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Review: The Dark Tower 1 – The Gunslinger

The Dark Tower 1

The Gunslinger

by Stephen King

“The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.” 

I have, regrettably, only had the pleasure of reading one Stephen King novel – 11.22.63. Before reading that particular book, I’d always avoided King because I grew up in the early ’90’s when the miniseries IT was popular and like many other 10 year old children, I was scared out of my skin. I figured Stephen King only did horror, and I wanted no part of it. (I do however highly recommend 11.22.63 – it was fantastic.) 

Two years ago I went back on my promise to never read books of a horror persuasion, and I read Ann Rice’s Mayfair Witches trilogy – and  while I found the third book to be completely gratuitous, I was spellbound by the first and second in the series…bewitched and fascinated with the story of a family of witches living in New Orleans . I decided to give Stephen King another chance while I was on the horror kick, and picked up 11.21.63, not knowing that it was not in fact a horror book, but in fact a wonderfully intricate mystery centered around the JFK assassination. I hadn’t had a chance to continue down the road Stephen King has paved with strange and twisting characters, until now.

There was an article I recently read that stated The Dark Tower series was considered King’s magnum opus. This intrigued me beyond belief. Of all the famous and quite frankly infamous novels King has written (IT, The Green Mile, The Stand, Misery, just to name a few) this was considered his greatest achievement? I began to comb the used bookstores in search of the first volume in The Dark Tower series, The Gunslinger, but couldn’t find it. I’m almost glad I didn’t because when I went onto Amazon to Prime-order it, I noticed that this particular book had been given a facelift in 2003. King decided to go back and add a few scenes to tie all 7 of the books together in a more cohesive manner.

I had extremely high hopes as I began The Gunslinger, a relatively short book with only 250 pages in it’s entirety. The Dark Tower was originally written as a series of short stories that were published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s and the book is set up in the same style, containing the first five of such stories.

Where 11.22.63 flowed and ebbed through a tale that  was incredibly easy to read and refreshingly relatable, The Gunslinger proved to be as mysterious and cantankerous as the title character, Roland Deschain – the gunslinger himself. I read the book in about three days and still had as much of an idea as to what was going on when I read the last page as when I read the first. The loose premise of the story is that Roland is on a steady, slow chase after The Man In Black, whom I believe to be a purveyor of death  or an agent of the devil – it was never made completely clear. I believe that is King’s intent, however, as there are so many other books in the series. The back and forth the reader receives as Roland reminisces and tells tales gives us some insight into the gunslinger’s world, but not much. I found myself yearning for so much more and was frustrated to no end as the story progressed without satisfying my hunger.

The reader is introduced to several characters along Roland’s journey, all of whom he gains something from. One in particular, a young boy of about 10 years old, is the most poignant of the group. The gunslinger grows to love little Jake in the short amount of time they spend together, and he learns of Jake’s violent death in New York City (in a time and world that is not where they currently inhabit)  through a hypnosis exercise. They become traveling companions and continue the search for The Man In Black across a ruthless and uncaring desert.

“”Look,” Jake said, pointing upward.

The gunslinger looked up and felt a twinge in his right hip. He winced. They had been in the foothills two days now, and although the waterskins were almost empty again, it didn’t matter now. There would soon be all the water they could drink. He followed the vector of Jake’s finger upward, past the rise of the green plain to the naked and flashing cliffs and gorges above it . . . on up toward the snowcap itself. Faint and far, nothing but a tiny dot (it might have been one of those motes that dance perpetually in front of the eyes, except for its constancy), the gunslinger beheld the man in black, moving up the slopes with deadly progress, a minuscule fly on a huge granite wall. 

“Is that him?” Jake asked.

The gunslinger looked at the depersonalized mote doing its faraway acrobatics, feeling nothing but a premonition of sorrow. 

“That’s him, Jake.””

The gunslinger was trained in his occupation from near birth, growing up in an Arthurian atmosphere among other boys his age who were also learning the delicate art of war. His father was a gunslinger, and his father before him, but I could never truly figure out what that actually meant. I believe gunslingers are protectors from evil, an angel of some sort, and they protect The Dark Tower. Or maybe I got it all wrong – something that would be easy to do considering how the story bounces back and forth so much while seeming to give nothing away. But again, I think this is the author’s intention. He really wants you to work for the meaning of this story; interestingly enough he mentions something to that effect in the newly added foreward. In any event, Roland has been chasing The Man In Black (not of the Will Smith variety) for roughly 12 years and they are on their way to The Dark Tower.

“Roland felt his face flush with heat in the dark, but when he spoke his voice was even. “That was the last part, I guess. Of my growing-up, I mean. I never knew any of the parts when they happened. Only later did I know that.”

He realized with some unease that he was avoiding what the boy wanted to hear. 

“I suppose the coming of age was part of it, at that,” he said, almost grudgingly. “It was formal. Almost stylized; it was a dance.” He laughed unpleasantly. 

The boy said nothing. 

“It was necessary to prove one’s self in battle,” the gunslinger began.”

The setting of the gunslinger’s world is one of enigmatic magic; a world that holds clues to what it used to be but is now a world that has “moved on”. There are snippets of the past world; a pianist playing “Hey Jude” in a saloon, a man who is the owner of a gas pump that is viewed to be a sacred idol. But the world Roland lives in is not normal. Ravens are able to enjoy conversations, men argue over eating meat carved from a mutated animal, and even the grass will turn one mad. I’m interested enough to read the next book, but I think I need some time for reflection before I dive back in. I was left feeling very curious about The Dark Tower, it’s meaning, and Roland’s quest…and much like many other frustrating books, the story didn’t begin to get interesting until the near end.

“Very well,” the man in black said. “To begin then:  You must understand the Tower has always been, and there have always been boys who know if it and lust for it, more than powers or riches or women. . . boys who look for the doors that lead to it. . .”

I do recommend this book, giving it 3.5 out of 5 stars – but I only recommend reading it if you plan on reading the series in its entirety. I cannot see the purpose in reading this one book, as it leaves all of your questions unanswered. Really. Not one thing is revealed in this book.

Read it in preparation for the movie coming out this summer staring Idris Elba as Roland Deschain and Matthew McConaughey as The Man In Black, as well as a proposed television series due for 2018. I’m sure anyone would agree while reading it that the casting is spot on.

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Recommendation: The Mortal Instruments – City of Bones

The Mortal Instruments – Book 1

City of Bones

by Cassandra Clare

“Clary glanced at the spot where the boy had disappeared from, and said nothing. There wasn’t even a smear of blood there – nothing to show that the boy had ever existed. 

“They return to their home dimensions when they die,” said Jace. “In case you were wondering.” 

“Jace,” Alec hissed. “Be careful.” 

Jace drew his arm away. A ghoulish freckling of blood marked his face. He still reminded her of a lion, with his wide-spaced, light -colored eyes, and that tawny gold hair. “She can see us, Alec,” he said. “She already knows too much.” 

“So what do you want me to do with her,” Isabelle demanded.

“Let her go,” Jace said quietly. Isabelle shot him a surprised, almost angry look, but didn’t argue. The whip slithered away, freeing Clary’s arm. She rubbed her sore wrist and wondered how the hell she was going to get out of there. 

“Maybe we should bring her back with us,” Alec said. “I bet Hodge would like to talk to her.”

“No way are we bringing her to the Institute,” said Isabelle. “She’s a mundie.” 

“Or is she?” said Jace softly. 

Okay.

I will try to restrain myself on this post; I am already way too excited. The Shadowhunter Chronicles is my favorite literary series, second only to the magical world of  Harry Potter. I fell into this collection of books almost by accident, and it held me captivated for nearly a year as I combed religiously through the 12 (yes 12, and there are more to come!) books.

The Mortal Instruments is a set of 6 books that chronicle the lives of several different characters. Mainly, Clary Fray, a fifteen-year old teenager living in New York who spends her time dreaming of becoming a famous artist and prowling the streets in search of adventure with her childhood best friend and member of a band with no name, Simon Lewis. Clary encounters several puzzling strangers one evening in a downtown club, and watches in horror as they strike down another teenager. When the deceased vanishes before her eyes, Clary begins to suspect that something else is going on – something very wrong – and struggles to understand. The group of strangers – Jace, Alec, and Isabelle Lightwood, offer little information or sympathies, but find themselves as intrigued about her as she is about them.

Clary isn’t supposed to be able to see what was going on in the club. She shouldn’t have been able to see the murdered boy, who turns out wasn’t a boy at all, but a demon in full glamour. She shouldn’t have been able to see the other teenagers, who eventually reveal themselves to be of an elite fighting order called The Shadowhunters, a race of men and women born with angel blood and special powers – powers that are enhanced by the ancient runes they carve on themselves like tattoos. Their sole purpose is to preserve a balance between themselves and Downworlders, a sub-race that includes demons, vampires, werewolves, fairies, and other mythical and mystical creatures. They fancy themselves the true police of the world and use every opportunity as a way to strengthen their cause as they protect regular humans against evil.

“Sitting on a faded green sofa a few feet away from her was Jace. He was wearing the same dark clothes he’d had on the night before in the club. His arms were bare and covered with faint lines like old scars. His wrists bore wide metal cuffs; she could see the bone handle of a knife protruding from the left one. He was looking right at her, the side of his narrow mouth quirked in amusement. Worse than the feeling of being laughed at was Clary’s absolute conviction that he hadn’t been sitting there five minutes ago. 

“What is it?” Simon had followed her gaze, but it was obvious from the blank expression on his face that he couldn’t see Jace. 

But I see you. She stared at Jace as she thought it, and he raised his left hand to wave at her. A ring glittered on a slim finger. He got to his feet and began walking, unhurriedly, toward the door. Clary’s lips parted in surprise. He was leaving, just like that.

She felt Simon’s hand on her arm. He was saying her name, asking her if something was wrong. She barely heard him. “I’ll be right back,” she heard herself say, as she sprang off the couch, almost forgetting to set her coffee cup down. She raced toward the door, leaving Simon staring after her.”

Getting wrapped up in their world is difficult for Clary to manage, especially when her mother decides out of the blue that she is going to send her daughter away. But before she can, Jocelyn Fray is attacked and stolen away herself, leaving Clary at the mercy of the Shadowhunter’s hospitality. She moves into the New York Institute and begins a journey to find out who she really is. It’s obvious to everyone that she isn’t a regular “mundane”, but no one seems to know her lineage. A trip into the Silent City, a secret land hidden in a graveyard, leads to more questions when the mysterious Silent Brothers reveal that she has a block in her brain. A block that can only be removed by a warlock, as a warlock is the one who put it there in the first place.

After Clary discovers her mother has been kidnapped, she has to find out why. She and Jace inadvertently spy on her mother’s best friend, a curious fellow named Luke, and find that someone named Valentine is searching for something called The Mortal Cup, a talisman that when drunk from, can create Shadowhunters (a race that one typically is born into) from regular people. The process of becoming a Shadowhunter via the Cup is a perilous one, and not everyone survives. Valentine has held onto a hope for much of his life that he can procure this cup, create a huge army of Shadowhunters, and eradicate the entire Downworlder race, thus leaving the world pure.

As a teenager living in Idris, Valentine rallied a group of like-minded individuals together and they formed The Circle, a group whose sole purpose became destroying all Downworlders. Clary’s mother Jocelyn was involved in the group, and Valentine is convinced she is hiding the Cup. He has kidnapped her in an attempt to force her into revealing the Cup’s location. Clary decides that the only way to find her mother is to first find the Cup, and so she begins her quest.

” “So what are you Shadowhunters?”

“We are sometimes called the Nephilim,” said Hodge. “In the Bible they were the offspring of humans and angels. The legend of the origin of Shadowhunters is that they were created more than a thousand years ago, when humans were being overrun by demon invasions from other worlds. A warlock summoned the Angel Raziel, who mixed some of his own blood with the blood of men in a cup, and gave it to those men to drink. Those who drank the Angel’s blood became Shadowhunters, as did their children and their children’s children. The cup thereafter was know as the Mortal Cup. Though the legend may not be fact, what is true through the years, when Shadowhunter ranks were depleted, it was always possible to create more Shadowhunters using the Cup.” “

Enter one Magnus Bane, a cocky, handsome, and skeptical warlock hundreds of years old, who is none too thrilled to be forced into helping the Shadowhunter cause. He has apparently been blocking Clary’s brain since she was very small, a favor to her mother, who as it turns out was married to the single most terrifying Shadowhunter in the order’s history – Valentine himself, making the villain Clary’s father. Despite his reluctance, Magnus develops one strong reason for wanting to help Clary and her Shadowhunter friends. . . the reason being that one of those friends happens to be exactly the type of person Magnus could fall in love with.

” “Magnus. Magnus Bane?”

“That would be me.” The man blocking the doorway was as tall and thin as a rail, his hair a crown of dense black spikes. Clary guessed from the curve of his sleepy eyes and the gold tone of his evenly tanned skin that he was part Asian. He wore jeans and a black shirt covered with dozens of metal buckles. His eyes were crusted with a raccoon mask of charcoal glitter, his lips painted a dark shade of blue. He raked a ring-laden hand through his spiked hair and regarded them thoughtfully.

“Children of the Nephilim,” he said. “Well, well. I don’t recall inviting you.”  “

The story progresses and Clary, her best friend Simon, and the Shadowhunters begin to merge seamlessly into one another’s lives, despite initial protestations. The race to find the Cup is on, the quest to find Jocelyn is paramount, and the subsequent training of a new Shadowhunter is dawning on the horizon. The novel(s) is writ with underlying and complicated first-love romance, staggering adventure, unbreakable friendships and complicated relationships – all built around a world within a world, a true good and evil epic.

The Mortal Instruments is just one of (currently) four sub-series in the set of books written about the Shadowhunter order. In completion they are as follows (and in my opinion, should be read in this order):

Also included in the series are offshoots such as The Bane Chronicles (in my opinion, can be read at any time) and Tales From the Shadowhunter Academy (to be read after The Mortal Instruments, as it picks up right after the ending of City of Heavenly Fire; it is the account of Simon’s training told through short stories that were previously only available online). Several guides to Shadowhunting have been also been published and can be read at any time. They include: The Shadowhunter’s Codex, Shadowhunters and Downworlders, and A History of Notable Shadowhunters & Denizens of Downworld: Told in the Language of Flowers. An adult coloring book is set to be released April of 2017.

In addition to the multiple books in the world of Shadowhunters and Downworlders, a popular movie was made in 2013 for City of Bones, starring Lily Collins as Clary Fray and Jamie Bower Campbell as Jace Lightwood Herondale. A television series called Shadowhunters is currently on the Freeform Network and is several episodes into it’s successful second season. While the casting for both the movie and the television show has been close to the literary form, writers have taken complete liberty over the original storyline. Facets of the book are in both the movie and show, but readers should beware – the plot is far removed from the book.

I am certainly biased, because I truly fell in love with this series. I am a true serial reader, and getting to know characters inside and out through multiple books is my literary bread and butter. There is nothing I love more than finishing a book and picking up the next, over and over, without ever breaking the fantasy world I am immersed in. I am counting down the days until May when the new book comes out, and I highly recommend that you fall into the land of the Shadowhunters and take a break from reality.

I give City of Bones a 5 out of 5 star rating. I recommend this book for readers ages 15+ due to some mild language and brief sexual allusions.

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Review: Heartless

Heartless

by Marissa Meyer

“Cath shivered and had the strangest urge to give him a nervous wave. An acknowledgment that yes, she was aware that her dress was unduly red. But by the time her hand had lifted, the Joker’s attention had skipped on. She dropped her hand and exhaled. Once the hoop had made a full circle, a ghost smile lifted the corners of the stranger’s lips. He titled his head. The bells jingled. There was an intake of breath from the watchful crowd. “Ladies. Gentleman.” He spoke with precision. “Your Most Illustrious Majesty.” The King bounced on his toes like a child waiting for the Christmas feast. The Joker swung himself up in one fluid motion so he was standing inside the hoop. It spun another lazy half turn. They all listened, mesmerized by the hesitant creak of the rope that attached it to the chandelier.

“Why is a raven like a writing desk?””

Have you ever wondered how the Queen of Hearts of Wonderland came to be so…heartless?

Have you ever asked yourself why the White Rabbit depends so much on a mystery woman named Mary Ann?

And how did the Mad Hatter get so mad?

Marissa Meyer, author of other such twisted tales as Fairest, Cinder, and Scarlett has tackled the Kingdom of Hearts in her new novel, Heartless. The story chronicles the life of one Catherine Pinkerton: the heiress to Rock Turtle Cove, a teenager who dreams of being a world class baker, a whimsical thinker, a devoted friend, and a vivaciously happy soul who lives under the thumb of two determined parents.

The story begins as Catherine and her handmaiden, Mary Anne, prepare for a party given by the King of Hearts, a tiny and silly little man who loves sweets – especially if said sweets come from a certain dark haired girl from Rock Turtle Cove. Catherine finds the attention of the King to be a bother, but she must do her duty by her parents and attend the soiree in style. In preparation for the gathering, she is busily at work in the kitchen, much to her mother’s constant digress, creating pastries with all the flair and pizzaz of a most dedicated confectioner. The famed Cheshire Cat is in attendance (both with and without his portly body) as she gets herself elbow deep in flour and sugar, and the reader soon realizes that the fanciful feline is somewhat of a constant companion for the young lady.

While in attendance at the party, Cath is swept into a magical and ridiculous situation with the new resident Joker, an attractive and mysterious rouge named Jest. She finds herself enraptured by his riddles and games, and also finds him a much preferred companion to that of the attentive and annoying King of Hearts.

“So long as we’re sharing secrets,” she said, “may I ask how you did it? The trick with Mr. Rabbit?”

“What trick?”

“You know. When you pulled him out of Jack’s hat.”

Jest frowned, his expression mildly concerned. “Sweetest Lady Pinkerton, I fear you’ve gone mad in this short time we’ve known each other.”

She peered up at him. “Have I?”

“To imagine that I pulled a rabbit out of a hat?” He stooped closer, his forehead conspiratorially close to hers, and whispered, “That would be impossible.”

She smothered a grin, trying to morph her expression into something equally devious. “As it so happens, Mr. Jest, I’ve sometimes come to believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” 

While Catherine tries her very best not to get caught up in the enigmatic and alluring ways of Jest, she finds it difficult to contain her focus. Mary Ann, her close friend and business partner, tries fervently to keep her on track. The girls are trying to find a way to open up a bakery of their own but the task is proving to be difficult one. Cath’s parents are determined to capitalize on the affections the King has for their daughter, and will not entertain her dreams of being a business owner. The girls struggle to find investors and are feeling frantic, as the storefront of their dreams is about to become available. The current curious tenant is soon to be vacating the premises, taking his shop full of shoes elsewhere. Readers will enjoy the appearances of familiar characters, such as Mr. Caterpillar.

“He was staring at her and Mary Ann. He had not touched the boots on the counter, though coming closer she could see that he was wearing an assortment of shoes himself – all different styles of boots and slippers taking up his many small feet. “Who,” he said lazily, “are you?”

Despite Mary Ann’s and Cath’s greatest efforts, they cannot seem to gain any ground with their bakery. The biggest problem is coming from the castle – a determined and smitten little King who will do anything to attract the attentions of his most prized subject. Cath does her best to thwart his advances, but she is at a disadvantage due to her position as only daughter of her ambitious parents. Catherine also finds herself caught up in the romance that the forbidden relationship with the Joker brings; her eyes constantly searching him out while in the presence of the King, and she soon finds that Jest’s heart is going in the same direction as hers. However, they have no idea how to remove the well-meaning but obnoxious obstacle that is in front of them.

“The King was still clapping enthusiastically. “That was wonderful! Absolutely wonderful! Lady Pinkerton, wasn’t that wonderful?”

She cleared her throat and conceded. “It was indeed. What is the song? This was the first I’ve heard it.”

“I’m afraid I don’t know, my lady,” said Jest. “It came to me just now.” Her eyes widened. Impossible. “Perhaps you are my muse,” he added, and the joking tone had returned. “I shall dedicate it to you, Lady Catherine Pinkerton, if it pleases.”

The King squealed. “Oh yes, that’s perfect! I shall have you play it again at our -” He cut off sharply. Cath stiffened, clenching the handkerchief in one fist. Jest’s suspicious look returned. The King fidgeted with the clasp of his velvet-lined cape. and his excitement was replaced with mumbled bashfulness. “At, er…the royal wedding.”

Cath wished she could disappear down a rabbit hole. 

Along the way of the King’s courtship, he watches in quiet dismay as his kingdom is taken prisoner by the fear of a creature lurking in the woods, coming out to devour innocents at inopportune times. The Jabberwock is a gruesome beast terrorizing the citizens of Hearts, and the King has no idea how to stop it – other than distracting his subjects with party after party. Catherine is caught up in the midst of a Jabberwock attack more than once – the first time happening at an amusing and informative tea party given by the area’s newest milliner – Hatta. Jest romantically whisks Catherine away from her home in the middle of the night to entertain her at the tea party, but the evening is cut short with a violent encounter by the beast.

After a second fight with the Jabberwock leaves Cath incapacitated, Jest carries her off to another land to have her healed, much to the digress and horror of her parents – and the King. It is viewed as a treasonous act, and Jest is now considered a criminal of the highest depravity to everyone but Lady Catherine Pinkerton, who has fallen completely head over heels in love. After the admittance of her feelings,  Jest finds himself bound to do some exposing of his own and as such, shares the real reason why he is in Hearts – to steal hers. . .her heart that is – and take it back to his native land of Chess, a kingdom only to be found by crossing through The Looking Glass.

“Her chest suddenly squeezed, forcing the air from her lungs. “You’ve been trying to steal my heart.” A muscle twitched in his jaw and he looked away. Mouth suddenly dry, Cath placed a hand to her collarbone, feeling the steady thumping beneath her skin. “Is that…has it all been for that? The tea party, the letters, what you said at the festival…all of it, no more than an attempt to steal my heart so you could take it back to your queen?” 

“The easiest way to steal something,” Jest murmured, “is for it to be given willingly.” 

Despite his nefarious initial intentions, Jest has fallen as deeply in love with Catherine as she has for him. But in doing so, Catherine is now in yet another impossible position. There is no way she is going to be allowed to be with Jest freely, and so she she must devise a plan that will give her freedom. What happens next is certainly something that no one could have foreseen or helped, and Catherine watches her life spin on a wheel that is completely out of her control.

We all know that there is indeed a Queen of Hearts. We all know how desperately controlling and how unwaveringly cruel she can be. Heartless is the path by which this queen is born, a creation of her environment and the lack of concern by which the people in her life treat her. The Queen came by her dreadful attitude and short-sided views honestly, and in the end one cannot truly blame her for her lack of empathy for the young girl who eventually comes wandering on in to Wonderland.

“But why? Why is a raven like a writing desk?”

Her hand fell on the doorknob. “It’s not,” she spat, ripping open the door. “It’s just a stupid riddle. It is nothing but stuff and nonsense!”

Suddenly, inexplicably, the pocket watch fell silent. Hatta’s face slackened. his brow beaded with sweat. “Stuff and nonsense,” he whispered, the words cracking. “Nonsense and stuff and much of muchness and nonsense all over again. We are all mad here, don’t you know? And it runs in my family, it’s a part of my blood and he’s here, Time has finally found me and I –” His voice shredded. His eyes burned. “I haven’t the slightest idea, Your Queenness. I find that I simply cannot recall why a raven is like a writing desk.” 

I read Marissa Meyer’s debut series, The Lunar Chronicles, earlier this year and thoroughly enjoyed her unique and Star Wars-esque take on classic fairy tales. The set of 6 books spins an interesting tale centered around a cyborg named Cinder, who comes to the revelation that she is actually long lost princess who is duty bound  to overthrow an evil queen. The books were so much fun and I found so many characters in them that I really came to enjoy, namely Cress (a take on Rapunzel; she is a squeak of a girl kept prisoner on a spaceship where she is forced to use her computer skills to be a spy) and Thorne, the roguish rake who saves her in his own roundabout and hilarious way. The novels weave themselves in and out of several strong characters and their own stories, bringing them all together in a clever manner.

I found Heartless to be entertaining, but not as cleverly written as The Lunar Chronicles. The author would take us down a path that could lead to someplace that was curiously delightful, but then she would instead bring us back around somewhere else  that was a bit dull and overwritten. I was used to so many very strong female characters in her previous work, that I didn’t quite like how Catherine willingly let her life’s dreams slip away once she found love with Jest. She gave up her identity and never truly stood up for herself. Perhaps this is how it had to be written, to get the characters where they were in the end. I don’t know. I just know I would have appreciated seeing a bit more fire from Catherine in the middle of her story, considering how determined she was in the beginning. There were a few steps off the path that I did not understand and found to be a waste of time; this book could have benefited from a bit more editing, in my opinion (not to mention the numerous grammatical and spelling errors I found that drove me nuts).

I give Heartless 3 out of 5 stars, and I can say with wholeheartedness that any young person who has ever found themselves spellbound by the magic that is Wonderland will enjoy this novel – however, older minds may find themselves a bit bored.  It’s written in a true Young Adult sense of the genre, and I recommend it for any person over the age of 13, due to some infrequent but nonetheless evident allusion to carnal desires.

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Recommendation: What Remains

What Remains

by Carole Radziwill

“He was handsome and serious, bent over scripts in a hotel room, and then he stood and reached for my hand.” 

I know what you’re thinking.

Why would you want to read a book about death? And not just about death, but about the painful losses of both a soulmate and of a best friend?

Sometimes books are difficult to read. The subject matter is too tricky and makes you have too many *feels*. We avoid them out of pure instinct, not willing to lose ourselves in a story that doesn’t have a happy ending. But sometimes reading those books can help you appreciate the things and people you have in your life, and have empathy and understanding in areas you never considered before. All books are written to help you grow, but it is up to you to find which way you will flourish.

Carole Radziwill is best known in this day and age as a Real Housewife of New York. That’s certainly how I knew her before I picked up this book. I’d heard that she was married to someone famous or special, won a few awards, but I was sure it was all nothing of consequence. I mean really, why would a woman with any real accomplishments or quite frankly, substance,  subject herself to being a Real Housewife?

Real Housewives are my guilty pleasure(s), and I watch them religiously. I curl up with my Ben & Jerry’s (Mint Cookie), a soft blanket, and lose myself in the ridiculous and entertaining lives of women from all over the world who are so over the top that you just cannot take them seriously. They are fun because they are so insane – extravagant parties, mind-blowing closets, wild vacations. It’s just not real life, no matter what it says in the title. Carole is a Housewife in New York, but during her first few seasons on the show, she wasn’t technically a housewife to anyone. Instead, the audience followed her path as an author,  laughed at her witty remarks about the other ladies, and smirked right along with her as she found humor in the ostentatious lifestyles portrayed on the show. Funnily enough, if any of the women could be living a gilded and sensational lifestyle, it could be Carole.

In addition to being a Housewife and an author of several books, including The Widow’s Guide to Sex and Dating (a novel that follows one woman’s path of  trying to make lemonade out of lemons in a frankly told tale of fiction), Carole is a  Peabody and 3x Emmy award winning journalist… and a real life princess.

Yes, a princess.

What Remains is the story of Carole’s life,  a series of life events that begin by traveling through her non-traditional and adventurous childhood into her trek to New York as an adult to begin a career as an on-the-scene journalist. She saw the world during some of it’s worst times and in some of it’s worst ways, and helped produce amazing and awe inspiring pieces of news. During this point of her career, she met her prince, Anthony Radziwill, son of Jacqueline Kennedy’s younger sister and a Polish prince.

“By this measure, we weren’t ordinary. My father worked as a cook. I was my mother who dressed up to go to work in the city, my mother who got a college degree. Her mother, Grandma Binder, came to live with us when I was sic, after she retired from the cafeteria at New York Telephone & C., and was put in charge of a loose arrangement. My parents popped in at odd hours, around various jobs and my mother’s school. Grandma tried to impose a sort of structure, but she was no match for five slippery grandkids, and we ran as unchecked as the dandelions and black-eyed Susan that grew wild in our backyard. In a sense it was a life every kid dreams about – unruly, wild, unhampered. We had a baseball diamond worn into the side yard, where you could always find a game. We ran through the woods that edged our backyard at all hours of the day and into the night. We were dressed and fed and pointed toward school and the rest was more or less up to us.”

Carole takes us through her time at ABC, starting as an intern in the basement where she worked on transcription and various other paperwork. She cleaned, sorted office supplies, made infinite labels, and did everything in her power to make the producers as happy as possible, with an almost obsessive approach. She is ambitious and jumps at a chance to get on location, working with the famous Peter Jennings, as a production assistant. It is here that she meets what will become her soul mate, Anthony.

Anthony is subsequently diagnosed with cancer in the time leading up to their wedding and consequentially, their entire five year marriage is centered around his debilitating and life-sucking disease. Carole’s attempts to combat cancer with all of her skills as a journalist (copious notes, meticulously organized appointments, vats of information) is at times difficult to understand, but it truly appears to be the only way she is able to get herself – and her husband – through the ordeal.

“We create narratives for people, because they are simpler than the complexities of real lives. Everyone wants a good story, with a prince and a princess and a villain. When narratives change, it’s unsettling, because whether or not they’re our own, they help to define us, and we don’t want to let go of them. In my own narrative my husband was brave and I was selfless, the two of us dancing a tragic dance of love. Cancer was our villain. It wasn’t so simple, of course, but this was our story.

We all picked roles at the beginning. His mother picked one; Anthony picked on. I was the good wife. This was my thing. I was going to do this, handle it. Leave it to me. At first, I was emboldened with the idea that I could, that if I managed it and researched it, I could direct it. And by the time I realized it wasn’t the role I wanted to have, it was too late. I was too afraid of disappointing them. Hadn’t they trusted me, hadn’t they said how courageous I was? Didn’t I know all the medical words, the latest clinical studies, and where to find an extra blanket in the supply closet?”

During her marriage to Anthony she meets and falls head over heels into best-friend-dom with Carolyn Bessette, future wife of Anthony’s cousin, the strikingly handsome John Kennedy Jr. Carolyn is a wispy blonde with a quirky sense of humor and a shy smile. The friendship between the two women is birthed on one striking similarity – they are both commoners who are married/marrying into royalty. John and Anthony grew up as brothers, one the son of a prince and the other an offspring of America’s Camelot. The resulting tales revolving around their relationship as a foursome is so fun and heartwarming to read. Carole finds solace in her relationship with Carolyn, and she finds someone who is completely on her side and there for her as she goes through the pain of watching her husband as he wilts away before her very eyes. One thing about this book is that it really humanizes Carolyn Bessette. I have read multiple things about her that were not flattering; the general public was unfortunately not pleased with an outsider coming in and winning the heart of America’s Prince and handsome bachelor, John Jr. Carole paints a very different picture of Carolyn than what is available to read elsewhere and the insight is so very warm and sweet. Everyone has seen the photos of John Jr. and Carolyn coming out of the chapel, his gentle mouth pressed to her soft hand in a gesture of pure love. Reading about that day from the perspective of her best friend was like peeking into a slice of something very private and secret.

“We are running late to chapel, because John can’t find his shirt and Effie takes the Jeep back to the cottages to look for it. By the time we get to the church, the sun is setting and it’s dark inside. There is no electricity, so Effie collects candles for light. The chapel is shabby, but the candles make it look elegant. There is a steady whine of mosquitos outside, and we pick our way carefully through little piles of pig muck to get to the church. Somewhere along the way the flowers got lost, so Effie gathers fresh bunches of wildflowers for the flower girls. It is a warm evening and we leave the door of the chapel open to catch a breeze. Father Charles takes his place at the altar, wearing a white deacon’s stole. He reads from the Gospel, by flashlight. He speaks of the love that John and Carolyn share and how this small private ceremony reflects the open space they have created for themselves and their family. We take open-topped Jeeps back to the inn for the reception. It starts to rain, and we laugh as we get soaked.”

John and Carolyn are due to meet with Anthony and Carole for a long weekend to spend some of Anthony’s final days wrapped up in friendship at their home on the beach together. Everyone knows that the end is nearer than they would like, and they just want to be together, creating memories that will be left behind for those who so desperately need them. Instead, tragedy strikes in a cruel twist and John and Carolyn’s plane goes down during the middle of the night on the way to their meeting place, killing all passengers on board. Carole is the one who has to make the calls to the family, letting the know that John and Carolyn are gone. Just three weeks later, she has to bury her husband.

“We are in the kitchen not talking. Anthony and I are not looking at each other. It makes me sick, in fact, to look at someone who knows. I am horrible. I am thinking, It was supposed to be you. The phone rings constantly. I call her cell phone to hear her voice. “Hi, it’s Carolyn, leave a message.” Beep. She can’t be gone. Not now. This is not, cannot be, happening. And then I call again, and again. Talking and hanging up and then calling back. “Hi, it’s Carolyn, leave a message.” Beep. I have a vague sense of slipping. Of time closing in. Of everything I have vanishing – like a fire sweeping through a house, losing everything. I have a sense of having nothing left of her at all.”

What Remains is an honest and calculated account of Carole’s life. I found it rather telling that the first half of the book, which is centered around her childhood and career at ABC is very full of life and overflowing with random memories and vivacious tales. After she meets Anthony, the writing style becomes very to the point, documenting doctor appointments and not elaborating on a lot of things. I’m sure it was a difficult thing to revisit, no matter how much time has passed. I was thankful to have read this book as it gave me a lot of insight into how others may deal with grief, and it was a beautiful story about a girl who grew up to follow her dreams and to fall in love, in sickness and in health.

At times, Carole’s recounting of her days with Anthony may sound cold, but on reflection I truly believe that having a very structured and compartmentalized way of dealing with their life, his medical issues, and her emotions was the only way she was able to get through the pain and be strong. How do you deal with watching the person you love fade away, right before your eyes, before you’ve even truly begun to have a life together? What is the right way to deal with those feelings? We can never know unless we are personally in that position.

“I crawl back into bed with him. My head is resting on his chest, and I am listening to heart. His breathing is shallow, but I can hear it. His heartbeat is strong. Then, as the house pass, it beats fainter. Slower, like a song fading out. It beats and then I count and it beats again. Friends and nurses come and go. An entire day passes. The clock on the wall says 7 p.m. when Dr. Ruggierio taps my shoulder. I have forgotten there are people in the room. “Carole,” he says softly. “I’m sorry.” But I can still hear his heartbeat, so I wave him off. “Don’t touch me.” He apologizes and sits down. I listen to Anthony’s heartbeat until it is so faint I can barely hear it and then it’s gone. I don’t know who is in the room, I can’t look. I can’t look at Anthony. I don’t move. It is quiet, and I’m lying next to him, tears streaming down my face, and that’s how they know his heart has stopped.” 

I highly recommend What Remains, and I promise it is not as depressing as it sounds. It’s a love story, ripe with loyalty and grace. I’ve always held a bit of a fascination with the Kennedy family and reading about how real and down to earth John Jr. and Carolyn were, written by someone who loved and knew them deeply; it was really wonderful. They sounded like amazing friends, and it is a shame that their lives were cut so soon, doubly a shame that Carole had to lose the three most important people in her life in the matter of a month. But how lucky she was to have them, even for a little while. It makes you really take a moment and be thankful for the time you have with the people you love, because tomorrow is never guaranteed.

I give this book 4.5 out of 5 stars, and I hope you enjoy it and it’s raw telling of fate, friendship, and timeless love.

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Review: Diary

Diary

by Chuck Palahniuk

“When you just cannot stop working. When completing this one project is all you can imagine. Then take a pill. Because Peter’s right. You’re right. Because everything is important. Every detail We just don’t know why yet. Everything is a self-portrait. A diary. Your whole drug history’s in a strand of hair. Your fingernails. The forensic details. The lining of your stomach is a document. The calluses on your hand tell all of your secrets. Your teeth give you away. Your accent. The wrinkles around your mouth and eyes. Everything you do shows your hand. Peter used to say, an artist’s job is to pay attention, collect, organize, archive, preserve, the write a report. Document. Make your presentation. The job of an artist is just not to forget.”

 

When I grabbed this book out of the library I share with my husband, he said, “Oh. That book was really good, but not one I would ever want to read again.”

This surprised me. I mean, why wouldn’t you want to read a good book over and over?

About 30 pages into this book, I understood his meaning. This book is creepy.

Diary is a novel by famed Fight Club writer, Chuck Palahniuk. He is known primarily for his off-the-wall way of depicting issues and ways of life that are not often told in everyday fiction. He pushes the mind of his reader to uncomfortable places and hopes to leave you enthralled, confused, disturbed, and delighted all in equal measure. The novel is short, coming in at only 260 pages, and in my opinion, could have been about a 100 pages less than it was. There was a lot of run-around in this novel, and while the story was interesting, I had a hard time relating to any of the characters and didn’t quite understand the actual storyline until close to the end of the book. But perhaps, this was the author’s intention…

We are introduced to our characters by diary entries. It takes a little while to figure out just who’s diary we are reading, and even then, the twist that comes out of it makes you take a moment and ask yourself – “what have I really been reading?” Authors who can determine a twisting plot line like that always garner my respect. It’s not easy to play a long con on your reader and keep them involved the entire time. The diary is presented to us as coming from our main character, Misty; a diary she is writing to her comatose husband in the hopes that one day he will awaken and be able to go back and read through all of the days he has lost.

“If you’re a little confused right now, relax. Don’t worry. All you need to know is this is your face. This is what you think you know best. These are the three layers of your skin. These are the three women in your life. The epidermis, the dermis, and the fat. Your wife, your daughter, and your mother. If you’re reading this, welcome back to reality. This is where all that glorious, unlimited potential of your youth has led. All that unfulfilled promise. Here’s what you’ve done with your life.”

Misty Marie Kleinman came to live on Waytansea Island once she married a fellow aspiring artist, one Peter Wilmot. It didn’t take long for her life to go downhill, which is disappointing, considering it had finally begun to move in an upwards momentum once she’d gotten herself into art school. She grew up poor, the daughter of a working class mother, resident of a trailer park, and dreamer of beautiful things. Peter came to her as a slightly awkward and very much unusual purveyor of all things lovely and full of light, but once she married and settled in on the island, he soon lost interest and went so far as to try and kill himself to get out of their marriage.

“The point is, when you’re a kid, even when you’re a little older, maybe twenty and enrolled in art school, you don’t know anything about the real world. You want to believe somebody when he says he loves you. He only wants to marry you and take you home to live on some perfect island paradise. A big stone house on East Birch Street. He says he only wants to make you happy. And no, honestly, he won’t ever torture you to death. And poor Misty Kleinman, she told herself, it wasn’t a career as an artist that she wanted. What she really wanted, all along, was the house, the family, the peace. Then she came to Waytansea Island, where everything was so right. Then it turned out she was wrong.”

Before Peter decided that life needed to end via a closed garage, a rolled down window, and an ignited engine, he went a bit mad. Misty is fielding phone call after phone call from disgruntled customers of Peter’s construction business – all with the same problem. They are missing closets, kitchens, spare bedrooms. Yes, missing. Hired to replace chair rail trim or baseboards, Peter instead sealed up entire rooms. Misty befriends one of the construction victims and they begin a quest to dig through sheetrock and dust to find the hidden rooms, all of which are graffitied with strange messages about how the island is trying to kill children and preserve a way of life.

Misty works a thankless job at a hotel as a server, but it’s not a job that anyone in town deems her fit to have. In fact, everyone in her life cannot get off her back about painting. The trouble is, Misty has no inspiration, and no matter how hard she tries, she cannot find anything that gives her the joy to go back to her life as an artist. Misty finds herself reminiscent on the beginning of her life with Peter and although it doesn’t quite seem right in some way she can’t put her finger on, she does indeed miss him.

“He lowered her to the gallery’s marble floor, and Peter said, “Te amo, Misty.” Just for the record, this came as a little surprise. His weight on top of her, Peter said, “You think you know so much,” and he kissed her. Art, inspiration, love, they’re all so easy to dissect. To explain away. The paint colors iris green and sap green are the juice of flowers. The color of Cappagh brown is Irish dirt, Misty whispered. Cinnabar is vermilion or shot from high Spanish cliffs with arrows. Bistre is the yellowy brown soot of burnt beech wood. Every masterpiece is just dirt and ash put together in some perfect way. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. Even while they kissed, you closed your eyes. And Misty kept hers open, not watching you, but the earring in your ear. Silver tarnished almost brown, holding a knot of square-cut glass diamonds, twinkling and buried in the black hair falling over your shoulders – that’s what Misty loved.”

The money troubles are so bad that the Wilmot family home must be rented out to help pay for the extended care medical bills for Peter, and Misty, her daughter, and her mother-in-law move into the island hotel where Misty works. In an attempt to force her daughter-in-law into painting, Grace Wilmot poisons Misty and leaves her on a secluded part of the island with painting supplies. Out of this afternoon, one painting is produced, and Misty finds that her inspiration is on its way back to her. As a result of the poisoning, Misty begins to have a migraine that won’t go away. She consults the town doctor who prescribes her medication, and unbeknownst to her, she is being poisoned once again. What begins to transpire is a seemingly convoluted and strange plot by the town against Misty, all to get her to paint again – but is that the true purpose?

“She works on a picture every day. Working from her imagination. The wish list of a white trash girl: big houses, church weddings, picnics on the beach. yesterday Misty worked until she saw it was dark outside. Five or six hours had just disappeared. Vanished like a missing laundry room in Seaview, Bermuda triangulated. Misty tells Dr. Touchet, “My head always hurts, but I don’t feel as much pain when I’m painting.” 

The book gets creepier and creepier, with an underlining of dark humor. Near the end, where the true plans and plots of the town against Misty (or for her, depending on your interpretation) are revealed, you marvel in the true genius of Chuck Palahniuk. Through some sort of precise madness, he has produced a tale that is so twisted and strange that you cannot help but admire it, even if it was a bit difficult to get through. Nothing about this novel was predictable and the extensive knowledge on the subject matter was impressive. It could be a bit much at times, but I think this is just the way of the writer. You are meant to be left shocked and awed, and you are meant to walk away wondering about the story for many days to come. It’s not difficult to see how the author has acquired such a cult following.

I agree with my husband. Great book, but not something I would ever want to revisit. The creep factor ended up just being too much for me.

I give this book 3 out of 5 stars, and would only recommend it to someone who enjoys this type of novel – twisty and dark, heavy on the haunting an bizarre.

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Recommendation: The Nightingale

The Nightingale

by Kristin Hannah

“If I have learned anything in this long life of mine, it is this: In love we find out who we want to be; in war we find out who we are. Today’s young people want to know everything about everyone. They think talking about a problem will solve it. I come from a quieter generation. We understand the value of forgetting, the lure of reinvention. Lately, though, I find myself thinking about the war and my past, about the people I lost. Lost. It makes it sound as if I misplaced my loved ones; perhaps I left them where they don’t belong and then turned away, too confused to retrace my steps.                   

This is the only novel I have read by Kristin Hannah, and I have to say, I am anxious to read more. She has a beautiful writing style. Not all authors can write storylines in tandem and have you feel the same emotions for one character as you do another, especially when both characters are so different. The story is richly woven with a backdrop that is both sorrowful and hopeful.

The Nightingale follows the lives of two sisters during the time period of WWII.

Vianne,  the mature and responsible older sister of the duo is a mother to a young daughter and has carved out her life in the happy family home. She lives in a small, quiet village in France where she teaches young children at the local school. She has a husband that she loves dearly and best friend right around the bend, their daughters are as close as the mothers are. One day her husband gets the order that he must go to war, something Vianne has been equally dreading and pretending could never happen to them. Her world is very tiny and she is in denial that anything untoward could ever happen to her perfect bubble of happy.

Isabelle is a vivacious teenager with an unrelenting desire for rebellion. She lives in the beloved city of Paris where she goes to school and works at her father’s bookstore, and where she finds the prospects of war all very romantic – at first. She is impetuous , tenacious, and has the recklessness of youth pushing her forward, without a care for what lies behind her – only what lies ahead. She gets wrapped up in the underground Resistance Movement; the French fighting the Nazis from the inside out, and as a result is finally able to find a purpose to her life.

“Antoine kisses Vianne with a gentleness that made her want to cry. “I love you,” he said against her lips. “I love you too,” she said, but the words that always seemed so big felt small now. What was love when put up against war? “Me, too, Papa. Me, too!” Sophie cried, flinging herself into his arms. They embraced as a family, one last time, until Antoine pulled back. “Good-bye,” he said. Vianne couldn’t say it in return. She watched him walk away, watched him merge into the crowd of laughing, talking young men, becoming indistinguishable. The big iron gates slammed shut, the clang of metal reverberating in the hot, dusty air, and Vianne and Sophie stood alone in the middle of the street.”

Once war comes to Paris in full force, Isabelle must leave the city and travel to be  with her older sister in the country. She does so quite reluctantly and with a lot of protestations, but her father is insistent. The relationship between Isabelle and her father is strained at best. In fact, Isabelle isn’t really close with anyone in her family. She has always found her father and sister to be weak and for lack of a better word, cold. From my point of view, Isabelle initially comes off as a bit spoiled and angry. I don’t think she realizes the sacrifices that have been made for her so that she could have a semblance of a stable life, nor does she understand that her older sister never meant to be cold – she just felt she had to take on the role of mother and as such, had to leave childhood behind, all while desperately trying to carve out a piece of happiness of her own.

“After what felt like an eternity, silence fell. It was almost worse than the noise. What of Paris was left? By the time the all clear sounded, Isabelle felt numb. “Isabelle?” She wanted her father to reach out for her, to take her hand and comfort her, even if it was just for a moment, but he turned away from her and headed up the dark, twisting basement stairs. In their apartment, Isabelle went immediately to the window, peering past the shade to look for the Eiffel Tower. It was still there, rising above a wall of thick black smoke. “Don’t stand by the windows,” he said. She turned slowly. The only light in the room was from his torch, a sickly yellow thread in the dark.                                                                           “Paris won’t fall,” she said. 

On her way to the country, Isabelle comes across a young man in the woods and after striking up a conversation, they decide to travel the rest of the path together. In her efforts to impress him, Isabelle decides she is going to do something that matters. What that will be, she isn’t sure, but it will be something that will end up garnering a lot of attention – from both sides of the battlefield. She sets her mind to something and goes for it wholeheartedly.

I have read several books set during this time period and what I found unique about this novel was the perspective. It is told from the view of two Frenchwomen who are in their own way, fighting against the Nazi occupation and rebelling against the horrors of Hitler’s regime as well as finding empathy for the young German men who were caught up in something they had little choice about. The French suffer greatly during this war and this novel really humanizes that. Some of the scenes are heartbreaking and even though you know history and what happened, it is hard to read and hard to believe. But both women remain strong and steadfast through it all, finding ways to slowly move forward in an environment that continuously threw them the worst life had to offer.

As the story progresses, Nazis commandeer Vianne’s home and a soldier is made to stay with her. The feelings she has about Nazis and the feelings she has for this particular soldier are conflicting and she and Isabelle’s relationship becomes even more difficult. They have a hard time understanding one another and their points of view are very different; Vianne is a mother who is unwilling to do anything that could compromise the safety of her young daughter and Isabelle is an impetuous woman who only sees things in black and white.

Isabelle eventually goes undercover as an agent of the Resistance as The Nightingale; her job is to ferry Jews across the border to safer lands and she takes her job very seriously. The journey is always perilous and extremely dangerous but none of that will turn Isabelle from her goal. It’s infinitely exciting and so amazing to read, and it’s even more fascinating to know that Isabelle and her actions are based upon a real person. The acts of heroism and selflessness are extraordinary and so very touching.

“How can you be afraid?” she said to her reflection. She had hiked the Pyrenees in the falling snow and swum the rushing cold waters of the Bidassoa River beneath the glare of a Spanish searchlight, she’d once asked a Gestapo agent to carry a suitcase full of false identity papers across a German checkpoint “because he looked so strong and she was so very tired from traveling,” but she had never been as nervous as she was right now. She knew suddenly that a woman could change her whole life and uproot her existence with one choice.”

I fell in love with this book and had a hard time putting it down once I started. The characters are so compelling and so different from one another, and their sense of loyalty to country and kin is something that I greatly admire. I don’t know that I could have had the courage that these women did in those times; I would like to say I would have. I smiled and cried along with their journey and was very pleased with the ending. It gave a wonderful feeling of closure.

I highly recommend The Nightingale and I give it 5 out of 5 stars. It is a beautiful story of family and strength, and the story surrounding the war is original and never gets bogged down. The novel flows naturally and is easy to get wrapped up in, so many sure you have some time before you sit down and become enthralled!

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Review: Certain Girls

Certain Girls

by Jennifer Weiner

”  Peter had talked me out of it. “It’s one quarter of seventh grade,” he’d argued. “All she needs is time.” Time, I thought now. I sipped my drink and shoved the worries away. I’ve gotten good at that. At the age of forty-two, I’ve decided, ruefully, that I’m slightly inclined toward melancholy. I don’t trust happiness. I turn it over as if it were a glass at a flea market or a rug at a souk, looking for chipped rims or loose threads. But not Joy, I thought as I watched my daughter shuffle back and forth with the boy’s hands on her hips, laughing at something he’d said. Joy is fine. Joy is lovely and lucky. And in the manner of almost-thirteen-year-olds everywhere, my daughter has no idea how lovely, or how lucky, she is.”

There are some books that you just know are going to be difficult to read, and Certain Girls was one of those books for me.

I flew through Jennifer Weiner’s Good In Bed two months before I picked this one up, laughing and crying in equal parts along with the main character, Cannie Shapiro; an overweight writer who has to deal with picking up the pieces of her life after her ex-boyfriend decides to go on the record with a major magazine about “how it is to be in a sexual relationship with a fat girl.” Cannie finds herself pregnant and alone, spending just a few moments feeling sorry for herself before rebuilding her life into something beautiful on her own terms, with so much realness and comedy along the way that you cannot help but feel as if you have absorbed a piece of Cannie’s spirit once the story comes to a close.

Good In Bed was so real in fact,that I had to put it down several times while reading it. Too many things were hitting home. Her verbally abusive father, her well-meaning but oblivious mother, being in a relationship with someone who was not plugged in at all and then having to share a child with that person forever…it all spoke to me in such a way that there were times I couldn’t quite take it. Few books leave me feeling so invested.

I’d heard of Jennifer Weiner before reading her books. I am a regular at our local Half Price Books store and my first stop after pulling open the heavy, glass double doors and entering the land of my people, is the clearance section. Books for $1? You don’t have to ask me twice. In fact, I’ve been surprised and downright giddy at just how many times I’ve found the same book in the clearance section as on the regular shelf – but for $3 instead of $10.  Jennifer Weiner always has several titles in clearance. Not because they are bad, but because there are so many of them that there is an overstock. I heard somewhere random that every single book she has ever written has been on the New York Times Bestseller List, and that intrigued me. No bombs? Not one? That’s pretty impressive. One of her novels, In Her Shoes, has also been made into a motion picture starring Cameron Diaz. The author has stated in the past that Good In Bed is loosely based on her own life.

Certain Girls is the sequel to Good In Bed, staged nearly thirteen years later. It opens with Cannie and her husband celebrating at a joint bat & bar mitzvah for her daughter’s best friends, twins Todd and Tamsin. The baby we glimpsed in Good In Bed is all grown up, and Joy has a mind and voice of her own that is just as strong (but less sarcastic)  as her mother’s. Each chapter bounces back and forth between the first person perspectives of both Cannie and Joy, and as a mother to a daughter roughly the same age as Joy, I felt that I gained some insight into a teenage girl’s mind.

”  “Shh,” I said as I heard my mother’s footsteps approaching. I turned out the lights, and the three of us lay in the darkness. Tamsin clicked her retainer in and out of her mouth and picked up her book and tried to read it by the light of the digital clock, and I whispered for her to be quiet and put it away. Frenchie grumbled in her sleep. The numbers on the clock changed from 12:45 to 12:46. “Why does she do this?” Todd wondered. “She just loves me so much,” I said. I’d meant for it to come out sarcastic, but instead it just sounded pathetic, and weak, and worst of all, true. At 12:57, the door creaked open. I made sure my hair was over my ears so that my mom wouldn’t see my hearing aids and know that we’d been talking, and I held my breath, hoping that Tamsin wouldn’t start with her retainer and give us away. My mother approached the bed and stood there for a moment, not touching me but looking down, the way she did every single night of my life, standing in the dark, listening to me breathe. When she turned toward the window, I opened my eyes a crack, and I could see her in the lamplight, her secret face, the one she shows only to me.  “

The relationship between mother and daughter is strained, to say the least. A lot of it is centered around normal growing pains on Joy’s part and Cannie’s inability to accept that her daughter is no longer the baby that needs her for everything, anymore. In Good in Bed, Cannie has to really come to grips with giving her life up to be a mother, and when she makes that choice, she goes in full force. Her own childhood was full of heartache and disappointments and that is the last thing she wants for her daughter, so she severely overcompensates. As a result, Joy feels stifled and unheard, and it breeds discontent and anger in the budding teenager. The way that the story goes back and forth in perspective leaves you feeling for both characters; you can see where they both are coming from and how hard it is for both Joy to grow up and how hard it is for Cannie to let her.

Like many young girls on the verge of puberty, Joy yearns to be popular, and at the very least, just to be normal. Because she was born premature she has several issues, including a hearing problem that has resulted in her having to wear bulky hearing aids. Her voice is gravely and has a slight accent from the hearing issue, and she has never been allowed the freedoms of other children because her mother is so overprotective. Suddenly, she finds herself whisked into the popular crowd and even though she knows it’s all for the wrong reasons (i.e. they know her mother is best friends with a famous Hollywood actress), she jumps into the scene with both feet, causing discord with her bookish best friend. We go on a journey with Joy as she struggles against what she’s always known to be right, and wanting to fit in. She finds herself in awkward situations where she knows what she is doing is wrong, but she can’t help herself – although to watch her try and redeem herself is so very heartwarming.

One of the things Joy begins to deal with is the fact that her mother wrote a book, Big Girls Don’t Cry, around the time that Joy was born. It’s a book of fiction, but it is very obviously based upon her mother’s life. Joy begins a quest to find out what is real and what isn’t; her most pressing question is if her mother actually wanted her or not (the character in the book her mother wrote did not want a baby but found herself pregnant after a one-night stand with her ex-boyfriend, exactly like real life). In this quest, she hunts down her grandfather, and the exchange is so raw that I could barely get through it. You just want to give Joy a hug…as a mother, myself, I just want to protect her.

Cannie is dealing with getting older along with her daughter. She’s also dealing with her younger, unstable sister and her needy mother. Her husband, Peter, also yearns for a biological child of his own. Due to the circumstances around Joy’s birth, Cannie cannot become pregnant herself, so they have to begin the process of finding a surrogate and harvesting eggs. The culmination of these life issues leaves Cannie feeling like a failure. She feels guilty that she cannot carry a child naturally for her husband and she feels jealous that another woman will potentially get to savor the feeling of having a child – her and Peter’s child – growing inside of her. She is along for the ride, albeit reluctantly. Her book agent and publisher are hounding her to write another book like successful Big Girls Don’t Cry, but she’s extremely hesitant because of all of the drama and trouble that came along with the first book. When she finds out that her daughter has finally read Big Girls, something she’s been dreading for 13 years, she is devastated even though she knew it was inevitable. It seems that Joy will talk to anyone but Cannie about the book, making Cannie feel like even more of an outsider in her daughter’s world.

“I looked at her. She looked back at me, her face tense and unreadable. “What are you so worried about? What do you think’s going to happen to me if I wear it? Do you think…” I shut my mouth. Do you think I’ll have sex with some guy on a pullout couch? I’d been on the verge of asking. Do you think I’ll get pregnant accidentally, like you? “I’m sorry,” she said. “But that dress is not going to work for the kind of day your father and I want you to have.” Which father? I almost said. But I could tell from her face it wouldn’t do me any good. I knew this expression. It was the same one she’d worn when she’d told me that I couldn’t go to an R-rated movie, that I couldn’t go to a party unless she’d talked to the parents beforehand, that she didn’t care how late everyone else stayed up, my bedtime on a school night was ten o’clock. I pulled off the dress and tossed it only my mom’s bed, where it lay in a pathetic puddle of pink. “Honey, I’m sorry. but…” I didn’t say anything. Hypocrite, I thought, forming the syllables on my lips, teeth and tongue without any breath behind them as I stomped down the hallway lined with family pictures: me as a baby, me as a toddler, me on my first day of nursery school and kindergarten and seventh grade, past the clock my mother was so proud of and the tables with vases of red and pink roses. Hy-po-crite. When she was only a little older than I was, she’d been having sex, actual sex with actual boys, and now she was worried that I was showing my shoulders?”

Joy doesn’t quite know how to navigate her way through her non-traditional family. Her biological father, Bruce, is remarried and has children of his own with a wife who is resentful of the fact that Joy even exists, and although she doesn’t have a very deep relationship with him, they do see each other a few times a month. She has a whole other family that she barely knows, and as she reads through her mother’s book, she once again asks herself how much is fiction and how much is fact. In her mother’s book, the ex-boyfriend took off to another country when he found out that he was expecting a child and the more research Joy does on the events in the book, the more confused she becomes. This contributes to Joy’s insecurities about family and about where she really belongs, about who really loves her. It reminded me just how fragile a young girl’s feelings can be, especially when she cannot seem to find the true place where she belongs.

“Of course we want you,” Bruce said. “We –” I cut him off. “I have to go now. My mom’s here,” I said, and turned and snatched my backpack off the coat hook where I’d hung it. I pushed the doors open and stood for a minute, dazzled by the sunlight. They both came after me. I ignored them, which was easy to do once I’d slipped my hearing aids out with tears clouding my vision. Keep moving, keep moving, I chanted in my head, and I started walking fast across the parking lot, Amber’s ballet flats slapping the pavement, sunshine sparkling off the windshields. Bruce called my name, but I just keep going, as if I’d find my mother’s blue minivan idling at the curb. At that minute, I thought I would have given anything if she had been waiting there, if she’d taken me into her arms and said, Never mind him and never mind her and never mind what I wrote. Of course I wanted you, I wanted you more than anything. I kept my head high and didn’t turn around even though I could hear Bruce calling my name. Probably they’re glad I’m going, I thought, and brushed a tear off my cheek. Probably now they’ll have fun.

 I was struck by how much Cannie wanted to be there for everyone in her life. I think most mothers can relate to that. Once you become a mom, the instinct to take care of everyone sometimes bleeds into all of your relationships and you do things without even realizing it half the time. The Cannie in Good In Bed was so strong-willed and ambitious, and the Cannie in this book was much more reserved; she had much more to lose. I can definitely relate to that. Becoming a mother sometimes means giving up your entire life for someone else, and then hoping that they will eventually realize all the sacrifices you made for them and be grateful. Sometimes it takes a long time for our children to realize what we have given up to try and make their lives easier and better.

The relationship that Cannie has with her father is addressed a lot deeper in this book than in the first. We knew he was mentally and verbally abusive and we knew that he’d abandoned the family when Cannie was a teenager to remarry and begin a new life for himself. Some of the reflections on this relationship were heartbreaking. Cannie can remember how she only ever wanted her father to tell her that he was proud of her, and on the odd times that he did, it would make her feel so warm and wonderful inside. But as Cannie grew into an adult and then became a parent herself, she really saw just how terrible her father was to her and her siblings and the longing for a father became a fear of him. He reached out to her when Joy was a toddler, only to ask Cannie (a newly successful writer) for money. When he didn’t receive it, his response was to threaten Cannie in a way that I felt was so sad – he threatened to show up, to be around.  The thought of this paralyzed her and made her hold herself back. The thought that this man who fathered her would somehow taint her own child, would bestow his verbal assaults and plant insecurities in her own child – that was her greatest fear. This hit home with me in an extremely deeply way.

Joy decides to seek her grandfather out in the midst of her quest on proving her mother’s book is more fact than fiction, and she certainly gets more than she bargained for.

” ” ‘How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child,’ ” he quoted. “That’s your mother. That’s all of them. Thankless.” “She’s not.” My tongue felt shriveled; my teeth felt like they’d been coated in sawdust. “She’s not,” I said again. I remembered the pictures from Grandma Ann’s, from when my mother was older, how she’d always looked like she was cringing. I remembered how my mother would take me swimming in the ocean when I was little, staying close to the shore, letting me hold her shoulders as she kicked and paddled, how I’d floated above her back and felt like I was flying. I remembered what she’d said to Hope, the baby she’d had but hadn’t wanted, on the last page of her book. I will love you forever. I will keep you safe. “I made her who she is.” My mother’s father gave me a sly, smug smile. “Read to her. Taught her to swim. Gave her all of her material. The story she told. And she made a fortune off it, didn’t she? Where would she have been without me?” “Happy?” The word was out of my mouth before I knew it.  “

The events that follow this one really begin to shape Joy into a young woman and she begins to realize with almost terrifying clarity that the place she has been searching for – her place of belonging – is right in front of her, with her mother. I wouldn’t necessarily call this a traditional “coming of age” story, especially as it is as much Cannie’s story as it is Joy’s, but it is such a pleasure to watch the evolution of Joy and the transition of the mother/daughter relationship. Cannie learns to treat her daughter more like a young woman instead of a child, and really has to lean on her as the book progresses. It’s a lovely thing to watch, and none of it feels forced. It’s very organic. Joy learns to respect and understand her mother and Cannie learns to allow her child to flourish.

”  “For you,” my grandfather said, and pressed the silver dollar into my hand. “For luck.” He pulled off his glasses and looked at all of us: Grandma Ann and Mona, Uncle Josh and Aunt Elle, and then, finally, me and my mother. “I’m so proud of you,” he said. My mother started to cry. I remembered after Tyler’s bar mitzvah, when I was sick in the bathroom and my father said the same thing to me. It was weird to think of my mother being a daughter the same way that I was, and how she might have been comforted by those words the same way I had been.”  “

The last quarter of the book really takes a turn that I wish it didn’t take. I won’t spoil it, but seriously, I was cursing the author. I guess she did what she had to do to get us to a certain place – to get Cannie and Joy to a certain place – but it broke my heart. I don’t usually cry over books, but I couldn’t hold back tears, so I recommend reading the last 50 pages or so alone so you can ugly cry in private.

I really loved this book, but I’m glad I took a break between the first and second in this duo. They both left me feeling a bit emotionally drained. Wonderful reads, but draining. There are some books that stick with me forever, and I can tell you that both of these will. I give Certain Girls 5 out of 5 stars, and believe it or not – you don’t have to read Good In Bed first. In my opinion, they are stand alone books. If you do read them and would like to giggle over a short story written about Bruce Guberman, Joy’s biological father, check it out in The Guy Not Taken, a collection of short stories by Jennifer Weiner.

                            

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Recommendation: Size 12 Is Not Fat

Size 12 Is Not Fat

by Meg Cabot

“Less Than Zero looks relieved. “Good,” she says. “Well, I guess I better go and find a store that actually carries my size.” “Yeah,” I say, wanting to suggest Gap Kids, but restraining myself. Because it isn’t her fault she’s tiny. Any more than it is my fault that I am the size of the average American woman. It isn’t until I’m standing at the register that I check my voice mail to see what my boss, Rachel,  wanted. I hear her voice, always so carefully controlled, saying in tones of barely repressed hysteria, “Heather, I’m calling you to let you know that there has been a death in the building. When you get this message, please contact me as soon as possible.” I leave the size 8 jeans on the counter and use up another fifteen minutes of my recommended daily exercise by running – yes running – from the store, and toward Fischer Hall. “

I usually place novels into one of two categories – Healthy and Junk-Food.

Heavy Books take some time. You have to be prepared to read a Heavy Book, meaning; you can’t sit down and read snippets while your kids are fighting in the background, or while waiting to hear your number being called at the DMV. You need to be able to pay attention while you’re reading a Heavy Book or else you’re going to miss an important plot twist or a pertinent detail about a certain character. Heavy Books can take at least a week to get through, typically longer.

Junk-Food Books take no time at all. You can pick it up, read a few paragraphs, and then put it back down when you have to chase your toddler down and pull the dog food out of his pudgy fist before he eats it. You can go a few days in between reading sessions and still pick it right back up and not have forgotten or missed a thing, because none of it was really that important. You read these at the pool, throw it in your handbag as an emergency book, and you can get through it very quickly, sometimes in a matter of days.

I usually bounce back and forth between these two types of books. Of course, there are some books that fall into the “in between” category, but most books are usually closer to one end of the spectrum than the other. I usually can’t read Heavy Book after Heavy Book because there are too many books I want to read and I have limited time. I typically have a Heavy Book going at the same time as a Junk-Food Book. The Heavy Book gets read when it’s quiet, before bedtime in my house, and the Junk Food Book lays on the living room ottoman so I can pick it up here and there.

Meg Cabot is an author that you probably know more about than you think. Have you ever seen or heard of The Princess Diaries? It was a very popular movie in the early 2000’s (you know, after the 1900’s, the decade in which I was born and graduated high school in.) Urban New Yorker, devastatingly nerdy and utterly charming Anne Hathaway learns she’s actually a princess of a tiny country and goes to visit, meeting her grandmother who turns out to be a combination of Mary Poppins (literally) and Anna Wintour. She gets a makeover, finds love, reconnects with her family, and lives happily ever after with lots of comedic relief in between.

Meg Cabot wrote The Princess Diaries novel, along with about 15 other Young Adult novels featuring the Princess Amelia Mignonette Grimaldi Thermopolis Renaldi/Mia Thermopolis and her adventures in princess’ing. She’s known for her serial writing, and she’s written several series of books for all age groups. I’ve read The Boy Series, which, while they don’t all have the same characters, is really fun. They are written using forms like email, IM, travel arrangements, journal entries, and paragraphs of regular text in between. One is even written loosely as the story of how Meg and her husband ran off together and got married. Super easy reads that you can get through during a few afternoons sitting in the endless carpool lane at your kid’s school.

Size 12 Is Not Fat is part of the Heather Wells Mystery Series, and I picked it up a few months ago at my local Half Price Books for $1. Yep, $1. You would not believe how many books I have purchased for under $5. I’ll have a blog post about that soon. Anyway, I put this book on my bathtub ledge and picked it up every night for about a week, giggling my way through relaxing bubble baths at the end of each day.

Heather Wells is a reformed teen pop star, but not really by choice. After approaching her record label about writing her own songs, the music executives and keepers of the kingdom laughed in her face and told her to take a hike. Her mother ran off with all her money, she caught her boyfriend with another woman, and she took a job as an assistant residence hall director for a New York college (mostly due to the free tuition she’ll be able to claim after her probationary period) where she’s severely undervalued – and where people are constantly asking her if “she’s that girl…” After vacating her throne as a pop princess, Heather has admittedly gained a few pounds but she’s perfectly fine with it because she is in fact at size twelve, the size of the average American woman.

“”Why are you applying for a job in a residence hall?” I’d cleared my throat. I wish VH1 would do a Behind the Music on me. Because then I wouldn’t have to. Explain to people, I mean. But it’s not like I’m Behind the Music material. I was never famous enough for that. I was never a Britney or a Christina. I was barely even an Avril. I was just a teenager with a healthy set of lungs on her, who was in the right place at the right time. “

The story hits the ground running as Heather is phoned by her boss to come straight into work because there has been a death on campus. A girl has slipped while jumping across elevator shafts, a game known as “elevator surfing,” and has plummeted to her death.  Here begins the mystery, and the first death leads to more, with Heather teaming up with her roommate and potential love interest, Cooper (who happens to be her ex’s brother.)  Whenever reading a mystery novel, I always try to figure it out before I finish the book. Size 12 Is Not Fat gives you about 75 possible suspects within the first three chapters, and I honestly didn’t figure it out until the end! I found myself thinking just the way Heather did when it came to suspects, and as she proved her theories wrong, I was surprised. I really enjoyed that about this book.

In addition to the mystery surrounding the dead female co-eds, we are introduced to the sweet crush Heather has on her roommate, Cooper. He’s placed her firmly in the “friend zone” and while she accepts the fact that she could probably never be his type, it doesn’t stop her from having (hilarious) fantasies about him. When she inevitably gets herself into more than a few sticky situations while trying to solve the murders, he is there to be her rock and sounding board, bailing her out of danger and steering her in the right direction.

“I can’t help staring at him as he puts down his beer bottle and stands up. Cooper really is a choice specimen. In the fading sunlight, he looks particularly tanned. But it isn’t, I know, a tan from a can, like his brother’s. Coop’s tan is from sitting for hours behind some bushes with a telephoto lens pointed at a motel room doorway… Not that Cooper has ever told me what, exactly, he does all day. “You’re working?” I ask, squinting up at him. “On a Saturday night? Doing what?” He chuckles. It’s like a little game between us. I try to trick him into letting slip what kind of case he’s working on, and he refuses to take the bait. Cooper takes his clients’ rights to privacy seriously. Also, he thinks his cases are way too kinky for his kid brother’s ex-girlfriend to think about. To Cooper I think I’ll always be a fifteen-year-old in a halter top and a ponytail, proclaiming from a mall stage that I’m suffering from a sugar rush.”

The book is essentially, a fun and fast-paced Junk-Food Book full of laughter, a little romance, a ton of nostalgia for any woman over the age of 30, with a main character who is likable and someone you would want to hang out with in real life. Each chapter is prefaced by a snippet that features lyrics from one of Heather’s songs when she was a pop-star. There were so many times I laughed out loud reading these because while yes, the songs were ridiculous, it took me back to being in high school the year Britney Spears made her debut and how similar Heather’s songs are to hers. In fact, there are a lot of similarities between the two singers, but I’ll let you read it yourself to find them all.

If you’re looking for a quick and easy read, consider giving Size 12 Is Not Fat a try, especially if you like a fun and light series and if you don’t have a lot of time to read. I give it 4 out of 5 stars and recommend it for anyone over the age of 15, as there is (a small amount of) sexual innuendo and subject matter.

                           

                                                                        

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Review: The Red Queen

The Red Queen

by Philippa Gregory

“My life comes down to this: a court that has forgotten me, a husband who mocks me, a son who has no use for me, and a God who has gone silent. It is no comfort to me that I despise the court, that I never loved my husband, and that my son was born only to fulfill my destiny, and if he cannot do that, I don’t know what use we are to each other. I go on praying. I don’t know what to do but that, I go on praying. “

To say I was a little apprehensive at reading this book would be an understatement. And it wasn’t for any of the obvious reasons. I love this author – I mean really love her. It was because I made the mistake of “seeing the movie” before reading the book. It’s a mistake I really try not to make, but alas…

My husband brought The Other Boleyn Girl, a historical fiction novel, home for me one day after he’d popped in to the bookstore to grab something for himself. I’d never read anything from the author, Philippa Gregory, but I’d seen the movie and wasn’t terribly impressed. At the time he gifted me with the book, I was coming off of a year of reading nothing but hist-fic and was feeling a bit too full of it. The novel sat on my bookshelf for several months as I binged on a few junk-food-for-the-brain books.

But I eventually picked The Other Boleyn Girl back up. And while I initially only began reading it because I wanted to appear thankful to my husband for buying a book for me, I quickly became enthralled in the twisted and turning story of two sisters who were intimately involved with a powerful king. In a world that treated women as nothing more than pieces on a chessboard controlled by men, the Boleyn sisters took their fate into their own hands. I knew next to nothing about the Tudor Dynasty other than the most famous patriarch was notorious for having had multiple wives and that his daughter famously remained unwed during her reign.

After my introduction to Philippa Gregory’s novels, I picked up a few more and read them, enjoying them just as much as The Other Boleyn Girl. I learned that while her books had no official serial order, it did get a little confusing bouncing from one place in time to another and a lot of times seeing the same characters at different points of their lives. So, before I continued on my quest of reading all of her novels, I decided to do some research and found a chronological order so that I could begin at “the beginning.”

The beginning was: The Cousins War, also known as The War of the Roses (the book that begins this is The Lady of the Rivers.) Again, I knew next to nothing about this period in history but I can tell you as someone who has never been historically inclined that the English monarchy truly is fascinating, especially when told from the perspective of this author. So many plots and lies and deceptions, it is truly unreal! Really fun and easy to read and even though you know what is going to happen because you know who ended up king or queen in the end, the path to that station is by no means straight or narrow.  The books offer a visible family tree and I did more research on my own as I read along; I just couldn’t help it. It was literally a war of cousins, each line descended from the Plantagenets and both feeling that their claim to the throne was the right claim. The white rose of York on one side and the red rose of Lancaster on the other, the two cadet branches scheming and warring against each other for the throne of England for much of the 1400’s. In my mind, I had this vision of the English throne being one of luxury and opulence, but in these times, it was quite the opposite. The kings and queens of this era were never truly safe and were constantly riding out to war (against their cousins, no less) to protect their claim. King Edward IV (the ruler during much of The Red Queen) had a few years of peace, but it came at a heavy price.

Philippa Gregory is a proponent of strong women, who are unfortunately much left out of the history books during this time period. She does extensive research and creates a fictional story around fact. The people are real, the main events are real, and the timeline is real. The author simply fills in the gaps. The Red Queen is a story told in tandem with The White Queen (also by Gregory). It is the same story told by two very different perspectives. I read The White Queen before The Red Queen, but you could also reverse it.

The Starz Network offered a television series produced by the BBC called The White Queen, which was based on a combination of several of Philppa Gregory’s novels, including The Red Queen. I watched it before I began reading the “Cousin’s War series” and fell in love with it very quickly, with one exception : Margaret Beaufort, heir to the House of Lancaster, wearer of the red rose, and the star of The Red Queen herself. The way she was portrayed on the television series was so completely annoying that I could barely stand her. She was ridiculously pious, incurably whiny, completely and utterly intolerable. I cringed every time she was focused on and couldn’t wait to get back to the scenes with the fascinating and beautiful White Queen, Elizabeth Woodville.

So, when it came time for me to chronologically read The Red Queen, I was almost dreading it. I was coming off The Lady of the Rivers and The White Queen which were so completely wonderful and interesting that the thought of spending a week with the dowdy and obnoxious Margaret Beaufort really had me feeling a bit down. But I had to power through. Once I commit to a series, I don’t stop until I’ve read them all.  Upon retrospect, I think that Philippa Gregory wrote The White Queen in such a way as to be completely opposite of The Red Queen, to give you both sides of the coin. Elizabeth Woodville is blonde, tall and elegant, beautiful and strong. She was virtually a commoner before she became queen by marriage; her mother had royal blood in her but after her first husband died, Jaquetta de Luxembourg married a common man and had all of her children by him. Margaret Beaufort is brunette, plain, never taken seriously, and always pushed to the background. The one thing she had going for her was that she was royal by blood and as a result, very proud of her ancestral position. The two books weave in and out of each other, and you really shouldn’t read one without reading the other.

“I look at myself in the mirror before I go down to him, and I feel once again my fruitless irritation at the York queen. They say she has wide gray eyes, but I have only brown. They say she wears the tall, conical hats, sweeping with priceless veils that make her appear seven feet tall; and I wear a wimple like a nun. They say she has hair like gold, and mine is brown like a thick mane on a hill pony. I have trained myself in the holy ways, in life of the spirit, and she is filled with vanity. I am tall like her, and I am slim from fasting on holy days. I am strong and brave, and these should be qualities that a man of sense might look for in a woman.”

I began this book with very low expectations and it took me about 20-30 pages in before I was able to let go of them and begin to enjoy the story. It opens with Margaret’s childhood and explains how she is very anxious to be considered special in a world that does not believe any woman is worth anything besides giving birth to an heir. She decides the best way to achieve this is to throw herself into religion, praying to a perceived obscene amount and attributing each and everything in her life to the will of God. Her religious nature was not uncommon for the times, but Margaret was unique in that even when she knowingly did bad things on behalf of whatever reason she came up with, she would say it was “God’s will.” Her ends always justified her means, even when it came to murder.

“I am dizzy from fasting and praying, and I rub my knee where I knocked it. There is a wonderful roughness on the skin, and I put my hand down and pull up my nightgown to see both knees, and they are the same: roughened and red. Saints’ knees, praise God, I have saints’ knees. I have prayed so much, and on such hard floors, that the skin of my knees is becoming hard, like the callous on the finger of an English longbowman. I am not yet ten years old, but I have saints’ knees. This has got to count for something, whatever my old lady governess may say to my mother about excessive and theatrical devotion. I have saint’ knees. I have scuffed the skin of my knees by continual prayer; these are my stigmata: saints’ knees. Pray God I can meet their challenge and have a saint’s end too.”

Margaret is so dramatic that you expect it to be really annoying, but it ends up becoming quite charming and funny. It’s just her way. She so desperately wants to be named as important and she will do anything she can to get attention.  Young Margaret yearns to be noticed and revered as much as a girl named Joan, who as it turns out, becomes Joan of Arc. I found it funny that this is much how The Lady of the Rivers begins (the story of Elizabeth Woodville’s mother, Jacquetta), as Joan has been captured and is subsequently executed after spending time in the de Luxembourg household.

The book really gathers speed quickly. Margaret grows up to be married off to one of the two Tudor brothers (a line that came from quite the juicy scandal, of which I had no idea), and gives birth to the only Tudor (and Lancastrian) heir, Henry Tudor (the father of the famous Henry VIII).  Henry is Margaret’s only child and her sole purpose in life becomes the job of getting her son to the throne of England; a throne that she believes has been stolen from him by the York line and subsequently, Edward IV and his wife Elizabeth Woodville. The plots Margaret devises and is involved in, along with her multiple husband’s and her brother-in-law, to get her son to the throne are underhanded, elaborate, and sometimes quite crazy, weaving a complicated tapestry of deceit and nefariousness that spans years. She believes she is up against a real live witch in Queen Elizabeth, which is something quite fascinating and may have been more true than Margaret actually believed. Some of the historical facts associated with Elizabeth (and her mother) are incredible in relation to witchcraft and sorcery. Margaret never can get over her jealousy of the White Queen, a jealousy that bleeds into the relationship she has with Elizabeth’s daughter…who, surprisingly enough, will eventually become Margaret’s daughter-in-law.

“I rise from my stool. This damned woman, this witch, has been in my light ever since I was a girl, and now, at this very moment when I am using her, using her own adoring family and loyal supporters to wrench the throne from her, to destroy her sons, she may yet win, she may have done something that will spoil everything for me. How does she always do it? How is it that when she is brought so low that I can even bring myself to pray for her, she manages to turn her fortunes around? It must be witchcraft; it can only be witchcraft. Her happiness and her success have haunted my life. I know her to be in league with the devil, for sure. I wish he would take her to hell.”

Again, Margaret was extremely pious, and while I found it nearly unbearable in the television series, I began to find humor in it in the book again and again, which is how I believe the author intended it to be. She will be plotting the deaths of someone and then justify it as an act of God, and the way it is written you really cannot take this woman seriously at all…but there is such a charm to this book that you want to keep reading. I found it most interesting and brilliant the way Philippa Gregory wove the mystery of “The Princes in The Tower” into Margaret’s story and the how the curse the York queen placed on the boy’s murderer ended up playing out.  The apparent murder of the boys is horrific, and the fact that no one ever knew what happened to the two princes is fascinating.

You don’t want to root for Margaret because she is certainly not a heroine, but she’s also not quite a villain, and so you are left curious to see where her plotting is going to get her. Her perseverance and tenacity surprisingly brings her exactly to the day she’s always waited for – not only to see her son take the seat of the King of England, stealing it away from a witch and usurper, but also to be able to call herself “My Lady, the King’s Mother, Margaret Regina,” a title she’d been wanting to call herself for the majority of her life. She plays the long game, and she wins.

I would highly recommend The Red Queen, giving it 4 out of 5 stars, but I would only suggest reading this after The Lady of the Rivers and The White Queen…..and before you watch the series on Starz or Amazon Prime.

Amanda Hale as Lady Margaret Beaufort in the BBC production of The White Queen