Sunday Sum Up

I’m dreaming of a white Christmas. Really. It’s been hot this week. I’m sitting here with a big fan about three feet from my face. The high temperatures might be part of the reason I devoured Jo Nesbø’s The Snowman in two days. Thinking of a snowy Norway helps keep my mind off the oncoming summer.

On the bright side, I’m taking a pottery class starting this week. I haven’t touched clay since I was in college, so I’ll be brushing up on some very rusty skills and maybe come out of it with a cup or bowl or two. I’ll keep you posted!

In addition to The Snowman, I finished up Conn Iggulden’s Bloodline and Jacqueline Carey’s Miranda and Caliban.

 


I am currently reading three books, and I’ll have to start another one pretty soon. I have several eBooks on hold from my library, and they usually auto-download when they come available, so I’ll be minding my business and all of a sudden a book shows up on my phone. The books I’m working on are The Black Company by Glen Cook, The Glass Universe by Dava Sobel, and The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden. Roshani Chokshi’s The Star-Touched Queen is the most recent download.

 


I’ve read fifty-three pages of The Black Company, and I’m still not sure what I think about it. The characters are certainly interesting, but the plot is flitting around a little, and it’s hard to get a sense of exactly what’s going on, what with all the “that sucked, so we’re going over there. But we found out that it sucked over there, too, so now we’re going here”. I could do with a little more description of the events and the world, honestly, but I’m probably going to give it to page one-hundred before giving up on it.

The Glass Universe is as interesting as Sobel’s other books, but there are so many names to keep track of! Also, I’d thought it would revolve around the women of the story, but there is a lot to do with the men. It makes sense, given that it’s the men who are running the program that hired the women to process and interpret all the information they gathered, but still.

I haven’t really started on The Bear and the Nightingale yet. I glanced at the first page, was intrigued, and then decided that I should work on The Glass Universe on my lunch break today. I haven’t started The Star-Touched Queen at all. I don’t mind being in the midst of four books at once, but I’d like to get my mind made up about The Black Company and get closer to finishing The Glass Universe.

In other news, I ended up with two free tickets to see A Quiet Passion tonight, so I’m taking a friend out for a movie and drinks. Neither of us knows much about it besides the facts that it’s about Emily Dickinson and it’s been very well reviewed.

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Brief Gaudy Hour

51heqn-tWqL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Brief Gaudy Hour: A Novel of Anne Boleyn
by Margaret Campbell Barnes
383 pages
originally published in 1949

From Goodreads: The enigmatic Anne Boleyn comes to life in this charming, brilliant portrayal by acclaimed British novelist Margaret Campbell Barnes.
The infamous love of King Henry VIII and the mother of Queen Elizabeth I, Anne Boleyn undertook a rocky journey from innocent courtier to powerful Queen of England. A meticulous researcher, Margaret Campbell Barnes immerses readers in this intrigue and in the lush, glittery world of the Tudor Court. The beauty and charms of Anne Boleyn bewitched the most powerful man in the world, King Henry VIII, but her resourcefulness and cleverness were not enough to stop the malice of her enemies. Her swift rise to power quickly became her own undoing.
The author brings to light Boleyn’s humanity and courage, giving an intimate look at a young woman struggling to find her own way in a world dominated by men and adversaries.


I’ve been on an historical fiction tear lately, what with Conn Igguldsen’s Wars of the Roses series, my attempt at reading Sharon Kay Penman’s Falls the Shadow, and the book about Julius Caesar (also by Conn Iggulden). Once I found Brief Gaudy Hour, it seemed only natural that I would give it a shot, given that Anne Boleyn is one of my favorite historical figures.

The book opens when Anne is eighteen and has been summoned to court for the first time. She ends up in the retinue of Henry VIII’s sister Mary, who soon travels to France to marry the aging French king. It’s not long before Mary is widowed, a new king is crowned, and Anne ends up in the retinue of the new queen, Claude. After learning how to charm men and use her unorthodox beauty to set fashions and catch the eyes of whoever she chooses, Anne is recalled to England to serve in the household of the English queen, Katherine of Aragon.

Initially, Anne’s father betroths her to her cousin, a middle-aged Irishman, but Anne soon falls in love with the dashing Harry Percy and seeks to marry him in defiance of her father’s wishes. Little does she know that she has also caught the eye of King Henry VIII. Before she knows it, her marriage contract to her Irish cousin and her secret engagement to Harry Percy are canceled by Cardinal Wolsey so that Henry can marry her.

Brokenhearted that she cannot marry the man she loves, Anne seeks revenge on Wolsey. In the years that follow, Anne uses her charm on Henry to ensure both Wolsey’s downfall and her own ascension. Why should she settle for being a mere mistress when she could be a queen?

Ultimately, though, the wit and charm that made Anne desirable as a mistress makes her a terrible queen, at least in Henry’s eyes. The people are set against her in favor of the previous queen, Katherine of Aragon, and because Anne is unable to give Henry the son he desires, his wandering eye lands on one of Anne’s ladies-in-waiting, Jane Seymour. Anne’s fall is swift and unexpected, and there is nothing she can do to save herself or the men who were condemned with her.

Brief Gaudy Hour is a strange book. It was written in the 1940s and the prose reflects it- almost old fashioned (yet not Victorian in style), and not quite modernist like you’d expect from someone like Virginia Wolfe. And it talks about things that you would expect from a book written in the 1960s or later. There is more than one point, for example, when Anne is thinking about her own sexuality and desirability without viewing either as a shameful thing. And unlike the women around her, Anne doesn’t really want children. She knows she’s expected to have as many as possible- boys especially- but the desire for children isn’t part of her character. What’s more is that Margaret Campbell Barnes doesn’t write about this like it’s something awful or makes Anne somehow less of a woman. It’s simply part of her character. Given that, even now, people often can’t fathom a woman who doesn’t want kids, this is a perspective I did not expect to find in a book written in the 1940s.

Throughout the story, at points where some writers would seek to moralize about Anne’s ‘bad characteristics’ (her sexiness, her quick wit, her desire for the silks and jewels and power that Henry offers her), Barnes regards them as either part of human nature that anyone could fall for (sexuality and the temptations of luxury) or a fine point of Anne’s character (her wit). She is portrayed as a full human being who suffers disappointment and heartbreak, rails against parental and societal expectations, and seeks to make a life for herself on her own terms, in spite of her world’s expectations for women.

While I enjoyed this book, there were a few things that bugged me. Barnes glosses over the religious issues that were at stake. The Boleyn family were secret Protestants at a time where being a Protestant could get you burned at the stake, and yet Barnes treats their beliefs as though it’s a minor thing, and Anne’s beliefs are barely mentioned, though she was a champion of Protestant beliefs and nudged Henry in that direction once it became clear that the Pope was not going to rule in their favor. Another thing that bugs me is how Anne and Henry both seem so content about how long it takes for him to get his divorce from Katherine of Aragon. It took something like six years, but in Brief Gaudy Hour, they’re acting like it took a matter of weeks, so patient are they.

Overall, though, these issues aren’t enough to make me dislike this book. Anne’s portrayal is wonderfully human and the changes to her character make sense from beginning to end. She has her highs and lows, flaws and fine points, and the history of the era is wonderfully accurate. Barnes’s Anne has all the wit and fire that have made her so intriguing for the past five-hundred years, and despite the passage of more than half a century, the story feels surprisingly modern.

If you’re a fan of Natalie Dormer’s portrayal of Anne on the Showtime series, The Tudors, you’ll notice a lot of similarities between Dormer’s version and Barnes’s. And if you haven’t seen The Tudors but are interested in history (or just in Anne Boleyn) for its own sake, I would definitely recommend this book.

 

Goodreads Monday- The Glass Universe

Goodreads Monday is a weekly feature where you randomly pick a book from your Goodreads To Be Read list and show it off. This week’s selection is The Glass Universe by Dava Sobel

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The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars
by Dava Sobel
320 pages
Published December 6, 2016

From Goodreads: #1 New York Times bestselling author Dava Sobel returns with the captivating, little-known true story of a group of women whose remarkable contributions to the burgeoning field of astronomy forever changed our understanding of the stars and our place in the universe

In the mid-nineteenth century, the Harvard College Observatory began employing women as calculators, or “human computers,” to interpret the observations made via telescope by their male counterparts each night. At the outset this group included the wives, sisters, and daughters of the resident astronomers, but by the 1880s the female corps included graduates of the new women’s colleges—Vassar, Wellesley, and Smith. As photography transformed the practice of astronomy, the ladies turned to studying the stars captured nightly on glass photographic plates. The “glass universe” of half a million plates that Harvard amassed in this period—thanks in part to the early financial support of another woman, Mrs. Anna Draper, whose late husband pioneered the technique of stellar photography—enabled the women to make extraordinary discoveries that attracted worldwide acclaim. They helped discern what stars were made of, divided the stars into meaningful categories for further research, and found a way to measure distances across space by starlight.

Their ranks included Williamina Fleming, a Scottish woman originally hired as a maid who went on to identify ten novae and more than three hundred variable stars, Annie Jump Cannon, who designed a stellar classification system that was adopted by astronomers the world over and is still in use, and Dr. Cecilia Helena Payne-Gaposchkin, who in 1956 became the first ever woman professor of astronomy at Harvard—and Harvard’s first female department chair.

Elegantly written and enriched by excerpts from letters, diaries, and memoirs, The Glass Universe is the hidden history of a group of remarkable women who, through their hard work and groundbreaking discoveries, disproved the commonly held belief that the gentler sex had little to contribute to human knowledge.


 

I’ve read and enjoyed a couple of other of Dava Sobel’s books, namely Longitude and The Planets, so I’m pretty sure I’ll like this one, too. I’ve been interested in astronomy since I was a little kid, and read everything that my little hometown’s library had on the subject. I’d heard of a few of these women even before they were included in Jason Porath’s Rejected Princesses, and it will be interesting to learn more about them. I should make a night of it, reading The Glass Universe followed by a viewing of Hidden Figures. 

Sunday Sum Up

Another Sunday has come around, and it is definitely June outside. You wouldn’t think that an 86°F day with low humidity would be so stifling, but there’s not a breath of wind outside so the air is just sitting there, slowly cooking under a sunless sky.

I am not looking forward to summer.

Anyway. I’ll cross that muggy bridge when I get there. Right now, books! I finished three of them this week- The Red Magician by Lisa Goldstein, Margaret of Anjou by Conn Iggulden, and Brief Gaudy Hour by Margaret Campbell Barnes (I’ll post a review for this later in the week).


I’ve already started two other books, Bloodline by Conn Iggulden, which is the third installment of his Wars of the Roses series. Thanks to a gripping plot and fascinating characters, I read in bed for an hour longer than I intended to, so I’m already to page 125. Looks like I’ll be finishing this one in a hurry. Because I always like to have a digital book handy in case of long lines at the grocery store or whatever, I downloaded Jacqueline Carey’s Miranda and Caliban, because who doesn’t love a good Shakespeare retelling? I’ve never read Carey’s work before, so I’m looking forward to it.

 

In other news, the podcast Invisibilia is back for a new season! It’s an offshoot of the stellar Radiolaband the first two episodes deal with emotions, how they are made, and the their consequences in both everyday and extreme circumstances. I’d be listening to it right now, but I can’t listen to people talking and type at the same time. Might have to hurry through the writing of this!

Neil Gaiman has been working to raise awareness and money for the plight of refugees around the world, so when the comedian Sara Benincasa jokingly asked if he would do a reading of the Cheesecake Factory menu if she raised $500,000 for refugees, he agreed. The campaign has raised just over $87,000 so far. You can find it here:  neil-gaiman-will-do-a-live-reading-of-the-cheesecake-factory-menu-if-we-raise-500000-for-refugees. The minimum donation is $10, so chip in if you can. It’s a worthy cause.

New Acquisition

It was hot again, and I didn’t want to go back to my often stuffy apartment after work, (the perils of living in an old building on a summery day with no wind and a lousy air conditioner), so I stopped by Barnes and Noble for a latte a trip through the shelves- especially the clearance section, where I found this:

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This is the story of Queen Lakshmi, who led armies against the British in an attempt to keep them from conquering her lands in India. She was one of the women written about in Jason Porath’s Rejected Princesses, and since I’m in the midst of an historical fiction craze, it looked like a good pick. If I like this one, I’ll probably read Moran’s other books, Nefertiti, in particular.

 

Margaret of Anjou

61w-zvQfd+L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Margaret of Anjou (The Wars of the Roses #2)
by Conn Iggulden
464 pages
published 2014

From Goodreads: The brilliant retelling of the Wars of the Roses continues with Margaret of Anjou, the second gripping novel in the new series from historical fiction master Conn Iggulden.

As traitors advance . . . a queen defends.
It is 1454 and for more than a year King Henry VI has remained all but exiled in Windsor Castle, struck down by his illness, his eyes vacant, his mind blank. His fiercely loyal wife and queen, Margaret of Anjou, safeguards her husband’s interests, hoping that her son Edward will one day come to know his father.
With each month that Henry is all but absent as king, Richard, the duke of York, protector of the realm, extends his influence throughout the kingdom. A trinity of nobles–York and Salisbury and Warwick–are a formidable trio and together they seek to break the support of those who would raise their colors and their armies in the name of Henry and his queen.
But when the king unexpectedly recovers his senses and returns to London to reclaim his throne, the balance of power is once again thrown into turmoil. The clash of the Houses of Lancaster and York may be the beginning of a war that could tear England apart . . .
Following Stormbird, Margaret of Anjou is the second epic installment in master storyteller Conn Iggulden’s new Wars of the Roses series. Fans of the Game of Thrones and the Tudors series will be gripped from the word “go.”


The synoposis is not wrong. I think fans of Game of Thrones (or A Song of Ice and Fire, if you’re talking about the books) would like this series. It’s full of political intrigue, battles, and spies, though there aren’t any dragons. I’m okay with the lack of dragons.

I’ve read about the history of the Wars of the Roses, I’ve watched the Shakespearean plays based on this time period, and I even watched the wretched The White Queen tv show that made witchcraft into a thing that actually worked (what…?).

Someone needs to stop turning Philippa Gregory’s books into television shows, and turn to Conn Iggulden instead. It’s one thing to read in the history books about battles and casualty counts, and who wrote what edict and when. It’s quite another to have someone write a vivid novelization of the whole affair, where you come to like and care about a character, only to have them cruelly cut down in battle. I even respected Richard Plantagenet, 3rd Duke of York who is presented as something of a villain, but he loves his country and has grown so frustrated with how Queen Margaret and her faction have ruled the country that he rises against them to ‘free his King from the wicked councilors who surround him’.

You have to respect Margaret, too, though. She came to England as a slip of a fourteen year old girl, and now, years later, she has a backbone of steel and is capable of raising an army to defend her husband, King Henry VI and secure her son Edward’s position as heir to the English throne.

There are too many things going on to summarize this book in a couple of paragraphs, and you could check the Wikipedia page if you want a summary of the dynastic wars that spanned generations and ended up giving us the Tudor dynasty.

Suffice it to say that Conn Iggulden has written another fantastic book that is fast-paced and full of action, but isn’t lacking in real human emotion, either. Take the queen, for example: as the years of Henry VI’s illness progress, Margaret’s love for him withers, and her motivation to fight moves away from him to protecting her son’s rights. The various houses are still at each other’s throats, there are betrayals, men who are loyal to the death, and overall brilliant prose that doesn’t let up or let you go.

And I don’t even mind that Iggulden will switch point of view from one character to the next without warning.

I already have to next book waiting for me on my bookshelf, and I look forward to getting started.

** Note, Margaret of Anjou is also titled Trinity, a fact that confused the heck out of me when I was looking through the books at the library.

New Acquisition

It was my day off so I headed downtown to the used book shop, partly on a whim and partly because it was a hot afternoon and I wanted to go somewhere cool (both literally and metaphorically). After wandering around for a bit, I glanced over at the YA section. Lo and behold, there was Crooked Kingdom! And now I have both it and Six of Crows.

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It’s in pristine condition, so I wonder if the previous owner even read it. Oh well. Their loss is my gain!