Thursday, 29 May 2008

Farewell, My Queen

And so I moved on to another "Last Queen", in this case the last queen of France, Marie Antoinette. Though more to the point, this book Farewell, My Queen by Chantal Thomas, doesn't really rotate around Marie Antoinette as a central figure. The real Queen of this piece is Versailles. The palace, the courtiers, the rituals. The story is told diary style over a three day period from the fall of the Bastille. The narrator is the deputy reader to Marie Antoinette, who left Versailles and resided in Vienna. The author Chantal Thomas, is also the author of a non-fiction work on Marie Antoinette, "The Wicked Queen", which comes highly recommended from readers more "in the know" than me, and I think that this shows itself in the details in "Farewell, My Queen". She clearly has done a lot of research into the way of life in the palace of Versailles and I was intrigued by what I learnt. Sure it was (is) a sumptuous palace, but it was certainly had its problems! Rats and other vermin, swampy stinky smells on hot summers days, and a courtly ritual that meant that the King and Queen ate their meals cold, are just some of the gems in this book. But aside from that, it also tells of the panic that enveloped the nobles and courtiers in the palace, with the swirling rumours afoot of mobs of Revolutionary peasants ready to attack their way of life and their very bodies as well. There was so much uncertainty on how to behave. The King and Queen even disagreeing on whether to escape the palace, they stayed and the world knows the outcome of that one. Some nobles even refrained from fleeing, as they could not get together the accouterments to journey forth in the style that they deemed fitting for their rank! Oh how the hierarchy got a shake up with the Revolution!

Thursday, 15 May 2008

The Last Queen

The Last Queen by C.W. Gortner opens with and aged and imprisoned Juana of Castile, recounting her life. I have been interested in the story of Juana for some time after first reading about her in passing as a sister of Katherine of Aragon. It always seemed like an interesting story, or a supposedly insane queen carting around the remains of her dead husband and being imprisoned for man, many years. And that this should happen to the daughter of Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon, the sister of a queen of England and the mother of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, still seems astounding.
As much as her mother might of tried to prevent it, Juana ended up as a pawn in the political games of men. Her husband, her father and ultimately her son, betrayed her due to unrifled ambition, with the lure being the kingdom of Castile. From the small snipets I had previously read of Juana, I had accepted the story of the insane queen. But having read more about this period of time, it seems as though it was really an age of propaganda, and now having read Gortner's book, I will certainly question more about the historical character's I read about.
Juana has for so long in the English language, been a figure of passing mention. It is eye opening to read about her as a central figure. Here she is a red blooded passionate Spaniard sent of to Flanders to marry the heir to the Hapsburg empire, Philip the Handsome. She sets off with trepidation, her only solace being that she is serving the interests of Spain. But she falls crashingly in love with her husband from the first moments. They are happy for a time.....untill Juana becomes heir to the throne of Castile, and Philip's ambitions, and lust for the crown surpass his love and respect for his wife. He turns from the glowing centre of her world, to a scheming, dark, manipulating man desperate to clutch the crown at all costs. And he has a veritable bevy of syncophants around him to help him reach his lofty goals as well. And the father that she so adored as a child, turns into much the same.
Gortner tells Juana's story with a great deal of compassion. And we are left wondering how a woman could be so badly treated by her husband, and father, and then left to dwell in prisoned in a castle by her son.
The Last Queen is being re-issued soon, and for those people that have an interest in the Tudor time period, it is a fantastic read, showing Spain and the European stage at the time, and developing more interest in characters that are afforded just short mentions in the stories of the Tudor court. It is interesting to put her timeline in perspective with the goings on in England, which I am much more aware of. She was born in 1479, so during the reign of Edward IV, and died after 46 years in prison in 1555, during the reign of her niece Mary I.
I will definately be seeking out more about the sad story of Juana, and have another Gortner book, The Secret Lion, waiting to be read. He also has a book in the works about Catherine de Medici, another of my favourites!

Monday, 12 May 2008

The Kommandant's Girl

The Kommandant's Girl by Pam Jenoff, follows the story of a Jewish girl Emma, who is recently married and living in Krakow. With the German occupation of Poland, her husband Jacob goes into hiding in the forest with the Resistance. Emma follows her parent to the ghetto, and then is given a new identity by the Resistance. She assumes the name of Anna from Gdansk, and Polish Catholic relative of Jacob's aunt by marriage, Krysia. Krysia is Catholic, and puts her life on the line, by allowing Emma/Anna and a small boy from the ghetto stay with her. Anna draws the attention of the Kommandant, who asks her to be his assistant. He falls in love with Anna, which puts her in an interesting, precarious and morally difficult position. The Resistance could use her position close to the Kommandant to get access to information vital in their efforts, and the closer Anna is to the Kommandant, the more likely she is to be able to come across information to help them, and her husband.

It is a story of survival. Emma/Anna will put everything on the line to ensure the survival of those she loves, and befriends. She becomes someone that she never thought that she would be, and finds a strength and independence she didn't know she had. Krysia is one of the Polish people that could not just sit by and watch the Jewish people go under. But it is at a personal cost as well. The Kommandant himself is also an intriguing character. There is more to his story, and it makes him a character that you do feel sympathy for. And you can't really say that much about Nazi's!

Jenoff's followup book, The Diplomat's Wife, is about Marta, one of the character's in The Kommandant's Girl, who is a member of the Resistence. I will be interested to read this one too, and see what life held for her after the war.

Saturday, 3 May 2008

The Romanov Bride

Robert Alexander's third book revolving around the Russian Revolution, continues to show is knowledge and depth of understanding about the Revolution, Russian society and the personalities of the time. The focus of The Romanov Bride is Grand Duchess Elizabeth, affectionately known as Ella, who is the sister of the Tsarina, and married to Sergei, the uncle of the Tsar. As such, she is a show piece for the royal family. She is showered with jewels, opulent dresses, and feted in the highest circles of society. She is ranked as one of the most beautiful women of her time in Europe. Her life is much like on the the Faberge eggs and nick naks, that she owns many off. And is just as fragile as it turns out. Her very existance is shattered by the assassination of her husband by a bomb. Now the essense of the Revolution, the hardships of the people are really opened up to her as she strives to an understanding through a religious life, and helping the needy, the wounded and the orphaned. She, almost alone of the Romanovs in Moscow, comes to be loved and admired by the people she helps. But this will not stop the Revolutionaries in their relentless aim to rid the people of the yoke of a ruling class and a ruling family. The Romanovs must be eliminated.
The other narrator of the book is Pavel, a peasant who turns to the revolution in revenge for the tragic death of his wife. He has lived the hard life, only to find that the only thing that he cares for can still be taken from him. He becomes heavily involved in the Revolution, stirring up dissent and assassinating "worthy" targets. But it is the Grand Duchess Elizabeth, that leads him to question his involvement. He sees her good works, and how she, a member of the hated Romanov family, cares for the destitute people. But ultimately knows he will be unable to save her from the fate of her family.
Robert Alexander has a great website (, with really nice book trailers, and photos of the people in his books, and is a great reference for those wishing to gain greater knowledge from reading his books. He has been doing webcasts of late, and these have been a really good way to pose questions to the author, and are like a worldwide bookclub discussion. I hope that more authors start doing webcasts like this as it really opens up opportunities for those in other countries, like me here in Australia, to have contact with the author. And is a great opportunity for the author as well, to see how their book is received all round the world.

So three cheers for Robert on a great book, accompanying website, and such wonderful webcasts!

The First Elizabeth

The First Elizabeth, a biography of Elizabeth I of England, starts out a bit wobbly. It starts with the story of her mother Anne Boleyn, and her downfall. One negative point stuck in my mind. During the coronation parade, Erickson refers to Anne Boleyn as bearing the marks of scrofula on her neck. I have not read this anywhere else before! And scrofula is tuberculosis in the lymph nodes of the neck. We know that Henry VIII was quite paranoid and abhorrent in regards to infectious disease, and I think it unlikely that Anne would have suffered from this condition. The comment is also not referenced. This appears on the second page of the book! Not a great start...

However, I am not one to discard a book lightly and I am so glad that I did not throw this one at the wall! The book is full of lovely details about the way of life during the Elizabethan age, telling the story of Elizabeth, but also extending it to include a great overview of some of the notable personages of the time. The last part of the book did seem a light bit rushed, with the period of Robert Devereaux Earl of Essex, being quite brief, and the time period skipping from the death of Robert Dudley directly to Essex, a period that spans some 9 years if I recall.

But having read a number of biographies of Elizabeth, it was really the details of life that shone in this book. The politics and religion of the time are nicely handled for a lay reader such as me, and the inclusion of details such as manner of dress, food, the distribution of gossip through the taverns and from the printing press, make this a recommended read in the end.