Rival Queens LGIf Shonda Rhimes were to write a book about Renaissance France, it would likely resemble The Rival Queens—a dramatic and almost soapy page-turner by Nancy Goldstone. I don’t mean this as a knock, but more as another case of truth being stranger than fiction.

The court of the Valois Kings was a treacherous place, rife with scheming, betrayals, love affairs, and murder. G.R.R. Martin has cited this era in France as a source of inspiration, and fans of his books (or of the Game of Thrones TV series) will recognize parallels and at least one major plot development.

The Rival Queens are Catherine de’ Medici and her daughter, Marguerite de Valois—two singular and fascinating women who both were queens of France. Their fractious relationship was par for the course in the House of Valois, which seemed to have nurtured few familial bonds. Catherine pitted her children against each other to the extent that they were, at times, in greater danger from one another than from their professed enemies.

Her oldest son, Francis I, was sickly and died not long after marrying Mary Queen of Scots. The younger brothers schemed and connived as they competed for the throne. Two of them succeeded to the crown, and Marguerite was married off to become Queen of Navarre. However, this made her position even more tenuous, and she had some close and harrowing escapes from assassins and kidnappers sent by her mother and her brother, King Henri III.

Goldstone felt that historians had been unkind to Marguerite and wanted to tell her story in a more sympathetic light. I must say that I came away with a real respect for this woman who thought fast under pressure, maneuvered through relentless threats, and somehow managed to survive. Also, unlike her mother, she was very popular with the French people who called her “Queen Margot.”

Goldstone zooms out to show how European rivalries and the rise of Protestantism fueled the wars at court. In addition to Mary Queen of Scots, both Elizabeth I of England and Phillip II of Spain appear as significant influences on French politics and diplomacy.

The book offers historical detail and insights into daily life, but its salacious tone reads more like a Philippa Gregory novel than a scholarly biography. Not that there’s anything wrong with reading Gregory. I enjoy her novels, but I know they are fiction. I find it disturbing, though, when “nonfiction” veers into unfounded supposition and sensationalism.

For example, without any cited source Goldstone credits Nostradamus as predicting “the tragic death of Princess Diana” and “the horror of 9/11.” Seriously? Which prophecies and which translations? This feels rather spurious and hokey. In particular, the 9/11 claim has repeatedly been proven to be a hoax—here I cite Snopes and LiveScience.

Goldstone is capable of much better than that and seems to have gotten a bit swept up by the melodrama of her material. I actually preferred her earlier work, Four Queens: The Provençal Sisters Who Ruled Europe, as that felt more weighty and academic, while still being so readable. However, I think that readers will take to this fictionesque style of writing—The Rival Queens really is hard to put down.

Overall, I recommend this book. It’s a riveting account of two extraordinary queens and of the machinations of a dynasty that is just as intriguing as the Tudors but has gotten much less attention.

Four Queens: The Provençal Sisters Who Ruled Europe by Nancy Goldstone

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Halloween Party my copyThis was one of the first Agatha Christie mysteries I read, and, back then, I found it a bit slow. This time around, however, I really enjoyed the book. I believe that’s in part because I am so much more invested in Hercule Poirot as a character.

For newcomers to Poirot, I suggest starting with the novel that introduced him, The Mysterious Affair at Styles—one of Christie’s best. Hallowe’en Party is one of her later novels, written in 1969, and it’s a bit more nuanced. When I picked it up for the second time, I did so in eagerness to read more about Poirot and his occasional cohort, the quirky Mrs. Ariadne Oliver—a sort of literary avatar of Christie herself. I was likewise pleased to encounter Superintendent Spence on the scene. That is one of the great pleasures of reading Christie for me—the recurring cameos of previous characters. Also, this time I got all the apple jokes.

That is not to discount the plot of Hallowe’en Party. It’s another of Christie’s intricately woven puzzles, and I enjoyed the different threads as they delved into mysterious deaths and sidetracked into red herrings. The story begins with preparations for the title event, and I found the British take on Halloween fascinating. No trick or treat, but several spooky games and also, significantly, bobbing for apples. Christie makes use of autumn imagery such as late Michaelmas daisies and the slanting sun, to give the novel the gauzy feel of a late November afternoon.

This is one of Christie’s “village mysteries”, and although Woodleigh Common is a newer community, Poirot uncovers a myriad of past secrets. He also discovers a strange and menacing garden:

“There was an atmosphere here. He tried to pin it down. It had qualities of magic, of enchantment, certainly of beauty, bashful beauty, yet wild. Here, if you were staging a scene in the theatre, you would have your nymphs, your fauns, you would have Greek beauty, you would have fear too. Yes, he thought, in this sunk garden is fear.”

The theatrical Christie seems to be alluding to is Shakespeare’s The Tempest, with a precocious 12-year-old “Miranda” who is like a woodland sprite flitting about the tree branches and the rocky, overgrown paths.

Much like the garden, the book is at times enchanting and theatrical—especially the party scenes—but there is a dark, disquieting undertone. Bad things happen to some of the children and there is even a town witch. This is a perfect Halloween read with a couple of nice twists in the resolution.

Finally, it warmed my heart that Hallowe’en Party is dedicated to P.G. Wodehouse (a great lover of detective fiction himself), “whose books and stories have brightened [Christie’s] life for many years.”

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salem along teethAll month I’ve been reading Salem’s Lot by Stephen King as part of the #SalemAlong—a group read hosted by Melissa, Trish, and Care. It has been a blast! The book is an addictive page-turner, but also I’ve loved seeing everyone’s comments and reactions as they read via twitter.

It’s not too late if you want to join in. It’s fast read, and #SalemAlong runs through Halloween. But beware this post has spoilers—something I usually try to avoid. So, *spoiler alert!*

FYI, per the page numbers: I bought the Anchor Books mass market paperback, because pulpy seems to fit Stephen King.

NOTE: You do not need to have read Dracula, The Haunting of Hill House, or any vampire lore, as King gives the reader all the needed clues and info—though one character is saved by a deep knowledge of monster comics.

p. 15 “ ‘Salem’s Lot” is short for Jerusalem’s lot. Nice ironic touch.

p. 21 Already hooked. The prologue was a spooky tease, but by the third page of the first chapter, I know I’m in for the haul. No surprise or sudden cliffhanger. It’s just that King’s writing is so darn readable.

p. 25 The creepy the Marsten house looms large!

p. 26 I’m invested in Ben—another likable guy in the vein of Barbie and Rusty from Under the Dome and Jake from 11/22/63.

p. 64 Chapter 3: The Lot (I). My favorite chapter follows a day in the Salem’s Lot, introducing the reader to different characters and to the rhythms of small-town life. I was fascinated by how different things were in Maine back in 1975. For example, Susan left an order on the door overnight for the milkman, who arrived each morning straight from the nearby dairy.

I would’ve been quite happy to read along and have no vampires. I felt the same way at the beginning of Under the Dome.

p. 101 “Barlow and Straker” This made me thing of Bram Stoker. Maybe that’s a stretch, but I got that connotation each time I read the names.

p. 106 “between then [next week] and October 30.” King likes to remind us that Halloween is on the horizon. This book starts late Sept and runs into October. (Under the Dome also took place in October.)

p. 188-122 Vintage King! Here he takes something ostensibly trite (being afraid of shadows while walking through the woods) and makes it terrifying! Instead of feeling that I had read or seen this before (which of course we all have), I was truly, palpably scared along with the two little boys.

p. 201 “That year the first day of fall (real fall as opposed to calendar fall) was September 28” Now the days start to get shorter and the nights get longer.

p. 223 “Understand death? Sure. That was when the monsters got you.” Foreshadowing from the mind of 12-year-old Mark Petrie.

p. 242 “Say, these kids aren’t going to eat me, are they?” Ben asks Matt the school teacher, in another little foreshadowing zinger.

p. 371 I got up and made sure to shut and lock all the windows of my house. No more reading this book at night!

SalemAlong buttonp. 422-435 Ok. I’m shouting at the book here. Just as King managed to make the overused spooky woods motif fresh and horrifying, inversely this scene seems so played … like it came out of a Scary Movie sequel. Why, why would anyone go to the vampire’s house at dusk?! Especially, why would a kid who had earlier proven so savvy in vampire knowledge? This whole scene annoyed me. Susan, who I had liked before, seemed really stupid here. I hate it when girls/women are stupid victims … and here is where I lost sympathy for Susan. Um, Darwin Award.

I don’t think this is the prevailing opinion, as there were lots of sighs and gasps for Susan on twitter. #SalemAlong

p. 473 “Sunset on Sunday, October 5, 1975, at 7:02 pm, sunrise on Monday, October 6 1975, at 6:49 am.”

This is a nice device with the countdown to sunset which King uses at times to remind the reader that sunset is getting earlier and daybreak later—longer nights! This especially resonated with me because I’ve also been watching the sunrise creep later and later. I hate dark mornings, and I’m counting the days until daylight savings begins on Nov 1.

p. 512 I would’ve grabbed a couple of bottles of the Médoc on my way out of the Marsten House.

Also, I liked this plot twist here, by touching on the myth that vampires can anticipate the future. The cat-and-mouse game with Barley ups the suspense/thriller aspect of the book. King keeps us hooked by integrating this with the horror story.

p. 520 “In the fall, night comes like this in the Lot:
The sun loses its thin grip on the air first, turning it cold, making it remember that winter is coming and winter will be long. Thin clouds form, and the shadows lengthen out. They have no breadth, as summer shadows have; there are no leaves on the trees or fat clouds in the sky to make them thick. They are gaunt, mean shadows that bite the ground like teeth.”

p. 576 So what happened to Father Callahan? Did he end up at a rave in the East Village?

p. 628 Wow. The “dissolution” scene reads like blow-by-blow a description of what happens to the Nazis at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. I’m wondering if this is just a coincidence? Or if Steven Spielberg had read Salem’s Lot (which came out six years before his movie) and was inspired either subconsciously or consciously. I’m not suggesting plagiarism, but more like a cinematic allusion, much the way rappers sample other music.

p. 652 October 1972 – June 1975

I always like the way King put the dates he spent writing each novel on the last page. I’ve noticed that the writing times are much shorter for his more recent books, like Under the Dome and 11/22/63, which each took about a year even though they are much longer. So he is picking up speed!

Overall, I highly recommend this read—especially fun during the run up to Halloween. It wasn’t as scary for me as The Shining (the movie … I have not yet braved the book). But I will confess that I tried not to read it at night. When I did, I was frightened enough to lock all my windows and wear my cross around my neck.

A thank you shout-out to readalong hosts Melissa, Trish, and Care. They are most welcoming, and there is still a week left if you want to join the #SalemAlong!

Next up for me is a sunny, fluffy read. The Diamond Caper, by Peter Mayle, takes place on the French Riviera—a perfect antidote to Stephen King!

Mayle antidote

Readalong of Salem’s Lot

Join the Salem’s Lot Readalong

#SalemAlong on Twitter

#112263Along — readalong of 11/22/63

#DomeAlong — readalong of Under the Dome

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Village School Miss Read LGI’ve been curious about the Miss Read books and was so pleased when Village School was lucky number #5 on my Classics Club Spin List. It tells the story of the small village of Fairacre, England, as narrated by the school mistress of the local, two-room elementary school, aka “Miss Read”.

Set right after World War II, the book begins on the first day of school with all the anticipation and excitement felt by the two teachers and their students. The story unwinds in a series of slice-of-life vignettes that follow the school year. Miss Read has a knack for creating evanescent moments: children making straw bunches for the harvest festival; strained conversation while drinking tea in a dusty sitting room; an evening of skating on the local pond lit up by a farmer’s lorry (truck) headlights.

Throughout the book I had that wistful feeling of the passing of time, for example this lovely summer afternoon:

“We were disposed at the edge of the half-cut field under the elm trees’ shade. The air was murmurous with the noise of the distant cutter and with myriads of small insects. Far away the downs shimmered in the heat, and little blue chalk butterflies hovered about us … the children sat or lay in the grass with their books propped before them. Some read avidly … But others lay on their stomachs, legs undulating, with their eyes fixed dreamily on the view before them, a grass between their lips, and eternity before them. … When these boys and girls are old and look back to their childhood, it is the brightest hours that they will remember. This is one of those golden days to lay up as a treasure for the future, I told myself, excusing our general idleness.”

The author, whose real name is Dora Jessie Saint, taught school for many years, and the Fairacre novels are fictionalizations of her own experiences—much like James Herriot’s books.

Village School is a delightful, cosy, and relaxed read. That’s not to say that it is sugar-coated. The thatched cottages look pretty, but inside they are dark and damp, with no plumbing or drainage. Likewise the narrative touches on difficulties such as a drunkard father, a boy who has no dinner (lunch) money, and the formidable test that decides the educational fate of 11-year-olds. Miss Read empathizes with her students and neighbors, especially the grubby but beguiling Joseph Coggs. Overall, however, the book is upbeat and highlights the charm of village life. The school janitor (who has laid out all the courses) has a role of prominence at the summer sports day, walking about in a blue serge suit with the vicar.

My one serious complaint is that the “n-word” jumped off page 135, which was shocking and, honestly, somewhat horrifying. Miss Read uses it to describe how hard one of her students is studying. This was especially jarring given the comforting cadence of the prose.

Back in 1939, Agatha Christie had a book with the “n-word” in its title, although when it was released the next year in the U.S., the title was changed to And Then There Were None. The UK version adopted the latter title by the 1980s. Village School was published in 1955, and my edition was reissued in 2001. So it seems even more egregious that this has not been addressed.

That aside, I found this a charming book, and I think the many Fairacre sequels will be perfect reading for cold winter nights by the fire with a cup of tea.

Our Classics ClubTo read other reviews from this CC Spin, check out @ourclassicsclub or #ccspin on twitter.  Why not join us in the next Classics Club Spin?

My Classics Club Spin #10 Reading List

The Classics Club Homepage

The Classics Club Spin Challenge

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–Readathon Wrap-Up

dewey graphicThis past weekend I participated in the Dewey’s Readathon, with 1900 readers from all around the world. Well, sort of. I had family in town so I spent much of the weekend with them. Thus, I didn’t log the serious hours of reading that I have in the past.

I read in snatches, as the Readathon went from 8:00 am Sat to 8:00 am Sun, my time. (The times change depending on where you live—so that we are all reading for the same 24-hour period.) Most of the participants tweet progress updates, and it’s really fun to see who is reading, where they are, and which books. Bookworm joy!

I finished up Rival Queens by Nancy Goldstone and Hallowe’en Party by Agatha Christie—but that was only about 30 pages each. I also managed about 100 pages of Salem’s Lot by Stephen King, which I’m reading with twitter friends as part of the #SalemAlong.

I never plan this but somehow I always wake up early on Readathon Sunday. At 5:00 am, I made some hot tea and started Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. I didn’t quite finish it by 8:00 am. OK, I may have nodded off for a bit. But I did knock it off with some extra reading time on Sunday—so I’m counting it.

Big Magic—273 (entire book)
Rival Queens—30 pages ish (finished book)
Hallowe’en Party—30 pages ish (finished book)
Salem’s Lot—100 pages (solid dent)

433 ish pages total

The next Dewey’s 24 Hour Readathon is Sat April 23, 2016. Join us!

stack oct 2015

Past Dewey’s Readathons:

Hurray! Its the  Dewey’s Read-a-thon April 2014

So in Need of Dewey’s Read-a-thon October 2013

Here We Go, Dewey’s Read-a-thon April 2013

Read-a-thon or Read-a-5k? October 2012

Read or Cheer on the Dewey’s Read-a-thon October 2011

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SalemAlong buttonIt’s the first day of the Halloween month, and I’m starting the #SalemAlong—a readalong of Salem’s Lot by Stephen King. The #SalemAlong is hosted by Melissa, Trish, and Care.

Interested? Click here to join us!

Honestly, I’m a bit nervous about the nightmare factor, but I think (well, I’m told) that it will somewhat be alleviated by reading together with some of my book buddies. Strength in numbers?

I read both Under the Dome and 11/22/63 in readalongs, and it’s so fun to see everyone’s comments and reactions via twitter and blog posts.

But this is the first of King’s horror books I’ve read since Carrie, which I found much more terrifying than the movie—though the Sissy Spacek version is pretty darn scary. While I admire King, I confess that I have wimped out and gone for the film version over the books of many of his classics—It, The Shining, The Stand. Pathetic, I know.

Again, here’s the #SalemAlong welcome post and sign-up. Join us, if you dare…

If you love scary reads, also check out Murder, Monsters, and Mayhem aka #MX3, at Jenn’s Bookshelves, which celebrates horror/thriller/mystery books all month.

Salem's Lot TH#112263Along — readalong of 11/22/63

#DomeAlong — readalong of Under the Dome

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Jane's Fame LGIn 1820, three years after her death, Jane Austen’s publisher remaindered all copies of her books. She sunk into obscurity “out of print, out of demand, and almost out of mind.” Today, of course, Austen is a worldwide phenomenon.

Claire Harman offers an engrossing account of the erratic and somewhat inexorable rise of Austen’s popularity in Jane’s Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World. Harman flavors her narrative with diverting bits of trivia, for example Rudyard Kipling was a fervent Janeite! He considered Austen’s gravesite at Winchester Cathedral to be the second holiest place in England after Shakespeare’s hometown of Stratford.

Harman begins with a look at Jane the author. In particular, I was fascinated to learn that Austen devised a proto cut-and-paste approach to revision by pinning small paper cutouts with new wording over sections of a working draft.

Austen struggled, however, to get her works published. Ultimately she sold both Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice at somewhat bargain rates just to see them in print. The success of these books allowed her to get a better deal for Mansfield Park, which financially was her most successful work, earning her £30 a year. Emma, however, sold the most copies on its initial run.

Tragically, it was just as Austen was gaining success and recognition—albeit anonymously as her works were published by “a Lady”—that she died. Her tombstone made no mention of her as an author.


An 1816 first edition of Emma.

An 1816 first edition of Emma.

During the nearly 13 years her books were out of print, copies were treasured and traded by a niche of faithful readers, including several luminaries of the literary world. Sir Walter Scott had the full set and read Pride and Prejudice at least three times. Other admirers included Robert Southey, Maria Edgeworth, Benjamin Disreali, Lord Tennyson, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge—but not William Wordsworth because, according to Coleridge’s daughter, he had no sense of humor.

Both English and pirated translations of Austen’s novels were read in France, Russia, Sweden, Switzerland, and even in America. I was gobsmacked to learn that James Fenimore Cooper’s first novel was actually a reworking of Persuasion titled Precaution, which flopped.

In 1833, Austen’s books were reissued as part of low-cost series, Standard Novels, sort of the Penguin Classics of the day. These editions began to sell steadily, gaining steam as the Victorian age took hold. Interest in Austen the author also grew steadily, erupting by the 1870s into the cult of the “Divine Jane.” Noted literary critic Leslie Stephen, father of Virginia Woolf, lampooned this as “Austenolatry”—a riff on “Bardolatry” the cult of Shakespeare. Not long after, another critic named George Saintsbury coined the term “Janeite,” still so popular today. At Winchester Cathedral, so many visitors turned up looking for Austen that her nephew and biographer James Edward Austen-Leigh erected a memorial plaque.

Janes Fame pb

During World War I, Austen’s novels were a favorite among British soldiers and were well stocked in the trenches. They were also prescribed reading material to the wounded for their soothing and “salubrious” effects. By the 1920s, a “Janeite cabal” ran the Royal Society of Literature which would brook no criticism of the author. Beyond these hallowed halls, Austen had also exploded into the mainstream, via magazine articles, compilations, decorative special editions, and Austenalia: sequels and continuations of her novels. There was also a clamor for her letters, juvenilia, portraits, and any other related memorabilia, all of which were unearthed and published.

Jane had her share of detractors, though. Ralph Waldo Emerson had found her to be without genius or wit—a startling and somewhat paradoxical appraisal, but then he was rather severe. Surprisingly, Henry James felt she was overrated. Mark Twain’s derision of Austen has long been celebrated by her detractors, but what I didn’t know is that Twain repeatedly tried to read her works.

Still, Austen continued to gather fans: W.H. Auden, G.K. Chesterton, E.M. Forster, Katherine Mansfield, Rebecca West, and even the crotchety Winston Churchill. Another unlikely candidate, Aldous Huxley, wrote the screenplay for the first film adaption of Pride and Prejudice in 1940.

Memorial plaque honoring Austen at Winchester Cathedral.

Memorial tablet honoring Jane Austen at Winchester Cathedral.

There are so many other delicious tidbits, as Harman takes us through different film adaptations and pop-culture trends to the current online zeitgeist of fansites and blogs. But I don’t want to give away the too much of the book, which I highly recommend. Throughout, Harman manages to keep Jane very much in the present with anecdotes, family memories, quotes, and a clever musings as to how Austen would react to all this. Indeed, we all wonder and that’s part of what drives our Janeite mania.

Even after reading her novels, her letters, various biographies, and, yes, many of the Austenalia takeoffs—we still thirst for more of Jane Austen.

As Harman quotes Katherine Mansfield:

“The truth is that every true admirer of the novels cherishes the happy thought that he alone—reading between the lines—has become the secret friend of their author.”

I read this book as part of the Austen in August annual reading event hosted by Roof Beam Reader. #AusteninAugustRBR

Worn Out With Civility at Mansfield Park

Jane Austen, Genius of Economic Game Theory?

How Did I Not Know About Marvel’s Pride & Prejudice?

Kate Middleton Decried as Jane Austen Character

When Pride and Prejudice Clicks, from Boring to Brilliant

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