Thursday, April 30, 2020

Book 231: On Trails



"When I was younger I used to see the earth as a fundamentally stable and serene place, possessed of a delicate, nearly divine balance, which humans had somehow managed to upset. But as I studied trails more closely, this fantasy gradually evaporated. I now see the earth as a collaborative artwork of trillions of sculptors, large and small. Sheep, humans, elephants, ants: each of us alters the world in our passage."

Dates read: May 3-7, 2018

Rating: 3/10

There's an outdoorsy, hiking culture in the West that's unlike anything I ever knew growing up in southeast Michigan. People camped (which I quickly discovered was Not For Me) occasionally, but generally spending time outside consisted of making friends with someone who had a lake house and then going out on the boat. The only time I'd ever hiked was on trips to the Upper Peninsula to visit family, and that was under duress. But on the other side of the country, spending time in the wilderness is treated with a kind of reverence. I have to confess I remain unconverted...I'm not deeply opposed to getting out there for a few hours, but left to my own devices I'd rather stay home and read.

Even out here, though, there are casual weekend-type hikers and then there are the truly insane, the kind who do things like hike the entire Pacific Coast Trail, or its east coast counterpart, the Appalachian Trail. Robert Moor is one of the latter kind of people, and his experience "through-hiking" (start point to end point, not just doing the odd segment here or there) the Appalachian Trail inspired him to write On Trails. In it, he examines not only the trail he hiked (his experiences with it form a significant part of the book), but trails and paths the world over. Human trails, yes, but also ant trails, sheep trails, elephant trails, the entire idea behind trails and paths and what they signify.

Moor is committed to offering a broad perspective on trails and trail-making, and while his efforts to get across the long, long history of this behavior among living organisms (he recounts a trip to Canada where he goes to talk to scientists conducting research into the very first fossil evidence of trails among very small organisms) is laudable, this book as a whole is just terribly organized. If Moore doesn't have ADD, he does a very good impression of someone who has it. He's jumping all over the place constantly, from his through-hike to micro-organisms to ants to sheep now back to ants and then elephants you guys! Now some Native American trails and then back to another subject and everything is touched on briefly instead of explored in depth, and all of this together just drove me batty trying to get into it.

And the parts based around the Appalachian Trail and Moor's hike of it? Could not have been less interested. Navel-gazing outdoors-y memoirs do less than nothing for me. Congratulations, you undertook a challenging experience that you knew full well would be challenging going in and learned and grew and that's great for you, I wish you the best in your future endeavors, but I really don't care. I already didn't especially enjoy the book, but then we came to the Epilogue and holy smokes you guys, this sent me into an almost burning rage. Moor chronicles time spent hiking with a guy called "Nimblewill Norman", apparently something of a legend among serious hikers, who basically just abandoned everyone in his life and decided to be constantly hiking and has been doing so for years. While Moor doesn't present him in an entirely positive light, he gives him and what he represents (the kind of people who get all Holden Caulfield about how society is "fake" and they just need to be free from outside expectations at the monetary and emotional expense of everyone who's invested their time and energy into them) a kind of respect that it absolutely does not deserve. I hated Norman so much. And Moor also takes the opportunity in this section to repeat many of the often shallow and trite observations he made about paths and trails over the course of the book and getting all of that together completely destroyed any regard I might have had for it.

Now for a caveat: this was a book club selection, and I was essentially alone in that I did not like it. Most of the other members of the group at least liked it, and a couple of them outright loved it. It seemed like most of the rest of the group had a connection to hiking experiences and perhaps this is the source of some of the disconnect between book and reader on my part. As always, my impressions are my own and what I bring to and take away from the book might be extremely different than anyone else. That being said, I hated this and would heartily recommend avoiding it at all costs.

One year ago, I was reading: First (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: The Book of Unknown Americans

Three years ago, I was reading: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

Four years ago, I was reading: Chasing the Sun

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

A Month In The Life: April 2020



You almost have to wonder if Corona the beer is going to re-brand after all this...I think we're all very tired of hearing about corona anything! I never thought I would miss waking up early and going into the office, honestly, but here I am hoping that I get to spend some quality hours outside the apartment sometime soon (when it's safe, of course).

In Books...
  • Pilgrim at Tinker Creek: The more broadly I read, the more I learn that there are certain sorts of books that are just not for me. The subgenre I've dubbed "nature thoughts" is one of them. Unfortunately for me, this Pulitzer Prize-winner is exactly that. Dillard's devotion to examining plant and animal life alongside the creek in the Virginia backcountry is clearly deep, and her writing is sweeping and ambitious, but I found it both terminally dull and eye-rollingly overwrought.
  • Shatter Me: This, on the other hand, very much worked for me, despite the fact that I've largely moved past YA dystopias of the "chosen one" variety. Part of that is the way that Mafi crafts a unique voice for her heroine, which helps it rise above the many tropes she indulges in. And to be honest, part of it is probably related to the fact that this kind of angsty drama is just easy and fun to read, especially in a time of crisis. 
  • Amateur: This short book is about the author's experience of becoming the first trans man to box at Madison Square Garden (as part of a charity match). It's a blend of memoir and examination of masculinity, particularly the ways in which violence is tied in to conceptions of maleness. It's honestly uneven: some moments all but took my breath away with their clarity and insight, but at other times you can feel McBee stretching to pad out the page count with superfluous information or digressions that never really go anywhere. 
  • The Perfect Son: This is the kind of low-stakes family drama which I usually enjoy: when a hyper-involved stay-at-home mother has a massive heart attack, her workaholic investment banker husband and their son, who has Tourette's, find themselves really needing to connect for the first time. It is FULL of cliches and lazy sentimentality and the resolution is way too pat and predictable and I did not like it at all.
  • A Beginning at the End: First of all, this was 1000% the wrong time to be reading a book about the world in the wake of a major pandemic, but that's not the book's fault. This had promise: the characters were compelling and relatable, and I was impressed by how well it was structured and paced. But there were some clumsy moments, some promising plot elements never really developed, and the end in particular resolved a little too neatly.
  • Cutting for Stone: I'm a sucker for a family epic set against significant historical events, so this over-600-pager set in and around a hospital in Addis Ababa during the reign of Haile Selassie was very appealing to me. The storytelling is strong, and I enjoyed it overall, but the main character was underdeveloped and while the prose quality was competent enough it never took off like I wanted it to.


 
In Life...
  • Social distancing continues: Like many of you, I spent the month trying to leave my house as little as possible. I'll be honest: this really sucks. I miss my coworkers, I miss my friends, I miss my book club. I miss places that aren't my apartment. I miss going to the thrift store to browse around. I miss planning vacations. I am so happy that we've been able to flatten the curve as much as we have, but I am ready for what's next...but only once it's right, which I very much hope is sooner rather than later!

One Thing:

The library is always a great community resource, but as their buildings are closed, I recommend taking a look at what's available online! I've been able to access Rosetta Stone through the Clark County library system to try to brush up a little on my long-faded Italian, and have been watching some of The Great Courses to keep myself intellectually engaged. I had no idea before the pandemic that either was available to me as a cardholder!

Gratuitous Pug Picture: 

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I Wish I Had Read As a Teen

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week's subject is technically books that I wish I'd read as a child, but I haven't read an actual children's book in quite some time. I have, however, read quite a lot of books I suspect teenage me would have absolutely adored, so here are some books I wish I'd come across as a teen!



Sloppy Firsts: This is an easy choice...it's very much a young adult book, about a sarcastic teenage girl whose best friend has just moved away. I very much liked this as an adult lady, so I think teenage me would have been even more into it!

Jane Eyre: I think I would have struggled with this a bit because Jane is kind of a drip in the early going, but once I pushed past that and she got to Thornfield, I bet I would have been extremely into brooding Mr. Rochester in a way that adult me would find embarrassing.

Pride and Prejudice: I didn't read my first Austen (Persuasion) until I was in my late 20s! I found P and P kind of teenager-y when I read it, and suspect that high school me would have adored Lizzy Bennet's sharp wit.

High Fidelity: Somehow I neither read the book nor watched the movie until my mid-to-late 20s! I would have loved the stuff with the "top 5" lists and music snobbery (though I had no business being music snobby with anyone, I listened to A LOT of Top 40).

The Namesake: Teenagers do, of course, enjoy reading about the experiences of other teenagers, and I know I for one liked stories about going away to college because I was very much looking forward to leaving my small town...which makes this narrative about growing up something I would have eaten up as a teen!

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie: This is a very short read, and has a kind of implicit warning about the cult-of-personality teachers that you often find in high school that my cynical self would have found highly appealing.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn: Francie Nolan is kind of nerdy and bookish, but she's more well-rounded than that and with all the female-centered coming-of-age type stories I read at that age I can't believe I missed this one. It's fantastic!

Stardust: This is the kind of well-told story that works for any age, so this one is mostly about wishing I'd gotten into Neil Gaiman sooner.

The House of Mirth: I completely fell in love with The Age of Innocence reading it in my 20s. I did not love The House of Mirth as much, but while I was reading it I kept thinking that its message would have really resonated with me in high school and how I wished I had read it then!

Spoiled: This is another book that is actually really meant for young adults, and the only one published after I myself would have been a teen. I saw some tone issues with it when I read it a couple years ago, but it has the kind of humor that I would have absolutely loved earlier in life (to be clear, I also enjoyed the humor now).

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Book 230: Game of Crowns



"In the game of chess, no piece is more useful than the queen. It can move vertically, horizontally, and diagonally, and-like all the pieces on the board- its sole purpose is to protect the king. And, in some cases, the future king."

Dates read: May 1-3, 2018

Rating: 4/10

One of the first pop-culture events I have a very specific, clear memory of is the death of Princess Diana when I was 11. I remember stuff before that, of course (I have a very clear memory of the latchkey staff rolling TVs into the room for the OJ verdict, for instance) but Di's death was the first time I had a real sense of the context of what I was seeing and hearing. I remember my mother's genuine sadness, though her usual response to news about foreign royalty was to wonder why anyone would care. She also did not subscribe to the idea of the television being left on as background noise (a mindset I've inherited, much to my husband's chagrin), so the fact that it wasn't snapped off but was allowed to continue to play marked the significance of the thing.

Getting disproportionately emotionally invested in the death of a divorced British mother of two made us not at all unique. The whole world lost it a little for a minute there. Diana's life and death continues to resonate around the British Royal Family, and it is through this prism that Christopher Andersen presents her mother-in-law, romantic rival, and would-have-been daughter-in-law in his book, Game of Crowns. Queen Elizabeth II, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, and Katherine, Duchess of Cambridge are all women who either are or could be queens of England, and all of them are touched by the legacy of the People's Princess.

So it makes sense, in a way, that Andersen spends so much time talking about the ill-fated marriage between Charles and Diana. At least one third of the book is devoted to the story of their courtship, their terrible marriage, and their contentious divorce. On the other hand, though, the "War of the Waleses" is an already extensively documented phenomenon. There's no real new reporting here: they barely knew each other when they got married, they both cheated (though Diana at least went into her marriage without an active side piece), they both orchestrated media to lash out against the other, and they were both active, engaged parents. Her death and the near-constitutional crisis that the response to it engendered had a real impact on the monarchy. And his reporting of William and Kate's courtship isn't really much better, in terms of doing more than just summarizing already-available information: lingerie on the catwalk, the break-up, the make-up, the wedding.

What is new is gossip, nearly all of it negative, about Charles and Camilla, with special venom reserved for the latter. He begins the book with a lengthy "what could happen" riff about the ascension of Charles to the throne when his mother dies, predicting that his vanity and hubris will lead to the abolition of the monarchy. While Diana's leaks to the press are treated a part of her savvy media strategy, leaks from Charles and/or Camilla are portrayed as sneaky, underhanded, and devious. Camilla is depicted as scheming and manipulative, and set against Kate, who's given a Diana-esque sheen of being both glamorous and naturally gifted at connection with strangers (without any actual supporting evidence). I checked out of the book entirely when Andersen breathlessly related that Camilla had "leaked" information about Kate's low tally of "engagements", the kind of meet-and-greets and ribbon-cuttings that make up royal work. The reality is that the Royal Family publishes engagements in the easily-publicly-accessible Court Circular, and a year-end tally is common practice for journalists covering the royal beat. Camilla wouldn't have had to leak anything to anyone to "shame" Kate for lackluster numbers because that information would have been published anyways! A failure to understand something as basic as this shows the whole book to be without rooting in fact. It's basically a very long, poorly fact-checked People article and I don't recommend it.

One year ago, I was reading: The Lowland (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: The Kingmaker's Daughter

Three years ago, I was reading: The Leavers

Four years ago, I was reading: The Crack in Space

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Titles That Would Make Good Band Names

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about book titles that would make good band names. I do enjoy picking out phrases that I hear and thinking they would make good names for musical acts, so this one seemed like fun!



Daisy Jones and the Six: I'm cheating, this is the name of a fictional band already, but there's no denying that it works really well!

There There: Can't you just picture a chart-topping single by a band called There There? I see them as an indie rock style group.

Anthem: This would be a band that did like stadium rock music for sure.

The Black Dahlia: The Black Dahlia would definitely be fronted by a Lana Del Rey-type nostalgic pretty girl with a similar interest in Old Hollywood iconography and throwback-style tunes.

Twilight: A female singer-songwriter type who wants to be mysterious about her real identity.

The Interestings: This would be very self-conciously quirky indie music that would have like one big hit, one minor hit, and then tour small venues forever.

Abhorsen: I could definitely see a European DJ touring under this name.

Speak: A teen pop girl group, right?

Native Son: Native Son would be a rap duo who consciously chose to reference this book because of its message about race relations and makes very socially aware music.

The Lowland: It's been too long since we had a Boyz-II-Men style R&B group and I think this would be a great name for one!

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Book 229: The Book Of Unknown Americans



"Profesora Shields explained that in English there was no usted, no tu. There was only one word—you. It applied to all people. Everyone equal. No one higher or lower than anyone else. No one more distant or more familiar. You. They. Me. I. Us. We."

Dates read: April 27- May 1, 2018

Rating: 5/10

When something bad happens, to us or someone we love, there's a temptation to look back on it and try to figure out what we, ourselves, could have done differently. If only we hadn't done this or that, maybe the bad thing would have skipped over us. The cold reality is that luck is capricious and misfortune can strike like a tornado that destroys one house down to its foundation while sparing the one across the street any more trouble than an uprooted mailbox. Honestly, though, that's scarier than the idea that we're being punished for some previously unrecognized transgression. If it's about what you do, you can change that. If it's sheer chance, though, then you never know when disaster could strike.

Self-blame haunts Alma, one of the main characters of Cristina Henriquez's The Book of Unknown Americans. This debut novel chronicles the experience of a Mexican couple, Arturo and Alma Rivera, who leave their home and come to the United States to seek treatment for their daughter, Maribel. In Mexico, they were well-off: Arturo ran his own construction company and they had a comfortable home. But teenage Maribel, their only child, had an accident that left her with a closed-head injury. Told that some of the best care for Maribel would be in Delaware in the United States, Arturo gets a menial but legal job harvesting mushrooms and they leave behind everything they've ever known for a dingy apartment building and the hope of some kind of recovery for their daughter.

Maribel isn't the same mentally as she used to be, but on the outside she remains just as lovely as she ever was, attracting attention from two boys: Garrett Miller, a white kid with a chip on his shoulder, and Mayor Toro, who lives in the same building as the Riveras and whose mother becomes a confidant for Alma, allowing him and Maribel to become close. Alma is tortured by her guilt over what happened to Maribel, for which she holds herself responsible, and is terrified by her unfamiliar, often hostile new world and the threats that it presents. These powerful and completely human feelings, as well as Mayor and Maribel's deepening connection, eventually spark an explosive turn of events that prove tragic for everyone.

Henriquez tells her story primarily through three voices: Alma, Arturo, and Mayor, though the first and the last are the bulk of it. She also peppers in brief chapters from the perspective of the other residents of the apartment building, all immigrants and mostly if not entirely from Latin America, telling their own stories of how they came to be there. I found these interludes a real strength of the book, paying tribute to the many paths that lead people far away from home in a novel to which the experience of immigration is so central. But going back to our core storytellers, one of the biggest issues I had with the book is that Maribel herself, the person around whom the action revolves, isn't one of them. And I don't know if that's due to the difficulty of trying to present a brain-damaged teenager faithfully and sensitively, but I spent much of my time reading the book wishing for her perspective.

Doing so might have alleviated something that I could not stop from being bothered by: the way the relationship between Mayor and Maribel is presented as largely positive. I could never let myself get invested in it the way I felt like the book wanted me to be because I could never forget that although they were the same age, Maribel had a traumatic brain injury. Although it was obvious Maribel liked him and felt comfortable with him, not dealing with the issue of the differential between them based on this fact made the romance between them uncomfortable. Combined with what I thought was mostly unimpressive prose quality, I found this book disappointing. There was so much hype around it and besides an emotional sucker-punch of an ending, I found it to mostly fall flat.

One year ago, I was reading: The Fever (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: Sex at Dawn

Three years ago, I was reading: The Children of Henry VIII

Four years ago, I was reading: The Hangman's Daughter

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I Enjoyed but Rarely Talk About

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about the books that we really like but don't seem to make it onto the blog as often as you would think. Some books fit so easily into Top Ten Tuesday categories that I mention them again and again, but there are lots that I love but I've only touched on a handful of times over the years!



The Nine: As a recovering lawyer, I still have a soft spot for books about the legal system, particularly about the Supreme Court. This is a really interesting exploration of the late years of the Rehnquist court and the interpersonal dynamics are fascinating.

Chocolat: It's a little on the cheesy side, but I fell in love with this book when I was a teenager. Vianne Rocher is one of my favorite characters of all time.

So Big: I was completely unexpectedly charmed by this story of a woman who moves to the countryside and falls in love with both it and a farmer. There's a reason it won the Pulitzer y'all.

Lord of the Flies: A lot of people hated this when they read it in school, but I actually really got into it. I revisited it on audio recently and really think it holds up.

The Giver: I read this in middle school, but I'd actually already read it and still remember how excited I was to get to read it for class. I've never had the slightest interest in the sequels but I still adore this one.

The Blind Assassin: This book is one that I finished and immediately started looking forward to re-reading one day because it's so layered and complex and amazing.

The Queen of the Night: To this day I cannot understand why this book wasn't a huge smash hit. I recommend it constantly, it is completely bonkers in the best and most enjoyable way.

The Hours: I thought I knew what I was getting into because I'd seen the movie, which is of course very good but I didn't really get into. The book, however, is infinitely more sensitive and delicately realized.

Stoner: Such a quiet book, about a quiet man, but it made a really profound impression on me.

The Last Picture Show: This portrait of small-town despair is just a wonderful book and I do actually keep meaning to read the sequels because I liked it that much.

Thursday, April 9, 2020

Book 228: Rosemary's Baby


"Now, looking back over the past weeks and months, she felt a disturbing presence of overlooked signals just beyond memory, signals of a shortcoming in his love for her, of a disparity between what he said and what he felt. He was an actor; could anyone know when an actor was true and not acting?"

Dates read: April 24-27, 2018

Rating: 5/10

I remember, when I first learned about how babies are made (not the sex part, the pregnancy part), my overwhelming impression was that it sounded like being the host for a parasite. Before it can survive outside of you, it's just hooked up to your insides, taking your nutrients and calories. And while modern-day ultrasound technology is giving us ever-clearer ideas of what exactly is going on in there, for the most part it's hidden from view. You feel kicks and punches and the call is coming from inside the house! Yes, yes, it's the miracle of life and all that, but there's something just kind of fundamentally weird about it.

I'm not the only one who thinks so, the phrase "body horror of pregnancy" brings up plenty of Google results. If you were to ever ask anyone if they can think of a piece of pop culture about it, the answer you'd probably hear is Rosemary's Baby. Most people would mean the Polanski film, but that cinema classic (one of the few horror movies even I enjoy!) was based on Ira Levin's original novel. It's almost a novella...it's quite short. It tells the story of young newlywed Rosemary Woodhouse, who begins the story by moving into an exclusive Manhattan apartment building with her up-and-coming actor husband, Guy. A friend from her time in the workforce tries to warn her about the bad reputation the place has, but the couple is excited and moves in anyways.

Rosemary, estranged from her own Midwestern family, is eager to have a child, but Guy is hesitant until he starts spending time around the Castevets, their elderly next-door neighbors, and he gets a promising role when the originally-cast actor is struck blind. The night they conceive, Rosemary's drink is spiked and while she remembers an oddly demonic evening, Guy claims nothing odd happened. She's steered away from her first choice of doctor to one the Castevets prefer, who counsels her to not talk about how her pregnancy is going with her friends. After months of agonizing pain (and daily nutritional drinks provided by the Castevets), Rosemary complains to a friend, who starts looking into what could be wrong. He's struck down suddenly, and his last message to Rosemary is a warning about her new friends. Heavily pregnant and with no one to turn to, Rosemary is suddenly terrified about what exactly she's going to be giving birth to.

What came through the most strongly to me, from today's perspective, is a warning about how abusers work. Rosemary is cut off from her family, from the doctor she wants to go to, from her friends and a community of women who would be able to tell her that her experiences aren't normal. Her husband and neighbors do all of it cheerfully, in the guise of caring about her, but they're really isolating her so they can better control her. It's incremental enough that she barely even notices the noose tightening around her until it's too late. That, as much as the reality that you have no idea what your baby is going to be like until it comes out, is the horror.

Honestly, this is a situation where the movie is better. The book isn't bad, but it's unspectacular. None of the characters is all that compelling, the dialogue doesn't spark, the prose is unremarkable. The performances (particularly Mia Farrow) and atmosphere Polanski was able to render on film flesh out the bones of the interesting idea Levin's work presents and explores. The book on its own isn't unworth your time, particularly because it's so short, but its not anything special.

One year ago, I was reading: The Last Romantics (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: Silent Spring

Three years ago, I was reading: Big Little Lies

Four years ago, I was reading: And After Many Days

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I Bought Because I'm Obsessed With Royalty

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we've looking at books we've bought for a particular reason. For my part, I am extremely into royalty, and nonfiction books about royals are some of my favorites. Here are ten books that I've bought (but haven't read yet) because I love reading about the people who wear crowns!



The Romanovs: This one is a two-fer, for me, because I am also extremely into Russia and Russian history. Obviously this includes the doomed dynasty who ruled it for hundreds of years.

Once Upon A Time: Grace Kelly had a life many would consider charmed...she was beautiful, an Oscar-winning actress, and became a literal princess. But of course, that's not the whole story so I'm looking forward to reading this very gossipy-looking book.

Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret: The Crown paints a fairly sympathetic portrait of a woman who was notoriously difficult in real life. I'm definitely interested in getting a more rounded picture of her.

Prince Charles: How odd must it be to be in your 70s and be still waiting to take on the job you were literally born for. Prince Charles's life is an interesting, very strange one and this book is supposed to be quite good.

Queen Victoria: I know quite a bit about the Victorian period, but actually not that much about Victoria herself, so I'm ready to learn more.

Ladies in Waiting: This isn't technically about the royals themselves, but rather the staff of queens and princesses behind the scenes, which is such a different perspective than we usually get!

In Triumph's Wake: Royal mothers and daughters in Spain, England, France, and Germany is very much my kind of thing.

Alice, Princess Andrew of Greece: Again, as dramatized on The Crown, Prince Philip's mother had quite a life so this bio (which I've actually had on hand since well before the episode about her aired) seems like it won't be the same old same old.

Matriarch: Queen Mary (the current Queen's grandmother) was a famous jewelry collector and apparently was a big influence on the Queen when she was young!

The Little Princesses: Finishing with the British royal family, which is the one I've been exposed to the most/my favorite...this book was very scandalous when it came out because Elizabeth and Margaret's nanny broke the unspoken code of silence around the royals, though it's apparently actually pretty tame.

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Book 227: The Kingmaker's Daughter


"I am fifteen, I have been married and widowed, the daughter-in-law of a Queen of England and then the ward of a royal duke. I have been a pawn for one player after another; but now I am making my own decision and playing my own cards."

Dates read: April 20-24, 2018

Rating: 7/10

That men and women continue to not be truly equal, in this day and age, is hard to understand. But it's reality nonetheless. When I get frustrated about it, though, I remind myself that as far as we still have to go, it's still much much better than where we've been. It was only just about 100 years ago that the right to vote in the United States was extended to women. For hundreds of years before that (and still to this day, in some places), women didn't own property, we were property: bought and sold and traded by the men around us.

The usual way that women are bartered is the grand old institution of marriage. Before it was idealized by Disney movies as the end state of True Love (I mean, who cares what happens after, amirite?), it was more a business transaction than anything else. They might have had sweet gowns, but no one was more vulnerable to being the glue in a new family alliance than the daughters of medieval nobles. Philippa Gregory's fourth novel in her Cousin's War series, The Kingmaker's Daughter, focuses on just this: the way the Earl of Warwick, one-time beloved mentor of York King Edward IV, uses his two daughters, Isabel and Anne, as pawns in his game of power. Though the girls knew every comfort their father's considerable wealth could bring them, they were ultimately helpless to do anything but marry as they were told.

For Isabel, that meant wedding Edward's younger brother George, the spoiled favorite always looking for a way to depose his brother. When an attempted rebellion in his favor was quelled, Warwick allied himself with the Lancasters, and married his younger daughter, Anne (whose perspective this book follows) to Edward of Westminster, the only child of the deposed Lancaster King Henry VI. The uprising in support of the old king and then the young prince ultimately failed as well, and Anne was taken in by her sister and brother-in-law while her husband was executed. While Isabel eventually died in childbirth (as was unfortunately common in those days), Anne married her other brother-in-law...the youngest of the York sons, Richard. Richard eventually becomes King Richard III, making Anne the queen of England, as her father had once dreamed...but this triumph was undermined when her son, her only child, died around age 10. Anne's own death followed not long thereafter.

This is a solid, unspectacular entry in Gregory's series. She's helped by the fact that Anne's life was kind of bonkers, with her father's shifting alliances, her marriage into a family that she had known as sworn enemies her entire life, her lengthy confinement at her sister's hand and the escape she had to plot to marry Richard, the fact that she and her sister declared her mother legally dead and imprisoned her so they could seize their inheritance, her struggles to conceive, brief happiness on the throne and then a fade-out, made all the more sad by her husband's attention to his beautiful young niece, Princess Elizabeth York. Gregory doesn't give Anne a particularly big or compelling personality (she's kind of blandly plucky and determined), so it's fortunate there's a lot of plot to weave around her. Reading it just made me reflect on how trapped women of that era were in a lot of ways: Anne is constantly put into situations she doesn't want to be in because the men in her life (her father, her first husband, her brother-in-law, her second husband) decide to do whatever is best for them, and she just kind of has to deal with or plot to undermine them as best she can.

There are some quibbles I had with the way Gregory told her story: I thought the witchy woo-woo stuff with the Woodvilles that I find irritating was a little overdone, though it does track that a woman like Anne would have believed in it. And like I mention above, Anne's characterization isn't especially strong despite her position at the center of the story. For the most part, though, the plot trots along briskly and it's engaging and entertaining. If you're this far into this series, you've probably figured out what you're going to get from it, and this book neither delights or disappoints. Solid historical fluff read!

One year ago, I was reading: All the President's Men (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: Freedom

Three years ago, I was reading: Innocent Traitor

Four years ago, I was reading: A Great and Terrible Beauty