All Hail the Sisters Mazarin

Review #3

Book: The Kings’ Mistresses by Elizabeth C. Goldsmith

Audience: G-U

Genre: Nonfiction

Rating:bookbookbookbook

 

Sisters. Royalty. Feisty, independent women ahead of their time. What was not for me to love?

As very young girls, Marie and Hortense Mancini left their native Italy and relocated to France in order to boost the family status of their uncle, the exceedingly powerful Cardinal Jules Mazarin. Though not exactly members of French royal society themselves, the girls nonetheless enjoyed friendships with its members. Most particularly, Marie, as a late teenager, became a close friend and eventual mistress of Louis XIV. Louis, of course, needed to marry royalty, so ultimately the Cardinal made sure the relationship ended and had Marie married off to the Italian Prince Lorenzo Colonna. Likewise, a suitable marriage was found for the beautiful Hortense, to the much older Armand-Charles de La Meilleraye, who became the Duke Mazarin upon the Cardinal’s death. Marie’s marriage briefly worked, but Hortense’s was a disaster from the start. In time, both women would leave their husbands, seek legal protection from them, wander the continent going from convent to convent (the only places they could legally live away from their husbands), and write their memoirs. In time, Hortense journeyed to England and for a while was a mistress of Charles II. All of these behaviors were scandalous, and thus one of the things that makes these ladies so interesting.

I found this book to be an easy and fascinating read. Often biographies involving royalty contain so many players that it can be hard to keep the cast of characters straight in my mind. Not so here. Miss Goldsmith keeps to her central figures in a simple and direct style. Of course, it helps that her central figures were so interesting.  Marie and Hortense were not revolutionaries—they did not seek women’s rights or advocate a particular cause. Their lives were intended to follow the feminine narrative prescribed for centuries. However, when faced with unbearable marital situations, they went off script and—gasp!—sought personal justice. While they never got exactly the redress they sought, the mere fact that did not accept the status quo and tried to do something about it makes them objects of my admiration.

Growing Up and Going Downtown

Review #2

Book: Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown by Maud Hart Lovelace

Audience: C

Genre: Realistic fiction

Rating: bookbookbook

In this 4th installment of the series, best friends Betsy, Tacy, and Tib are now twelve and decidedly (but not inappropriately) more mature. Instead of semi-screwball antics, the girls—particularly Besty—are more interested in the arts. Betsy manages to get a desk where she can work on her dream of being a writer, and her father allows her to go to the downtown library every two weeks or so to read good examples of literature instead of the sensation novels she borrows from the hired woman. The threesome adds a new friend to their group, the well-connected Winona, through whom they experience the theater. They also meet the big, big-hearted, and wealthy Mrs. Poppy, who proves to be a benefactress in multiple ways. With a growing interest in their futures and in boys, particularly Tom and Herbert, the best friends are ready to transition from childhood to girlhood.

 

I find myself enjoying each subsequent book in the Betsy-Tacy series more than its predecessor.  This is likely because my favorite children’s books are for middle grade readers. Mrs. Lovelace has an uncanny ability to write for several different audiences. In the first book of the series, Betsy and Tacy are five and the book reads like a book for kindergarteners. As the series progresses, the audience changes and so does how Mrs. Lovelace speaks to her readers. This is perhaps the series’ greatest strength. A weakness is a lack of some development in some of the characters. Betsy is a finely honed, dynamic character, but her best friends are pretty much just as they were when we first met them. I liked the addition of Winona and Mrs. Poppy and hope they will add interest.  I’m sure Betsy will keep evolving and keep me attentive, and I hope the new characters will liven things up with Tacy and Tib.

 

Tolerating Tolerance

Review #1

Book: Zero Tolerance by Claudia Mills

Audience: C

Genre: Realistic fiction

Rating: bookbookbook

Sierra Shepherd is every parent, teacher, and principal’s dream: she follows rules, does her homework, gets great grades, participates in extracurricular activities,  and takes a leadership role at school. So ingrained is her determination to do the right thing that when she discovers a paring knife in her lunch bag (she picked up her mother’s lunch that morning by mistake), she immediately turns in the knife to the staff member in charge. She doesn’t reckon on the school’s strict interpretation of its zero tolerance policy concerning bringing weapons to school—any student in possession of one faces immediate expulsion. Sierra figures that bringing the knife was an innocent mistake which she tried to rectify, so expulsion is not an option. However, Sierra’s knife incident catches the principal Mr. Besser at a bad moment, in front of a visiting principal to whom Mr. Besser has just bragged about how he has turned the school around with his zero tolerance policies. Feeling a need to save face, Mr. Besser stuns Sierra with his decision to enforce the expulsion rule. Her family immediately appeals, and while awaiting the hearing that will determine her fate, Sierra spends several days in in-school suspension. During this time she makes discoveries about the “good” kids and the “bad” kids at school, the principal, her parents, and herself.

With short, breezy chapters, this book was an easy quick read, which is interesting considering that the subject matter is anything but easy. You can tell Miss Mills wants to represent multiple sides of the issue, with Sierra, her mother, her father, her friends, the principal, his secretary, and the suspension kids all having their own opinions and concerns about the incident. Containing all of these ideas about an issue present in many schools, this book could make for interesting book club discussions. However, the book failed to really engage me. Sierra is the only likeable character, and some characters (the parents, the frenemy, the secretary) events (the visit to Beautiful Mountain school, the press coverage) and subplots (the choir, the romances) tend toward cliché rather than representative of middle school. Intermediate readers, though, may not make that distinction. Ultimately, this was a good idea for a book about a complex issue, but in execution the author took the simple way out.

Challenge Accepted

So, what to do for this year?

I could set a new goal of even more books, but really, what is the point of that? I will still track my books with my trusty spreadsheet and try to read a great deal, but simply setting a new number goal does not interest me.

So what does interest me? Not just reading, but also writing.

Keeping this blog the past year has reawakened my interest in writing skills. For the most part, I worked on each posting for several days before publishing. I found myself concerned with the hook, the conclusion, word choice, direction, voice, and a whole host of other writing techniques. I say I want to be a writer, so this year’s focus will be on writing, connected to reading.

How to go about doing that? Simple. Book reviews. I had some book review pages on the blog last year and started off enthusiastically, but those pages dropped off as other things pressed. This year will be different. I am challenging myself to write one book review a week. I hope to post the reviews on Saturday or Sunday, and if I should miss a week due to vacation, illness, whatever, then I need to post two the following week. There are 52 weekends, so that means I’m challenging myself to write 52 book reviews.

I intend to write about the recent new-to-me books I’ve read, both Children’s and G-U. The first weekend starts tomorrow and I likely will not finish a new book in time to write a review of it, so I’ll write one for a recent first-time read. I may play with format as the year progresses, as I hope to research (ever the librarian!) professional reviews, so we’ll see what the year brings.

For each book, I will identify the audience (C=Children, G-U=Grown Up) and genre. I will also rate each book using the following system:

book = Horrible, don’t waste your time

bookbook = Not good, but had something worthwhile about it, although not worth a re-read

bookbookbook = OK, , enjoyable, but run of the mill, might read it again

bookbookbookbook = Good, interesting, definitely would read again

bookbookbookbookbook =Excellent, superlative, worth re-reading on a regular basis

Each review will include a brief synopsis and commentary, as all book reviews should. Since this is my blog and not some detached professional review source, the reviews may or may not be personal. Who knows? I’ll just take one week and one review at a time and see how this goes.

I think, I’m up for the challenge.

 

 

 

The Year in Review

Date: 01 January 2014

Books Completed: 218

Well! It’s been quite a year.

I started off 2013 with 2 goals. I am delighted to say that I exceeded them both.

My first goal was to enter a 5K. I actually entered 2 of them. One I (mostly) ran on October 12th with my good friend Diana. It was in Gettysburg and was a breast cancer research fundraiser. The second 5K I walked on December 21st, this time with my 74-year-old mum. This was again in Gettysburg and was a fundraiser for the school attached to my parents’ church, in memory of a parishioner who died of breast cancer earlier this year. I will admit that I was proud of this FFG for finishing a 5K in 36.36 minutes (this would be my October time), but I was prouder that my mother, who was likely the oldest person in the event, completed the 5K at all, much less in under an hour. Go mum!

My second goal was to read 200 books. In 2012 I read 195, so 200 certainly seemed possible. As my final count indicates, I actually read 218 (the over-achiever in me rears its ugly head). Some I loved, some I never want to see again, some are somewhere in between.

I’ll start with the re-reads. I revisited 82 books this year, 74 of which were children’s. Perhaps that seems excessive to a non-re-reader, but I make no apologies. If you had the chance to visit with 82 friends this past year, wouldn’t you take the opportunity to do so? Think about how many TV shows and movies people saw more than once this year. I will never regret spending as much time as possible in Avonlea, Narnia, Willow Falls, or Biddle, or enjoying the society of the McCoys, the Fossils, the Marches, the Ingallses, or my friends created by Misses Blume and Danziger. Deal with it.

Out of the 136 new books I read (come on, that’s still an impressive number), 96 were children’s. I’ve already commented on the ones in my first hundred books, so I won’t rehash that. In this second hundred-group, I read books by authors I love (Paula Danziger, Wendy Mass, Sharon Creech, Christopher Paul Curtis) and found some new authors I highly respect (Allan Stratton, Chris Grabenstein, Lynda Mullaly Hunt). I read some books I truly enjoyed (A Solitary Blue, Hound Dog True, Eight Cousins) and some I truly did not (The Lucky Ones, Hokey Pokey).

As for the g-u books, I read a total of 40 this year—20 fiction and 20 nonfiction. I still have a hard time finding grown up fiction to love. I did thoroughly enjoy The Perfume Collector and mostly liked Blackbird House, but overall the books I most enjoyed were the classics—The Age of Innocence, My Antonia, and The Scarlet Pimpernel among them. Scattered Seed was too depressing, The Irresistible Blueberry Bake Shop and Café too predictable, and Midnight Champagne too sloppily written for me to have truly enjoyed them.

Not surprisingly, I had better luck with the nonfiction books I read.  Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted, Born Standing Up, The Assassination of the Archduke, The Kings’ Mistresses, and Two Rings were all enjoyable reads. There were only two that I really did not care for—Five Sisters (horribly misnamed) and Cleopatra: A Life (horribly unfocused).

So, 365 days and 218 books later, I can now reveal my top picks for 2013. They are:

Children’s:

The Last Present by Wendy Mass. No huge surprise there, although not an automatic slam dunk. In continuing a much beloved series, there is always a risk of disappointing the devoted fan. Miss Mass delivered with a funny, creative, and satisfying fourth and hopefully final installment.

Grown Up Fiction:

Beautiful Day by Elin Hilderbrand. I found this story of a Nantucket wedding weekend told mostly from the matron of honor’s perspective touching, realistic, and hopeful.

Grown Up Nonfiction:

The Astronaut Wives Club by Lily Koppel. Miss Koppel’s book was engaging, interesting, well researched, and totally enjoyable. BTW–I decided to recuse the book about Pride and Prejudice from contention because I am horribly biased and to include it would be utterly unfair to the 19 other books in the category.

There you have it. Click on the attachments for complete lists. Tune in later for what the Book Diva will be up to in 2014.

New Children’s Books 2013

New G-U Books 2013