Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Last Queen by C.W. Gortner

I didn't know this: Spain had a queen, daughter of Isabel and Ferdinand, called Juana la Loca (sister of Catherine of Aragon, first wife of Henry VIII) who never officially took the throne--she fell victim to the power-hungry men around her and was eventually locked away while her father ruled in her stead.

In The Last Queen by C.W. Gortner, she is finally given a voice in the form of historical fiction. Following in the footsteps of writing narratives of other little-known people who played important roles on the royal scene (Philippa Gregory comes to mind), Gortner creates a convincing story for this mysterious Spanish princess Juana.

Like Philippa Gregory's works, The Last Queen transported me to the setting--16th century Spain & Austria. I dreamed as though I were one of Juana's ladies. I didn't wake up feeling I should be dressed in silks or brocades or whatever the ladies wore, but instead I felt the distress and uncertainty of serving this woman who was used as a pawn all her life, often treated as a prisoner, and refused the right to her own inheritance.

Was Juana really mad? (There are indications of psychological issues in her family.) Or was she locked away as a woman getting in the way of men? Either way, this story has sparked my interest--I'll be trying to locate a biography, maybe the 1939 book on Gortner's list of references. Recommended to people who like historical fiction and/or are fascinated by stories of royalty. (The princess locked in the tower isn't a fairy tale.)

Thank you to C.W. Gortner for arranging to have me sent a review copy.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Unshelved comic strip

Just a note: The comic strip Unshelved featured The Gargoyle in July 27's Book Club.

Tick tick tick--just a few more days till The Gargoyle is released!

Twenty West: the great road across America by Mac Nelson

I would really like to be able to recommend this book. But I can't.

I requested this book to review, and graciously, SUNY Press sent me a copy. I was excited to get it--after all, I grew up not far from US Route 20, traveled it often, and in my years of teaching, 20 was the road that took me home to the sanctuary of Mom and Dad's. Plus, in the last few years, I've taken a couple of cross-country trips and know some of the great places to be found on 20 and other highways.

From reading the teaser that encouraged me to request a review copy, and from the introduction, I expected a memoir of road trips, but instead found myself reading essays about things that have happened and the strange places that are near US Route 20 (and many of them happened prior to the road becoming US Route 20).

I wish I'd found something redemptive in these essays, but I find the writing style (incongruent) and much of the content uninteresting and disconnected. Everything was tied (sometimes very loosely) to the central idea of "The Great Road"--but even the bits of the book dealing with familiar territory in Ohio caused me to be dispassionate.

Also, the writing is filled with generalizations I would expect an educated, experienced writer to avoid--like the part in which Nelson discusses a Japanese internment camp from WWII located near Route 20. Nelson worked with a man who'd spent some of his childhood in that camp and relates that shortly after his family was released, the kid-now-man's mother killed herself. The next sentence states that the colleague attends reunions, and then there's a sentence about the human spirit being indomitable. I know that sentence refers to the colleague, or maybe it's about the fact that there are such reunions, but it's inappropriate to say the human spirit is indomitable just two sentences after mentioning a suicide that clearly indicates that opposite.

The book is full of such generalizations and other flaws and faults I don't expect to find in published work. I'm sorry to have to advise: skip this one. If you're really looking for a book to read about cross country America, my husband recommends Blue Highways by William Least Heat-Moon.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

I think there was only one thing that bugged me in this book, and that's because I took four years of German in high school. (I wasn't particularly delighted with the integration of basic German into the characters' dialogue when the rest was in English.) I just thought I'd get that out of the way, because otherwise, I really liked this book.

Death, the narrator of The Book Thief, doesn't have much of a sense of humor. I'm not sure he saw much to be humorous about in the 1940's; as he keeps pointing out, he was pretty busy. But he loves colors and figurative language. And he loves Liesel, the book thief of Himmel Street. He doesn't seem great at suspense--he keeps telling readers what's coming five chapters ahead, but it never happens like you think it's going to happen. Well, almost never.

The book is set in Germany during World War II, but though there are Nazis, they're more on the fringe than part of the story. Death first sees Liesel as she's on her way to a foster home, but he encounters her several more times before the end of the war. (Of course people die--it's a war. And yes, if you're inclined to cry at sad movies or books, you will cry during this book.) I especially liked the formatting of the section pages:

Part 6

The Dream Catcher

death's diary--the snowman--thirteen
presents--the next book--the nightmare of
a jewish corpse--a newspaper sky--a visitor--
a schmunzeler--and a final kiss on a poisoned cheek

I also appreciate the way that moments and thoughts were highlighted within the chapters, set aside in bold text and centered:


He didn't go into battle that day.

Sometimes they let readers know what was about to happen and sometimes it's just a reflection of something that had happened. Either way, it's very effective. I suppose those are Death's asides.

Like the cover--someone about to push over set up dominoes--the book is rushing toward disaster. I think Death at one point called it "beautiful destruction" (tongue-in-cheek). Despite the perpetual threat of annihilation, the beauty of the story is Death's being drawn to this good person in the middle of the war and making a point of telling her story, which he finds impossible to forget.