A brief adventure in adult historical fiction

Three Sisters, Three Queens by Phillipa Gregory

Despite Gregory being a rather prolific writer, and my generally enjoyment of historical fiction, it’s maybe a bit surprising that I haven’t read anything else by Phillipa Gregory, not even the Other Boleyn Girl. But I was in an airport and it was on sale, so there you have it.

I actually really enjoyed it. Many people I talked to said her more recent stuff isn’t as good as the older ones, and who can blame her? She must be running out of Tudor women to give a twist to and write about. But without anything to compare it to, I really liked Three Sisters, Three Queens.

It’s the story of Henry VIII’s older sister Margret, who was married to the King of Scotland as a young teen and acted as regent for her son by him when her husband was killed. The center of the story is the dynamic of Catherine of Aragon, Margret and her younger sister Mary, three Tudor princesses who all marry kings but ultimately lead tragic lives.

What I liked most about the story was Margret’s rather annoying, petty, bratty personality. She saw her whole life as a competition against her sisters. When she is succeeding and they are not, she is smug and filled with false generosity and when they are outdoing her she resents the same behaviour. It sounds like a weird thing to really enjoy about a main character but I really liked the fact that she was filled with personality, even if it was an often dis-likable personality, and not a Mary Sue kind of princess. Also, I was ablw to read her as a very sympathetic character despite this because it seemed to me that someone so young, naive and out of touch with reality should be pitied. She was raised without any real understanding of the world – she was a symbol of Tudor power, but never a person so it’s not surprising that she mishandles every challenge she ever faces. How would she know better?

The most interesting thing about historical fiction of course is never about the history but what interests us know and what that says about who we are. I’m glad I had a bit of a reminder of that.

Last movie I watched:

Valentine’s Day. Not as good as Love Actually.

Last TV episode I watched:

The Musketeers. Such a wonderful, swashbuckling show

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Child, first person narrator and still they die? Bold move, bold move

Lincoln and His Boys by Rosemary Wells

It is not often that a children’s book is narrated in first person by a child who dies. Actually, it’s not often that children die in children’s books at all really. But that’s exactly what happened in Lincoln and His Boys. Well done to the author for sticking to a touchy historical subject I suppose. Lincoln had four sons, and only one lived to adulthood.

I googled that.

Lincoln and his boys is basically a hyper patriotic look at Abraham Lincoln through the eyes of his two young sons first Willie, as Lincoln campaigns for the presidency and then Tad after his brother dies, during the Civil War.

I have no idea how exactly I came to possess this book, but I did, so I read it.

I’m not exactly an expert on the American Civil War or its major players. In fact, most of my knowledge probably comes from reading historical fiction – does that count as knowledge? – so I’m hesitant to be overly critical of this book.

What I will say is simplistic. It was an easy story of two boys that contained none of the complexities, personality and consequences of this massive and devastating conflict Because of that, I’d say its kind of a weird book. On the one hand, it isn’t a great introduction to the Civil War because it’s too pure and innocent, but it’s kind of a weird story just to read because you like it. I mean, there’s probably a few kids out there who just like relative historical accuracy  reading for themselves, but I probably wouldn’t recommend it to anyone else.

One thing I really did enjoy was the younger son, who has a cleft palate and his struggle to be understood and taken seriously when he had such a hard time speaking. As usual, having people who are different be highly visible is always a good thing.

I will say that once you’ve picked it up, it does make you curious. History isn’t only great men doing great things, its the everyday business of life and death and love and play and sorrow and the struggle to do what is right, even when that’s not a clear thing and that’s pretty compelling.

Also, he pictures were nice.

Last movie I watched:

Inside Out. Take her to the moon for me. SOB.

Last TV episode I watched:

Game of Thrones. My hand hurts just thinking about it.

 

Beautifully drawn, carefully written and heart breakingly true

The Outside Circle by Patti Lacoucane-Benson and Kelly Mellings

Outside Circle is one of the most amazing graphic novels I have ever read. I cannot emphasis enough how much this book should be required reading in all grade 10 history classes.

The book is the story of two young brothers and their struggle to escape the destructive cycle many aboriginal people are trapped in. I’m going to spoil this book (sorry because it’s so amazing) but it’s still 100% worth the read. If you trust me and are going to follow through on my advice to read this book as soon as possible and don’t want spoilers, stop now.

Pete and Joey have never known their father. They’re mother’s boyfriend is an addict, so is their mother. Pete is in a gang, a place where he finds companionship and a release for all his anger and rage. One night, they give him gun as a birthday gift. That same night he breaks up with his girlfriend after learning she’s pregnant with his baby. Joey, his younger brother waits at home for him. His mother and her boyfriend sell everything the brothers have, to buy some cocaine, and Pete is furious. He gets in a fight with the boyfriend, who attacks him. Pete pulls out his gun and kills him. Pete ends up in prison, Joey in the foster care system. But while Pete’s life improves when he’s granted bail to take part in a program for aboriginal men, instead of prison time Joey’s life gets worse, first in foster care, then on the streets, eventually in the same gang that Pete was in.

There are three things I think that make this book particularly moving. One is the history, woven in through out the story in a not-so-subtle way. The second is the illustrations, which are breathtaking. The third is that, while Pete and Joey are fictional, this is probably a true story.

Aboriginal history is a difficult and touchy subject to be taught in Canadian schools (American too probably, but I’ve never been an American grade school student, so it’s only a guess). We also live with the ongoing effects of a legacy of colonial history and the brutal toll poverty can have on a person, and how each generation inherits this trauma from the past. This graphic novel is didactic, it wants to teach the horror in aboriginal history, and it’s not trying to hide it’s agenda with subtle facts. It’s upfront, 100% clear, explained real history, even down to dates in some cases. Normally I don’t like that in a kids book, but the history is so powerful, human and heart breaking that it’s hard to look away.  That’s the point. We shouldn’t be looking away. We shouldn’t be pretending that the unimaginable death caused by Europeans, the abuse, the theft of land, the cultural destruction, the abduction of children, the explotation, the poverty and the continuing cycle of hopelessness and despair is somehow disconnected from our country’s greatest shame.

The illustrations are amazing. Some graphic novels are novels with pictures with them. Outside Circle is not one of those books. The graphics, besides being beautiful to look at, bring their own details to the story. The biggest example is Pete’s mask. Whenever he’s angry a white and red mask appear on his face. No one but the reader sees it but later in the book Pete makes a new mask as part of his therapy and you understand the subtleties of the earlier pictures. The other beautiful example is when Joey’s mother is signing away parental rights to her son. The document she signs is never described but if you read it, its an account of the long history of the loss of aboriginal children into the system.

The last, and probably worst thing about this book at it’s basically true. The author works in a real program to rehabilitate aboriginal men who have committed serious crimes, essentially because they suffering from poverty, abuse and hopelessness their whole lives and then as adults repeated the same choices their parents had made because it’s all they k know. It’s heartbreaking because it’s true.

Now, the end does offer some hope, when Pete and Joey get out of the system, Pete works, quits his gang and Joey presumably goes back to school. But my favourite change was Pete acknowledging his daughter,  making it clear that he was going to raise her exactly the way he should have been raised, and spend his life trying to bring her a place where she could be proud of her ancestry, not imprisoned  by it.

Go out and get it right now. You might cry a little, but you won’t regret the read.

Last movie I watched:

Annabell’s Wish. That beautiful baby cow!! Giving her wish to her best friend.

Last TV episode I watched:

That Grey’s Anatomy. I can’t even keep straight who’s who in that show.

 

 

 

Royally screwed: Elizabeth I’s fictional diary

The Royal Diaries: Elizabeth I Red Rose of the House of Tudor by Kathryn Lasky

The Royal Diaries is a lengthy series of fictionalize accounts of real princesses written in the form of a diary. I have no idea why I picked this one particularly, although I do enjoy Tudor history, so I’m assuming that had something to do with it. I was not expecting great literature, just a piece of historical fiction written for girls, and in that, I was right. But it was still pretty good.

The story is of Princess Elizabeth, destined to become Queen Elizabeth I, near the end of her father, Henry VIII’S life. She starts writing in her diary because she’s lonely, exiled from court after she offends her father. The story follows her journey back to court, her relationship with her half siblings, Edward and Mary, some of her other friends, her relationship with her Catherine Parr and the other women she has called mother, and her own uncertain future, all the way through to the death of her father.

It wasn’t a masterpiece or anything. It was just a book for kids. A book meant to teach girls history in a sneaky way and to contextualize being a girl in a history that usually forgets them. This are good things, worth reading even if they aren’t staggering works of literature.

Two things that I thought were unusually nice about this book. One was the historical accuracy. This is not a Sexy-Tudor style depiction of the 1500s. Elizabeth regularly documents the way the court reeks from all the people and waste and rotting food in the castles, and they move to different courts regularly to escape the smell. She talks about the common diseases everyone catches and passes on, how rarely the she baths and how much she hates lice and fleas which infest every court. Spend time reading historical fiction and it’s easy to daydream about that time. Read this book and you’re so grateful you’re living now. Like, I can bath any time I want and I will never, ever stop being grateful for that.

I also enjoyed Elizabeth’s struggle to feel loved and accepted. Her father doesn’t have time for her particularly, with his coveted son and Mary, his oldest child – Elizabeth isn’t even the spare, she’s the daughter of the woman he executed for witchcraft.  By far the most intelligent of her siblings, she’s always striving for his love. Her newest mother Catherine Parr is invested in her future too and is the best mother she remembers, but even so, as Queen she’s busy and far away most of the time. Yet, Elizabeth’s loyalty to them both is absolute and all she wants is their love. You know, probably something a child from a broken home could really understand.

I’d recommend these books to kids with good reading skills, although there are some questions that might come up for older kids (Elizabeth mentions getting her period so ten bonus points for that, there’s a scandalous sexual affair that’s hinted at) but I think these are all good things.

Last movie I watched:

Milk. Everyone who gets confused about why Pride is a thing needs to watch that movie.

Last TV episode I watched:

Supernatural. This show used to be awesome. Now it’s just fun. But in a stupid way.

The kind of story that really makes you hate humanity. Also the kind that really needs to be told

Pride of Baghdad by Brian K Vaughan, Niko Henrichon and Todd Klein

Spoilers: I’m gonna talk about the end of this book in this blog post. That’s cool, most people I know won’t read it anyway.

This is a beautifully illustrated, incredibly gory story about four lions who live in the Baghdad zoo. Zill is the male, who was quite young when he was captured. Safa is an old lioness who spent most of her life in the wild and who embraces the easy food and the protection from violence and rape that she enjoys in the zoo. Noor hates  her life in a cage and spends most of her time trying to convince the other animals to help  her escape. Ali is Noor’s cub, young, born in the zoo and confused by the conflicting history he gets from the adults in his life. Their world is completely thrown into chaos when the Americans bomb Baghdad and the zoo is destroyed.

Now the worst part of the story is that it’s based on a true one.

Hungry and confused the four lions venture out into the city, looking for food and safety.

Their portrayal is an amazing combination of animal and human.  Safa’s hesitation about the ethics of eating a dead human when they find a body and are desperately hungry is a beautiful moment. Their relationship with the other animals that they encounter blends animal instinct with surprising humanity. From their complex perspectives the horrors of war and environmental devastation are senseless and horrifying.

Don’t get me wrong. The animal world is violent, with one depiction of rape, constant violence between them and then the drive to hunt and kill but this seems unavoidable and reasonable compared to what the people do. The lions fight and kill to protect themselves and eat and survive while there’s  no explanation at all for the tanks and bombs and machine guns.

By far the most devastating part is the end, when all the lions are killed by American troops. Zill was shot first. Safa tries to fight the army off, to give Noor and Ali a chance to escape but is torn apart by a machine gun. Noor and Ali are killed almost immediately afterwards.

The moment that I really felt was when Noor, after watching Safa get literally shredded, screams “Animals! You goddamn…” before she and her son are gunned down.

Like War Horse and Faithful Elephants, this is a horrible story about how humanity’s tendency to self destruct is harmful to everyone, not just the people involved.

I think that’s important.

Last movie I watched: Iron Man 3.

Last TV episode I watched: NEWSROOM IS AWESOME