30 September 2008

Review: The Lady Elizabeth, by Alison Weir


This is a well-researched historical novel written by an historian. It recounts the life Elizabeth I, beginning when she was 3 years old, just after her mother, Anne Boleyn, was beheaded. It ends as Elizabeth rides to court to become queen.

The story provides insight into Elizabeth's relationships with her family: Henry VIII; her sister, Mary; her brother, Edward; and her four step-mothers. I was particularly interested in Elizabeth and Mary's feelings toward each other: sometimes loving, sometimes strained.

Although I don't consider myself an expert in the field, I have read many non-fiction works about Elizabeth and the Tudors, including books by Alison Weir. In this novel, Weir was able to go beyond the evidence into speculation, while remaining true to the facts and spirit of the era. On the other hand, several periods of Elizabeth's life have been the subject of conjecture, and the novel takes a definite point of view when covering those areas. Here is one example:

After Henry VIII's death, Catherine Parr (his last wife) was made Elizabeth's guardian. Catherine, in a scandalous move, soon married Thomas, Lord Seymour of Sudeley. He had been an admiral in the British navy and had a reputation for having great ambition and being a rogue and self-serving. He first wanted to marry the young Elizabeth, but she rejected him. He then chose Catherine, which gave him access to and power over the future queen. One area of debate in Elizabeth's life is her relationship with the admiral. Here, Weir takes as true the contemporary rumors that Seymour had taken Elizabeth's virginity and had gotten her pregnant. Gossip at the time was that Elizabeth had miscarried after about 5 months. In fact, Elizabeth was unwell soon after her arrival in Seymour's household, and there was one report that a midwife had been brought blindfolded to the estate several months later. In an author's note at the end of the book, Weir discusses this issue.

Weir portrays Elizabeth in a realistic light. We see a young girl who is quite aware of her position in the world but only on maturity understands all the implications of that status. At some points in her life she is happy and secure; at other points, she fears for her life and despairs of ever being in control of her own affairs. Weir delves into the reasons Elizabeth may have been so strongly against marriage and bearing children, and the novel is convincing. Unfortunately, Elizabeth's relationship with Robert Dudley develops after she becomes queen, and so we learn almost nothing about him.

This novel was wonderfully written and held to factual evidence and/or legitimate possibilities. I highly recommend this to anyone interested in historical fiction, the Tudors, or Elizabeth I. I am hoping that Weir is planning to write about Elizabeth's life as queen; I wouldn't hesitate to read it. I also highly recommend Weir's non-fiction works about this era: The Wives of Henry VIII, The Children of Henry VIII, and The Life of Elizabeth I.

Rosalyn Landor did nice job with the narration of this audiobook. She made each voice different enough so it was easy to tell which characters were speaking, but she was not so dramatic as to be distracting. Her pronunciations and expression made for an enjoyable listen.

This book was part of my Fall into Reading challenge. Are you wondering why this book was not on my original list? Click here to learn why. To see other reviews in the Fall into Reading challenge, click here.

Published by Random House Audio Publishing (unabridged), 2008
ISBN-13: 9780739368503
Challenge: Fall into Reading
Rating: A

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Challenge: Fall into Reading (Update)


I realize that I said here that I would try to stick to my short list for my fall reading challenge. I had forgotten, however, that I had one book on hold at OverDrive and another request for an audiobook through interlibrary loan. Both books came through a few days ago and so I was "forced" to listen to these two books before continuing on with my initial reading list.

I am on a mini historical fiction kick, I guess. Here are the two additional books for this challenge:

  1. The Lady Elizabeth, by Alison Weir
  2. Dawn on a Distant Shore, by Sara Donati
As usual, I'll post a review here with a link at Katrina's blog (here).

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26 September 2008

Review: The Eye of the Jade, by Diane Wei Liang


Mei Wang is a well-educated woman in her late 20s who used to work for the Chinese government, in security or for the police. Because Mei was being forced to do things that were against her principles, she left her good government job to become an information consultant in Beijing. She is really a private investigator, but in China of the 1990s she cannot use that term. This is a very daring move on her part, because she is a single woman who is running her own business without protection of party members. But she has managed to acquire a used car, an office, and even a male assistant.

One day, an old family friend, Uncle Chen Jitian, comes to see Mei. He has a job for her: track down a particular piece of jade dating from the Han Dynasty. The jade was stolen out of the Luoyang Museum by the Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution. The search for this priceless antique takes Mei into the seedier side of Beijing, and she soon has dealings with the black market and murder.

In the meantime, Mei's younger sister gets married to a rich businessman many years her senior, and her mother has a stroke and is taken to the hospital. When Mei's mother is suddenly moved to the best ward and the doctors tell her that she owes no money, Mei begins to question her family's past. All she knows is that her father, a poet, was sent to a labor camp during the Cultural Revolution and that he eventually died in jail. Her mother raised the girls virtually alone, changing jobs and apartments frequently. Mei's aunt eventually tells the sisters what she remembers of their parents' life together and their involvement in the party and the Chinese government.

Liang, a Chinese native now living in England, is an accomplished writer. Her ability to describe people's actions, facial expressions, and changing moods is wonderful. I felt that I got a glimpse into Beijing of the 1990s--the politics, the streets, the food, the people. The book is well worth reading just for this aspect. On the other hand, the plotting of the mystery was not strong, and I was much more interested in Mei's family life and the story of her parents than I was in finding out what happened to the jade. The ending of the book seemed abrupt; I was expecting more surprise, more action, more something. Some issues concerning Mei and her mother were left unfinished, but the cover of the book indicates that this is the first in a series, so I'm hoping that we learn more of the Wang family in forthcoming novels.

I recommend this book for anyone who wants to learn more about modern Chinese culture and history and its effect on families and the working classes. I was especially interested in the different ways Mei, her sister, and her friends dealt with the conflicts of being part of today's world (traveling, using cell phones, owning businesses) while still needing to be careful about the party and the police. The young women had the additional burden of having to juggle their professional lives with the roles and duties they were expected to fulfill according to Chinese tradition.

This part of my Fall into Reading challenge. See other reviews from this challenge at Callapidder Days (click here).

Published by Simon & Schuster, 2008
ISBN-13: 9781416549550
Challenge: Fall into Reading
Rating: B+

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24 September 2008

Review: Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog), by Jerome K. Jerome


This short book was written in the late 1800s and tells the tale of three men and a dog who take a boating trip up the Thames. It was supposed to be a relaxing vacation meant to cure the men of their self-diagnosed ailments. Unfortunately, the voyage becomes a series of misadventures, usually with hysterical results.

I read this book in preparation for reading Connie Willis's To Say Nothing of the Dog. The dog in Three Men in a Boat is Montmorency, a fox terrier who accompanies the incompetent men on their trip. My understanding is that the Willis book is a take off on Jerome's.

Jerome's book is full of slap-stick humor as we follow the three Victorian bunglers up the river. Generally, they face a problem, such as not having a can opener, that then needs to be solved. In this case, the men try to open the can by hitting it with everything from a rock to the ship's mast. Along the way, the men get in and out trouble, meet numerous zany characters, learn to play the banjo, sing songs, and tell tales of young women.

I did find the book to be funny, but about three quarters of the way through, my mind began to wander and I started skimming along to the end. It is a charming tale, but the constant humor was a bit wearing. If I were more of a fan of slap-stick, I think I would have liked this book better. Nonetheless, I do recommend it--especially for those of you who go for the excessively silly (which is not a bad thing!).

Note to others in the Fall into Reading challenge: Yes, I did finish the first book already, but it is less than 150 pages long! Katrina has set up a blog post to gather all the reviews from this challenge; be sure to check it out here.

Published by Dover, 2006 (originally 1889)
ISBN-13: 9780486451107
Challenge: Fall into Reading
Rating: B-

Links to Other Reviews
Word Lily

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22 September 2008

Challenge: Fall into Reading


I'm joining a reading challenge hosted by Callapidder Days (read about it here). The challenge is to pick any group of books you'd like to read this fall. Here are books I plan to read:

Eye of the Jade, by Diane Wei Liang
Genghis: Lords of the Bow, by Conn Iggulden
Hippopotamus Pool, by Elizabeth Peters
Three Men in a Boat, by Jerome K. Jerome
To Say Nothing of the Dog, by Connie Willis

The challenge allows us to change the list whenever it strikes us, but I think I'll try to stick to these books.

I'll review each book here when I finish it. I'm interested to see what everyone else is planning to read between September 22 and December 21.

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19 September 2008

Walking and Listening

I walk about 2.5 miles every day--ok, almost every day! From spring to fall, I fitness walk (i.e., keep up a fast pace) outside in the evening after work. I live at the base of a mountain (this is Pennsylvania, not Colorado, so get the right picture in your mind!), and thus my outdoor walks include sections with a fairly steep grade. I have a favorite route and two alternates (one easier and one harder than my favorite).

I always listen to a book when I walk. I clip my mp3 player to my waistband, put my earbuds on, and off I go. I'm sure my neighbors think I'm listening to music, but I prefer getting in some extra reading time. I've noticed that the type of book I'm listening to affects my walking speed. My pace is up when I'm listening to a mystery or fantasy, especially during a chase scene, shootout, or battle. When I'm listening to literary fiction or history, I tend to walk a bit slower to allow my mind to savor the words instead of focusing on my heart rate.

After I return home, I tend to keep listening while I cool down and then head for the kitchen to make dinner. I don't turn the player off until my husband walks in the door. Well, sometimes I tell him that I have to listen just a bit more so I can finish an episode or chapter in the book before I quit.

During the rest of the year, I walk at home on the treadmill. (I don't feel comfortable walking in the dark by myself, even in our safe and small town.) I like to adjust the speed and incline as I walk, and this means I'm not as focused on my book because I need to pay attention to the machine's controls. Sometimes I program the treadmill so adjustments are made automatically, but I still have to be prepared for the changes. Nevertheless, I never walk without a book in my ears.

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16 September 2008

Challenge: 25 Books & Libraries

My local library is sponsoring a challenge for adult and young adult readers: Read 25 books between September 1 and December 31 and win a prize. I'm definitely entering because it's nothing for me to read that many books in 4 months.

Last year, the library celebrated a major anniversary. The challenge was to read 5o books between June 1 and December 31. I met that with a few weeks to spare and won a nice tote bag.

At the end of every month, I'll post the books I read for this challenge. In January, I'll tell you what prize I won.

I make an effort to participate in as many library events as I can manage in my busy life. I am strong believer in the benefits of reading and in having easy access to all books--not just the books some big chain has decided Americans will like. As independent booksellers become an endangered species, public libraries grow in their importance. Where else, outside an educational institution, can we find people who look at books as more than just products to sell for profit? I miss the hand-sold book from a knowledgeable bookseller, but my library's staff consists of well-informed, critical, and enthusiastic book lovers. I've been directed to many a wonderful book via a staff recommendation.

More on libraries and their services in future posts.

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15 September 2008

Review: Austenland, by Shannon Hale

The premise of this novel is that a modern, single woman, Jane Hayes, is looking for her own Mr. Darcy, as exemplified by Colin Firth in the BBC version of Pride & Prejudice. An elderly aunt arranges for Jane to visit Autenland in England. Austenland is a fantasy/reenactment vacation, which allows women to enter into the world of Jane Austen. After a brief introduction to Regency manners and a few dance lessons, clients are taken by carriage to the country manor. The manor house comes equipped with costumes and a cast of characters who play maids, gardeners, and gentlemen suitors. Jane Hayes takes the trip as a last hurrah before she gives up on men entirely and embraces her single life.

This is a very light novel with a fairly predictable plot. On the other hand, the references to Austen's characters and novels and Jane Hayes's attempts to shed her modern manners, behavior, and expectations made this worth the read. This is not deep literature or a critique of Austen's works. It's an escape novel, perfect for a lazy Saturday or to read on the beach or in a airplane.

Published by Bloomsbury USA, 2007
ISBN-13: 9781596912854
Rating: B

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13 September 2008

Wines for Pizza

In June 2008, Wine Spectator magazine published a list of red wines that go well with pizza. The list was limited to what they called "value reds." Here are a few we tried and liked. The number in parentheses is the score from the Wine Spectator list.

  • Columbia Crest Melot Columbia Valley Grand Estates 2005 (88)
  • Goats do Roam Wine Company Goats do Roam Red Coastal Region 2006 (85)
  • Francis Coppola Presents Rosso California 2006 (84)
  • Fetzer Shiraz California Valley Oaks 2005 (84)
  • Smoking Loon Syrah California 2005 (84)
  • Columbia Crest Merlot-Cabernet Washington Two Vines 2005 (83)

We are still making our way through the list! All wines on the list are under $15 a bottle -- even here in Pennsylvania.

I make homemade pizza on the grill almost every week during the summer. I make my own dough for the crust, but we generally buy the sauce. I just don't have time to can or freeze my own anymore. Muir Glenn organic pizza sauce is our favorite commercial brand.

So most Friday nights, you'll find us on the deck eating fresh grilled pizza and sipping a new wine from the Wine Spectator's list.

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