The Italian Woman by Jean Plaidy – Book Review

The Italian Woman by Jean Plaidy
Published by Touchstone, an imprint of Simon & Schuster

From the publisher:

When Catherine de’ Medici was forced to marry Henry, Duke of Orleans, her heart was not the only one that was broken. Jeanne of Navarre once dreamed of marrying this same prince, but, like Catherine, she must comply with France’s political needs. And so both Catherine’s and Jeanne’s lives are set on unwanted paths, destined to cross in affairs of state, love, and faith, driving them to become deadly political rivals.

Years later Jeanne is happily married to the dashing but politically inept Antoine de Bourbon. But the widowed Catherine is now the ambitious mother of princes, and she will do anything to see her beloved second son, Henry, rule France. As civil war ravages the country and Jeanne fights for the Huguenot cause, Catherine advances along her unholy road, making enemies at every turn.

When I rekindled my love with historical fiction I started with Philippa Gregory – whose The Other Boleyn Girl was everywhere at the time – and quickly moved on to Jean Plaidy, a mega-star in her own right. Written beginning in the 1940s, Plaidy’s work can at times feel slightly dated; occasionally she bases parts of plots on facts that are now out of fashion and her style puts readers at more of a remove from the story than is currently popular. However, she remains a master of telling big, complicated stories. Not for Plaidy is the focus on a single character at the expense of the big picture. She shows what is happening from the perspectives of all of the major players, although unlike many modern novelists she does not feel constrained to attempt to give them equal time, but instead moves to them when their point of view would most inform her story.

The Italian Woman is Plaidy at her best. Although technically the second book in a trilogy, The Italian Woman stands alone absolutely perfectly. Enough context is given to the history that unless you knew that this was the second book in a trilogy, you would simply assume that this is the one portion of Catherine’s life that Plaidy has chosen to explore. And explore it she does. This is not simply Catherine’s life, but this period in the history of France’s ruling family. In fact, Jeanne of Navarre is nearly as prominent a character as Catherine, which is gratifying as she is often virtually ignored in favor of the flashy de Medici.

Historical fiction fans who have not yet experienced Jean Plaidy should certainly do so, and for those with any interest in Catherine de Medici, The Italian Woman is a great place to start.

Buy this book from:
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Source: Publisher, via Edelweiss.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.

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The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan – Book Review

The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan
Published by Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin

The death of Mr. van Goethem creates a crisis for his three daughters. The are not orphaned, they still have their mother, but with her absinthe drinking they basically just have her in name only. Antoinette had hoped to keep her sisters Marie and Charlotte out of work and allow them their childhood, but it is no longer possible, so instead she helps her sisters find positions as petit rats in the ballet of the Paris Opera, where they can earn seventeen francs a week to train. Antoinette was kicked out of the ballet some time before, but manages to find a part in the stage adaptation of Zola’s L’Assommoir. Things seem to be looking up for the van Goethems with everyone working and Marie even modeling for Edgar Degas – she is the inspiration for his statuette Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen – but their luck can’t last. Antoinette’s new beau, Emile Abadie, is driving a wedge between her and Marie, who is certain that he is bad news.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about The Painted Girls is that, while Degas himself is not a particularly major player in the book, all of the characters are based on the real people behind his art work. Marie van Goethem was really the inspiration for Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen and even Emile Abadie was the subject of some of Degas’s art, although to say what might constitute a spoiler. Buchanan’s van Goethem family is so vivid that I assumed she had created them from whole cloth, and I am impressed that her story is built largely on the verifiable facts of the van Goethems’s lives.

If you’re looking for a book to completely immerse you in late-19th century Paris, The Painted Girls is for you. Recommended.

Buy this book from:
Powells | Indiebound*

Source: Publisher.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.

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The Queen’s Lover by Francine du Plessix Gray – Audiobook Review

The Queen’s Lover by Francine du Plessix Gray, narrated by Edoardo Ballerini
Published in audio by Penguin Audiobooks, published in print by The Penguin Press, both imprint of Penguin

Synopsis:

Swedish Count Axel von Fersen is the infamous lover of Marie Antoinette, the French queen who would lose her head. The two meet while Marie Antoinette is still the dauphine and their relationship continues throughout the rest of her life. Indeed, von Fersen is even the brains behind the royal family’s unsuccessful attempt to flee the country once the Revolution begins to get truly dangerous. Even so, he is typically a minor character in the story of the French Revolution. In The Queen’s Lover, we see the entire situation from Axel’s point of view, including his life after the execution of his beloved queen.

Thoughts on the story:

The Queen’s Lover is told as if posthumously through von Fersen’s diaries and memoirs, which themselves seem to have been written after the majority of the events in question. As a result there is – strangely, for fiction – essentially zero dialogue. This give the narrative almost a clinical feel, Axel seems to be reporting on the events in question more as a historian would than as a participant would, creating a less compelling narrative than one might expect from Marie Antoinette’s lover. von Fersen himself also comes across as fairly unlikeable, professing his great love for Marie Antoinette, all the while having affairs with other women even while the queen is still alive.

Thoughts on the audio production:

Edoardo Ballerini actually brings more depth and emotion toThe Queen’s Lover than is necessarily indicated in du Plessix Gray’s story, making it a better listen that it might otherwise be. At times I nearly even forgave Ballerini’s von Fersen for his infidelities, but when the king is only one of two husbands he is cuckolding, it is difficult, even with Ballerini’s sympathetic narration. There is not much cause for Ballerini to give characters different voices due to the lack of dialogue, but his vocal changes give depth to the difficult situations described.

For more, please see my review for Audiofile Magazine.

Overall:

I wish du Plessix Gray had simply written this as nonfiction, it could have been interesting and informative, but it was a bit odd as fiction. If you are going to attempt this, I strongly recommend the audiobook, as Ballerini keeps the story moving.

Buy this book from:
Powells: Print*
Indiebound: Print*
Audible.com

I’m launching a brand-new meme every Friday! I encourage you to review any audiobooks you review on Fridays and include the link here. If you have reviewed an audiobook earlier in the week, please feel free to link that review as well. Thanks to Pam for creating the button.

Source: Audiofile Magazine.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.
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Days of Splendor, Days of Sorrow by Juliet Grey – Book Review

Days of Splendor, Days of Sorrow by Juliet Grey
Published by Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House

This is the second book in the Marie Antoinette series. I have previously reviewed the first book, Becoming Marie Antoinette.

Marie Antoinette is now Queen of France, following the death of her husband’s grandfather. However, she is not yet a mother, nor has she even been given the opportunity to become one. As a women who both wants to become a mother and a queen whose duty is to become one, this childlessness leaves a hole in the queen’s heart. For Marie Antoinette, that hole is partially filled with parties, Le Petit Trianon, card games, and extravagant coiffures and gowns. Her extravagances lead her to be increasingly despised, particularly as members of the extended royal family create a smear campaign against her as a way to weaken the king’s authority and enhance their own.

Days of Splendor, Days of Sorrow spans the time between when Louis and Marie Antoinette become king and queen and the meeting of the National Assembly and the storming of the Bastille. Over the course of the book Marie Antoinette becomes a mother and matures, but if anything her reputation with the French public becomes worse. As in Becoming Marie Antoinette, Juliet Grey has transported her readers into 18th century French court life and particularly Marie Antoinette’s consciousness. I really appreciate that Grey has decided to take a trilogy to tell Marie Antoinette’s story, instead of simply a single novel, because it really helps readers understand how and where her world went so terribly wrong. Not only are Marie Antoinette’s motivations – particularly for her party girl ways early in her queenship – more easily understood, but so are the reasons for the French Revolution. In fact, I think only in nonfiction have I seen the causes of the French Revolution so well laid out.

This period of Marie Antoinette’s initial queenship is perhaps not the most exciting period of her life, but Grey manages to keep Days of Splendor, Days of Sorrow interesting. I appreciate that the books in this series could be read as standalones if one has a basic knowledge of the history, but they are undoubtedly more effective when read in series order. I cannot wait for the The Last October Sky, the last book in this series, which is scheduled to be published in 2013. If these first two books are any indication, The Last October Sky will be a powerful read.

Highly recommended.

Buy this book from:
Powells | Indiebound*

Source: Publisher.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.

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Bringing Up Bebe by Pamela Druckerman – Audiobook Review

Bringing Up Bebe by Pamela Druckerman, narrated by Abby Craden
Published in audio by Random House Audio, an imprint of Random House; published in print by Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin

If you reviewed an audiobook today, Tuesday, June 26th please leave your link in the Mr. Linky before midnight Central time (US) and you will be eligible to win a prize.

Synopsis:

Pamela Druckerman is an American woman married to a British man and living in Paris. When their daughter was a year old, the family took a vacation that necessitated eating out in restaurants every night. As most parents of a one year old can probably imagine, that didn’t go particularly well, particularly since they were eating nice places, not the the French equivalent of family chain restaurants. As she sat there, trying to figure out how to  keep her child entertained, Druckerman began to realize that the other toddlers in the restaurant were waiting calmly for their food and eating whatever was put in front of them. Since French parenting is not mythologized like their wine and cheese, it took her some time to realize what was going on, but eventually she began to pay closer attention to what the French parents around her were doing.

Thoughts on the story:

Bringing Up Bebe is a fascinating look at cultural differences in parenting, but it is not, strictly speaking, a parenting book. Druckerman is not holding French parenting up as the be all and end all of parenting, but as a consistent ideology that produces relatively consistent results, the results that are desired by these French parents. I can definitely see why this book has been somewhat controversial: many of the French parenting techniques are anti-attachment parenting, which is a huge trend in the United States at the moment; in addition, many of the stories she tells of American parents in Manhattan and Brooklyn are ridiculous in the extreme, and not really the norm of American parenting. Of course, since she is primarily studying Parisian parents, perhaps comparing them to New York parents of the same general social strata is, indeed, fair. Overall, though, Bringing Up Bebe offers interesting insights and ideas and is also fascinating simply as a cultural comparison of parenting styles.

Thoughts on the audio production:

Abby Craden does a wonderful job narrating Bringing Up Bebe. Her accents are good and her narrative style engaging, but most of all, I frequently forgot that I was listening to a hired narrator, and not simply Druckerman relating her observations. The ability to seamlessly blend into the story is, perhaps, the highest praise that I can give a narrator of memoirs. In becoming Druckerman, Craden brings this personal and parental account vividly to life.

Overall:

A fascinating book, you may want to have Bringing Up Bebe in print to refer back to some ideas, but I do recommend listening to Abby Craden narrate.

Buy this book from:
Powells: Audio/Print*
Indiebound: Audio/Print*

Source: Library.
* These links are all affiliate links. If you buy your book here I’ll make a very small amount of money that goes towards hosting, giveaways, etc.
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