Tuesday, July 18, 2017

750 (2017 #48). Victoria


by Daisy Goodwin,
read by Anna Wilson-Jones


I'd seen some bits of the PBS Masterpiece adaptation of Daisy Goodwin's novel about Great Britain's second-longest-reigning monarch as a young queen, so I was excited about listening to this audiobook.

Victoria is subtitled "A Novel of a Young Queen," and that it is.  It covers her life only from the age of 18, when she ascended to the throne, in 1837, to her engagement to Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha in October 1839.

In that time period, the politically inexperienced Queen Victoria came to rely quite a bit on her Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne.  The book highlights rumors that Victoria wanted to marry the widower, 40 years her senior, but I doubt that was true - I think she probably saw him more as a father figure, given that her own father died when she was a baby.  It does make for an interesting story, though.

While the Masterpiece series continues Victoria's relationship with Prince Albert after their marriage, the book stops with their engagement.  I have to say that the book didn't really sell me on an instant romance between the two - but that's why it's historical fiction, not a biography.  Still a great read.

British actress Anna Wilson-Jones reads the book with great gusto.   She also played the part of Emma Portman, one of Victoria's ladies-in-waiting and a friend of Melbourne, in the miniseries.


© Amanda Pape - 2017

[The e-audiobook was borrowed from and returned to my university library.]

Monday, July 10, 2017

749 (2017 #47). Plume

by Isabelle Simler


This simple book is about feathers - and a cat named Plume who likes to collect them.  The first 18 double-page spreads features one bird (and one word, the name of the bird), along with samples of its plumage - and some portion of the black cat.  The last two double-page spreads introduce and feature the cat.

The digital illustrations by French author Isabelle Simler are exquisite.  On the front and back endpapers, there are guides to 42 more bird feathers, along with a few stray cat hairs (or cat "feathers” if you will).  I could see this book being used in a lesson about birds or feathers.


© Amanda Pape - 2017

[I received this hardbound book through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.  It will be added to my university library's collection.]

Tuesday, July 04, 2017

748 (2017 #46). Fates and Traitors



by Jennifer Chiaverini

Although its subtitle is "A Novel of John Wilkes Booth," Fates and Traitors - like nearly all of Jennifer Chiaverini's books - is really about women.  In this case, four women whose lives were intricately tied to that of Lincoln's assassin:  his mother, Mary Ann Holmes Booth; his sister, Asia Booth Clarke; his supposed fiancee, Lucy Hale; and a co-conspirator, Mary Surratt.

The book opens with a prologue from Booth's viewpoint about his capture, in which he is shot and as he is slowly dying, he thinks of these four women.  Then his life's story is told through theirs in the next four chapters:  his early years (1838-1851) with his mother, who has an fascinating background; the years 1851-1864 from his older sister Asia's point of view (she later became a poet and writer); then 1864-1865 as seen by both fiancee Lucy (daughter and later wife of senators) and Mary Surratt (the first woman hung by the federal government for her part in the plot to kill Lincoln).

This is followed by a chapter in John's voice again, set in 1865, just after Lee's surrender at Appomattox.  The final chapters tell what happened to all four women in the rest of 1865, and end with Lucy in 1890.  I knew very little of any of these women, and found their stories to be the intriguing ones.  Telling the story this way, though, also adds to the mystique of Booth - because one can see how his words and actions sounded and appeared to others, yet still not be able to get fully inside his mind to fully understand his motivation to kill Lincoln.

The title comes from Shakespeare's play Julius Caesar, Act II, Scene III, the last line:

If thou read this, O Caesar, thou mayst live.
If not, the Fates with traitors do contrive.

A longer passage including this line is the epithet of the book, rather fitting for Booth, who apparently stated his favorite Shakespearean role was that of Brutus, Caesar's lead assassin.

Chiaverini provides a map at the beginning of the book marking relevant locations in Washington, D. C., and lists her sources in three pages of acknowledgements at the end of the book.  I liked this novel better than Chiaverini's other novels featuring Civil War era personages.


© Amanda Pape - 2017

[This book was borrowed from and returned to my local public library.]

Friday, June 30, 2017

747 (2017 #45). Stormy Weather



by Paulette Jiles,
read by Colleen Delany


After reading Paulette Jiles' News of the World earlier this year, I was eager to read all her historical fiction.  Like News, Stormy Weather is also set in Texas.  This one takes place from 1927 to 1939, and mostly in places within an hour to an hour-and-a-half's drive from my home, places like Mineral Wells and Ranger and Cisco and Rising Star, Palo Pinto and Comanche Counties, and on the Brazos and Leon Rivers.  Not surprisingly, I loved this book.

Jeanine Stoddard is nine when the book begins, accompanying her drinking, gambling, womanizing father on an errand.  He's an oilfield worker, and the family - Jeanine's mother and older and younger sisters - move from one town to another, following the Texas oil boom. A man named Ross Everett helps Jeanine get her father home.  Later, her father dies in the height of the Depression, and the women have nowhere to go than back to Elizabeth's family home, vacant since her parents died some years previously.

Jeanine's mother and sisters seem to blame their situation on Jeanine, for "always covering up for him."  So Jeanine sets out to make the falling-down farm operable again.  She fixes the roof, clears cedar from the land, revitalizes the peach orchard - and finds time to remake old clothes of good cloth into something new for her mother and sisters.  Slowly but surely, despite the dust storms and drought, the old house becomes a home.

When Jeanine's little sister breaks her leg and needs an operation, Jeanine sells the one thing she has left from her dad - a fast horse named Smoky Joe - to Ross Everett, now a widower.  Instead of giving her a higher cash offer on the horse, he offers her a stake in Joe's future winnings - and Jeanine accepts.  Gambling seems to run on both sides of her family - her mother, meanwhile, has been buying up shares in a wildcatter's oil well.



The action moves slowly in this book, but I didn't mind.  I loved Jiles' evocative prose.  Here's an early (page 20) description of an oil well coming in:

It was in June of 1931 that the Lou Della Crim came in outside of Longview, near the Louisiana border.  The Lou Della roared up in a gusher that took the drilling pipe out with it and threw the twenty-foot, two-hundred-pound joints of pipe into the air like jackstraws.  The blowout of oil hurled a three-cone roller drill bit the size of an alligator a flull two hundred yards....They had hit the biggest oil pool in the history of the world and it was sweet, high-gravity oil so pure....it was the color of honey.  The wildcatter who drilled the discovery well reached the oil-bearing strata with an ancient cable-tool rig and a decrepit derrick and secondhand equipment. 

The date is wrong on that one - that gusher actually happened in December of the previous year.  Other reviewers have found numerous errors in historical details.

For me, the bigger problem is that the geography is a bit off at times.  On page 65, the family is en route from Wharton to the Tolliver homestead in the Mineral Wells area.  They go through Glen Rose - but then through Dallas, which is very much out of the way.  The same thing happens near the end of the book - on page 318, Jeanine and Ross are traveling from Lubbock back to Mineral Wells - and they inexplicably go through Amarillo, far out of the way to the north.  There's also a town Jiles calls Tarrant that doesn't exist - it's not too far from the Tolliver place, and near the Leon River and the Texas and Pacific Railway - and I can't quite place what real town it might be.

I also like this description of another oil well (from pages 298-299):

They heard the deep and sinister roar coming from the borehole as if something down there was calling out to them in a rage at being awakened from a million-year sleep....He saw casing pipe rising up out of the borehole as if it were self-propelled, joints of pipe that weighed more than two hundred pounds apiece, flying up one after another, in a spray of white salt water that was as thick and hard as a sycamore trunk.  And then more pipe was blown out by a great fountain of sand, enclosed in a foaming mist of gas that expanded like a geyser, sideways, snaking low and wild over the ground.
Then the massive drill bit rose up out of the hole, twenty feet long and weighing two tons, spewing straight up through the derrick and taking out the crown block along with it.  Spars and shattered planks flew upward in ballistic fragments....Then the oil came in, under great pressure, a standing column of jet that erupted with a deafening roar.  The entire derrick blew away, leaving only the footings and twisted masses of metal. ...overhead the tornado of pure oil wavered and shrieked and lunged snakelike into the night sky....the noise of the blowout sounded like some beast roaring and looking for prey.

Actress Colleen Delany, the audiobook narrator, read this passage in such a manner that I could feel the excitement of the event.  She did a fine job as well supplying appropriate Texas accents for all the characters. 


© Amanda Pape - 2017

[The e-audiobook, and a print copy for reference, were borrowed from and returned to my university and local public library respectively.]

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

746 (2017 #44). Sisi: Empress on Her Own

by Allison Pataki,
read by  Elizabeth Knowelden


This historical fiction novel is the sequel to The Accidental Empress, and covers the second half of the rather tragic life of  Empress Elisabeth of Austria, also known as "Sisi," the wife of Emperor Franz Joseph.

The book begins in the summer of 1868 in Hungary, about a year after the previous book ends with the establishment of the dual monarchy of Austria-Hungary.

Photograph of Empress Elisabeth of Austria (1837–1898),
the day of her coronation as Queen of Hungary, 8 June 1867.
Emil Rabending [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons


Sisi is finally on her own, with the idyllic life she has always wanted.  She is in the country she loves, with occasional visits from the dashing Count Andrassy.  She is raising her newborn daughter Valerie without interference, away from the protocol of court life in Vienna and her overbearing mother-in-law and aunt, Archduchess Sophie.  Unfortunately, it doesn't last.

Sisi was the Princess Diana of her time - extremely beautiful and very misunderstood.  I would recommend that The Accidental Empress be read before this book.  Although Sisi can stand on its own, the first book in the series provides context for Sisi's character and behavior in the second book.  Reading the books in order makes Sisi somewhat sympathetic - although she does often behave in ways that appear shallow and self-centered.

Compared to the audiobook of The Accidental Empress, this one was disappointing.  Actress Elizabeth Knowelden was not as good a narrator as Madeleine Maby.  Knowelden's soft British voice was pleasant enough, but her reading was very, VERY slow.  The audiobook also does not include the author's notes on history and sources at the end of the book.  I had to refer to the e-book (page 425) for this great quote from author Allison Pataki summarizing the book:  "this was a fairy tale meets a Shakespearean tragedy meets a family soap opera meets an international saga."


© Amanda Pape - 2017

[This e-audiobook, and an e-book for reference, were borrowed from and returned to public libraries.]

Sunday, May 28, 2017

745 (2017 #43). The Women in the Castle


by Jessica Shattuck,
read by Cassandra Campbell

This was a powerful story about three German women in post-WWII Germany.  Marianne, Benita, and Ania (pronounced Anya) are widows of resisters executed after the failed attempt to assassinate Hitler in July, 1944.  The story begins six years before this, when the aristocrat Marianne pledges to her husband and to Benita's husband, her childhood friend to take care of the widows and orphans should the plot fail.  True to her promise, she locates Benita's son Martin in a Nazi orphanage and Benita in a Russian brothel, and brings them to her husband's family's castle, (the fictional) Berg Lingenfels.  Although much of it is a shambles, with no running water or power, it's a shelter, and it's surrounded by land to grow food and trees for firewood.  Soon Marianne, her three children, Benita, and Martin are joined by Ania and her two boys.  After the initial extremely difficult postwar years, life gets somewhat better in the 1950s, when things happen that tear the three women apart.  The story ultimately ends in 1991.

Author Jessica Shattuck also gives us the backstories of these women, so readers have three different representative types, all with flaws:  a true resister, a clueless and somewhat selfish young person, and another who sees the growing horror too late.  Shattuck modeled the latter character on her own German grandmother, who, with her husband, joined the Nazi Party for idealistic reasons.  Shattuck did much research, and I learned a lot about what happened in postwar occupied Germany.

Cassandra Campbell was an excellent audiobook reader.  She used German accents when the characters were speaking, and her normal soft voice for narration.  Its gentleness drew attention to the moral dilemmas of the story, as well as the beautiful descriptions.

Definitely recommend this one.

© Amanda Pape - 2017

[This e-audiobook was borrowed from and returned to a public library.]

Saturday, May 20, 2017

744 (2017 #42). Goodnight from London

by Jennifer Robson

I really enjoyed this World War II fiction by Jennifer Robson.  Ruby Sutton is an American orphan working for a weekly publication in New York City, who is given the opportunity to go to London as a shared correspondent with another weekly there.

The reader is with Ruby on her trip across the Atlantic in a cargo ship in late June 1940, through the Blitz, and even into France and Paris for its liberation in August 1944, all the way to the end of the war.  As the cover photo implies, there's a little bit of romance for Ruby too, with the enigmatic British officer Bennett.

The blurb on the back of the book stated that it was "inspired in part by the wartime experiences of the author's own grandmother," but my advance reader edition was missing the acknowledgements/afterword that might have had that information.  I was quite curious about it, so I searched for an answer.

Robson clarified in an interview and in a Facebook post:

"My late grandmother, Nikki Moir, was a newspaperwoman, and it was her experiences as a young woman in a male-dominated newsroom that acted as the starting point for Goodnight From London. My heroine, Ruby Sutton, is entirely a product of my imagination – she isn’t at all similar to my grandmother – but I wouldn’t have found Ruby without the inspiration of my gran and her career." "...it was in learning about the obstacles and challenges Nikki faced in her work as a journalist from the 1930s onward that I was inspired to create Ruby.  It really was as simple as asking myself, 'what would it have been like for a young woman journalist in the Second World War?' Ruby is my answer, but Nikki was my inspiration."

The book is well-researched and has believable characters.  Robson has written other fiction set during and after World War I - I'll be sure to read those too.

© Amanda Pape - 2017

[I received this advance reader edition through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program.  It will be passed on to someone else to enjoy.]