Tuesday, August 15, 2017

NetGalley Review

In Queens of the Conquest, Alison Weir chronicles the tumultuous lives of five medieval queens historians have mostly ignored. Her meticulously researched book begins in 1066 with Matilda of Flanders, the wife of William the Conqueror, and ends in 1154 with Empress Maud, an “intrepid spirit” who fought to rule England. Despite a relative scarcity of information, Weir reconstructs a tale of murder, love, ambition, rivalry, treason, adultery and betrayal. Each queen’s story is filled with details that give readers a vivid sense of the women and the times they lived in. Weir’s talent as a novelist is evident, but her rigor as a historian is also impressive. Queens of the Conquest is filled with child brides, shipwrecks, castles and court intrigue, but it also contains more than a hundred pages of supplementary material, including sources, maps and letters.

Perhaps most notable is Weir’s ability to portray the queens as strong, intelligent women without romanticizing them or subjecting them to present-day standards. Matilda of Flanders initially refused William the Conqueror’s proposal because he was a “bastard son,” only to relent after he beat her so severely she took to her bed to recover. It would be easy to dismiss her change of heart as an example of women’s subjugation or to assign it to a weakness in character. Weir does neither. While she does make the inferior position of women clear, she never lapses into polemics. Citing a primary source, she records that Matilda told her astonished father she would marry no one but William, “for he must be a man of great courage and high daring who could venture to come and beat me in my own father’s palace.” Matilda soon became William’s most trusted confidant and would rule as regent in his absence on many occasions. When she secretly supported their rebellious son, William railed against the betrayal of the woman “whom I love as my very soul” but did not punish her.

I’ve already spent too much time on Matilda of Flanders, in part because her section was my favorite, but also because it is easy to get caught up in each woman’s tale. At a time when women were valued primarily as breeders of future kings, these queens proved they were far more than that. Maltilda of Scotland, whisked from a nunnery to marry Henry I, garnered criticism for surrounding herself with too many musicians, poets and scholars. Queen Adeliza was known for her beauty and her patronage of the arts. Empress Maud, who was married off and sent overseas at eight years old, went on to lead a rebellion against King Stephen in hopes of gaining the throne. Stephen’s queen, Matilda of Boulogne, in turn led her own rebellion to restore her husband to power while he was imprisoned in chains. 

The women’s stories, however, aren’t the only ones I’ll remember. Weir’s depiction of the plight of their English subjects is also moving. The five queens witnessed (and, in some instances, caused) famine, torture and war. Subjects were hung upside down, castrated, flayed and had their eyes put out. Villages were burned and lands plundered, often at the behest of the ruling class. While I can’t say I enjoyed these passages, I’m grateful to Weir for documenting them.  

Queens of the Conquest is the first of a four-book series about the medieval queens, one which will undoubtedly appeal to fans of British history. My only caveat is that the book may not win over readers looking purely for historical drama (if you’re looking for that, read one of Weir’s excellent novels). It’s a dense book, rich with facts, so at times it can be a bit slow going. I admit to skimming all the supplementary material and to occasionally confusing the four (four!) Matildas. On the flip side, gaps in the historical record may bother other readers. There are few pictorial representations of the women, no diaries, and fewer primary sources than exist for later rulers. That said, Weir has done a remarkable job of bringing these women to life. I thoroughly enjoyed Queens of the Conquest and plan on reading the next installment.

Five stars 

Sunday, August 13, 2017

New Poem

My poem "Itinerary" went up yesterday at What Rough Beast.  It's a riff on the recent discovery of the new solar system.

Friday, August 11, 2017

NetGalley Review

Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust

Girls Made of Snow and Glass is an old story: a brittle, aging stepmother grows increasingly jealous of her husband’s kind, beautiful daughter, the kingdom’s beloved successor to the throne. Mina is the daughter of a magician, a stunning woman with a heart of glass whose sole ambition is to be a queen. Lynet is the perfect replica of her dead mother, a fact her grieving father and his devoted court members won’t let her forget. Both desire what seems unattainable. Mina wants to love and be loved, though her heart is forever silent in its cage. Lynet takes endless risks—climbing trees and hanging from towers—in an attempt to prove she’s not the delicate beauty her mother was. Inevitably, their struggle to overcome their limitations sets them in opposition.
In her debut novel, Melissa Bashardoust sets out to breathe life into the Snow White story and she succeeds remarkably well. I’ve always loved fairy tales and her feminist retelling had me at the proverbial Once Upon a Time. Whitespring, with its unchanging snow-globe world and its garden of shadows, drew me in immediately. The Southern part of the kingdom—a land of color and warmth, laughter and endless bloom—is just as vivid, much like the two protagonists in this tale. I loved Mina and Lynet’s attempts to find their identities, as well as the peripheral LGBT element, and the imagery throughout the novel was fantastic. Told from alternating viewpoints, the novel reinvents the evil stepmother/good daughter trope and creates a fantasy that resonates in “real” life. How many of us try to escape the power other people’s beliefs hold over us? As difficult as it is to defy society, challenging the expectations of those we're closest to can seem impossible. That’s where this novel falls a bit short for me, especially at the end. It feels, in a sense, like a work of glass created by a magician: gorgeous but also fragile, like Mina’s heart. Which, I suppose, is what makes all fairy tales so beautiful. Girls Made of Snow and Glass isn’t meant to recast this world’s grim reality but rather to offer us a glimmer of magic—and, ultimately, hope.

Much thanks to Flatiron Books and NetGalley for providing me with an ARC in exchange for an honest review. 

Four stars

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

NeGalley Review

A Lady in Shadows by Lene Kaaberbol

On the eve of the French president’s assassination in 1894, Madeleine Karno is summoned to examine a prostitute’s mutilated corpse. The daughter of an esteemed forensic pathologist, Madeleine discovers that the woman’s entire uterus has been removed and notes striking similarities to a murder that occurred weeks earlier. Does France have its own Jack the Ripper or is a mad scientist using filles isolees for his own dark experiments? While pursuing her studies as the University of Varbourg’s first female medical student, Madeleine sets out to learn the truth behind the grisly deaths.

A Lady in Shadows is an engaging novel that held my interest from beginning to end. This is more of a historical thriller than a traditional mystery that keeps readers guessing the identity of the killer until the final pages. Normally, this might have bothered me but what made the novel worth reading was Lene Kaaberbol’s depiction of Fin-de-Siecle France. She captures in vivid detail the political chaos, scientific advances, social inequity, and changing values that characterized the era.

I also liked Madeleine’s character. She is spirited, smart, and determined to succeed at a time when women were given very few choices. There is a darker side to her as well. A photographer who works for the police asks her: “Why don’t you stay in the light where you belong?” Madeleine explains that like the murdered “ladies of the night” she too is a creature of shadows, raised in a home where the dead were just as important as the living. Granted, a few of Madeleine’s choices struck me as inconsistent with her character, especially at the end of the novel. But for me they underscored an idea that is as true now as it was more than a century ago: no matter how rigorously we use scientific methods to study the mind, logic will never fully explain human beings. 

Much thanks to Atria Publishing and NetGalley for providing me with an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

4 stars 

Saturday, August 5, 2017

NetGalley Review

Mt. Oanoke is a dying mill town where nothing happens—at least until opening day at the high school baseball field, when a thousand starlings fall out of the sky. Some blame the polluted air, others believe it’s an omen. Whether the dark rain is manmade or supernatural remains a mystery, but a series of disturbing events soon follows. A troubled teenage loner accuses Nate Winters, a popular teacher and coach, of having an affair with her. Not long afterward, she disappears. Is Nate an adulterer and a killer? Or is Lucia Hamm, the white-haired girl who finds dead blackbirds and reads tarot cards, exactly what her classmates say she is: a real-life witch who uses her power to ruin lives?

The Blackbird Season is a fast-paced, well plotted psychological thriller that kept me reading. The shifting time frames and points of view added a certain edginess to the story that I liked. The characters are complex, each with their own struggles, weaknesses and doubts. Though there were fewer chapters written from Lucia’s POV, her character drew me in more than the others. Alecia, Nate’s wife, who has left the corporate world to care for their autistic son, also appealed to me. At times Nate’s character seems too obtuse to be believable, but by the end of the book I wondered if those closest to him, and even Nate himself, may not understand who he really is. Finally, Moretti’s depiction of the town is richly drawn (no irony intended…). I grew up next to an old mill town and much of what she describes—the lack of jobs, the environmental damage, the drug issues, the longing to escape—rings true.  

This is the first novel I’ve read by Moretti and I look forward to reading more of her work. Much thanks to Atria Books and NetGalley for providing me with an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

4.5 stars

New Poem

"Dear Refugee," a found poem, is up at Indolent Books' What Rough Beast today. Photo above is by SOS Children's Villages.

Here is the Yeats' poem the site title refers to:

The Second Coming


Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

New Poems

Three of my poems are up today at Glass: A Journal of Poetry. The issue has some great work in it and a link to Logan February's How to Cook a Ghost, which is available for pre-order from Glass Poetry Press. In other news, Common Ground Review accepted a poem today, What Rough Beast accepted four poems, and I've received galleys for Kirlian Effect from my editor at FutureCycle. Plus final galleys for my third romantic suspense novel, which will be out under my pen name. Last but not least, I'm reading an ARC of Kate Moretti's The Blackbird Season, courtesy of NetGalley.