Queen’s Gambit by Elizabeth Fremantle

Queen's GambitElizabeth Fremantle’s Queen’s Gambit, the first in her Tudor Trilogy, tells the tale of Katherine Parr, the last of Henry VIII’s wives and the one that outlived him (albeit barely). I hadn’t known as much about her compared to the more famous Catherine of Aragon or the more infamous Anne Boleyn, so I was intrigued.

Newly widowed for the second time in her life, Katherine Parr falls deeply in love with dashing courtier Thomas Seymour. But her return to court has sparked the affections of a more dangerous suitor, King Henry VIII, whose marriage proposal she has no choice but to accept. Determined not to fall victim to the same fates as his previous wives, Katherine struggles to keep her feelings for Thomas and her sympathies towards the Protestant Reformation hidden in a treacherous environment where rivals watch her every move, as the king’s health ails and the Catholic faction regains their power over crown and country. 

Fremantle’s language evokes the atmosphere of the Tudor court beautifully. The dialogue seems apt for the time and the characters are mostly well-drawn. The exception to that is strangely Katherine herself, who comes across as aloof even from the reader. Fremantle portrays Katherine’s struggle over her emotions realistically. I sympathized with Katherine’s basically forced marriage to Henry and feared for her as it seemed to go sour, though I was frustrated as a reader by my inability to understand Thomas’ appeal for her and her blindness to his faults.

I didn’t discover this until digging afterwards but Fremantle’s novel is fairly historically accurate. Katherine was indeed dazzled by Thomas, whom she eventually wed hastily soon after Henry’s death. The most salacious detail of their romance was that he apparently seduced her stepdaughter and ward, the future Queen Elizabeth, under Katherine’s own roof as she was pregnant with their child. His indiscretions likely led to her failing health, culminating in her death in childbirth. Tragically, the fate of her infant remains lost to history, so her only legacy is her survival in the Tudor court.

However, she was a fascinating figure, extremely well-educated and the first Queen of England to be a published author. Despite never experiencing motherhood with her own child, she served as a guardian and adored parental figure for all three Tudor royal children, bringing them together in a way that briefly transcended their quarrels. As queen-centric historical fictions go, I preferred The Queen’s Vow about Isabella of Castile, but Katherine bore admirable similarities to the parts of Isabella’s character that impressed me. Overall, this was still a solid read that would be enjoyed by fans of Philippa Gregory.

3 Stars

Lynne Truss’ Cat Out of Hell

Cat Out of HellI found Lynne Truss’ Cat Out of Hell in the “new releases” section of my library, and laughed at the cover.

I’m not laughing now.

British librarian Alec Charlesworth has lost his beloved wife, his job, and now it seems his sanity. For alone in a seaside cottage, he stumbles across a series of files his former coworker left him, containing interviews between an actor “Wiggy” and Roger, a devilish talking cat. Pulled out of his grief by his curiosity, Alec learns about Roger’s nine lives…and the lives that he and his fellow feline companion The Captain have extinguished along the way to immortality. When Alec realizes his wife was one of the victims, he’s determined to send those cats straight back to hell.

Much like Laline Paull’s The Bees, I began this book with affection towards the titular beasts, but ended it in mild (intense) terror. No joke, I was paranoid for days when walking down the street where the “friendly” neighborhood cats prowl. This book has done more than my relatives’ distaste and teasing to persuade me not to get a cat. On the plus side, there’s an adorable dog named Watson who steals the show, largely by virtue of just being there to not be creepy and to quote Sherlockisms at.

The first half was purely horrific as deaths by pets stack up, but Truss’ turn of phrase invoked the dark British humor that I love and eeked out some chuckles among the squeaks of fear. However, the second half rushes towards the supernatural exit with little explanation as to the how and why of these cats’ existence. The narrator excuses himself and thus the author from narrative cohesion, but if the plot holes aren’t filled, one would almost prefer that it was condensed to a straight-up horror tale that ended with cat world domination instead of the cop-out exorcism and Holmes-at-Reichenbach-Falls finale. Yet despite my irritation at the witticisms over substance, I like Alec was eerily charmed by Roger and his story.

Read it if you want the chills and/or to lose the ability to trust your dear fluffball ever again.

3.5 Stars

We Were Liars by E. Lockheart

We Were LiarsBefore I start my review, I want to say that E. Lockheart’s We Were Liars was majorly trumpeted as one of The Reads of The Year when it came out last year, so if you’ve come this far without spoiling yourself – congrats! But also, stop reading now! I typically try to avoid major spoilers, and definitely warn people if I don’t, but it was too challenging for me to write this review without speculating on the twists that it’s all a lost cause down below. Hence,

READ AT YOUR OWN RISK! 

OR YOU’LL BE SO SPOILED THAT YOU’LL FEEL LIKE OLD MILK. 

[ hehe I think I’m funny 🙂 ]

Cadence is a Sinclair, an idolized, perfectionist Kennedy-like family that summers together on their own little island and experiences the struggles of the wealthy. Her closest friends are her cousins Johnny and Mirren and outsider Gat, the Indian-American nephew of her aunt’s boyfriend and Cadence’s first love. Only something happened two summers ago that caused Cadence to lose her memory and to lose touch with her friends. Now she’s determined to return to the idyllic island and regain what she has lost.

We Were Liars is incredibly difficult to describe, but it follows four friends, the titular Liars, whose friendship becomes destructive to everything they know and love. Told from Cadence’s point of view, we are as equally lost as she is at the beginning, having no knowledge of the events that led to her amnesia and subsequent ill-health. While it proved to be an ideal setup for mystery, it also resulted in the author’s use of oddly poetic prose that I presume was supposed to be a side-effect of Cadence’s theatrical, delusional mind. Emotions are personified, choppy rhymes are harshly punctuated – being in Cadence’s head often felt like a badly written melodrama.

Overall, I’m just not nearly as invested in Cadence the narrator as in the rest of the characters. Admittedly, I felt bad as she struggled to regain her memory but she seemed like such a dull person even pre-accident. Gat I liked mostly because he was half-Indian, but I hated that he was toying with two girls’ emotions and he came across as a pretentious blowhard. Mirren and Johnny were my favorites, so sweet and hopeful and under-appreciated. I loved the fragments of the group’s bond that were glimpsed through flashbacks, but I wish it was developed more.

One thing I don’t understand though is why the group is nicknamed “The Liars.” When Cadence mentions they’re called that, it’s before they’ve done any discernible lying. And she said that the family gave them that moniker. I get it in retrospect, since the whole plot was based on lies, but how can they have known that when they were younger? Mind-boggling. Also perplexing is how the Liars didn’t communicate outside the summer in an age of Facebook and cell phones. I feel like the island was a time warp.

Despite these plot potholes, the story unraveled beautifully, to the extent that I went back immediately and reread several sections to gain some clarity on plot points I didn’t pick up on, reveling in the shocking reveal. I admit that I did not guess the twist. I was thinking of some dark shit (abuse, incest, etc) but it turned out to be even darker than I would’ve thought as Cadence accidentally burnt her friends (and dogs!) alive in her grandfather’s house. I read some reviews that take it even a step more twisted, speculating that Cadence meant to kill the others so she could inherit, but I’m going to assume that wasn’t the author’s intent.

In spite of that, the atmosphere is figuratively and literally haunting from the beginning. Reviewers seem divided on the ghost versus hallucination debate (i.e. whether the Liars were spirits or figments of Cadence’s imagination/drug use), but I come down firmly on the side of ghosts. Why else would no one else see them and why would they stick around the same house? Also, one of the little siblings mentions hauntings and another has a new obsession with the paranormal, which makes me believe they can at least sense the presence if not see them. It makes the cover cooler with a fuzzy ghost-like picture of the deceased Liars, but also the whole story more tragic as the Liars hung around out of love to give Cadence closure.

I do highly recommend this book to lovers of mystery and family drama. Despite the elements of teen angst, I think this is a YA that even real adults could get into. Plus it’s a great, gripping beach read, one that I may even read again myself.

4 Stars

Victoria Aveyard’s Red Queen

Red Queen (Red Queen, #1)Finally, I got my hands on the much-hyped Red Queen by Victoria Aveyard, one of the most heralded YA books of 2015 thusfar…and it sat on my shelf for weeks. In my defense, I was plodding through The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, a much different sort of book. After that, I gave my eyes a well-earned break and stuck to television for a few days. Anyways, onto the review!

Mare Barrow is a skilled thief. As a common Red, its the only way she can help keep her family from hunger and poverty, at least until she turns 18 and is conscripted into the army. She expects her life of slavery under the elite powerful Silvers will continue until she dies, but her world is shaken up when she is hired by the palace as a servant and then discovers that she wields power over electricity despite her lowly blood. Disguised by the royal family as a long-lost Silver to prevent rebellion from both the Silvers and Reds should the truth be discovered, Mare enters into a dangerous game hoping to spark change, but both Red and Silver blood will be shed to achieve it.

(Spoilers ahead)

Mare, oh Mare. You know that saying, “You can lead a horse to water but can’t make it drink”? Mare is not that horse. She’s pretty easily lead around by her nose and plunges herself over her vacant little head into any water, especially if a guy bats his eyes at her. She has not one, not two, but THREE! love interests whom she does a myriad of idiotic things for, from getting caught in a riot to pickpocketing a prince to joining a rebellion. She doesn’t have a strong conviction about any of these decisions, which I would admire, but rather she acts impulsively and then vacillates before allowing a man to bail her out of her troubles. Also, despite being a stranger in a strange land, she trusts way to easily, both the people who are hiding her secret for a high price (the Silvers) and the people who want to use her secret in a deadly way (the Reds of the terrorist Scarlet Guard).

The thing I liked the most about Mare is that she did see the repercussions of her actions, in that she regretted killing innocents in some instances, though she forgot about them quickly when faced with her own problems. This realistic impact of terrorism and war is unfortunately lost in many fantasy books. I do wish that the supporting cast was given more depth because it was less poignant when characters like Lucas, Julian, and Walsh die for Mare’s mistakes.

Likewise, the “bad guy” of the piece, Maven, had weak motives in my opinion and came across as a caricature, as did his evil stepmother-ish mother Queen Elara. I enjoyed Maven at first, even though I quickly suspected him of duplicity, but being jealous of your older brother and his crown is the oldest excuse in the book of villainy. And honestly, despite murdering the king and wanting to kill Cal and Mare, I don’t necessarily know if he’d be a worse king than Cal, who also wanted to keep the slavery status quo going. Plus this whole coup exposed a rather obvious lapse in Silver security – if you have individuals with mind control abilities, how have they not already seized power? It was bound to happen since there doesn’t seem to be any Occlumency.

One of my biggest issues about the book was how similar it was to other YA fantasies I’ve read and even to other pieces of pop culture. For example, the blood prejudice reminded me of Harry Potter (and I’ve heard it’s even more like Red Rising, which I haven’t gotten to yet), the superpowers reminded me of The Young Elites or X-Men, the Queenstrial was a deadlier version of The Selection with a tinge of The Hunger Games and Mean Girls in its aftermath. And that’s just a small sampling of the parallels I spotted. It just felt very unoriginal, even in a genre than tends to be repetitive. However, it was an easy, engaging read that I finished in a few hours and the writing was (mostly) solid. The phrase “Rise, red like the dawn” gave me the chills every time it came up.

Sadly, Red Queen did not live up to the hype for me. But I still may pick up the next book in the interest of seeing where things go. I was pleased that romance fell by the wayside at the end, with Mare literally announcing that she’s not picking either suitor, but I don’t expect that to remain the same. Nevertheless, I am hoping to see some fire and blood (whoops, wrong book!) before the inevitable happy ending.

3 Stars

William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich

The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi GermanyWilliam L. Shirer was serving as as one of the only CBS news correspondents in Western Europe in the 1930s and 1940s, located at the perfect place and time to witness firsthand the growth and eventual domination of the Nazis. Reporting from Vienna during the Austrian Anschluss and from Berlin during the early years of World War II, he eventually learned that the Gestapo was gathering evidence of his disobedience over censorship and fled the country, not to return until the Nuremberg trials. Afterwards, back in America and barely a decade after the war’s conclusion, he wrote The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany. 

Shirer begins at the beginning, the seeds that were sown following Germany’s defeat in World War I. Then, he traces the birth of Adolf Hitler, the creation of his philosophy as memorialized in Mein Kampf, and the establishment of the Nazi Party. Thus, its more than halfway in before we even get to war, but that development is essential to understand the individuals and events that led to its inevitability. By now, plenty of books have been written about the war itself, but Shirer’s has a unique level of detail and blend of contemporary citations with personal observances.

It wasn’t the easiest read with copious footnotes taking sometimes up to half the page. While I flew through the first 700 pages, the last few hundred took weeks. Partially because it finally touched on the Holocaust, a topic that isn’t covered extensively as much as foreshadowed for much of the book, but one that is deeply disturbing to read about so matter-of-factly. Nor does Shirer linger much on the aftermath of the war, probably because his book followed freshly on the heels of it and hasn’t been updated since published in 1960. In this case, that limit on scope is likely for the best.

I hope to read Shirer’s biography next. It’ll be interesting to get a different perspective on his work and biases as well as read further excerpts from his Berlin Diary, published during the war in 1941. For instance, from Rise and Fall, I already know that he’s at least slightly homophobic. Perhaps a product of his time, but I’d caution sensitive readers to be aware that he repeatedly remarks that homosexuality is a perversion, though obviously not to the extent of supporting Nazi persecution.

Regardless of Shirer’s own views, he did write the definitive work on Nazi Germany. Even to this day, I couldn’t find a more thorough source. For those readers interested in WWII history, this is a must read, but one that should be expected to take awhile.

4 Stars

 

Noelle Hancock’s My Year with Eleanor

My Year with EleanorNewly laid-off celebrity blogger Noelle Hancock had no clue what to with with her life when she abruptly lost her job while vacationing. Returning to New York City, she spent days haunting coffee shops, ostensibly working on applications and actually just trapped in worry about the state of her life. Then one day inspiration struck in the form of a quote she saw by Eleanor Roosevelt: “Do one thing every day that scares you.” Eleanor was painfully timid as a child, yet her commitment to facing her fears challenged Hancock to live a “Year of Fear” before she turned 30. Hancock chronicles her adventures from fighter pilot fighting to stand up comedy to facing old boyfriends in My Year with Eleanor.

For a journalist, Hancock’s writing wasn’t great, but I blame that more on the fact that she was trying to string together some loose anecdotes into a coherent book. What would’ve been entertaining and inspiring over a series of articles turns repetitive. Numerous chapters in the middle feel like a large stretch to connect with Eleanor, and most of Hancock’s conquered fears miss the point of Eleanor’s wisdom (ex. streaking naked down her hallway and diving with sharks). I also think she could have spent more time serving others as Eleanor did instead of focusing on herself – it came across as self-centered rather than self-improvement. Unfortunately, the one instance where I believe she could’ve done more good for herself, in conquering her sleeping pill addiction, is glossed over.

Coincidentally, I finished My Year With Eleanor just as Hancock’s newest written piece in Cosmopolitan began raising a stir. In it, she discusses how she gave up her $95,000 per year job to live as a bartender in the US Virgin Islands. The article faces the same issues that this book does, namely that she’s quite privileged to be able to live like that. In her book, she doesn’t really work for a year and somehow survives in one of the most expensive cities on the planet. Additionally, an investment from her parents help her reach her goal of climbing Kilimanjaro. I’m not saying that she didn’t work hard, but as a Yale-educated upper-middle class individual, she did have a lot of unique opportunities.

I will admit that I find Eleanor Roosevelt quite amazing, and learning more about her efforts to be braver definitely is motivating me to inch outside my comfort zone though I have a long way to go. So good for Hancock for doing the same – I sincerely hope it helped as I empathized with her social anxiety. But this is not the quality of memoir of Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project or any of A.J. Jacobs’ annual challenges, which are highly humorous and well-written reads, and you would be better off reading a book wholly about Eleanor if you want a true inspiration.

3 Stars