Category Archives: book reviews

The Monday Book: THE LADY OF THE RIVERS by Philippa Gregory

gregoryI used to think of Gregory’s books as a guilty pleasure, but then I watched (two episodes of) The Tudors on Showtime. God help us all.

If you joined the victims watching Showtime Tudors, you need to know a few things. First, Henry VIII wasn’t a 27-year-old blue-eyed boy for most of his life. He had two sisters, not one. He did not hang an entire county on false pretenses. Fourth–oh, let’s not even try. The only thing accurate about that medieval soap opera was that he had six wives.

But Gregory’s books are fairly amazing in teaching accurate history. She interprets rather than ignores facts. Gregory sets them down as the skeleton around which she builds her stories–”Jacquetta married Richard Woodville in Spring 1440ish”–and then she tries to figure out WHY a woman so powerful would marry a squire. (She comes up with a loving version of lust. Fair enough.)

Gregory’s other books are hit/miss – avoid the Wideacre series: run away, run away! And I didn’t read her Flapper novel. But when she sinks her teeth into the war of the cousins (War of the Roses) or the founding of the Tudor Dynasty by that crafty (and extremely lucky) Owen Tudor, when she writes about “powerless” women moving chess pieces around the courts of kings they may or may not love, she’s got a real way of telling a true story with golden embellishments on why they did what they did.

I have a professor friend here at the college who recommends her novels to those studying England between 1400 and 1600. She really understands how Margaret Beaufort ruled from the rear; she doesn’t think Henry VIII was the most fascinating story of the Tudor reign (because he wasn’t by a long shot – check out Jacquetta and her daughter and grand-daughter, which is what Rivers is about). And she doesn’t try to make sense to a modern ear of the things the courts were obsessed with. She does turn the old language into modern prose, but she still retains a whiff of the times in the words she chooses.

The fact that the books are filled with lust and violence doesn’t hurt, but she’s got that Alfred Hitchcock approach to beddings: “There is no fear in a bang, only the anticipation of it.” You can play around with “lust, sex, satisfaction” and make that sentence your own, if you want to.

She also has that lovely way, like Stephen King and other great writers we hate to admit are, of encapsulating a character in one swift sentence, such as: “When a man wants a mystery, it is generally better to leave him mystified. Nobody loves a clever woman.” Her good guys make mistakes, behave badly; her evil characters are not just black velvet background.

So I’ve stopped thinking of Gregory’s books as a guilty pleasure, and I’ve particularly enjoyed the story of how the Woodville family rose to such power in the Tudor era. Rivers‘ hero Jacquetta is wiser than many of those Gregory has chronicled, her family history and plans for its future subtler than other Rose War women. I loved The White Queen, too, although it had quite a bit more pure fiction in it when it came to assigning motivations and causes for events.

Yes, I know: I’m a plebian. But I’ve really enjoyed The Lady of the Waters and heartily recommend it to anyone interested in English History, or to those who like a good historic novel.

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The Monday Book: STORM FRONT by Jim Butcher

storm frontFinding ourselves headed 12 hours by car up the road to Wisconsin for the Fox Cities Book Festival, Jack and I put out a plea to friends for recorded books. (We forgot our town library doesn’t open until 1 pm on Saturdays, and we were supposed to leave that morning.)

Several friends brought us books, and the first one we put in as we drove was  Butcher’s introductory mystery of The Dresden Files, an ongoing series about a wizard named Harry Dresden.

The first book came out in 2000, and proved so popular that Volume 15 of the Dresden Files is due out in May of this year.

The writing is a hoot. Think Philip Marlowe meets Charlaine Harris. “Magic noir” is what I called it as we began laughing out loud at some of the great one-liners, sardonic toss-off remarks, and zany plot twists of this book.

The wizard is tall, dark and handsome, an old-fashioned courtly gentleman, a powerful practitioner, and at the same time something of a screw-up. If the book is a bit predictable, sometimes facile, well, you don’t really mind ’cause it’s such rip-roaring fun.

The hero wears a long dark Australian cattle rancher coat. He has a nymphomaniac skull named Bob working for him. His cat doesn’t respect him. Think rescuing damsels in distress, in low-cut evening gowns, in vicious thunderstorms, but with vampires, demons, and drug dealers, oh my. It’s a send-up of every serialized adventure guy-hero genre, ever: part mystery, part swashbuckle.

Jack and I laughed out loud at several lines, but one of my personal favorites was, “I was so mad I could have chewed up nails and spit out paper clips.” It’s overblown high-jinks fun, Butcher’s stuff. And it makes the road much, much shorter. We actually had to turn it off coming through Chicago. I kept swerving from laughter.

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