Practical Jean by Trevor Cole – Book Review

Practical Jean by Trevor Cole
Published by Harper Perennial, an imprint of Harper Collins

Her mother’s death hit Jean Vale Horemarsh hard. Really hard. It isn’t so much that Jean misses her mother. On the contrary, Marjorie was always fairly terrible to Jean, or at least not very nurturing and maternal. No, the hard part for Jean about her mother’s death is just how painful and degrading and difficult it was, no human being should have to go through that. It would have been so much better had Jean thought to spare her mother the pain and simply ended things early. Ah, well, it is too late now for Marjorie, but Jean and her acquaintances are aging rapidly these days, and just maybe she can spare her friends the same fate that consumed her mother. Ending their lives in a moment of happiness, before they become sick and infirm; what could be more practical?

Practical Jean is a fascinatingly dark look at aging and the bonds of friendship. What is our obligation to the ones we love? What if those friends don’t have quite the same expectations of your friendship? Jean is an oddly sympathetic character. Clearly something in her snapped at her mother’s death for her to want to provide her friends with a moment of ultimate happiness and then kill them, but the way Cole develops Jean’s character and the story, she seems almost – but not quite – logical. One thing that Cole does really well in Practical Jean is give Jean’s friends enough depth to make them life-like, without making the reader truly attach to them so that the plotting of their deaths makes Jean seem monstrous.

There is a bit of a slow start to Practical Jean, before Jean decides the best thing she could possibly do would be to kill all of her friends when the story just sort of meanders. Once she gets going, though the reader cannot help but turn the pages with morbid curiosity. Recommended.

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Source: Publisher, via Netgalley.
* 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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How Shakespeare Changed Everything by Stephen Marche – Book Review

How Shakespeare Changed Everything by Stephen Marche
Published by Harper Books, an imprint of Harper Collins

The game is up and I’m in a pickle. Perhaps I’m just being cold-blooded, but there will be no reprieve. Cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war!

I imagine you would be hard pressed to find anyone who denies the influence of Shakespeare on the modern world. Or, in the case of those anti-Stratfordians, the work that is generally attributed to Shakespeare, regardless of who actually wrote it.To begin with, he coined some 1700 words, many of which are still used today. Stephen Marche’s thesis, though, is somewhat more than a nebulous claim of general influence. He asserts that Shakespeare actually changed, well, everything. Everything from sex to racial relations to teenagers. Marche even sees Obama’s victory – and the continuing opposition to him – as being heavily influenced by Shakespearean tropes:

The fact that 18 percent of Americans still believe that Obama is Muslim, the continuing power of the birther movement despite the clear-cut evidence that he was born in America, testify to Othello‘s power as a prepared narrative. For many Americans, Obama remains a noble Moor in the mold that Shakespeare cast. – p. 21

Except I’m pretty sure that isn’t the case. I would say pure and simple racism, with a bit of overwhelming political ideology, and a heavy helping of propaganda. I really don’t buy the whole ‘inspired by Shakespeare’ thing in this case, and on page 21 of 200, that isn’t a particularly good sign. Generally Marche didn’t seem to be quite as out in left field as that, but he did have a tendency to (vastly) overstate his case. For example:

Shakespeare has improved your sex life. If you’ve had sex without shame, sex for pleasure, for fun, for any other reason than procreation within marriage – Shakespeare, more than any other single figure, is responsible for the climate of permissiveness that made it possible. -p. 39-40

Because, you know, nobody ever had sex for pleasure before Shakespeare. I’m surprised the human race even made it to the 17th century.

Not to say that How Shakespeare Changed Everything was completely without value. Certainly there were many interesting facts about Shakespeare, his work and how aspects of our modern world match up. Certainly there are have been many homages to Shakespeare in the 400 odd years since he was writing, and many of these homages have shaped our everyday lives. To grant him complete agency over sex or Lincoln’s assassination, simply because his words and creations have been co-opted by others, seems a bit unwarranted.

Interesting if you are looking for evidence of how Shakespeare continues to be important in the world (and that is right up my alley), but don’t pick it up if hyperbole annoys you.

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* 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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A Lesson in Secrets by Jacqueline Winspear – Book Review

A Lesson in Secrets by Jacqueline Winspear
Published by Harper Books, an imprint of Harper Collins

My reviews of the first seven books in the seriesMaisie DobbsBirds of a FeatherPardonable LiesMessenger of TruthAn Incomplete Revenge, Among the Mad, The Mapping of Love and Death.

It is the summer of 1932, and Maisie has entered a new phase of her professional life, working her first case for the British Secret Service undercover as a professor at a small private college in Cambridge.

Please pardon me while I cry for a minute about the fact that now, after having read the first eight books in three months, I have to actually wait for more Maisie Dobbs books. I mean, for goodness sake, I couldn’t even wait until after the discussion of The Mapping of Love and Death in order to read this one, I started it almost immediately after finishing that book.

Once again, Winspear manages to keep her series remarkably fresh without it seeming contrived. Teaching at a small college is vastly different from anything that she has done before, but at the same time it seems completely natural for her. The most interesting part of the case, however, was how much it foreshadowed what was to come in the lead up to World War II.

Another fabulous entry into the Maisie Dobbs series! If you haven’t started this series yet, what are you waiting for?

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Source: Publisher via NetGalley.
* 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.

The Dressmaker of Khair Khana by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon – Book Review

The Dressmaker of Khair Khana: Five Sisters, One Remarkable Family, and the Woman Who Risked Everything to Keep Them Safe by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon
Published by Harper Books, an imprint of Harper Collins

Always a strong and opinionated young woman, Kamila Sidiqi is not entirely sure what to do with herself once the Taliban overruns her home city of Kabul. She can no longer go to school, or indeed go outside with any freedom whatsoever. To make matters worse, Kamila’s older brother and father must flee to avoid being conscripted or punished by the Taliban and Kamila’s mother leaves with her father, leaving her five youngest children – nearly all in their teens – at home alone rather than risk their lives on a dangerous trip. As the oldest of the children left behind, Kamila is determined to do whatever it takes to care for her siblings, but to ensure that they are materially comfortable, she needs to find a way to make money, not an easy task since the Taliban will generally not let women work outside the home, or go anywhere without a male relative as an escort. Kamila is a resourceful young girl, however, and it is not long before she comes up with a plan: she and her sisters will become seamstresses, taught by their accomplished older sister who is married, but still lives in Kabul. All of the girls will work together to create the dresses, and Kamila will sell them to tailor shops in the market place. Clothing is, after all, one of the few items which people are still in Kabul.

I love portraits of people, particularly women, around the world, particularly when they show the strength of the human spirit through adversity. Looking at “The Dressmaker of Khair Khana” in that light, it was a fascinating book; Kamila and her sisters were incredibly brave and resourceful, finding a way to not only maintain their own household, but to provide work for numerous local girls and women as well.

Unfortunately, Lemmon’s writing and storytelling failed to captivate me. Everything seemed very flat. The danger inherent in their lives was stated, but never felt particularly urgent, nor was the political situation explored with much complexity, which disappointed me. The writing was very straightforward, but to the point where it, too, seemed to lack complexity.

“The Dressmaker of Khair Khana” failed to challenge me and, as such, I cannot recommend it wholeheartedly for adults, although people with particular interest in the lives of women in the Muslim world may find interesting. I do, however, think that this would be an inspiring and completely appropriate book for younger teens who wish to explore the realities of people in war-torn areas of the world.

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A local independent bookstore via Indiebound.*
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Source: Publisher, via Net Galley.
* 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.

She Wolves by Helen Castor – Book Review

She Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth by Helen Castor
Published by Harper Books, an imprint of Harper Collins

When people think about English queens, the two Queen Elizabeths come to mind, perhaps Mary Tudor and Victoria. The one thing all of these women had in common is that they reigned in their own right, not as mere extensions of their husbands’ power. As the Virgin Queen, Elizabeth I is perhaps the epitome of the reigning queen of England, and certainly the first woman to rule so successfully under her own power, without the insinuation that she was being ruled by a husband, as was true of her older half sister, Mary Tudor. Although the Tudors women – Jane Grey, Mary Tudor, and Elizabeth Tudor – were the first to rule officially, they were not the first women to  exercise great power over England.

Helen Castor’s She Wolves explores indepth the lives and rules of four women whose stories could and may have provided the framework – cautionary and otherwise – that allowed Elizabeth’s great success as a woman and a ruler.

This Virgin Queen could do much. She was seductive Venus as well as chaste Diana. She was both a king and a queen, a man’s heart in a woman’s breast. What Knox had denounced as her “monstrous regiment” had given England the golden age of Gloriana. – p. 460

Jane Grey and Mary Tudor’s reigns were also mentioned more briefly, but it was the women who rules without the formal investiture of power that form the basis of this work.

Castor focuses primarily on Matilda, Lady of England, her daughter-in-law Eleanor of Aquitaine, Isabella of France, and Margaret of Anjou. Eleanor is probably the most famous of these women, being ruler of the duchy of Aquitaine in her own right, and essentially ruling for her son Richard I during his crusade and later his captivity on the Continent. She is perhaps the most interesting case study as well, as her life is a fabulous example of the different responses to strong women depending on their role in life. Demonized when fomenting rebellion among her sons against her controlling husband, she was later celebrated when acting on her absent son’s behalf. At the same time Eleanor’s chapter was perhaps the weakest; her husband and sons were such oversized characters that their actions overshadowed her for much of the section devoted to her.

Castor’s writing was clear, her style extremely engaging. I would have liked more comprehensive notes on sources. Many are mentioned, but in the end notes, and without reference to which sections of the chapters they informed. I would have particularly liked to have seen the notes for the section on Margaret of Anjou, because it seems that Castor was blaming much of the War of the Roses on Margaret’s foreign political upbringing and the decisions she made because of it, and I am completely unsure whether or not that is a valid reading of the historical sources – although it is an interesting one. Overall, though, I appreciated going deeper into the lives of these women who were so foundational to the ability of later women to rule England. Highly recommended.

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Powells | Indiebound |Amazon*

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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