Book Reviews: “Beneath a Marble Sky” by John Shors and “The Other Boleyn Girl” by Phillippa Gregory

Two book reviews for the price of one. Today only.

Actually, what happened was this: I started reading Marble Sky back in April, around the same time I was reading Prose’s book on Reading like a writer. I didn’t finish the Marble Sky book until the beginning of June, and by then, my online book club had started reading the Other Boleyn Girl. So I figured I’d play a little catch-up and start reading that book while I got read to review Marble Sky. Well, I got so caught up in reading the Boleyn book, that I decided to put the two reviews together, because, the two are surprisingly similar.

Both deal with politics within royalty. Both have female protagonists that merely wish to live their lives in peace and love. Both have siblings who hunger for the throne, and who win it, but are not happy to hold it. And both are historical fiction.

Marble Sky deals with Princess Jahanara, the daughter of Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan. Being a woman who constantly looks up to her wise mother, Mumtaz Mahal, Jahanara is struggling in helping her brother Dara, more philosopher than ruler, to see the danger of their brother Aurangzeb, who is more cruel bloodthirsty and champing for the throne. After being placed in a loveless marriage, and witnessing her mother’s death in childbirth, she falls in love with the man who is the architect of building the greatest mausoleum in the world, Isa.

Jahanara’s world is full of plotting–scheming to spend time with her lover, scheming to keep Aurangzeb at arm’s length, even putting herself in dangerous situations to alleviate his hatred. She loves her parents tremendously and is heartbroken to see such strife within her own family. When Aurangzeb does grab the throne, Jahanara witnesses the downfall of her family, of Hindustan, of their entire way of life, and though she is powerless to stop it, she takes drastic steps to insure the safety of the man she loves.

Although this is a good book, there are some parts that was hard for me to read. Jahanara’s brother and the husband is quite cruel to her, doing thing that are downright torture. The fact that Jahanara willingly walks into these situations is very hard to watch, but indeed shows the strength of a very enduring woman who will do anything to protect her loved ones.

In contrast, Mary Boleyn is not a strong woman, not initially, anyway. She lives in a cloistered household where her parents see her and her siblings as commodities to do as they pleased. She is also placed in an arranged marriage, but what little love that could have eventually blossomed is squashed when Henry VIII takes an interest in her. Her parents then instruct her to forsake her marriage so she can become a plaything for the king, and enlist her siblings Anne and George to groom her into the right things to do.

Mary’s world is also full of plotting–except others do the plotting for her. She is pretty much a pawn of her family, forced out of duty to pleasure the king. Even her husband has no say, can only watch from the sidelines as his fortunes grow from his own wife being boinked by the king, who is portrayed by Gregory to be an overgrown spoiled brat, always wanting his way. At first, his desires are checked by the Queen, Katherine, who chooses to look the other way at her husband’s indiscretions while praying for his soul. But when Mary bears children, the king starts looking at her more-ambitious sister, Anne. And she isn’t content with just being a plaything. She wants to be Queen.

I have to say that I enjoyed the Other Boleyn Girl much more than Beneath a Marble Sky. Not to say that the latter isn’t a great book: Jahanara’s decisions and sacrifices had me quite enthralled. But you knew how relationships stood: Jahanara is the loving daughter. Isa is the man who loves her. Aurangzeb is the evil brother. Dara is the good brother. The characters and relationships to each other are clear cut. In the Boleyn saga, Gregory is far more subtle with her characters. There is no rape, no torture, no physical pain involved. Rather, all the turmoil in the book is more relational and emotional.

For instance, Mary’s relationship with the queen, two women trapped by the whims of the king. Because she doesn’t outright condemn Mary for taking on the interest of the king, she shows her displeasure through more subtle humiliations: when Mary gives her scarf to the king as a token during a jousting tournament, it is given to the queen by mistake. She holds up the scarf for Mary to see, then drops it to the floor in front of everyone and Mary is forced to pick it up. Yet despite knowing that the Queen dislikes her, Mary continues to serve her, looking up to her in a way that she can’t look up to her own, heartless mother. And when Katherine’s ladies-in-waiting abandon her for the more popular Anne, Mary is the only one who stays behind to serve her, partly from her own love of the queen, partly from guilt, and partly to act as spy for her uncle, who is determined to help Anne push Katherine out of the throne.

Then there is Anne herself. Viewed from her sister’s eyes, she is rival and friend, enemy and sister. Mary at one time is waited upon her, but as Anne’s popularity grows, she turns into caretaker as well, although their brother George is also in. Indeed, the three siblings, having nowhere else to turn, form a familial unit that almost borders on incestuous (and it is interesting how Gregory spins that side of George Boleyn–I came away with more of the impression that he could be another sister in a man’s body, that is until Anne starts getting very weird. But for that you have to read the book). However, the love they share, particularly between Anne and Mary, is always mixed with envy and spite. Gregory does a wonderful job in portraying Anne as a terrifying, catty character, but there is a price for her to act so; juggling her ambitions puts such a weariness in her that she only displays before Mary and George that is almost tender and sad.

Towards the end, Mary does find the strength to disobey her family and search out true love for herself. In fact, I would say that the two books almost mirror each other–both Jahanara and Mary escaping the pit their families had fallen into to find true love for themselves. And both have bitter endings, though Jahanara’s is a little more optimistic. Then again, she hadn’t seen both her siblings put to death as Mary did, and she doesn’t quite have the sense of doom that Mary has in knowing that the king has the power to do anything he wants. But while Jahanara’s ending was pretty much that for me, I hungered to know more on what’s life was like after Mary left, despairing that her sister’s only daughter will “never sit on the throne”. Good thing that Gregory wrote sequels.

So to rate these, I would give three 1/2 thrones out of five for Beneath a Marble Sky, but four 1/2 thrones for the Other Boleyn Girl. And if I ever get the chance to be queen for a day, I think I’ll pass.


The Cafe in the Woods goes GREEN….

Actually, seeing that this is a virtual blog, it’s not really green (unless you count the new header picture,) But I am pleased to announce that our household has become a bit more environmental-conscious. Well, I have, anyway. The hubby and kid just goes along with it.

I’ve been looking into organic eating before we moved from Chicago. Some friends of ours from Chicago had moved to Wisconsin a couple of years ago and now ran their own farm. Their tales of organic farming and eating made me rethink our own eating habits. I wanted us to have a healthier lifestyle–not necessarily turning into vegans, mind you, but I wanted to bring more vegetables into our diet and cut back on meat. Problem is, it’s not that easy to do. Organic food is somewhat pricey, as you all well know. The only way that we would be able to eat organic, I thought, was that we’d make a deal with a farm somewhere. I had started looking into that last year before circumstances caused me to absolutely forget it.

Then we moved to Wisconsin.

It seems like Madison overall has this green thing going–lots of bike paths everywhere, heavy emphasis on farmer’s markets. I guess that comes from the fact that the town’s situated in the middle of farmland. Where hubby and I work now is only about a mile away, a nice walking distance. But the best thing is that we’re now close to our friends who own the farm, and it just so happens that they have workshares: work a certain number of hours at their farm, and you get a box of veggies.

That’s right. I’m a temporary farmgirl now.

Every other weekend, I hop in the car and drive down to the farm where I help plant veggies, work with animals, and muck out stalls (though I haven’t done that yet, I’m sure my time will come). It’s hot, sweaty work, and if you don’t have a good pair of boots, then you’re better off going barefoot because flip-flops don’t work so well (as I learned last week). It’s humbling to know that the veggies I sow now will soon sit on our dinner plates. In fact, doing this workshare thing has made me more aware of what happens in farming communities, especially with the flooding that’s been occurring over the past couple of weeks.

It will be interesting to see how this will affect my writing. Already I know more about horses than I did before, and that will bring a major impact to my book writing. In the meantime, I’m going to get ready to pick up our veggie box. The first one we got had lettuce, chives and spinach, but it also had veggies I never had before, such as broccoli rabe, pea shoots and nettles. Nettles! People actually eat nettles? Well, we did, and man, was it goooooooooooood! So good, in fact, that I have to include the recipe I used it for. Maybe I’ll start doing this as a regular feature.

Sauteed Nettles with Green Garlic & Olive Oil
(Off the Mariquita Farms website)

Created by: Armando “Tiny” Maes of Lavanda

serves 6

1 ¼ # Nettles, Cleaned
3T Green Garlic (Chopped)
1/2 cup Olive Oil
Salt & Pepper (To Taste)

First preheat a large sauté pan on medium high heat, (one large enough to accommodate the nettles, you can even use a large pot as well). Second pour ¼ cup of the olive oil into the preheated pan. Then put all of the green garlic into the pan sauté briefly for about 30 seconds, just enough time for the green garlic to release its essential oils, being sure not to brown or burn the green garlic. Place the nettles into the pan and give it a good stir, let sit for just a second and then continue the stirring process. Once the nettles are completely wilted place them on a plate, drizzle with the rest of the olive oil and place a couple of lemon wedges for garnish.

Note: The nettles do not have the water content like spinach or other similar greens. So it might help to put a couple Tablespoons of water into the pan after the nettles have started cooking, just to hurry the cooking process. Myself I do not put the water, because I like the texture of the nettles when you sauté them. It is like little crispy nettle leaves and it also brings about a certain nuttiness.

Saturday Fun: Inanimate Alice

“My name is Alice. I am eight years old.”

And thus begins “Inanimate Alice“, an interactive story/game that I found through the Jay is Games website. Alice tells her story through moving snapshots, journaled words and haunting music. We never see Alice, but we know that she has lived all over the world, her parents may or may not be involved in some type of shadowy employment, and she keeps herself entertained through her ramped up phone/ipod gizmo called a “ba-xi”, which she uses to create a playmate called Brad.

Each chapter (there are currently four) contains a mini-game that’s not essential to win in order to finish the story. My favorite is Episode 3: Russia, where you collect nesting dolls. The narrative gets a little dark sometimes–from Alice’s anxiety as she waits for her parents to come home in Italy, to going through an abandoned laberinthine building in England. But the darkness doesn’t get too dark; just enough to add atmosphere to a wonderful story.

I wonder if anyone remembers “Madeline’s Mind”, an interactive game from Digital Planet that came out when Java was brand new. “Inanimate Alice” reminds me a lot of that old game in its haunting play, its feeling of loneliness. But Alice is beautiful in that we start to forget that it’s a just a game and we began to connect with her, all her fears and hopes, and her joy too.

Go play “Inanimate Alice“. Right now.

Book Review: “Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and For Those Who Want to Write Them” by Francine Prose

Finally, I’m getting back on track with my blog posts. Here’s an overdue book review for you. My reading for the past couple of months have been very slow, but it’s been worth it, especially with this book, Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose.

Finding this book at B&N for $6 was perfect timing. I was getting our house clean for selling; I hardly got any writing done. I needed something writing related to keep me sane as I was chewing my nails, worrying if the next people who came to a house showing would be the ones to buy the house. Reading Like a Writer was the perfect escape for me.

I heard about the book a year ago from listening to the Writer’s on Writing podcast. Francis Prose said on it how surprised she was not to find such a book on the market, that the best way to learn how to write was to read–carefully read–great stories. Her slant in the book was to take it slow, read word by word, sentence by sentence, to get the full impact of how a writer crafted the story.

The excerpts she used in the book are mostly from classics like Dickens and Austin, though she also includes more contemporaries literary authors like Denis Johnson and Scott Spencer. She lists the excerpt, then goes on to pick it apart depending on what the chapter is discussing. On the chapter Sentences, for instance, she quotes an excerpt from Raymond Carver’s “Feathers” and then goes on to say:

“The sentences could hardly be more plain. There are hardly any adjectives except for the gray of the peacock’s feet. And there is that chilling phrase, “conniving streak,” which is all the narrator chooses to tell us about his kid. The lovely Fran has become “his mother,” “Her.” “Especially her”–two words that convey a universe of resentment and estrangement. The sentences break down into sentence fragments, just as they would in speech–in this guy’s speech–punctuating the long bass notes of the sentences that begin: ‘I remember…I recall…I remember…'”

I found Prose’s book very much like a class, a class of one, yes, but I could understand and get what she was trying to get across. I didn’t agree with all the examples she gave, but for the most part, she opened my eyes a lot in studying the different passages. And the advice she gives comes in handy. I liked how in the Narration section, she covers not just 1st and 3rd person point of view, but also the allusive 2nd person, which I’m currently doing a short story in and really appreciated the advice she gave on it.

This is a very different book from most of those writing books out there. It teaches you how to study writing of works so you can imply that knowledge to your own work. She also gives insight on how different writers spun their craft, from Dostoyevsky struggling with the best way to write Crime and Punishment (Prose lists how he wrote several sections “in the first person, as a diary, as confession, as memory, and as a combination of journal and drama”.) to Henrich von Kleist’s deadly flirtation with suicide when he wasn’t working on his novella.

As I went on, I started to try and guess what point Prose was trying to get across from the excerpts. In doing that, I began to discover on my own how to read the excerpts. I began to see the techniques the writers used. There was an especially long passage she listed that as I read it, I slowly begin to realize that two of the characters was of a different race than the protagonist. It’s never mentioned in the excerpt–I had to figure it out for myself from the clues the writer puts in the story. I had fun doing it, and I’m looking to get the book so I can read how things turned out.

In fact, Prose does include a reading list of all the books she excerpts. It’s something I’m seriously thinking about doing–just the other day, I was garage sling (ah, now there’s a verb for ya!) and came across a couple of hardbacks that looked interesting. After picking them up for a quarter apiece, I picked up Prose’s book and lo and behold, one of my books was on her list. (And for the record, let me just say, when it comes to books, garage sales in Madison rocks.) So I already got one book taken care of. 127 books to go.

But as for writing books, I know that this one is a definite keeper. I plan to keep it on my shelf, to page through it on occasion, to mark and highlight the death out of it. It’s not a easy book to read straight through during a weekend. This is a book to take it slow, to savor, to read a page and then sit back and think. And I think that’s how Prose intended it to be. Five books out of five, and if you’re looking for that interview of Prose, you can go right here to get it. Think I’ll listen to it myself.

Back to Normality and Routine…Hooray!

If you noticed, I hadn’t posted anything last week. There’s a good reason for that–I’ve been playing around with my writing schedule, figuring out when was the best time to do work on which writing projects, now that we’ve settled into a normal routine again.

A normal routine. I never thought it would happen. After all the chaos over the past six months…actually, no, make that eight months…it feels strange to be in a normal routine again. Part of me is somewhat aghast that I need a routine to define my life.

Back before marriage and kids, I used to be more spontaneous–in fact, when I was with the RCA, I took a Gallup Strengths Finder test (similar to Meyer Briggs) and one of my strengths was Adaptability: the ability to change direction when needed. People with an Adaptability strength was very good at multi-tasking, and they were great at changing focus at a drop of a hat. I prided myself with that. I thought that being spontaneous was the best thing for me, the artsy person that I was (never mind that I wasn’t actually creating any art at the time–simply the thought that I was made me happy).

When Daniel was born, I had to build routine into our lives. Suddenly, I didn’t mind doing the same thing over and over each week–routines became familiar to us like a warm blanket, because we knew where we stood in life. It gave us structure, a framework I could build my life on, particularly my writing. A routine forced me to sit in a chair and produce something, not just say, “Yeah, yeah, I’ll write that down someday…” Without routine, I would have never finished The Weeping of the Willows.

So now that we’re in a normal routine again, I feel a little wary that it might be taken away. When my hubby got his job with the school, we thought that we were set for life, if only for a couple of years. When all the life changes took place last October, it shook us up good. Who’s to say that the same thing won’t happen now that we’re up in Madison?

I honestly don’t know. I guess that’s where the trust in God’s leading comes in. He brought us here. He had a reason. So as long as we’re here, I’m going to enjoy it.

So anyway, back to writing. Because our apartment is so tiny, sound travels very easily, which sucks when I want to concentrate on writing. Luckily, I don’t have to concentrate so much in reading through the first draft of Willow. Doing a read-through is easier, and harder, than I thought. Some books say that you only reread the first draft just to get a feel for the story; others say to scrutinize every line in a reread, because you need to get the second draft just right. What complicates things is that there are whole chapters that I want to strip out, and new scenes that I need to write.

Because of the whole moving thing, I did not print out the story, but rather, I’m doing the whole reading on Word 2007, using the Track Changes and Comments feature. It works quite well for me since I’m not constantly printing up paper. I just read the story and make notes to myself on what I would like to change, what needs to be researched, etc. The hard part is not making revisions right away–in some places, it’s very much needed, and I find myself doing some quick corrections. It’s okay, but I don’t want to get bogged down in it. This is not the time to rewrite the whole book. That will come later, when I’ll do the actual revising.

I don’t know how long it will take for me to reread the story, but since I’m not doing the massive 600,000 word count, I’m guessing that it won’t take me as long. Back in January, when we were working on the house, I managed to read through a chapter per week. Now that I have more time to dedicate to it, I would like to bump it up to two, perhaps even three chapters a week. Let’s see, I’m on chapter 9 now, and there are currently 51 chapters in the book, so if I read through 3 chapters a week, I can be done with the reading process by the middle of September. Oy, that’s a lot of work.

In the meantime, there’s also the short story I’m working on, “She’s All Light”. I’m so sick of working on this story, because it’s all I’ve been working on so far this year, other than Willow. I want to start working on new stuff, but SAL is coming to the point that I’m almost ready to send out. That requires much more of my concentration, so the best time for me to work on it is when I come back from work, after Daniel goes down for quiet time (and ever since he started preschool, when he comes home, he’s so exhausted he actually naps. Thank you, Preschool!) Working on Willow works well (hee-hee…alliteration) in the evening, when my hubby watches TV and I can afford to glance up every now and then to see what’s on the screen.

And as for blogging? Well, to my amazement, so far the best time seems to be in the early morning, right before I go to work. And the strangest thing is, I have been getting up early, at least early for me. Go figure.

It’s getting close to 7:30. Time to get ready for work. Looks like it’s going to be a normal, routine-laden day.

Ahhhh. Feels good.