Captain Tuttle’s #CBR5 Review #32 – The Other Queen by Philippa Gregory

Lots of driving over the past week or so. Tampa to West Palm to Miami to Tampa to Orlando to Miami to West Palm to Tampa. Lots of time on my ass. Lots of time to listen to a very long story. That’s pretty much how I pick my books on CD – driving time. Since I was going to be in the car for a crap-ton of time, I knew I could go long. The last time I had lots of driving to do, I tried Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. Who knew that the audiobook could be even more boring than the actual book?! So this time I decided to go pulp fiction. Well, pulp historical fiction.

We all know Philippa Gregory from such books as The Other Boleyn Girl, The Boleyn Inheritance, and other Tudor bodice rippers. The books we all hate to say we read (or listen to) and enjoy; total guilty pleasures. This book is no different. It’s about Mary, Queen of Scots (the “other” to Elizabeth I) during the time she was captive (guest?) in England after the whole Scotland debacle (Darnley murdered, Mary kidnapped and probably raped by Lord Bothwell, also maybe married to him and carrying twins). So Elizabeth puts Mary with one of her most loyal Lords, George, Earl of Shrewsbury and his wife Bess of Hardwick. Bess is an interesting historical figure that I had never heard of until listening to this book – I will definitely be looking into her more.

Anyway, there’s a lot here. Mary is semi-guest, semi-captive, sorta-queen, and is either staying with or jailed by the Shrewsburys. The story is told from the points of view of Mary, George, and Bess; which makes things very interesting, because Gregory has done the research to be able to talk about the exact same incident from three very different points of view, and she makes it sound plausible. Mary is vain, and fully believes that she is magic, untouchable, and ordained by her (catholic) god to rule. Bess is the daughter of a farmer who knows the value of a dollar (pound) and the value of land. Shrewsbury is of the old guard, landed gentry, his family has served the monarch (no matter who it is) for generations. Honor is all for Shrewsbury; safety is all for Bess (financial safety, that is); power and ruling is all for Mary.

There were a lot of passages at which I rolled my eyes, and most of those belonged to Mary. I would hope that a woman who could have ruled three countries (France, Scotland and England) wouldn’t have been such a determined flirt who used men and depended on them for the source of her power. Bess was more my style, an actual self-made woman who was considerably more clever than most of the people around her. According to the story (and from what I’ve gleaned from wikipedia), the “honor” of being responsible for Queen Mary bankrupted the Shrewsburys.

The people reading the story on the audiobook were all excellent actors, they really brought the characters to life. I’m not sure how I would feel about this in actual book form, but the audiobook kept me entertained and awake for my very long drives.

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Captain Tuttle’s #CBR5 Review #31 – Agincourt by Bernard Cornwell

This was yet another of my Kindle freebies (maybe a cheapie), and I’m glad I grabbed it. I didn’t realize that I had heard of Cornwell before, but he’s the guy who wrote all those “Sharpe’s” books, which were made into a TV series starring Sean Bean (I’m guessing since there was more than one, nothing from this show made the death reel).

This book clearly deals with the battle at Agincourt, the battle that made Henry V famous. Our hero is a Zelig sort, Nicholas Hook. He’s a paragon, of course; perfect archer, good guy, handsome, always says the right thing. He meets King Harry, as well as other real historical figures. And they all think he’s super cool. He also have people who hate him, but they’re awful and evil, also of course.

Agincourt was well-written and well-researched. I had to hit wikipedia several times just to learn stuff that made the story make more sense. Hook has a revelation when he’s trapped during an ambush in France, and feels like he’s been adopted by Saints Crispin and Crispinian (note the connection there); they even speak to him. Crispinian’s the softer brother, he gives Hook hints and directions about how to be nice and save himself and others. Crispin is kind of a dick, he helps Hook be ruthless when he has to.

If you’ve read any of my reviews, you know I’m a fool for historical fiction, and I don’t really discriminate between time periods. If it ain’t now, I love it. This book made me want to go back and re-read Henry V, and to learn more about that time. To me, that makes a great historical novel.

Captain Tuttle’s #CBR5 Review #29 – Stealing Athena by Karen Essex

Thomas Bruce, otherwise known as the Earl of Elgin, was appointed ambassador to the Ottoman Empire in 1798. He was fairly young to receive such an honor, but he had distinguished himself at court and impressed the king. At the time he was also deeply in debt, with little to no income, and a bachelor. Just before he left for Constantinople (not Istanbul), he married Mary Nisbet, the only child of a wealthy man, and heir to a very large fortune. He was very interested in classical art, and Greece (which was part of the Ottoman Empire at the time) was the perfect place for him to take drawings & models so that England could be cooler & artier than France.

Stealing Athena is the story of Mary, and her experiences as Lady Elgin, the wife of a diplomat and a landed earl. It’s about Elgin’s decision to take the sculptures from the Parthenon, rather than drawings and models (ostenstibly to preserve them, but he was also very acquisitive). It’s about how Mary helped Elgin in every way she could, bearing him children, and paying for everything (technically, her dad did, which he didn’t like). It’s about how Mary was able to charm people in power so that Elgin could get what he wanted.

And what did it get her in the end? Well, Elgin was sick often, and treated with mercury, which may have been the cause of his nose rotting away. He wore a leather nose mask so he wouldn’t scare people. Ick. There are theories that it was syphillis that rotted his nose, but neither Mary nor the children exhibited any symptoms, and Elgin lived to 75, so it probably wasn’t the syph. Mary bore him five children, four of whom survived into adulthood. In the book, each birth was hellish for Mary (makes sense, I tried it without drugs, and it sucked).

Elgin was jealous and possessive, unless Mary was doing something that benefitted him. At one point, when the Elgins were heading back to England, Elgin was arrested by Napoleon. At first the Elgins weren’t allowed to leave Paris (the kids had already gone on ahead); then Elgin was imprisoned. Mary worked to have him freed, all while pregnant with yet another kid. She was helped by Robert Ferguson, a childhood friend of Elgin. Rumors flew. Elgin was freed, and Ferguson went home – but not without telling Mary he loved her.

Elgin was still stuck in France, but Mary was allowed to go home to bury the little boy she had borne in Paris. Elgin forbade her to go, so Ferguson took the baby’s body when he headed back to Scotland. Eventually Mary was allowed to return home as well, and found that she liked the independence. She was still working to bring Elgin home, with (again) Ferguson’s help. While she wrote him letters every day about what the children were doing, he wrote her letters accusing her of slutting around London. Nice, right?

So Elgin finally comes home, and Mary decides she doesn’t want to sleep with him anymore. She says it’s because she doesn’t want to have any more kids, but there was also the whle no-nose thing. He went along with it for a while, until he found a love letter from Ferguson to Mary. So he decided to divorce Mary for adultery, and sue Ferguson for criminal conversion (stealing Mary). It’s funny, because the legal definition of conversion is the taking of property – back then, wives were property, and had no legal status apart from her husband. The children were property too, and Elgin took them from her. He demanded money, and said that he would divorce Mary quietly if he was paid. The Nisbets paid the bribe, but Elgin went ahead with the very public accusation of adultery. Mary could not even speak in court, because it would have been unseemly. Of course, Elgin’s aim was to take Mary’s money, but he got nothing because she was an heiress, and her dad was still alive. So, ha.

Juxtaposed with Mary’s story are snippets of the life of Aspasia, the concubine (as they were called then) of Pericles, the dude who commissioned and pretty much paid for the Acropolis, from which Elgin took his marbles. Aspasia had been raised by a single father, who allowed her to become educated – which was frowned upon bck then (and for most of history, it seems). Pericles fell in love with her, and would have married her, but for a law that he himself enacted. Derp. According to the story, Pheidas used Aspasia’s face as the model for the Athena statue, which got them both into a heap of trouble.

As the bumper sticker says, well behaved women rarely make history. These two ladies were certainly not well behaved, although I had heard of neither until a friend loaned me the book. I’m normally wary of books that have book club notes at the end, but this story was well-researched and well-told to the point that I was compelled to do some research, which means that I must have liked it.

Captain Tuttle’s #CBR5 Review #11 – Brideshead Revisited (The Sacred & Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder) by Evelyn Waugh

This is a re-read for me. It’s one of those books that I will always go back to (to which I will always return, pardon my grammar). I love everything about it, much like I love everything about Evelyn Waugh’s writing. I have to admit that my first introduction to the story was via PBS, although that’s nothing to be ashamed of. The book came much later, in adulthood.

The story opens during WW2, where a nearing-middle-age Captain Charles Ryder is reflecting on his time in the army and realizing that he is miserable and does not care at all what happens. His company is assigned to a place in the English countryside. They arrive in the middle of the night, and Charles has no idea where he is. In the morning, he thinks to ask where they are stationed, and when he finds out,

[I]t was as though someone had switched off the wireless, and a voice that had been bawling in my ears, incessantly, fatuously, for days beyond number, had been suddenly cut short; an immense silence followed, empty at first, but gradually, as my outraged sense regained authority, fully of a multitude of sweet and natural and long forgotten sounds: for he had spoken a name that was so familiar to me, a conjuror’s name of such ancient power, that, at its mere sound, the phantoms of those haunted late years began to take flight.

Charles is at Brideshead, the ancestral home of some people he once knew. Charles tells one of his men, “I’ve been here before.” Much like Proust’s madeline, the mansion transports Charles back 20 years, to the point where. . . .

Charles is at college. He has ground floor rooms, although he had been warned against them (too many visitors). Charles had been at school for a couple of terms, and was doing fine. A few friends, deep conversations, things like that. He had seen Sebastian Flyte around school. Everyone knew who Lord Sebastian was, because he was beautiful, and because he carried a large teddy bear around. Charles disapproved. Then one night, when Charles had a few friends over, there was noise in the quad. It is Sebastian and his friends, wandering drunkenly about. Sebastian leans in Charles’ window and vomits. His friends carry him away, and one returned to apologize. It’s the best apology ever. “The wines were too various, it was neither the quality nor the quantity that was at fault. It was the mixture. Grasp that and you have the root of the matter. To understand all is to forgive all.”

Sebastian’s apology is typically excessive, his teddy bear is mortified, and Charles is invited to lunch. The lunch changes Charles’ life. He is introduced to an entirely new way of living. The boys become friends. Love grows between them, although Waugh keeps most of the action off stage. Charles starts to neglect everyone and everything, as he is more and more consumed by Sebastian. Sebastian is terribly unhappy, apparently because his family is Catholic and he can’t seem to fit himself into the expected roles. Charles just seems to float along, not terribly affected by anyone or anything.

Sebastian brings Charles to Brideshead and introduces him to Nanny Hawkins. Charles eventually meets all of the Flytes, and quite becomes part of the family. The Flytes are more screwed up than most families, but Charles is somehow only slightly touched by all of them. Years pass, Sebastian drifts away into drink and isolation. Charles marries someone else, has a couple of kids whom he doesn’t see at all, falls in love with Sebastian’s sister, and ends up on the other end alone, unloved, and reminiscing about what has passed and what might have been.

I love this book, and will read it over and over again until my copy wears out. Then I will buy a new one.

Captain Tuttle’s #CBR5 Review #10 – Auntie Mame by Patrick Dennis

I decided to read this because I get to be Mame in a scene in acting class. In my head, I could only see Rosalind Russell, and what was in the movie. It was the scene where Mame has just found out that Mr. Babcock of the Knickerbocker Bank is coming. When I first started the scene, all I could picture was the Mr. Babcock in the movie, and my teacher told me I had to find my own Mr. Babcock. It sounded weird, but then I was able to see my own conservative bogeyman who was coming to steal my kid, and the scene totally changed.

Anyway, like I said, I love the movie, and the book lived up to all of my overblown expectations. The story is a little more detailed, but it’s exactly as you would expect it to be. One of the funniest scenes is when young Patrick comes to Auntie Mame’s apartment after his father has died. He shows up with his nurse, and they completely misunderstand the slang that’s being bandied about. The nurse thinks they’ve fallen into a den of iniquity, and they’re both terrified, until Mame arrives, open armed, and announces, “I’m your Auntie Mame!”

The book is more of a collection of vignettes than a novel, but it paints a picture of early 20th century America (New York, really), and shows a way of living that is long gone. It makes me a bit sad that we can’t live that way anymore.

Captain Tuttle’s #CBR5 Review #4 – Dodger by Terry Pratchett

I got this book as a freebie (or a cheapie) for the Kindle (sorry if I keep sounding like an advert for Kindle, but I do love it. I was solidly anti-e-reader, pro-paper book, until I started reading the Song of Ice & Fire series, which was difficult to lug around, and since I was getting the books from the library, there was the whole sanitariness issue. But I digress). Anyway, I felt like I had read Pratchett before, but it turns out I haven’t. Guess I just heard people talking about him. This book was an excellent introduction, and I kind of feel like I need to dive into the whole Discworld thing.

Part of what drew me to this book was my family’s habit of naming our pets after Dickens characters. I had a dog named Dodger. He was adorable. That, and my love for Oliver Twist. This may or may not be that Dodger. He’s a teenager living in the slums of London, making his living as a pickpocket and a tosher (a dude that rummages around in the sewers, picking up the stuff that gets swept and/or dropped down there). He comes up into the street in the middle of a rainstorm, and sees a young woman being assaulted. He saves her, because this particular Dodger is a paragon. As he’s trying to help her, they’re accosted and aided by Charles Dickens and the guy who started Punch. This begins a mystery, because no one knows who this girl is; it also begins the story of Dodger’s rise in the world.

Throughout the book, Dodger encounters real and fictional characters (Sweeney Todd, Benjamin Disraeli, and Sir Robert Peel, among others). He dodges and outsmarts pretty much everyone, while figuring out who the girl is, and solving the mystery of why she was being chased and beaten.

One of the neat things was that Dodger lived with an older Jewish man, who had been all over the world, and was respected both in the slums and by the gentry. It’s definitely an interesting take on Fagin, almost a redemption of the Dickens character.

There is plenty in this book that defies even the strongest suspension of disbelief, but somehow it all worked for me. I enjoyed this book thoroughly, and would recommend it to pretty much anyone. If you like Dickens, historical mysteries, Zelig-type stories, or just a ripping yarn, then I’d grab this one.

Captain Tuttle’s #CBR5 Review #3 – Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

I read this book years ago, and didn’t realize that it was the beginning of a series. I’ve heard/seen a few others talking about the whole Outlander thing, and coincidentally found my original paperback copy, which promptly fell apart when I opened it. Luckily I figured out how to do the library book on the Kindle thing, so I was pretty happy about that.

It’s a romance/time travel/historical novel. We start with Claire and Frank, reconnecting after WW2 by re-honeymooning in Scotland. She was a nurse, and is interested in plants and herbal remedies (remember that for later). She goes exploring, and steps through the rocks of a henge. Instead of just walking through, she hears weird sounds, and ends up 200 years in the past. She (coincidentally?) encounters her husband’s ancestor, who’s not such a nice guy; then she falls in with a bunch of Scots.

Claire acts and talks like a modern woman, and uses her medical/herbal knowledge to help people out, including young and studly Jamie Fraser. They fall for each other, and oh my goodness, do they have lots of the sex. Gabaldon gets pretty detailed with the naughty bits. Claire and Jamie go from peril to sex to peril to sex, and back to peril again. It gets pretty tedious after a while, and it’s an awfully long book, but I figured I was in for a penny, in for a pound.

Outlander is not an un-put-downable book, but it’s plenty serviceable, especially if you like the romance aspect of it. The historical element is interesting as well – Gabaldon also gets pretty detailed about life in 18th century Scotland. I had to look up a few things, just to make sure I understood what was going on. If a book makes me want to look something up, then it’s ok in my books (so to speak).