Friday, February 12, 2016

Book Review: The Last Boleyn by Karen Harper

The Last Boleyn by Karen Harper

This was an uneven book that ultimately triumphed because of the sensitive and nuanced portrayal of its protagonist. While the story differs significantly in detail from Philippa Gregory's better known The Other Boleyn Girl, in this novel, Mary Boleyn is also both sympathetic and a fascinating character in her own right.

My interest in Mary Boleyn, sister of the more famous Anne and aunt of the still more famous Elizabeth I,  began prior to the release of 
The Other Boleyn Girl, which remains my favorite work of fiction on the subject. I was fixated with the first throwaway line I read about her, in a biography of Elizabeth I. Although I was first disappointed that Philippa Gregory had beaten me to the punch in writing about Mary Boleyn, Karen Harper (and others, I'm sure) actually got there first. The Last Boleyn was first published in  1983.

The events of The Last Boleyn are, at least at first, more in line with Alison Weir's biography than those of The Other Boleyn Girl. Instead of England, Mary's story begins in France, where she has two formative experiences that color her life. First, she comes to the French court as the lady-in-waiting for Henry VIII's sister, Mary Tudor, who marries the aged French king. When the king dies a few months later, Mary Tudor secretly weds her lover Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk. She brazenly secures her own choice of husband, avoiding her fate as a marriage pawn for England. This is a lesson that both Harper and Weir suggest the young Mary Boleyn took to heart. Second, a pubescent Mary Boleyn was seduced by the new French king, Francois I. Harper and Weir both suggest she was a lesser mistress of the king, used only for a few nights of entertainment. Historically, she was not recognized as one of his many official mistresses, and although in Harper's fiction, her status is well-known (and the reason she comes to Henry VIII's attention), Weir's biography suggests she may have only spent one night with the king and this may have been concealed for a long time.

Harper's psychological portrait of the young Mary's relationship with Francois is one of the strengths of the novel. Her relationship with him is rightfully portrayed as abuse, and Mary's father, Thomas Boleyn, is rightfully portrayed as a predator who whored out his young daughter in hopes of material gain. When, later, Mary comes to the attention of Henry VIII, she uses him to escape Francois. Although she again becomes a royal mistress, an older and wiser Mary understands the terms of the relationship between herself and the king, and does not mistake herself as more than a pawn in the royal court. Harper's Mary is miraculously non-stereotypical: she is no dumb blonde or naive girl in love, nor is she a jealous sister or embittered mother of a bastard. She suffers sexual and psychological abuse, but she learns from her mistakes, turns her life to her own advantage, and thrives. She manages both to protect her own children from the predation she suffered and to stand up to the father who began the pattern of predation that characterized her early life.

The huge success of Mary's life, I would agree with Harper, Weir, and Gregory, is that she marries for love and lives happily ever after. Both of these feats would have been remarkable for any (noble) woman of her time, but doubly so for the sister of a woman famous for being beheaded at her husband's behest. Unfortunately, Harper's characterization of William Stafford, the man with whom Mary eloped, severely disappointed me, especially in the first part of the novel. Stafford shows up in Mary's father's retinue in France, and Mary immediately despises him--because he's a huge jerk! He teases her as a young girl, and later deigns to warn her about her father and kings Francois and Henry in turn, although it's obvious that he has ulterior motives other than her best interests at heart. When she slaps him for a particularly presumptuous and offensive warning, he tells her, "I promise you that you will pay dearly someday for whatever slaps or scratches or sharp words you give me. You will pay, sweet Mary, but in a time and manner of my choosing" (116). When they are in a masque together (he is the Sheriff of Nottingham, she Maid Marian, and Henry VIII plays Robin Hood of course), this scene ensues behind the sets:

"Sweetheart, it pleases me to have you so close and my captive. It is my fondest fantasy."

She hated him for his mocking ways...She pushed out against him to free herself from his near embrace, but he did not budge and she felt his hard, flat stomach and muscular thighs press her back. (187)
After this non-consensual scene, where he next kisses her as she says "No! No!," he tells her, "Now two men will possess you and neither really loves you, Mary Bullen. Think of me when you spread your sweet thighs for them!" (188).

I know this is all supposed to be sexy, but it's not. These Darcy-esque love stories where the guy proves how "good" he is by being a jerk who turns out to have correctly judged all the other jerks leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Especially for a story where the main character's triumph against abuse at the hands of several male characters is such a main focus, the fact that the male love interest differs little in attitude from the abusers stands out starkly. Stafford's character does improve later in the book, when she actually marries him, and he is an ally who supports her against Anne's abuse and helps her and her children away from the carnage at the end. However, this enormous flaw really diminished my enjoyment of the book.

I recommend The Last Boleyn to those who want more after The Other Boleyn Girl, or hunger for a different portrait of Mary, but I hope that no one considers this version of Stafford as a desirable hero. For a more egalitarian love story, Philippa Gregory's version is preferable.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Top Ten Books That Would Make Great Valentine's Day Reads

Happy Top Ten Tuesday over at the Broke and the Bookish!

So, usually I'm more of the anti-V day type, but I'm going to be more authentic this year. Mostly.

1. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

2. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle

3. Romeo and Juliet by Some Guy: A Handbook on What NOT To Do

4. Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed

5. Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

6. Sonnet 116-Let Me Not to the Marriage of True Minds/Admit Impediments

7. Sonnet 130-My Mistress' Eyes Are Nothing Like the Sun

8. "A Valentine for Laura" short story from Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul II

9. The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

...I'm tapped out.

There are very few love stories that blow me away. As much as I can admire the satire of Romeo and Juliet, as much as I can empathize with the protagonists of Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary, these are not, to me, great love stories. The romance that has touched me the most in recent years is between Katniss and Peeta. In the past, I've wished for a Calvin O'Keefe or a Mac Campbell. Mr. Darcy,  I despise. Ditto Mr. Rochester. Captain Wentworth is okay; so is Edward Ferrars, though they both have their flaws. Fanny Price and Edmund Bertram are well matched. I do love Beatrice and Benedick, but the fact that they have to be tricked into marrying each other gives me pause. I think it comes down to this: the best love stories do not (often) make the best stories. We enjoy reading most about those endless vagaries of unhappy lives, while the happy lives get lived, not written.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Bookstore Haul

Found myself drawn to the poetry section on a recent trip to the bookstore, and armed with gift cards and this year's goal to read more poetry, I decided to treat myself.

The Dream of a Common Language by Adrienne Rich (because of Wild).

Faithful and Virtuous Night: Poems by Louise Glück

The Elder Edda by Anonymous (We've been watching Vikings, but this has me interested on its own.)

Friday, February 5, 2016

Books Read in January

1. The Last Boleyn by Karen Harper

This was an uneven book that ultimately triumphed because of the sensitive and nuanced portrayal of its protagonist. While the story differs significantly in detail from Philippa Gregory's better known The Other Boleyn Girl, in this novel, Mary Boleyn is also both sympathetic and a fascinating character in her own right.

2. Attachments by Rainbow Rowell (audiobook)

I've finally managed to read the famous Rainbow Rowell. However, I had never heard of Attachments before I found it in the audiobook section of the library. It's not a book I'd normally read, but it sounded like a light and fun audiobook for my commute, and it was.

The gimmick of Lincoln discovering Beth through e-mail proved interesting, and all the characters were lovably quirky. A scene where the characters play Dungeons & Dragons didn't smell right to me when the author mentioned that the characters switch off playing the Dungeon Master every week (every game I've played in or heard of has had a consistent DM), but apparently this is a thing. The fact that the majority of the book takes place in 1999 also let me have a good nostalgic laugh about Y2K fears. I wasn't really impressed or surprised by the ending, and ultimately I thought this book was pretty cute but forgettable.

3. The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson

I've been meaning to read this series for a while, and was not disappointed. Princess Lucero-Elisa de Riqueza is a compelling heroine, and Carson's fantasy world hinges on some of my particular interests--namely, the culture and language are based on Spanish,  most of the novel is set in the desert, and religion plays a significant role both in the world and the protagonist's life. Carson is not afraid to pull hard punches, so get ready for an intense ride. The writing, while excellent, does have that slick YA quality to it, and I wish the author could write a little deeper in some places because she's obviously capable. But all in all, a fun yet gut-punching read, and I can't wait to read the rest of the trilogy.

4. Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl

A friend gave me this book, and I was further galvanized to read after The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.  Frankl, a Holocaust survivor, posits that the goal of life is not to seek happiness or avoid pain, but to find meaning. Even suffering is worth the pain, he explains, if people are able to discover meaning. For example, a man who was devastated at his wife's loss was able to find meaning in his life when he realized that because he outlived her, she was spared the pain of widowhood. It's a compelling philosophy and one that I think works, although it doesn't have as clear of a biological basis as, for example, Freud's theories about fear and sexual drives. Frankl believes in the triumph of the superego over the id, and while it's an inspiring idea, I think there is so much more we need to learn about how this really works.

5. The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin

I started following Gretchen Rubin on LinkedIn. I don't even remember why, but I became intrigued with her theories and ideas about happiness and habits, so I decided to read her book. I found The Happiness Project an interesting read, and while I don't agree with all of Rubin's assertions, I found plenty to relate to. I've also experienced the joy of clearing clutter and I like the idea of placing emphasis on improving one's happiness for the purpose of improving the happiness of those around you. I don't think I would get as upset about not being perfect as Rubin does, but I appreciate her honesty, and also her honesty with herself about what she doesn't enjoy or isn't interested in. Ironically, as Rubin rejects meditation or connecting with nature, I reflected that I wanted to try both! Very interesting read for anyone interested in living a happier life. I would definitely consider reading Rubin's other books.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Top Ten Historical Settings I'd Love to See

1. Pre-Exodus Egypt

A book set when the Jews were slaves in Egypt--possibly a novel about Moses and Miriam, or maybe about one of their contemporaries.

2. Celtic Ireland

Before the Romans, before Christianity, before England takes over...

3. Celtic Wales

Maybe sometime in the Middle Ages or earlier, when Wales was its own kingdom.

4. New Amsterdam

What was the Dutch colony of New York like?

5. Sweden under Gustavus III

This 18th century philosopher king was an intriguing character in The Queen's Lover, and I want to know more.

6. Sweden under Queen Christina

Like Elizabeth I, she's famous for never marrying. Also, for later abdicating and becoming a nun.

7. The Haitian Revolution

It was the Western Hemisphere's largest and most successful slave rebellion. There must be fascinating stories to tell.

8. The Caliphate in Spain

What was Southern Spain really like under Islamic rule?

9. Post-Inquisition Turkey

It would be interesting to hear the stories of Jews after they fled the Inquisition and what life in the Ottoman Empire was like.

10. Colonial Canada

 I've read one book set in Canada during the French and Indian war (Calico Captive) and would love to learn more.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Top Ten Series I Want to Finish (Or Not)

Happy (late) Top Ten Tuesday!

1. The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer

2. Fire and Thorns series by Rae Carson

3. The Magicians series by Lev Grossman

4. Eternal Sky trilogy by Elizabeth Bear

5. The Circuit series by Rhett Bruno

6. The Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini

7. The Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante

Series I Don't Intend to Finish

(not like I would never finish, but just wouldn't go out of my way to do so)

1. The Divergent series by Veronica Roth

2. Uglies by Scott Westerfeld

3. Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

Monday, January 25, 2016


My novel is finished. 77, 704 words. 190 pages. Just under three months.

It's not good. It's not edited. It will likely never see the light of day. But it is finished.

Thank you, Snowzilla, Snowpocalypse 2016, or Snowmageddon 2: Snow Mercy, whatever you are. Now if you could just please melt and let my car out. Thanks.