Victoria, by Daisy Goodwin

Victoria Daisy GoodwinVictoria: A Novel of a Young Queen
by Daisy Goodwin
Pub Date: November 22, 2016

I don’t know about you, but I have an affinity for Queen Victoria. There could be a number of reasons for it, but I think a lot of it stems from the time my Aunt Liz and I saw the film The Young Victoria starring Emily Blunt during Priesthood session of General Conference one year. (The Asian restaurant we ate at beforehand only had women diners, and the theater was only women in the audience. UTAH.) I really love Blunt’s portrayal of a royal figure, was as entranced by Paul Bettany’s Lord M as Victoria was, and fell in love with Albert same as the young queen. It’s such a great “girl’s night” movie, and just a lovely film anyway. Years later, Aunt Liz and I took a trip to England and spent some time at Kensington Palace, where Victoria was raised before she became queen. (Oh my goodness, she really was tiny as a young woman!)

So this book popped up in my library ordering, and I knew I’d have to read it. The author, Daisy Goodwin, has created a show for PBS/Masterpiece on Victoria’s early reign coming out in the new year, and this book is a tie-in. It’s definitely not a rehash of The Young Victoria, but it does cover some of the same ground, so you get some additional context. I hopped onto Wikipedia at different points out of curiosity, and found Goodwin got quite a bit right in her story. There’s a new biography about Victoria that recently came out, and I may have to dive into that one to really get a good picture of all the circumstances around the young queen’s early reign.

A good bulk of the book focuses on Victoria’s relationship with Lord Melbourne, the prime minister when she was crowned, and her deeply appreciated mentor who guided her along. Not being a scholar on Victoria, I can only surmise from what I’ve read and seen thus far is she was not very well-prepared for the duties and protocols of being queen, and Melbourne turned into a father figure of sorts assisting her as she came into her own. Goodwin portrays their relationship has something deeper than that of father figure/foster daughter and hints at the romantic feelings they may have felt for each other. Victoria was 18 when she took the throne. She had been raised apart from society for the most part due to her mother’s fear that another in the line of succession would try to harm her. So in a sense Victoria was a teenage girl who finally had a chance to rebel. I thought Goodwin did an excellent job of portraying her as such, while still aching to be the kind of queen her country needed and that she wanted to be, and being confronted with so many different forces tugging her in different directions that she clung to the one man she saw as only there to help – Lord M.

Albert figures in later in the book, and I will admit I was a little disappointed with the development of his relationship with Victoria. But since the romance and marriage of Victoria and Albert has been done and redone so many times, Goodwin made the choice to not make it as much of a focus in her novel. However, I still felt like I was reading a nice Regency romance at times (technically inaccurate, I know, since this is *Victorian* times, but you know what I mean), and swooned along with Victoria at not only Lord M, but at all the opportunities Victoria had to spread her wings and find the woman she was destined to be. Definitely recommended for a reader in need of a more light historical fiction.


The Tumbling Turner Sisters by Juliette Fay

tumbling turner sisters

The Tumbling Turner Sisters
by Juliette Fay
Pub Date: June 14, 2016

When I was in undergrad, I stumbled into minoring in film studies. It was pointed out by my advisor that I had taken many elective classes that fit in with a film studies minor, so I thought I might as well go for it. I took a History of Entertainment course that was loads of fun – we had sections on minstrelsy, the circus, vaudeville, silent film, and the professor was a barrel of laughs. Ever since that class my interest is piqued when I hear something about any of those topics, and with this book set in the days of vaudeville just as public favor was turning to film, I figured I had to give it a read.

The father of the Turner sisters gets himself injured badly enough he can’t return to work in the boot factory, so their enterprising mother (who once had aspirations of performing on stage herself) decides her four daughters – Nell, Gert, Winnie, and Kit – would make rent by performing acrobatic feats on vaudeville. Each of these sisters is a unique and distinct person, and it seems at the beginning of the story that the family is somewhat dysfunctional. Nell and her baby are waiting for her husband to return from the Great War, Gert is a strong-willed beauty, Winnie desperately wants to go to college, and Kit is so tall she gets mistaken as being older than she really is. Out of familial need, and a sense of adventure, these four sisters agree to their mother’s scheme and start a tumbling act and hit the road.

What was especially fun about reading this book was following the development of the Tumbling Turner Sisters’ act in the eyes of vaudeville. Traveling acts like that form their own special bonds and friendships – they may only be together a week or so, but when you spend hours on end in a theater together, you quickly learn to lean on each other. Each stop they made brought a new learning experience for them, some good and some bad, and new acts to learn from and be amused by. And you see the four sisters develop more into themselves and bond together as a family through all these experiences. The act goes from being a necessity to keep a roof over their heads into a life they want and crave and enjoy.

So ultimately this is a story about family, and growing up, and becoming the person you want to be. With the added incentive of having some great vaudeville stories along the way!

One Crazy Summer, by Rita Williams-Garcia

one crazy summerOne Crazy Summer

by Rita Williams-Garcia
Pub Date: January 26, 2010

“I couldn’t figure out why Eunice sat there with me. It was bad enough to feel stupid. I didn’t need anyone sitting with me reminding me of it.”

This was one of many lines I absolutely loved in this novel. Delphine’s voice is funny, relevant, and authentic. I could see an oldest sister acting and thinking like her—responsible beyond her years, yet still young and inexperienced. I loved reading about how Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern manage for a month with their uncaring, unmaternal mother in a new city surrounded by the Black Panther movement.

The three sisters, who live with their father and grandmother in Brooklyn, have to go spend a month in Oakland with the mother they haven’t seen for almost seven years. Unfortunately, their mother is not a welcoming presence. They are basically left to their own devices to get food and stay out of their mother’s way: no trips to the beach, no Golden Gate Bridge, and no Disneyland. Instead, they spend every day at a summer camp for children to learn about and support the Black Panther Movement, get dinner takeout to eat on the floor, and avoid disrupting their mother’s peace.

I liked how real the girls were in this book, especially Delphine. She reminded me of several older sisters I have known who took responsibility for their siblings at a young age. The sisters fight, manipulate, and harass each other, but you can see the love and support underneath. I had a hard time relating to the mother, but such a woman is not completely unbelievable. The Black Panther Movement adds a great historical twist, as well. It showed a different side of the Black Panther Movement- most history books focus on the guns and violence, not reaching out to the children in the community with free breakfasts.

If you like strong, cute, authentic young characters who handle a difficult situation with stubborn resilience and humor, I would highly recommend this book.

The Scent of Secrets, by Jane Thynne

The Scent of Secrets Jane ThynneThe Scent of Secrets
by Jane Thynne
Pub Date: September 15, 2015

I’ve had something of a World War II obsession since I was a little kid thumbing through the American Girl catalog. Molly McIntire was one of my favorites of the dolls, and eventually I did get to own her (and as a twentysomething got to meet the author Valerie Tripp!). So ever since about the age of seven I’ve loved any book taking place during the 1940s. Home front, London Blitz, Polish resistance, Jewish survivor narratives, Anne Frank… the whole shebang. So this pick seemed an obvious choice for me — a British-German film actress with some espionage training, Clara Vine, is asked to befriend Hitler’s girlfriend Eva Braun and glean whatever information she can as the tension of the coming conflict tightens its hold on Paris and Berlin, the two settings of the novel. Since Eva is kept hidden from the public eye, this is no easy matter. And Clara may have to watch her own back as her past creeps up on her. And the whole thing starts with a mysterious death aboard a Nazi pleasure cruise.

(As a head’s up, this book is actually the third in the series featuring the actress Clara Vine. From what I can tell, the series is undergoing a rebranding, and the first two books in the series are not readily available at this time in the States, but I didn’t feel I was missing any major plot points. You pick up any background information pretty quickly.)

Spy stories are always fun. Especially if you have an author like Thynne who’s done plenty of research and adds in marvelous little details about how Clara utilizes her espionage training – like hiding information in the tube of her lipstick, or how she manages to ditch the man she suspects is trailing her. All the while we learn more about Clara’s day job as a film actress, and how the film industry in 1930s Germany was and had been. (Plenty of name-dropping, but not in an annoying way. Thynne doesn’t force Emil Jannings into the narrative just for the sake of having a well-known 1930s German actor show up, for instance.)

But what I particularly enjoyed about this story was learning about how the Nazi elite functioned in the late 30s. Clara enjoys some clout being an actress, and has a rapport with the wives of some of the Nazi leadership like Madga Goebbels and Emmy Göring. It’s certainly a different reading experience to see Nazis being portrayed as more human than demonic — the centers of petty gossip and extramarital affairs, not terribly mindful of the troubles being caused outside of their social circles. Having recently read a book about the concentration camps (which will be reviewed at a later date), it was kind of historical fiction whiplash. Nevertheless, I still got wrapped up in the story, and loved the tension of Clara’s mission, tactics, and personal life all mingled together.

There is some more adult material alluded to in the story, but the details are glossed over. Really, you get so engaged with the various story-lines as they come together that you’ll have trouble putting the book down for long, and you’ll be primed for the next book in the series being published in May. If you enjoyed In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson this is likely a novel you’ll also enjoy. If you’re like me and you’re into books on Germany around World War II, this will offer a different take on the usual points of view. And if you’re into Agent Carter and don’t mind the lack of physical altercations, this might be a pleasant read for you, too.

Kindred, by Octavia E. Butler

Kindred Octavia ButlerKindred
by Octavia E. Butler
Pub Date: June 1, 1979

This is a book that has been in my TBR pile for YEARS. To the point of embarrassment, even. I’ve been intrigued by this book since shelving it as a bookseller and my co-workers pointing out how much they loved it. This was the first science fiction novel written by a black woman, and that deserves some respect right there. I’m generally only mildly interested in sci-fi, so that’s probably what put me off reading this for so long. But while it gets classified as sci-fi because of the time traveling element in it, it’s much more a historical fiction slave narrative than anything else. And that right there is what makes this book stand out.

Dana and Kevin move into a new house in California. They’ve been married for four years, and are both writers. One day Dana, a black woman, gets dizzy and disappears from her home, and appears in early 19th century Maryland, and saves a little white boy from drowning. The little boy’s father thinks she’s going to hurt the boy, but before either can act, Dana disappears again and reappears back home with her husband. Thus, over a short period of time in 1976 California, but over the course of many years in early 19th century Maryland, Dana returns at different times when that little white boy, whose name is Rufus, finds himself in mortal danger of one kind or another. Why is she getting sent back? What is the purpose?

I will warn you – Butler wrote a very real depiction of slave life in this story. Some of the details are more gory than some people care to read about, but there was nothing gratuitous about it. Dana, with her 20th century upbringing, experiences the brunt of what it was to be a slave in the Old South. As one Goodreads reviewer put it, “Butler wastes no time in demonizing what was demonic.” Butler demonstrates the twisted thinking that white slaveowners held with regards to their “property.” She depicts the punishments they unleashed. She gives voice to the slaves themselves, and what they did to merely survive. It made this book difficult to read at times, but the story drew me in so much I couldn’t help but follow Dana as she struggles to figure out her purpose in being sent in time and in her own survival.

Certainly give this book a read if you’re into time travel stories or historical fiction about early 19th century America. The story and the characters will engage you and could bring up excellent discussion questions in a book group addressing the history of slavery in this country, women’s rights, racial tension, and of course the whole “what if?” factor of “what if this happened to me?” You might even finish this book and feel the urge to get back on the family history horse and see if similar skeletons lie in your closet.