Monday, April 22, 2013

Serving Victoria: Life in the Royal Household, by Kate Hubbard. HarperCollins 2012

This book was given to me by the Amazon Vine program in return for a fair review. The fact that the book was free in no way influenced my review. 

While much has been written about the life of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their royal children, not much has been put out there about the other people around them. Kate Hubbard has gone to original sources- letters and diaries- of the people who worked for her: the people who were neither royalty nor laborers, but those who occupied a stratum in the middle. Her doctors, the children’s governess, her maids of honor and women of the bedchamber, her private secretary all held titles that were considered honors but were in reality onuses. It was nearly impossible to refuse an invitation to serve at court- and serving did, in fact, have some advantages if one were just starting out and in need of some steady cash and introductions to the right people. And once Victoria liked a person, she was loathe to allow them to leave.

Victoria’s quirks made court a strange place. Hers was not a court of brilliant wit and scandals, nor was it one of jewels and balls. Victoria and Albert led a life of royal privilege combined with middle class sensibilities. Victoria dressed in what many considered a dowdy style (even before Albert’s death), she wouldn’t have any conversation around her that could possibly create offense or argument, she considered nursery games to be perfect after dinner activities, liked to have the windows open and no fires burning even in the dead of winter (not just in her quarters, but throughout whatever dwelling she was in), and saw no problem with not allowing her attendants to sit down at the theater rather than standing the whole time behind her seat, holding her things for her. In other words, court life was uncomfortable and boring. Lady in waiting was a very apt term; these women spent the vast majority of their time just waiting to see what they would be doing: walking outside with the Queen, riding with her in the carriage, playing cards. Even if she had no current task for them, they had to …. Wait, making no use of their time. Their time belonged to the Queen. It had to be the most boring job in the world; one woman bemoaned the lack of books. The men, on the other hand, sometimes got overworked. Her doctor, for instance, had to see her at least four times a day, sometimes eight. Her personal secretary had his hands full at all times, with both business dealings and the behind the scenes feather soothings that went along with living in a court where some people were the Queen’s pets and could do no wrong, while taking advantage of her.

The Victorian Era is one I’m very interested in, and Hubbard’s book has added a new dimension to what I know of it. While I knew any court would be a place of constant maneuvering for favor, it never occurred to me that it would be a boring place to be avoided at all costs! 

The above in an affiliate link; if you click through it and buy the book, I will earn a few cents from it.

Monday, April 15, 2013

The Demonologist, by Andrew Pyper. Simon & Schuster, 2013

The demonologist of the title is Prof. David Ullman, who does not consider himself a demon specialist but rather a Milton scholar specializing in ‘Paradise Lost’. At the end of the school term, he is looking forward to a dinner with his best friend, Prof. Jane O’Brian, and then spending time with his 11 year old daughter, Tess. But before he can get out of his office, a thin woman, with colorless skin and a smell of the earth, urges him to accept a job: take a trip to Venice and witness something. All expenses paid. He rejects the offer, and hurries off. But when his friend gives him bad news, and his unfaithful wife gives him bad news on his arrival home, he changes his mind and takes Tess to Venice. While there, he witnesses a strange phenomenon, and his daughter falls from the roof of the hotel in the Venetian canals, body not found, presumed downed and swept away. The rest of the book is his quest to find the daughter he is sure is still alive, but held by beings he formerly thought were figments of the imagination. The journey takes him all around North America and into his past.

It reminded me of a somewhat more literate Da Vinci Code: the professor who suddenly is thrust into the role of both sleuth and action hero, what with the clues he must figure out to get to the next stage and the race against time before his daughter is lost to him forever. It’s a tense journey.

The book is not without its flaws. It gets boring in some stretches. The characters don’t have a great amount of depth; even David, whose past is explored during the journey, remains more opaque than I wanted. O’Brian is the person that I would have liked to have found out more about; she remains a flat character, a useful sacrifice in the quest. As a strong woman with nothing to lose, I expected more from her. But despite these flaws, the book is worth reading. The demon is the classic kind, not the romantic kind that falls in love with a human and turns his back on evil; that’s kind of refreshing these days. 

This is an affiliate link; if you click it and buy the book via that link, I get a tiny amount of money. This in no way influences my review.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Evil Jester Digest, edited by Peter Giglio. Evil Jester Press, 2012

Most anthologies leave me with very mixed feelings; I’ll like a couple of the stories, a couple will be awful, the rest are just blah. This one surprised me; I thought all twelve stories in it were good. There are some very unique ones in the group and the stories don’t rely on just gore for their horror. There are some zombie stories, of course- can’t have horror these days without zombies- but they have refreshing takes on zombies. There is even a zombie fairy tale! Definitely worth reading if you want some better than average horror fiction. 


This was a free e-book from Amazon. The fact that it was free in no way influences my review. The above link is an affiliate link; if you click through and buy the book, I receive a tiny amount of money.

American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath, by Carl Rollyson. St. Martin’s Press, 2013

When I was in school around 1970, we were told that Sylvia Plath committed suicide because her husband, poet Ted Hughes, was an arrogant egotist who used her as a typist and suppressed her creativity and that it was his infidelity that finally drove her to suicide; it was the feminist stand at the time. This new biography, which draws on sources that were unavailable until after Ted Hughes death, shows a very different and far more complex story. Plath was not a woman forced into the shadows; if she was ever in the shadows, she put herself there.

Plath based her life on an idealized image in her head, an image that not only had her cast as an over achieving writer but as perfect wife and mother-even, at age 20, making a suicide attempt when her academic career was not going as she planned. She suffered from (and was treated multiple times for) depression and yet found the energy to take care of a home and children, write as much as Hughes did, and type his work. She was a driven woman, fighting to stay on top of everything including her demons. And she was fragile. That Hughes’ infidelity finally drove her over the edge is probably true, but Hughes was not the monster he’s been made out to be. Nor was Plath the vicious madwoman that Hughes’ sister, Olwyn, has described.

Rollyson drew largely on the Ted Hughes archive at the British Library, which includes many letters between Plath and Hughes and other unpublished papers and on interviews with friends of Plath and Hughes, which has enabled a balanced picture of Plath to emerge from the dust. It’s easily readable and as gripping as any novel. The book is a great addition to the Plath biographies. 

This book was given to me by the Amazon Vine program in return for an unbiased review. The link above is an affiliate link; if you click through it and buy the book, I receive a tiny amount of money. 

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Romancing the Crone: 100 Ways to Make This the Happiest Time of Your Life! By Gail Elaine.

A short, cute book of good suggestions, but not very deep or original. It’s a good introduction, though, to how to deal with life without becoming bitter; renewing family ties (elder, young, in-law), the importance of friendship, volunteering, pets, avoiding negative people, meditation and visualization, dealing with on the job problems, sex, taking up new things, health, beauty, setting boundaries, etc. Each of the 100 topics has its own very short chapter with a cute little cartoon. Might make a good “Welcome to menopause” gift for the woman who is fearful of aging! 

This was a free Kindle ebook. There is no link available for it. 

Monday, April 1, 2013

Dreadnaught, by Cherie Priest. Tor, 2010

This is the second probably the third book in Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century series, set in an alternative 1800 world of steampunk, airship pirates, zombies and wild inventions. Like the first book, Boneshaker, this book features a strong female protagonist that I immediately took to.

Mercy Lynch, a nurse in a Confederate hospital, gets word that her soldier husband has died at almost the same moment that she gets a message that her long vanished father is very ill and wants to see her- in Seattle. She surprises herself by making the decision to go and visit him, a trip that, given the war, isn’t easy. Her trip across the continent by airship, steamboat, and train – no regular train- is a wild adventure full of disagreeing Confederates, Union soldiers, Texians, missing Mexican troops, zombies, gold, and a mad scientist. Mercy is a tough woman, though, and deals with it all with courage and inventiveness, her nurse’s training standing her in good stead what with the bullets flying almost constantly.

One of the things I love about this book, and Boneshaker, is that the protagonist is not just strong, but that she is not a stunning beauty that men fall instantly in love with. In fact, there is no romance in the books. Nor are they genius inventors; they are average women doing what needs to be done. One can identify with them easier than with some fantasy women- or at least I can!

The universe that Priest has built for this series holds together well. Dreadnought is a can’t-put-it-down, fast read that is full of action and has just enough creepiness- not enough to slow the story down, but enough to ratchet the anxiety level way up.  

This is an affiliate link. If someone uses this link to buy the book, I get a few cents from Amazon. 

Chanel Bonfire: A Memoir, by Wendy Lawless. Gallery Books, 2013

‘Chanel Bonfire’ is a tale of growing up with a mentally ill mother who, I suspect, was incapable of love. Her entire life was about manipulating people and seeking adoration, even from children too young to understand. While she wasn’t a wire coat hanger wielding physical abuser (most of the time), she was the master of screwing with minds.

The beautiful Georgann Rea was an extreme example of Narcissism. Her life was one big illusion: that she was loved, that she was rich, that she knew the ‘right’ people, that every man wanted her, that she was young forever. No one was allowed to disrupt those illusions; if one did, they were cut out of her life. One of those disruptions caused her to run away to Europe with her two daughters, severing all contact with their father. Lawless would not have contact with him again until she was an adult. The girls basically raise themselves in a hostile environment. Sometimes the environment was quite luxurious, but it was always a minefield for Lawless, who had to police her every word and gesture to avoid setting off her mother. The two girls counted the days until they graduated high school and could escape.

This sounds like a grim read. In the hands of many writers, it easily could have been. But Lawless has a dry wit, and the book is riveting. I kept thinking to myself that Georgann couldn’t do anything worse, and yet she always did. What amazes me is that the girls turned out well- very well. Rather than damaging their psyches, it almost seems like the trials of their childhood made them stronger. 

 This is an affiliate link. If someone uses this link to buy the book, I get a few cents from Amazon.