I have written, tried to write, and wanted to write, the one thing I have never wanted to do, or had any illusion I’d be good at, is writing a screenplay. Why, then, did I spend a good $11 and change on the e-version of a book about screenwriting, which I read in a single afternoon?

Well, basically because I heard Tom Lennon talking about the book in an inteview with Jian Ghomeshi on Q, and it sounded funny. Really, really funny. If you can’t tell from the cover (where the words “fun and” are crossed out so the title is Writing Movies for Profit), Lennon and Garrant are successful Hollywood screenwriters who have made a ton of money on movies that most people think are, well, pretty awful. (The Night at the Museum movies are probably the high point of their oeuvre, artistically speaking, which says a lot). They make no bones about the fact that this is not a book for people who want to write artistic, Oscar-nominated, film-festival films. This is for people who want to make a lot of money in the Hollywood studio system, churning out drivel that will make it big at the box office.

Their breezy, sarcastic tone is well-suited to the subject matter: these guys would be intolerable if they took themselves or their work seriously. Heck, even with the self-deprecating humour they’re still intolerable, or at least intolerably crass, at times. They don’t write books much better than they write movies, but what they do well is crack jokes and tell the truth about how the studio system works and what you have to be willing to do to make money in it. Abandoning any shred of self-respect as a writer should be pretty high on your list.

Mainly, I bought the book because I thought there’d be a bunch of funny anecdotes about working in Hollywood, because that kind of behind-the-scenes stuff intrigues me. There definitely were some anecdotes, but not as many as I’d hoped. However, any disappointment I experienced with this book is entirely my own fault. I mean, I bought what was clearly labelled as a how-to book even though I wasn’t at all interesting in learning to do the thing they were teaching me, so I should have known what I was getting. One additional caveat: this book is FULL of footnotes, that is, the funny, throwaway kind of footnotes that add another sarcastic joke to the jokes they’re already telling. E-books, at least in the format I’m reading (downloaded from onto my Blackberry PlayBook and read in the Kobo app) do not do footnotes well, and I need to remember that. Whether they’re funny joke footnotes or serious scholarly footnotes, at this point, books with footnotes are easier to navigate on paper than in e-book format.

All in all, I’d have gotten everything I wanted out of this book if I’d picked it up in the bookstore, spent an hour flipping through it and having a few laughs, and put it back on the shelf. And I doubt Tom and Ben would mind me doing that since they have, as they tell you on every second page, already made A BILLION DOLLARS with their movies. Presumably any profits from the book are just icing on the cake. However, if you are in their target audience — that is, if you’d actually like to make it as a Hollywood screenwriter — then you really should buy this book and hang onto it, because I suspect their perspective on the business is more real and more honest than what you’ll find in most books on screenwriting.

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