Thursday, January 5, 2012

The Boleyn Inheritance

I love historical fiction, but it has been difficult for me to find good writers in that genre. I often find that either the historical details are accurate, but the story is dull or hokey, or that the story is interesting, but poorly rooted in the setting.

One author I love is Philippa Gregory. She is well-known for her vivid depiction of the tragic lives of King Henry VIII's six wives. I respect her because she researches her novels as well as if they were nonfiction. She takes well-developed characters, gives them strong motivations and depth of emotion, and weaves them into the fabric of true history. At this stage in her career, she must be quite an authority on Henry VIII and the entire Tudor family.

I read The Other Boleyn Girl, which is about Mary and Anne Boleyn's rivalry for King Henry's affections (Anne won, to her obvious detriment). It's a juicy tale full of power-hungry courtiers, back-stabbing relatives, sensuality, desperation, and brother-sister incest. But as riveting as that book was, I liked the sequel, The Boleyn Inheritance, even better.

The sequel is told in three voices: Henry's fourth and fifth wives, Anne of Cleves and Katherine Howard, and the high-ranking courtier manipulating behind the scenes, Jane Boleyn. Both Anne and Katherine had short marriages; Anne's ended in a quiet divorce, and Katherine's in another beheading. (I assume there was no need for a spoiler alert there. Most people know the classic Henry VIII rhyme, "divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived".)

The best part of this book is the distinct trio of narrators Gregory provides.

Katherine Howard is silly and wealth-obsessed, but skilled in the art of flirtation and willing to serve her power-hungry clan with blind obedience. Her beauty and feminine wiles earn her the crown and the space in Henry's bed at the mere age of fourteen. She meets her downfall when she can't carry on in her marriage to the aging, fat and flatulent Henry after she falls in love with Henry's new favorite champion, Thomas Culpepper.

Jane Boleyn, Katherine's mentor and guide in the Boleyn/Howard clan, carries around the burden of having sent her sister-in-law Anne Boleyn to her death. She gave evidence against Anne and her own husband, Anne's brother George, accusing them of an incestual relationship. Jane still seethes with jealousy and resentment over her own inability to satisfy George. Meanwhile, Jane is determined to do her part to raise her clan into power again, and is hopeful that she will earn a new husband for her efforts. Jane is gradually driven to insanity, and it's fun to read the changes in her "voice" as this happens.

Anne of Cleves is the perfect counterpart to the silliness of Katherine and the insanity of Jane. Anne is an honorable woman, one who tries her best to be a queen worthy of praise and respect, but she has married into an impossible situation: she is the fourth wife of a man who is increasingly spoiled and impossible to please, and the fourth queen of a country that has tired of loving and losing their monarchs. Anne is the sole voice of wisdom and accountability in this novel, and as a result, she is the only one who truly gets what she wants in the end, while the rest of the court goes down in debaucherous flames.

I highly recommend all of these books. I'm currently listening to The Constant Princess, which tells the tale of Henry's first wife, Katherine of Aragon, and I'm enjoying it. It's fun to escape behind the walls of the Tudor castles, with their riches, lords and maids, and courtly delights. And even better, I'm learning about people and events that really happened, handled by a master author who makes the history come alive.

So grab a glass of ale and a roast leg of turkey, and cuddle up in your hardest throne-like chair with one of Gregory's books. I promise you'll lose your head in the story (and not on the executioner's block, like Anne Boleyn).

Sunday, January 1, 2012

The Need to Read

Happy New Year everyone! After a very hectic month, I'm looking forward to returning to this blog with renewed vigor and creativity.

I've been on vacation from work for the past 9 days, and while those days have been packed with holiday and family celebrations, I'm disappointed in myself for only managing to finish one book (and several magazines). What's worse, the book wasn't even a very good one- The One That I Want by Allison Winn Scotch- or at least, it was neither good enough nor bad enough to blog about. When I'm on vacation during the summer, I can easily read 2-3 books per week, not counting the audiobook that's always on in my car. So what's the problem now?

I blame two things:
1. Christmas music and
2. Television.

Christmas music prevents me from listening to audiobooks, because while it lasts, I can't get enough of it. As a music teacher, you'd think I'd be sick of any form of holiday tune by December 1, but you'd be wrong. I'll still have my car radio, my iTunes playlist, and Pandora synced to Bing Crosby, Michael Buble and the Trans-Siberian Orchestra all the way through the twelve days of Christmas. Audiobooks can wait.

Television is the big culprit, and will continue to be blamed for any lack of reading throughout the winter and spring. Over the summer, we all read more- why? Because there's nothing but reruns on TV. We also read more in the summer because books are more portable than television, or at least they used to be. Pretty soon we may all be watching episodes of 30 Rock on the beach instead of reading Tina Fey's bio, Bossypants. Certainly many of us with smart phones have that capability now, though wireless networks may not have completely covered the beach zones.

Television vs. reading is not a new topic. Experts say that television is mind-numbing and time-wasting; that the decline of reading is wasting away our brains; and that the couch-potato syndrome is making us fat and unhealthy. I'm not an expert, but I do think there's value to some television. I like shows that make me think and make me laugh. I like shows that make me think more about the writers than the actors, the witty and creative men and women behind the scenes. I don't think those shows are time-wasters, but I do think it's tough sometimes to decide which programs are important to watch and which are the ones that drain you of time and energy. I know that my ability to focus on a book for a long period of time is less than my ability to focus on the TV screen, at least during the winter, and that makes me sad. I'd like to try to build up that stamina again in myself, and to promote that desire in others.

I also have to remind myself that I didn't have this blog last summer, at least not until the very end. I was able to read freely and without critical voice, and that lack of pressure made it easier to breeze through novel after novel. Now that I'm conscious that what I'm reading is feeding my writing, I need to be more choosy about what I'm reading and also be more critically aware while reading it. I'm glad of this because it helps me become a more discriminating reader and a more understanding writer, but it also makes the reading itself more challenging.

With my return to work, I need to try harder to make time for reading, rather than simply find the time. I always read before bed, but if I'm already tired, that doesn't add up to much. I know that, in the evenings, I need to turn off the television or move to a room that the television is not on. Sometimes that's difficult- if I want to spend time with my husband, and he's watching TV, for example- but I'll need to try harder to make that choice. Winter is a time for staying indoors and cozying up to a good book. In 2012, I'll make it my resolution to spend more time doing just that.

Anyone want to join me?