Review: Bohemian Gospel by Dana Chamblee Carpenter

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Thirteenth-century Bohemia is a dangerous place for a girl, especially one as odd as Mouse, born with unnatural senses and an uncanny intellect. Some call her a witch. Others call her an angel. Even Mouse doesn’t know who—or what—she is. But she means to find out.

When young King Ottakar shows up at the Abbey wounded by a traitor’s arrow, Mouse breaks church law to save him and then agrees to accompany him back to Prague as his personal healer. Caught in the undertow of court politics at the castle, Ottakar and Mouse find themselves drawn to each other as they work to uncover the threat against him and to unravel the mystery of her past. But when Mouse’s unusual gifts give rise to a violence and strength that surprise everyone—especially herself—she is forced to ask herself: Will she be prepared for the future that awaits her?

I ended up liking this book a lot more than I thought I would and even though the ending was a bit rushed, I am curious about what happens in the sequel. Mouse is a vibrant character who is ostracized by no fault of her own. Her powers and parentage leave her at a loss with how to deal with the world and the demons that haunt her are incredibly dangerous. The fantasy element of the story never felt forced and it was almost an element of horror rather than fantasy in that Mouse was always in danger and is never able to free herself from monsters that follow her powers.

The romantic element is understandable as Mouse pines for Ottaker, but her heritage and his duties as king keep them apart. The main question of who Mouse’s parents actually were remains hinted at throughout the entire book. I made a guess myself, but it wasn’t completely clear until the end. I wasn’t sure if I’d be sold on this whole concept as a book, but it turned out being very interesting and a good plot.

4 out of 5

Review: Karen Memory by Elizabeth Bear

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Set in the late 19th century—when the city we now call Seattle Underground was the whole town (and still on the surface), when airships plied the trade routes, would-be gold miners were heading to the gold fields of Alaska, and steam-powered mechanicals stalked the waterfront, Karen is a young woman on her own, is making the best of her orphaned state by working in Madame Damnable’s high-quality bordello. Through Karen’s eyes we get to know the other girls in the house—a resourceful group—and the poor and the powerful of the town. Trouble erupts one night when a badly injured girl arrives at their door, begging sanctuary, followed by the man who holds her indenture, and who has a machine that can take over anyone’s mind and control their actions. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, the next night brings a body dumped in their rubbish heap—a streetwalker who has been brutally murdered.

To start out with, you have to hand it to a book for being this incredibly diverse. Not only is the main character queer, other main characters include a trans woman, African American bounty hunter (a real person, btw), Native Americans, Indian women, and a variety of sex workers treated with respect by the author. And it is a rip snorting steampunk adventure. Karen, whose last name is actually “Memery” so the title is a bit of a misnomer, is intelligent and honest and very aware of her situation as a prostitute. I appreciated the fact that nothing about the women’s profession was glamorized, nor was it really judged either. There was no details about their work, but you understood what was happening.

My only complaint would be that the love interest was a bit flat as a character. I bought into Karen and all the other characters, but not her so much. The rest of the story was a high octane adventure that didn’t overwhelm with steampunk details and used a good bit of actual history to base itself.

4 out of 5

Review: Shock Value by Jason Zinoman

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By the late 1960s, horror was stuck in the past, confined mostly to drive-in theaters and exploitation houses, and shunned by critics. Shock Value tells the unlikely story of how the much-disparaged horror film became an ambitious art form while also conquering the multiplex. Directors such as Wes Craven, Roman Polanski, John Carpenter, and Brian De Palma- counterculture types operating largely outside the confines of Hollywood-revolutionized the genre, exploding taboos and bringing a gritty aesthetic, confrontational style, and political edge to horror. Zinoman recounts how these directors produced such classics as Rosemary’s Baby, Carrie, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and Halloween, creating a template for horror that has been imitated relentlessly but whose originality has rarely been matched.

This new kind of film dispensed with the old vampires and werewolves and instead assaulted audiences with portraits of serial killers, the dark side of suburbia, and a brand of nihilistic violence that had never been seen before. Shock Value tells the improbable stories behind the making of these movies, which were often directed by obsessive and insecure young men working on shoestring budgets, were funded by sketchy investors, and starred porn stars. But once The Exorcist became the highest grossing film in America, Hollywood took notice.

The classic horror films of the 1970s have now spawned a billion-dollar industry, but they have also penetrated deep into the American consciousness. Quite literally, Zinoman reveals, these movies have taught us what to be afraid of. Drawing on interviews with hundreds of the most important artists in horror, Shock Value is an enthralling and personality-driven account of an overlooked but hugely influential golden age in American film.

A highly interesting analysis of the resurgence of horror movies in the 1970s where the genre finally began to be taken a bit more seriously. It was the very lack of respect horror movies had that allowed several business outsiders to take risks and make their own experimental additions to the genre. It was also the very success of these movies that ended up dooming horror movies into becoming constrained by the same big business guidelines of other movies. The author doesn’t always like every movie that is considered ground breaking nor does he shy away from how difficult some of these directors were in personality, but there is a deep understanding of how horror went from being considered something for “kids” to a higher art form. It’s fascinating see just how some of these movies came into being and what it is about them that makes them stand out so much.

4 out of 5

Review: The Sisters of Versailles by Sally Christie

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Set against the lavish backdrop of the French Court in the early years of the 18th century, The Sisters of Versailles is the extraordinary tale of the five Nesle sisters: Louise, Pauline, Diane, Hortense, and Marie-Anne, four of whom became mistresses to King Louis XV. Their scandalous story is stranger than fiction but true in every shocking, amusing, and heartbreaking detail.

Court intriguers are beginning to sense that young King Louis XV, after seven years of marriage, is tiring of his Polish wife. The race is on to find a mistress for the royal bed as various factions put their best foot – and women – forward. The King’s scheming ministers push Louise, the eldest of the aristocratic Nesle sisters, into the arms of the King. Over the following decade, the four sisters:sweet, naive Louise; ambitious Pauline; complacent Diane, and cunning Marie Anne, will conspire, betray, suffer, and triumph in a desperate fight for both love and power.

Not a whole lot is ever commented on the Nesle sisters, my understanding is because there isn’t a whole lot of information about them (as opposed to Louis’s more famous mistress Madame du Pompadour). This romp pits the sisters against each other and highlights the complicated relationships between aristocratic families. No one marries for love and everyone sort of tolerates everyone else on a good day, but most importantly no one can be disgraced even though everyone is doing highly immoral things. Losing face is somehow different though. Louise is the oldest sister, a bit dim but kind and loving. Pauline is aggressive, angry and jealous yet also the most politically astute of the girls. Diane is jolly and not terribly cunning. Marie Anne is beautiful and bored and has a cruel streak. Louis XV is a weak, rather unlikable man who moves from a prude to a truly debauched ruler. It’s the women you’re concerned with.

I enjoyed the story itself and the relationship (always strained) between the sisters. My biggest complaint is that sometimes the characters were a bit uneven, particularly Marie Anne. On the one hand you’re told that she liked to torture small animals as a child and get hints of her truly cruel streak, on the other her affair with Louis is couched more in terms of survival than her actually trying to viciously displace Louise. It felt curious whether I should go with the foreshadowing that she was cruel or the actual events as they are laid out.

4 out of 5

Review: Gilded Age Murder & Mayhem in the Berkshires by Andrew K. Amelinckx

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Murder and dark deeds shadowed the extravagance of the Gilded Age in the Berkshires of Massachusetts. In the summer of 1893, a tall and well-dressed burglar plundered the massive summer mansions of the upper crust. A visit from President Teddy Roosevelt in 1902 ended in tragedy when a trolley car smashed into the presidential carriage, killing a Secret Service agent. Shocking the nation, a psychotic millworker opened fire on a packed streetcar, leaving three dead and five wounded. From axe murders to botched bank jobs, author Andrew Amelinckx dredges up the forgotten underbelly of the Berkshires with unforgettable stories of greed, jealousy and madness from the Gilded Age.

For those interested in the history of crime, this is an interesting book about forgotten crimes from American history. You’d think one of the first mass public shootings would be something you heard more about in other histories of crime, and yet the tragic mass killing in a streetcar by a mentally disturbed man remains largely forgotten. The author’s style is rather sparse and these feel more like magazine or newspaper articles than a deep introspection of the events or time period. It is an interesting little book though and while some of the stories occasionally get a little dry with facts, the events themselves are so bizarre and pretty much undocumented on the whole that the book is interesting in spite of that.

4 out of 5

Review: Deception on Sable Hill by Shelley Gray

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It’s mid-September of 1893 and Eloisa Carstairs is the reigning beauty of Gilded Age Chicago society. To outsiders she appears to have it all. But Eloisa is living with a dark secret. Several months ago, she endured a horrible assault at the hands of Douglass Sloane, heir to one of Chicago’s wealthiest families. Fearing the loss of her reputation, Eloisa confided in only one friend. That is, until she meets Detective Sean Ryan at a high-society ball.

Sean is on the outskirts of the wealthy Chicago lifestyle. Born into a poor Irish family, becoming a policeman was his best opportunity to ensure his future security. Despite society’s restrictions, he is enamored with Eloisa Carstairs. Sean seethes inside at what he knows happened to her, and he will do anything to keep her safe-even if he can never earn her affections.

I have read all three books in this series and liked the other two quite well. Unfortunately for this one it’s the weakest of the group. More’s the pity because separately Eloisa and Sean are likable characters and I probably would have liked them a lot more together if most of their time wasn’t spent pining over how wrong they were for each other socially and Sean fretting over ever leaving Eloisa alone or unsafe. And that’s the biggest issue with the book I had, all of the male characters spent 90% of their time lecturing the women about how they should never be alone anywhere at any time and treating them like children. There is a faint effort made to impress that the women are independent or the men realize they are being over bearing, but it’s so brief it doesn’t undo the rest of the impression of the male characters. For a passive character Eloisa is very likable and I wish more of the book had focused on her efforts to get involved with charity work and deal with her social circle.

The book was a fast read and I didn’t dislike it per se, but I found myself wishing the story would go a different way than it did and focus on some different aspects of the events in the plot.

3 out of 5

 

Review: The Creation of Anne Boleyn by Susan Bordo

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A groundbreaking retelling and reclaiming of Anne Boleyn’s life and legacy puts old questions to rest and raises some surprising new ones.

Part biography, part cultural history, The Creation of Anne Boleyn is a fascinating reconstruction of Anne’s life and an illuminating look at her afterlife in the popular imagination. Why is Anne so compelling? Why has she inspired such extreme reactions? What did she really look like? Was she the flaxen-haired martyr of Romantic paintings or the raven-haired seductress of twenty-first century portrayals? (Answer: neither.) And perhaps the most provocative questions concern Anne’s death more than her life. How could Henry order the execution of a once beloved wife? Drawing on scholarship and critical analysis, Susan Bordo probes the complexities of one of history’s most infamous relationships.

Bordo also shows how generations of polemicists, biographers, novelists, and filmmakers imagined and reimagined Anne: whore, martyr, cautionary tale, proto-“mean girl,” feminist icon, and everything in between. In this lively book, Bordo steps off the well-trodden paths of Tudoriana to expertly tease out the human being behind the competing mythologies.

It’s amazing how much we think we know about Anne Boleyn, arguably one of the most famous queens in history, and how little we actually do. Most of the information about her that popular media has latched on to based on its salacious nature came from men who hated her and had every reason to lie about their impressions of her. Anne herself is an enigma, cast by biographers as everything from a wanton temptress to an innocent victim. So where is the true Anne? Probably somewhere in between. A woman intelligent enough keep a king determined to marry her in spite of political upheaval, she also was a woman who a man at that time would probably find very hard to be married to. Plain talk and personal opinions might be fine in a mistress that has caught your eye, but in a wife who was expected to be seen and not heard, be demure and obedient, particularly with a man like Henry VIII, the very fact that Anne was Anne and couldn’t be anything other probably contributed to her downfall. Was Anne a feminist hero? Not exactly, but Bordo makes a very plausible argument that it was Anne’s determination to be nothing other than what she was that was probably the reason she made so many enemies in the boy’s club of Tudor court and eventually with her husband.

Most forgotten have been Anne’s contributions to the Reformation movement. She was a bright woman with deep interest in the Reformation and it is more than likely her clashing with Cromwell over how confiscated papal money was being redistributed (Anne was disturbed that it was going into private funds, not into educational and charitable coffers like she was under the impression it would be) that eventually led to his very concerted efforts to have her removed from power. Bordo also reveals a little into the psyche of Henry VIII, a man who seemed capable of discarding of a woman he fought for for years without a second thought (he spent the morning after her execution partying with Jane Seymour). Henry is a fascinating study into a man who would probably be diagnosed as narcissistic or borderline today. The unsettling way he could turn his affections violently off towards people he had initially loved is disturbing (and a pattern…Anne, Cromwell, More, and many others didn’t make it out of Henry’s former affections alive). It all goes to reveal that Anne was probably playing a game far more dangerous than she even realized and one that few people would have succeeded at.

The books is the strongest when analyzing the arguments about Anne herself and picking through the historical material. A word of caution though, just like the author discounts many of the accounts of Anne by those who would have been disposed to dislike her we have to keep in mind that the author DOES obviously like Anne and interprets some things very much in her favor without a huge amount of evidence (though many of her arguments are very logical and based on the psychology involved ring true). The book gets considerably weaker when it dwells on the many fictional versions of Anne (particularly The Tudors version). It is a fascinating read though for those interested in trying to get to the bottom of who Anne Boleyn was (and maybe the real answer is she is to some degree what the times make her).

4 out of 5

Review: The Rival Queens by Nancy Goldstone

 

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The riveting true story of mother-and-daughter queens Catherine de’ Medici and Marguerite de Valois, whose wildly divergent personalities and turbulent relationship changed the shape of their tempestuous and dangerous century.

Set in magnificent Renaissance France, this is the story of two remarkable women, a mother and daughter driven into opposition by a terrible betrayal that threatened to destroy the realm.

Catherine de’ Medici was a ruthless pragmatist and powerbroker who dominated the throne for thirty years. Her youngest daughter Marguerite, the glamorous “Queen Margot,” was a passionate free spirit, the only adversary whom her mother could neither intimidate nor control.

When Catherine forces the Catholic Marguerite to marry her Protestant cousin Henry of Navarre against her will, and then uses her opulent Parisian wedding as a means of luring his followers to their deaths, she creates not only savage conflict within France but also a potent rival within her own family.

Pity poor forgotten Marguerite de Valois, forced into a marriage she didn’t want, consistently betrayed by men in her life, constantly at odds with her pushy mother who favored her most despised sibling. Marguerite was intelligent and brave and has been fairly forgotten by most popular history books. Marguerite lived a life filled with danger mainly stemming from the vicious court politics she was born in the middle of. Used as a pawn by her family, Marguerite managed to navigate highly unfavorable social situations in spite of the limited allies she had and ended up saving her ungrateful husband’s life multiple times. This book is fascinating and hard to put down as you feel for Marguerite and the incredibly unfair treatment she received at the hands of her family and husband.

5 out of 5

Review: The French Executioner by C. C. Humphreys

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It is 1536 and the expert swordsman Jean Rombaud has been brought over from France by Henry VIII to behead his wife, Anne Boleyn. But on the eve of her execution Rombaud swears a vow to the ill-fated queen: to bury her six-fingered hand, symbol of her rumoured witchery, at a sacred crossroads.

Yet in a Europe ravaged by religious war, the hand of this infamous Protestant icon is so powerful a relic that many will kill for it… From a battle between slave galleys to a Black Mass in a dungeon, through the hallucinations of St Anthony’s Fire to the fortress of an apocalyptic Messiah, Jean seeks to honour his vow.

I very much enjoyed this book. This is one of those books that is nonstop action with a rag tag team of misfits going against all odds and as such had a tendency to become a bit wild with all the coincidences and crazy events that the characters seemed to stumble into repeatedly (a slave galley AND St. Anthony’s fire AND Anne Boleyn’s ghost AND an Apocalyptic messiah AND a Black Mass…well you get the idea). But the over the top action makes for an exciting read and I ended up reading the book very quickly accordingly. If you just sit back and don’t think “wow these characters sure have witnessed like every salacious and exciting thing this time period had to offer” it’s a fun ride. This book is more adventure tale than staid historical fiction. And that’s not to say the author hasn’t done their homework. The events they’ve added are historically accurate and interesting in their own right. One of the better historical adventure novels I’ve read.

4 out of 5

Review: The Brethren by Robert Merle

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The Périgord of sixteenth-century France is a wild region on the edge of the reaches of royal authority-its steep, forested valleys roamed by bands of brigands and gypsies, its communities divided by conflict between Catholics and converts to the new Protestant faith, the Huguenots.

To this beautiful but dangerous country come two veterans of the French king’s wars, Jean de Siorac and Jean de Sauveterre, The Brethren-as fiercely loyal to the crown as they are to their Huguenot religion. They make their home in the formidable chateau of Mespech, and the community they found prospers, but they are far from secure-religious civil war looms on the horizon, famine and plague stalk the land, and The Brethren must use all their wits to protect those they love from the chaos that threatens to sweep them away.

The Brethren is an interesting type of book. I understand the series is very popular in France with it just now being translated into English (I believe the author died several years ago). The book follows the early life of Pierre de Siorac, second legitimate son of one of the “brethren”, two brothers in arms who made their fortune during various wars. Jean de Siorac marries a woman unfortunately Catholic, a major source of trouble between herself and her Huguenot husband. The book is odd in that there is no real plot. It simply moves from one episode to another in the life of young Pierre. He sagely notes the religious turmoil and violence of the time around him, but his main concern is his own family trials and tribulations. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the book. It was very readable, but there was no movement of plot that really impelled me to finish it quickly. I will probably read more of the series, but it is definitely a family saga more than a rollicking adventure.

4 out of 5