Julia Fox came up with a fascinating idea in writing a dual biography of the most renowned of Ferdinand and Isabella???s daughters: Katherine of Aragon, Henry VIII???s beleaguered queen, and Juana of Castile. The last work of non-fiction that I read (Alison Weir???s bio of Mary Boleyn) was tediously repetitious and digressive, a problem I???ve found with many historical biographies. Fox, however, has avoided that pitfall, creating an engaging and highly readable narrative.
Katherine and Juana have been reduced over time almost to caricatures, Katherine as the stubbornly Catholic wife who refused to let Henry go, and Juana as a wife so obsessed with her husband that his affairs and early death drove her to madness. But Fox shows that there was much more to each woman, and that, to a great extent, the restrictions of gender and the machinations of the men around them caused their downfalls. She details Katherine???s role as an ambassador concerned with the interests of both Spain and England, as well as her diplomacy and finesse in dealing with Henry. Fox does an admirable job of presenting fairly the events with which most readers will be familiar: her penurious widowhood following the death of Prince Arthur; the dispensation to marry Henry; the many miscarriages, stillbirths, and infant deaths; her displacement by Anne Boleyn. In the case of Juana, Fox???s research demonstrates that existing letters and reports from those permitted to see her following her confinement for madness demonstrate that she behaved sanely and graciously. Fox contends that her husband and father schemed to keep her from exercising sovereignty over Castile, Ferdinand in particular unwilling to give up what he had jointly ruled with Isabella after she died and left the crown to Juana, her eldest daughter.
Through no fault of the author???s, the space devoted to the sisters is not balanced 50/50, simply because there is less documentation of Juana???s life. Near the end, Fox poses a fascinating question: What would have happened if the sisters??? roles had been reversed???if Katherine, so good at diplomacy, had been Queen of Castile, and if Juana, who produced six children (two emperors and four queens) had been Henry???s wife?
As one of the apparently rare few who wasn't blown away by Half of a Yellow Sun, I took a gamble on Adichie's short story collection, The Thing Around Your Neck--and I'm very glad that I did. These twelve stories all feature Nigerian protagonists, but the settings, time periods, and situations shift from the 1967 Biafran war, to immigrants in the contemporary United States, back to a time when white missionaries were still a rare sight in Nigeria. Many of the stories deal with women struggling to balance between the old ways and the new, but Adichie also focuses on Nigeria's brutal politics, history of violence, divisive class system, and exploitation by the west. But behind those messages are real characters--real people--working hard at relationships and trying to make tomorrow just a little better than today. Adichie's writing itself is engaging and compelling, and the stories have encouraged me to seek out her other novels. Perhaps even to give Half of a Yellow Sun another try.
The reader does wonderful characterizations of both male and female characters. If I have one criticism of this audiobook, it's the transitions between stories--or, rather, the lack of any. Most of the stories don't end with a bang; they come to a gentle, even subtle conclusion, and the recording doesn't leave much of a pause between them. Often I was several minutes into a story before I realized that it was a new one with entirely different characters. Readers are justified in expecting at least a five-second pause to indicate a shift in time, place, and characters, and to let a conclusion settle in.
Well, I'm not quite sure what to say about this one. So let me start by saying that Jennifer Connolly was an excellent reader. For most of the book, she maintained a flat, blasé tone that was just right for the story of Port and Kit Moresby, two bored, falling out of love with each other Ameriocans traveling in post-war North Africa.
Bowles certainly had an eye for detail and a knack for atmospheric writing: he puts the reader right in the center of North Africa, from the smoke-filled cafes to the dry stretches of the Sahara to the gritty streets. Port and Kit (joined at times by another American, Tunner, an an odious British mother and son, the Lyles) travel through various cities and landscapes, trying, in part, to sort out their troubled marriage. But infidelity and/or suspicion get the better of both of them, and the two travel on separate paths, at least until a crisis briefly reunites them.
I was quite enjoying the novel, despite its darkness and deeply nihilistic theme, when WHAM! All of a sudden I found myself in the middle of 'The Sheik' with Rudolph Valentino. I sat scratching my head for awhile, wondering what the heck just happened and how the novel had taken this weird turn. I still don't get it. At that point, I plodded through to the end, greatly disappointed (when I wasn't shaking my head or snorting).
I can't strongly recommend this one. So much emotional investment building up to an unbelievable ending that was totally out of sync with the rest of the novel.
If I read (or listen to) anything else by Bowles, it will be because of his style--not his nearly-nonexistent agility with plot or character.
This was a bit of fluff--in the best possible way. I'm at a stressful point at work and needed something fairly light (although it does have a vein of tragedy running through it). It begins when a young woman pulls the emergency brake on a train--something passenger Sylvester Wykes admits that he's always wanted to do but never had the guts. The reason Julia Piper pulled the brake? To help a sheep she had seen from her window who was stuck on its back. When they all disembark at the next station, Sylvester sees her again, mildly curious, but Maurice Benson takes a more stalkerish mode, determined to find out everything he can about her.
Wesley has created a group of intriguing characters not only in Julia, Sylvester, and Maurice, but in the secondary characters as well. There's Sylvester's soon-to-be ex-wife, Celia, who ran off with another man, denuding the house in the process; even things that had been handed down from his father were gone, as well as the teakettle he had just purchased to replace the one she had just taken. Rebecca, Sylvester's domineering former secretary, can't help herself from frequently popping in with attempts to take charge. It's great fun to see how the mild-mannered Sylvester gradually learns how to manage her. Much of the story centers around the shop on the corner, run by the agreeable Mr. Patel. Julia befriends his wife, despite her inability to speak English, and becomes close to the Patel's two little boys. Her mother, Clodagh, is the epitome of a horrible mother, for various reasons preferring her son-in-law to her own daughter. And there's a dog in the mix--a 'lurcher' eventually named Joyful.
In some ways, as one reviewer states, this is a pretty typical love story. But it's one with a little surprise around every corner. It has been a long time since I've read a Mary Wesley novel, and this one remionded me of how much I've enjoyed her others. I only wish that Audible would carry more unabridged editions. This one was read by Samuel West, who is my all-time favorite reader.
Honor tells the story of several members of a Turkish-Kurdish family, extending over several generations and taking place in Turkey, the UK, and Abu Dhabi. It centers around Iskandar, a man about to be released from an English prison. His crime: the honor killing of his mother when he was a teenager. The novel weaves back and forth through time: from the birth of his mother, Pemba, and her twin, Jamila; to Iskandar's fleeing from his circumcision; to Pemba's marriage to Aden in a Kurdish village and their early years in London; to the youngest son's infatuation with a punk girl; to Aden's drinking, gambling, and eventual desertion; to Pemba's meetings with Elias; to young Aden's memories of his depressed mother; to Iskandar's prison experiences; and finally to a rather surprising conclusion.
If this sounds a bit complex and confusing, well, yes, it is at first. So many voices, so many stories, so much jumping around in time. But I got used to it and eventually sorted everyone out. Part of the reason for the odd chronology is, I'm sure, to make the point that events have an impact on future generations. For example, Aden was excessively indulged by his mother, and so was Iskandar, and both turned out to have little regard for the feelings of others. Pemba had seen a sister literally die of shame, yet she finds herself the object of an honor killing. The family has moved from Turkey to London, and the children live very modern lives, yet Iskandar gets caught up in the Muslim traditionalist movement. Once I sorted out the initial complications, I enjoyed making the connections in the various sections. I found the characters unique and compelling, and the two readers were both excellent. I look forward to reading more by Elif Shafak.
There are very few books that I just can't bring myself to finihs, but this was one of them. I had heard good things about Rumer Godden's work, but I was bored stiff by these snooty, self-absorbed kids summering with their family in a French hotel. I just learned that it's supposed to be a YA novel; maybe that's why it bored me so. I just didn't care about any of the characters or anything that happened to them. The reader was OK but seemed rushed; maybe she was told to fit it all into six hours or less.
Probably the most boring novel I've ever read by Ian McEwan, whose work I usually love. Jeremy plans to write a memoir of his mother-in-law June, and most of the novel recounts stories that she and her husband Bernard told him of their courtship, early marriage, honeymoon in France (where she encounters two black dogs), membership in the Communist party; June's odd spiritual quest, which leads her to a life alone on the southern coast of France; etc., etc. The only thing I can imagine that might be more boring would be reading the memoir that Jeremy hoped to write.
Sadie Jones uses a forgotten guerilla uprising, the Cypriot revolt against British rule, as a means to make a rather heavy-handed statement about war, the military machine, and colonialism that resounds in the "small wars" being fought today in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other hot spots. Jones focuses on the isolation of and between a young couple, Clara and Hal Traherne, to make her points about the dehumanization wrought by the struggle for world power. Clara, a bit pampered yet willing to play the military wife and follow her husband first to Germany, then to Cyprus, seems completely unprepared for life in a war zone. Hal, on the other hand, acts around Clara as if everything is perfectly fine, unable or unwilling to share his experiences and discounting her fears. By the time a personal tragedy hits, their lives have already been changed and their marriage may be beyond repair (although Jones does hint at a reconciliation in the end).
While I enjoyed Small Wars, the characters here lacked the depth of those in her first novel, The Outcast. Several secondary characters, like the literature-loving translator with an inconvenient moral streak but not much backbone, and the shopaholic officer's wife who befriends Clara in Nicosia, are never fully realized, and even Hal and Clara are a bit flat. Perhaps Jones's obvious desire to send us an antiwar message overwhelmed some of the finer elements of plot and character here. Still, I'd recommend the book to anyone wanting to know more about life in the 1950s, particularly for a young military family in a "small war" zone.
I got tired of waiting to find a reasonably priced Persephone edition of Miss Buncle's Book, about which I had heard so many raves, so I downloaded an audio version. Wonderfully read by Patricia Gallimore, it was a true delight! (And I'm not one who usually cares much for humorous novels.)
Miss Buncle writes and publishes under the pseudonym of John Smith a book based on observations of her fellow villagers, and quite a hoopla erupts as they recognize themselves in 'Distruber of the Peace,' which soon becomes a best-seller. I'm not going to spoil the fun by adding any further details (and I strongly advise that you skip the longer reviews, which contain far too many spoilers). Suffice it to say that I'm on the prowl for more books by D. E. Stevenson; she was a real find for me!
Maybe it's because I'm getting older, but I really loved this book. After the death of her husband, 88-year old Lady Slane shocks her children by announcing that she plans to leave the family estate and rent a house in Hampstead Heath--a house that holds many fond memories of her younger days. Even more shocking, she dictates that none of her children, grandchildren, or great-grandchildren may visit without an express appointment (and those are given infrequently). As a woman who has spent her entire life pleasing others and doing what they expected of her, she finally decides to live as pleases herself. She recalls her early dreams of becoming a painter, and how those dreams were squelched by a proposal that everyone else thought was a brilliant triumph--even though the 18-year old Deborah was not convinced that she was really in love or that she was ready to give up her own independence and aspirations. Looking back on her life, she recalls moments of happiness, moments when she did indeed love (or at least appreciate) her husband and felt fleeting moments of affection for the children who, for the most part, turned out to be disappointments. But as she moves towards death, Lady Slane decides that, while there is still a little time left, she need please no one but herself.
Lately, I've been thinking more and more about the time wasted in the past and the time that I have remaining to make something of my life, and, in that regard, this novel really touched home. The novel is brilliantly read by Wendy Hiller, who played Lady Slane in the TV adaptation. It's a quiet, contemplative book, but one well worth one's time. Vita Sackville-West gives us a portrait of aging that goes far beyond the mourning the loss of youth and beauty to ask significant questions about selfhood and the meaning of life itself.
This second installment of The Forsyte Saga didn't quite measure up to the first, The Man of Property, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. It is mainly taken up with the marital difficulties of the second generation; Soames's indecision over whether or not to divorce Irene, who left him twelve years earlier, and Winifred's decision to divorce her alcoholic, spendthrift, philandering husband, Monty Darty. In between we have second cousins Holly and Val falling in love and marrying against their parents' wishes, and Irene, Soames, and Young Jolyn each give love a second (well, in the case of Jolly, third) chance. I missed Old Jolyn and the aunts, and old James grumbles towards death with slightly less charm than previously. But alas, times are moving on: Queen Victoria has passed, and the flower of England are fading away in the first world war. Nonetheless, I liked In Chancery well enough to continue with the series.
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