Thursday, September 29, 2011

'The Lady of the Rivers'

Who isn't a student of history?  Some may not claim to be, but by living it every day, we truly are students of history.  We live it, we breathe it.  History happens all the time.  Turn on the tv, or the computer, and you'll see history happen.

But there are those of us who tend to linger on past events.  We eagerly read about World War II, or ancient Rome/Greece/Egypt.  We read about the Civil War, and participate in battle reenactments.  

And then there are those who much prefer to sit back with a historical novel.  I happen to be one of them, and if the era is well-researched, it spurs me on to read even more books about that particular point in history.  Case in point:  'I, Claudius' and 'Claudius the God', by Robert Graves.  The series propelled me into reading books written by Suetonius, and Cato the Elder, and Cicero.

And now another gem arrives, prompting me to dig even further into English history.

'The Lady of the Rivers', by Philippa Gregory, takes place right before the beginning of the War of the Roses, the time in English history when two rival clans of the royal House of Plantagenet (Lancasters and Yorks) declared civil war in order to win the throne.  

The story opens with the house arrest of Joan of Arc, and a young female member of the household, Jacquetta, senses a mysterious magical kinship with the prisoner.  After Joan's death, Jacquetta soon marries a kinsman much older than her, and he uses her sixth sense to uncover future events.  But after his death, the duke's squire, Richard Woodville, declares his love and he and Jacquetta are married in secret.  Although they are afraid that they will be exiled from court when their marriage is discovered, they are invited back and become close friends to the new king, Henry VI, and his queen, Margaret.  But soon, rivals try to claim the crown, and the discontent of the English people threaten to destroy Henry's kingdom.

'The Lady of the Rivers' is well-researched and intelligently told.  

(Due to be released in early October 2011)

Thursday, September 22, 2011

'The Dog Who Knew Too Much'

"Bookselling must be a dream job!"  That's a remark I've heard countless times during my many years of bookselling.  But they are right:  Bookselling is a 'dream job'.  

If you read often, you know that there comes a time when you have no idea what you want to read next.  That's when a good bookseller comes into play.  You could always go to an online store, but you won't get the satisfaction of talking to an actual person who will give you an honest opinion/review about a book you've plucked off a shelf.  I'm one of those honest booksellers, and the best part is 'playing the detective'.  "Do you have a favorite author, or genre, or hobby?"  It's fun.  It's demanding.  And it's worth it when the customer comes back a few days later and asks me for another recommendation.

The 'Chet and Bernie' mystery series, by Spencer Quinn,  is one of my most successful recommendations for light, entertaining reading.  But for me, it's more than a mystery series.  The thing that brings me back is the special relationship between Chet the dog, and his partner, Bernie, a private investigator.  They are close, no doubt about it; they read each other so well.  But, for me, the icing on the cake is the fact that Chet narrates each story.  He's real, he's delightful.  Sometimes I wonder if Mr. Quinn is part dog.  It wouldn't surprise me because he captures Chet's essence in such an humorous way.

'The Dog Who Knew Too Much' is the fourth book in the series, and it doesn't disappoint.  Chet and Bernie are hired to find a missing boy who had been staying at a wilderness camp.  Their investigation leads to a very dark discovery, one which threatens both man and beast.  And if that isn't bad enough, a stray puppy who resembles Chet arrives in the neighborhood.

Although the books are a 'quick read', I can almost guarantee that you will go back to them, time and again.  It is the bond between man and canine, along with Chet's boundless curiosity and unconditional love, that drives this series onto best-seller lists.

Everyone should have a Chet like this in their lives.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

'The Rebel Wife'

When I was growing up, my oldest sister was obsessed with 'Gone With the Wind'.  She had a big hardcover edition of the book, with pictures from the movie.  As I was obsessed with movies anyway, GWTW took hold in my mind and I was determined to see what all the fuss was about.  I read the novel when I was twelve years old; I thought it overly romantic, yet I fell in love with Rhett Butler.  Shortly thereafter, my paternal grandmother accompanied me to a screening of the film and I was in awe.  It was one of the most perfectly cast films ever made.  But when I grew older, I read many non-fiction books about the South during and after the Civil War, and discovered it wasn't all 'magnolias and mint juleps'.

So, it was with a bit of trepidation that I read 'The Rebel Wife', written by Taylor Polites.  Although it's his first novel, I was very impressed.  Gone are the Southern stereotypes.  '...Wife' didn't open my eyes to the life of Southerners after the war, but it did tell a story from a different perspective.

Augusta Branson was born into a very prominent Southern family, which was torn asunder and left destitute by the Civil War.  Forced to marry a man whom she doesn't love, she is with him for ten years when he dies of a horrible blood disease, leaving her and their young son penniless.  The fortune she assumed he would leave to her doesn't exist, her standing in society is stained because of her marriage, and she is ready to lose the closest friends she has:  Her household servants.  The novel is filled with scenes of great power, most notably racial prejudice and violence.  How Augusta discovers the secret which was withheld from her, and how she triumphs over that situation, is extremely powerful and very surprising.  She is an unforgettable heroine.

Scarlett O'Hara has just been supplanted.

(This novel is due to be released in February 2012)

Thursday, September 15, 2011

'Catherine the Great'

For the past few years, female historical figures have finally had their truths revealed.  First, Mary Magdalene, then Cleopatra.  Now it's time for one of the greatest female leaders in Russian history.

Robert Massie, the author of 'Nicholas & Alexandra', 'The Romanovs:  The Final Chapter', and 'Peter the Great' (for which he won a much-deserved Pulitzer), has returned with one of the most interesting biographies I've read in the last two years: 'Catherine the Great'.  

Cast aside the 'horse-on-woman' myth, but know that the number of lovers in her life was no exaggeration.  But the lovers weren't merely playthings for the most powerful woman in the world.  Catherine was born into a minor noble German family (the chapters regarding her mother's dreams of importance made me cringe), and during her young teen years, she became betrothed to Peter, adopted son of Empress Elizabeth of Russia.  Peter was weak and bullying, the result of an abusive tutor; when he and Catherine were married, their physical relationship was non-existent for nine years.  Lacking physical intimacy and love, Catherine eventually took a lover, who, in turn, left her as soon as he became bored with her.  For the rest of her life, she found love with many men; some weak, some brilliant.  But it was with Gregory Potemkin (rumor has it that they were secretly married) that she found her greatest ally.  Together, they worked to build Russia into one of the most powerful countries in the world, culturally and militarily.  It was Catherine who commissioned the building of her beloved Hermitage, which houses some of the most extraordinary, and famous, pieces of art in the world.

Although Catherine's early life in Russia would make even the strongest person harbor plans of escape, she found solace in literature, music, and the works of enlightened minds, such as Voltaire and Rousseau.  She immersed herself in the Russian culture and even converted to the Orthodox faith.  Ruling for thirty-four years, she contended with domestic rebellions, foreign wars, and the welfare of her people.  She was a brilliant woman, but because of her intelligence and strength, was wrongly maligned after her death and up to the present time.

I couldn't put this book down and consider it a wonderful companion to Massie's 'Peter the Great'.  Massie has written a biography that is well-researched, revealing, and intimate.  He has brought to life a woman I have admired for many years.

I smell a Pulitzer.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Mr. Toppit

When the 'Harry Potter' series took it's place in the pantheon of children's literature, I started wondering how such wild success changed the life of one J.K. Rowling.  She became richer than the Queen of England, she promoted children's reading programs, and, smart cookie that she is, made sure that she, and she alone, kept Harry's kingdom secure.  But those points are public knowledge.  What I really wanted to know was how the fame and money affected her personally.  I respect her privacy and know that when she wants to talk about it, she will.

So, I had to satisfy my curiosity with 'Mr. Toppit', a fantastic, funny novel by Charles Elton.  The story covers several decades; from the post-war British film industry, to the current era of 'success-at-any-cost' show business.

Arthur Hayman is an unsuccessful screenwriter and author of an obscure series of children's books, entitled 'The Hayseed Chronicles'.  But when he is hit by a truck and lay dying in the street, he is comforted by Laurie Clow, an American woman on vacation in London.  It is a chance meeting that changes the lives of Laurie and the Hayman family.  She worms her way into the family and by discovering, and then exploiting, his children's books, she sets into motion a chain of events that are not necessarily for the better.  When Laurie brings the world's attention to the series, she hits the big time with a talk show in Los Angeles, and it is there that lives unravel and secrets are unearthed.

Luke Hayman, Arthur's son and the inspiration for the main character of the series, Luke Hayseed, has his head on his shoulders, despite his sudden fame and hatred of being associated with the main character from his father's books.  His sister, Rachel, is in and out of rehab clinics, and their mother, Martha, is distant.

The story is clever, humorous, and mindful of the price one pays for fame.

I wonder if J.K. has read it yet...

Saturday, September 3, 2011

'Labor Day'

Labor Day:  n. The 1st Monday in September, observed as a holiday in honor of working people 

I find it somewhat ironic that we've established an actual holiday for the working force when half of the retail work force is forced to, well, work.

At least I have a job.  For a little while, anyway.

My Borders store is due to close soon, and I am caught between feelings of sadness, anger, fear, and happiness.  Sadness because a once-great company has bit the dust.  Anger for the same reason.  Fear because I'm worried about finding a job in this tough financial climate.  And happiness, because I love a challenge and I know that something new is on the horizon.

So, despite the fact that I'll be working on Labor Day, I'll still celebrate the fact that U.S. workers have a least one thing they can call their own.

Retail workers, however, are exempt.