Queens of the Conquest: England’s Medieval Queens, Book One by Alison Weir

I have been badly neglecting my reviews, but I’m going to try (again) to catch up here a bit. This nonfiction by Alison Weir was released way back in September; it probably won’t be long now until you can get a paperback copy.

Queens of the Conquest front cover (Ballantine Books)

THE COVERAGE: This book covers the first queens of England following the conquest. It starts, fittingly enough, with William the Conqueror’s queen Matilda, followed by Henry I’s two queens, Matilda of Scotland and Adeliza of Louvain. Next is Henry’s daughter, Empress Matilda, here referred to as Maud. She was meant to inherit the crown when her brother died, but was passed over in favor of her cousin Stephen. We also get coverage of Stephen’s wife, Matilda of Boulogne. We just get to Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, and don’t go into Eleanor (who, let’s be honest, really should just get her own book…which Weir has already written).

MY TWO CENTS: People who read this blog know that I love Weir’s nonfiction. I had also looked forward to this book for years, ever since she first announced that she would write it, and then announced she would split it into several volumes. So why did I have such a very hard time getting into it? I will admit that I was sick for much of the fall/winter, and maybe that dulled my excitement over this book. But it took me a long time, and finally the purchase of the audio version, to get through it all.

While some of the lack of interest may have been just about my personal issues, I just don’t remember every struggling with a Weir nonfiction this much before. I felt like right out of the gate, part of the problem is that there are relatively few primary sources about the Conqueror’s Matilda. There’s a lot of “they probably…” and “they might have…” and some stories Weir passes on as legends that probably aren’t true. I felt like, “So what am I learning here?”

Then, there’s a stupid problem that normally shouldn’t have bothered me: too many Matildas. Everyone is Matilda. Four out of five queens here are Matilda, even though Weir smartly refers to the Empress as Maud instead. But we know darn well she’s really a Matilda. Is it Weir’s fault that Matilda was the most popular name of 11th and 12th-century English queens? Of course not, but it still somehow affected my enjoyment, and my attention span. Another problem: a lot of the other names are unrecognizable in present culture. Half the time I felt like I was reading a Star Wars novel instead of English history. Again, that’s just the way it was back in the mists of time.

Overall, I feel that maybe I just wasn’t in the right frame of mind to read this book. I intend to reread it at some point, and may even revise my review at that point. But for now, I owe the author and publisher a long-overdue review, and I’m afraid this is it.

BOTTOM LINE:  I looked forward to this book for a long time and then didn’t enjoy it. It might have been the book or it might have been me, so I will probably reread at some point.

TEACUP RATING: I’m going to be fair and give it three out of five teacups, because I really think it just wasn’t a good time for me to read this book.

ON SALE DATE: Available now in hardcover, e-book formats, and audio.

Note: Review is based on an ARC provided by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review, plus purchase of the audio file.

The James Bond Songs: Pop Anthems of Late Capitalism by Adrian Daub and Charles Kronengold

I consider myself a slightly-more-than-casual James Bond fan, but not a super fan. I’ve read the books and seen all the movies, but I couldn’t necessarily tell you exactly what plot point happened in what movie (especially the Moore years). I have a playlist of Bond songs on my iPod that includes all the Bond songs except one…more on that later. I like all kinds of books, so the description of this made me think it was something I might enjoy. Unfortunately, I was way off base on this one.

The James Bond Songs Front Cover (Oxford University Press)

The James Bond Songs Front Cover (Oxford University Press)

 THE COVERAGE: This is a very scholarly book that discusses the music of the James Bond films: the composers, singers, actors, and songs themselves. It covers all movies up through Skyfall; Spectre is not included. The book was released shortly before Spectre hit theaters in 2015. For some songs, the lyrics are broken down and analyzed along with the opening-sequence visuals.

MY TWO CENTS: Oh boy, here we go.

This is a 256-page book. It took me fully six months to get through. Why? Because, frankly, it’s an unpleasant read. I spent most of it trying to figure out who the audience might be for this book. I can tell you who it’s NOT for: fans of James Bond, the movies, the music, or the singers of the music. Why? Well, for starters, here’s a list of things the authors make it clear they dislike, outright hate, or otherwise have no respect for:

  • the character of James Bond
  • James Bond books
  • James Bond movies
  • the opening sequences of the movies
  • John Barry, composer of the Bond theme and scores for half the movies
  • the title songs for the movies
  • lyrics of the songs
  • the artists who sing the songs
  • the songwriters

In fact, in the acknowledgments, they admit they are not fans of the movies or songs. So why, you might ask, did they bother with this particular subject?

At least the “scholarly” aspect of it explains why the language used is often pretentious, including words I’ve never heard before. But then there’s also the part where the authors spew out profanity, especially one notable tirade against John Barry.

I was a little shocked by the venom shown against the singers of songs. Maybe not all the artists are legends, but some certainly are. And it just seems like all the language used to describe them is disparaging. The word “hack” is used several times. Including this passage at the end of the book:

So every time we whine about the fact that our favorite artist didn’t get picked, and some talentless hack did, some part of us surely is happy that we won’t have to navigate a complicated web of competing loyalties when the song comes out and sounds, well, okay, as okay as all Bond-songs sound. Competent, inoffensive, a bit staid.

Seriously, even Paul McCartney doesn’t escape, described as being “no longer a young rock star” at age 30 when he did “Live and Let Die” and struggling to make himself relevant apart from the Beatles. He’s also described as “sort of safe” compared to artists that might have been picked, such as Mick Jagger and David Bowie. Adele is described as having “what few Bond-singers before her had: camp cred and a large gay following.” Even before I had the tenor of the book, I was terrified of what ire would be rained down on Duran Duran, but it really just seems to be lead singer Simon Le Bon who gets beaten up (part of the “voices that say nothing less than you no longer have to be able to sing to be a pop star.”) Broadway legend Tim Rice is slammed for his “half-baked lyrics” to “All Time High.” The lyrics for “For Your Eyes Only,” which I have thoroughly enjoyed since it was on the radio in 1981, are dismissed as “a huge f**king mess.” And of course “A View to a Kill” lyrics are roasted, with an insulting “nice songwriting, boys” thrown in.

So do the authors like ANY of the songs? I don’t know why I was shocked when the one they lauded as “dynamite” was Madonna’s “Die Another Day.” This is the one song in all of Bond-dom that I do NOT have on my Bond playlist. I really dislike it. I’ve never liked it. And it’s not that I dislike Madonna, since I grew up to her. I’m sorry that her offering into the Bond song canon wasn’t more enjoyable. I’d much rather listen to “From Russia with Love,” although the authors toss that away with a “chances are you’ve never heard it.” Which again begs the question: Who do they think is reading this book? Someone who’s not a fan? Any fan interested enough to read this book would know the song. It’s just clear, over and over, that the writers have no clear view of their audience. They come across as egotistical enough to write a book ranting about something that’s not actually that important to them.

You may ask: “Why did you read the whole book? Why not give up?” When I dislike a book this much, I like to give it every chance to change my mind. But I just kept getting more and more annoyed. I would read passages out loud to my roommate, who remarked, “This sounds like it’s just one giant troll post.” Yeah, it really does.

Final evidence that I, as a person, was never going to be on the same planet as these authors comes in a quote discussing sequels:

Star Wars Fans still upset over George Lucas’s work on the prequel trilogy repress the fact that the original wasn’t a very good movie either.

Wow. Just, wow.  If this quote at come in the beginning of the book instead of 82% of the way through, I would have quit right there.

BOTTOM LINE: Not for casual readers, fans of James Bond movies or songs, or any of the artists who recorded Bond songs. Who does that leave? Maybe the population of scholars who thoroughly dislike Bond Songs?

TEACUP RATING: 1 out of 5 teacups. (I’m not giving it zero; it WAS written in complete sentences.)

ON SALE DATE: Available now in hardcover and ebook formats.

Note: Review is based on an ARC provided by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

The Lost Tudor Princess: The Life of Lady Margaret Douglas by Alison Weir

I can never wait to get my hands on new Alison Weir nonfiction! And look, a Tudor who hasn’t already been done to death. Margaret Douglas was the daughter of Margaret Tudor (Queen of Scotland); granddaughter of Henry VII; niece of Henry VIII; cousin to Elizabeth I; mother-in-law to Mary, Queen of Scots; and grandmother of James I. And despite all that, she managed to avoid execution!

The Lost Tudor Princess Front Cover (Ballantine Books/Random House)

The Lost Tudor Princess Front Cover (Ballantine Books/Random House)

THE COVERAGE: The book begins before Margaret’s birth. It covers how Margaret Tudor was widowed, then remarried Archibald Douglas, Earl of Angus (although that seems to be somewhat disputed).

At various times throughout her life, Margaret is endorsed as possible heir to the English throne, which surprisingly doesn’t cost her life. She’s in high favor with her Uncle Henry VIII until a love affair with Thomas Howard—just as Howards are falling from favor (i.e., Anne Boleyn)—lands her in the Tower. During this period, Margaret wrote a great deal of poetry that survives today. After another romance with a different Howard at another bad time (thanks, Katherine Howard), Margaret finally makes a happy, approved match with the Scottish Matthew Stuart, Earl of Lennox, but only two of their eight children survive. The Catholic Margaret and Lennox are in high favor During Mary I’s reign, but that changes under Elizabeth I. Margaret campaigns heavily for the older surviving son, Henry, Lord Darnley, to marry the widowed Mary, Queen of Scots. Not surprisingly, Elizabeth I is not thrilled by this prospect. Catholics are already calling for Mary to dethrone her, and allowing another Catholic with a claim to the throne to marry her is risky. The risk pays off for Elizabeth when the marriage is a failure. Margaret is devastated when Darnley is murdered at age 20. The marriage does produce a royal grandson for Margaret….the future James VI of Scotland and James I of England. After Mary is forced to abdicate, Lennox serves as regent for his grandson until he, too, is murdered.

MY TWO CENTS: Alison Weir’s nonfiction is always excellent, and this is no exception. Even though Margaret Douglas may be a lesser-known Tudor, there are MANY primary sources about her life. All that research provides great validity to the story presented here, which is pretty wild. It’s actually shocking that Margaret wasn’t imprisoned for life or executed at almost any point during her life, since royal cousins did not tend to fair well, dating back…well, forever. And since she displeased Henry VIII, was strongly Catholic, and actively campaigned for her son to marry Mary, Queen of Scots, she was always in danger of royal wrath.

While the book covers many events of Margaret’s life, it doesn’t go into great depth on Darnley’s possible involvement in the murder of Mary’s secretary Rizzio, or the details of Darnley’s murder. It focuses on Margaret’s reaction to these events and the consequences that affected her. Also note that this is definitely not a book about Henry VIII or Elizabeth I. The repercussions of their actions on Margaret are discussed, but they are supporting characters here.

BOTTOM LINE:  The story of a woman who lived through royal favor and disfavor, imprisonment, poverty, and murder. Enjoyable nonfiction based on many, many primary sources. Now I really want to read Weir’s Mary, Queen of Scots, and the Murder of Lord Darnley, one of the only Weir books I haven’t yet read.

TEACUP RATING: Four-and-a-half out of five teacups.

ON SALE DATE: Available now in hardcover, e-book formats, and audio.

Note: Review is based on an ARC provided by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.


Studio Ghibli: The Films of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata by Colin Odell & Michelle Le Blanc

The first Studio Ghibli movie I ever saw was Spirited Away. At first I wasn’t sure what all the hullabaloo was about (yes, I DID just use the word “hullabaloo!”) Studio Ghibli films are not like animated films Americans are used to. They may not have a linear plot. You may only meet a character once and then never again. Or, a minor character may come back at the very end and suddenly be significant. Probably the closest counterpart in American culture is Disney’s Alice in Wonderland. But the art is usually breathtakingly beautiful, and the stories are unusual.

The first edition of this book published in 2009. This updated second edition examines not only the films under the Studio Ghibli brand, but also the work that led to the formation of Studio Ghibli. I’m much more familiar with Miyazaki’s work than Takahata’s.

Studio Ghibly Front Cover (Oldcastle Books)

Studio Ghibli Front Cover (Oldcastle Books)

 THE COVERAGE: The book begins with an introduction, including some background on Miyazaki and Takahata. Next is “The Pre-Ghibli Works of Takahata Isao and Miyazaki Hayao.” These include some Nippon animated shows I’m going to have to look up, like “Anne of Green Gables” and Heidi.” Also included are feature films done before the formation of Studio Ghibli. Each has background information, summary, and discussion. These include:

  • Horusu: Prince of the Sun/The Little Norse Prince
  • Panda Kopanda
  • Lupin the Third: The Castle of Cagliostro
  • Downtown Story
  • Goshu the Cellist
  • Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind

Then come The Studio Ghibli feature films. (Please note: the authors use the names and spellings from the UK releases; I am using those from the US.)

  • Castle in the Sky
  • The Story of the Yanagawa Canals
  • Grave of the Fireflies
  • My Neighbor Totoro
  • Kiki’s Delivery Service
  • Only Yesterday
  • Porco Rosso
  • Ocean Waves
  • Pom Poko
  • Whisper of the Heart
  • Princess Mononoke
  • My Neighbors the Yamadas
  • Spirited Away
  • The Cat Returns
  • Howl’s Moving Castle
  • Tales from Earthsea
  • Ponyo
  • The Secret World of Arietty
  • From Up on Poppy Hill
  • The Wind Rises
  • The Tale of Princess Kaguya
  • When Marnie Was There

Then come a brief section on other projects, such as shorts.

MY TWO CENTS: This is a fairly short book and a quick read. I’ve seen most of the feature films discussed, and I thoroughly enjoyed the book. I was captivated enough by the background and descriptions to want to see a few more that I haven’t. (The exception is Grave of the Fireflies; I just really don’t need to see that one. I don’t care if it’s “beautiful.”) I learned quite a bit.

BOTTOM LINE: If you’re a Studio Ghibli fan, this book is a must-have. (If you’re not a fan, give something like Spirited Away or Howl’s Moving Castle a try. You might be surprisingly captivated.)

TEACUP RATING: I give the book 4 out of 5 teacups.

ON SALE DATE: Studio Ghibli: The Films of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata will be on sale in paperback and ebook formats on October 1, 2015.

Note: Review is based on an ARC provided by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

Investigating Sherlock: The Unofficial Guide by Nikki Stafford

Do you absolutely love the BBC show Sherlock? (And who doesn’t? If YOU don’t, I don’t like you. Go away.) If you DO love it, you will probably love this companion book, which describes each episode of Series 1 through 3.

Investigating Sherlock Front Cover (ECW Press)

Investigating Sherlock Front Cover (ECW Press)

THE COVERAGE: The book begins with an introduction to the show, including some information on stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, and of course some background on the original Sherlock Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle.

Each episode is divided into several sections:

  • Written by
  • Directed by
  • Original air date
  • Summary Plus Critique
  • Highlights
  • Did You Notice?
  • From ACD to BBC
  • Interesting Facts
  • Nitpicks
  • OOPS

And then, every season has one “Sherlockians Weigh In” feature. There are some mentions of other iterations of the great detective, but not many. If you are strictly a Basil Rathbone or Jeremy Brett fan, this is NOT your book.

MY TWO CENTS: I love the setup of the book. The author knows more about Sherlock and the connections to the original stories than I do, which is fabulous. I love the different parts of the descriptions. I also like how the author clearly loves the show, but is willing to showcase some “Sherlockians” who offer a slightly less biased opinion of the show. (Not that I agree at all with the one who dislikes Moriarty. I LOVE LOVE LOVE Moriarty; I think Andrew Scott’s portrayal is amazingly fresh and fearless.)

I might be interested in checking out some of the author’s other unofficial guides. Who doesn’t love a Buffy guide called Bite Me? She has also done guides for Lost. In that case, I hope next up is a guide for Once Upon a Time. I would snatch that up fast.

TEACUP RATING: I give the book 4½ out of 5 teacups. If you’re a Sherlock fan, you’ll need this. If you have a friend who’s a Sherlock fan, buy them this. They’ll love it.

ON SALE DATE: Investigating Sherlock will be on sale in paperback and ebook formats on September 15, 2015.

Note: Review is based on an ARC provided by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

So, Anyway… by John Cleese

Disclosure: I am a John Cleese fan. I love Python, of course, but also Fawlty Towers, A Fish Called Wanda, Fierce Creatures, and pretty much anything else Cleese shows up in. So this review is coming from a pretty established fan, but perhaps not a superfan. I don’t have every sketch memorized, for instance.

So, Anyway... Front Cover (Random House)

So, Anyway… Front Cover (Random House)

THE COVERAGE: This is an autobiography of John from his birth (including some background on his parents and grandparents) more or less to the founding of Python. THIS IS NOT A BOOK ABOUT MONTY PYTHON. (If you want the Python book, check out The Pythons: Autobiography by the Pythons.) I will say, though, that many of his experiences are linked to things we see later in his career, so I won’t say it’s DEVOID of Python. We’re taken though his school days to his work with the Footlights through an abbreviated teaching career and into his work on New York and then with the BBC. Graham Chapman is the Python most involved, since John worked with him longest (before Python). There is quite a lot on At Last the 1948 Show and The Frost Report.

MY TWO CENTS: What’s great about the book is to see John’s experiences as he lived them, from his perspective, which is a lot more fun than reading your standard Wikipedia article.  I imagined John’s voice as I was reading, and there are several fall-on-the-floor hilarious stories (which become even funnier if you imagine John presenting them). Plus, it’s amazing to reads this and think, “This is how a legend evolves.” Not that Mr. Cleese presents himself as a legend, although he should. I also loved reading about his friendships with other legends, especially Marty Feldman (and, of course, Graham Chapman).

BOTTOM LINE: No fan should miss this, and nonfans should give it a try and find out what they’re missing. A bunch of my friends are getting copies of this book for Christmas; it’s too bad it doesn’t look like the audio book will be available by then.

TEACUP RATING: Absolutely five out of five teacups. I hope Mr. Cleese writes more books about his experiences.

ON SALE DATE: Available in hardcover and eformats on November 4, 2014. An audio version is listed on Amazon with no date, but I’ll be watching for it.

Note: Review is based on an ARC provided by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

The Romanov Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra by Helen Rappaport

I’ve always been interested in the Romanovs and have read a couple of nonfiction books about them. I had never read a book focused specifically on the Grand Duchesses, and Helen Rappaport is a new author to me, so I thought I’d give it a try.

The Romanov Sisters Front Cover (St. Martin's Press)

The Romanov Sisters Front Cover (St. Martin’s Press)

THE COVERAGE: The book begins with the courtship of Nicholas II and Alexandra, with a special emphasis on Alexandra’s background. It then follows through the birth of all the children, discussing their servants and caregivers, special friends, and major milestones. It pretty much ends with the removal to the “House of Special Purpose,” with no details on the execution. (The author says very early on in the book that this will be the case, and says the details are covered in her other book on the subject, The Last Days of the Romanovs: Tragedy at Ekaterinburg.)

The day-to-day of the Romanov family is revealed chiefly from primary sources: letters from Queen Victoria to her granddaughter, Alexandra; letters from the Grand Duchesses to friends and relatives; quotes from interviews of revolution survivors who knew the family intimately; and the surviving diary entries of the entire family. Although the focus is on the sisters, Alexei is discussed throughout, along with his considerable health issues, since they had such an impact on the family’s life. Rasputin and his influences are also discussed, but not in great detail. The last quarter to third of the book discusses the family members’ various roles during WWI.

This is NOT a book on the revolution. There aren’t many specific details about the causes and major players. (Of course, some issues are discussed and referenced; but it is presented more for its effect on the family rather than a focus on the revolution itself.)

MY TWO CENTS: I like that the book references so very many primary sources. This helps the reader see what was really going on in the family. You also get a good view of how Alexandra’s poor health, reclusive nature, and withdrawal from society helped fuel the revolution from early on. These factors also kept her daughters living pretty sheltered lives…even more so than other royals of the period. I will say that it’s a pretty long book, and took me a while to read. The information is good, and the presentation is engaging, but I felt like I could only process so much information at a time. I liked that I didn’t have to read details about their imprisonment at Ipatiev House and execution.

TEACUP RATING: I give the book 3½ to 4 out of 5 teacups. I haven’t decided yet if I will look into Helen Rappaport’s other book on the Romanovs or not…but if I don’t, it’s because of the upsetting nature of the content, not any fault of the author’s. I don’t think I would reread this entire book, but it’s great to have as a reference.

ON SALE DATE: The Romanov Sisters: The Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra will be on sale in hardcover and ebook formats on June 3rd.

Note: Review is based on an ARC provided by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

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