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Jill Meyer (United States)
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A Royal Experiment: The Private Life of King George III
A Royal Experiment: The Private Life of King George III
Offered by Macmillan CA
Price: CDN$ 18.89

5.0 out of 5 stars Superb biography of a family., Nov. 20 2014
Generally, historical biographies can be written in two ways. The first is a look at the subject's public life, with a bit of the private. The second is a look at the private life, with a bit about the public life. Historian Janice Hadlow has written a superb biography of England's King George III, looking mostly at his private life as a son, husband, and father of 15 children.

George was the third Hanoverian king of Great Britain. His great-grandfather and grandfather - both named George - ruled before him. His father, Frederick, died before he could take the throne on his father's - George II - death. George III became king at age 22 and ruled for roughly 60 years, though the last 9 years of his life, Britain was ruled by his son, George IV, as a regent for his sick father.

George was raised in what might be called today a "toxic" environment. His great-grandfather loathed his son and heir, that man loathed HIS son and heir, and George was not highly thought of by his father, Frederick. That same pattern extended itself to George's relationship with his own first son. But George seemed to recognise the familial strain handed down to him and he resolved to have a happy marriage and home life. He married, soon after becoming king, a minor German princess, Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. They proceeded to have 15 children - all but two reached adulthood - and George and Charlotte were keen to set up a "happy house" in which to raise these children. That is what Janice Hadlow refers to as "A Royal Experiment". However, did "fate" or "genes" or indifferent parenting produce 13 children who lived variously unhappy and unfulfilled lives? His seven living sons produced no legitimate heirs before George's death, though most had illegitimate off-spring. His daughters either married late or remained unmarried, pressed into duty as companions to their parents. All were well-educated for the time, at their parents' express desires - but none seemed to live the happy lives their parents had envisioned for them.

Hadlow also looks at the long marriage of George and Charlotte. George's own paternal ancestors had had bad marriages, and George wanted to break the pattern. His choice of Charlotte, as smart as she was prolific, began happily as Charlotte adapted her personality and interests to George's. It ended in sadness, as many long-term marriages do.

Janice Hadlow has written a lively, readable book filled with strange, unfulfilled, and in some cases, tragic figures. One of the pictures in the book is a drawing of the old George III before his death. He is terribly gaunt and wild-eyed and looks as insane as he was reputed to be. It's a picture of an old, old man, who suffered in life and is moving to his death. It sums up George's life.

Time and Time Again
Time and Time Again
Price: CDN$ 18.05

5.0 out of 5 stars Astounding..., Nov. 17 2014
British author/actor Ben Elton's new novel, "Time and Time Again", is simply an astonishing book. I've been trying to write a review without any "spoilers" but that's just not easy to do with this book. But I'll try and let's begin with the jacket on the British edition of the book. One question is asked: "If you had one chance to change history, where would you go? What would you do...who would you kill?"

The main character of the book, beginning in Cambridge, England in 2024, is former soldier and reality TV star, Hugh Stanton. Stanton was a brilliant student of history at Trinity College and he has been called back to the college by the elderly professor, Sally McCluskey. She and some others are convinced that Sir Isaac Newton had invented a time-warping machine that could send someone back in time to, of all years, 1914. Newton, through mathematical tinkering three hundred or so years earlier, pin-pointed that year as the time that society would begin to fall apart. McCluskey and the others want Stanton to go back to the year 1914 and prevent the "Great War" from starting by stopping the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo and then traveling to Berlin and assassinating Kaiser Wilhelm. Pretty heady stuff but Hugh Stanton manages to do just that and the "Great War" doesn't happen. But what does happen? What occurs in its place? How does history change?

Elton's book, and I'll not go any further in my plot description, has as many twists and turns as a path up a mountain. The book is constantly challenging the reader, who may think they KNOW what happens next...but, not really. A reader should have a pretty good knowledge of 20th century history; I don't think Elton's book is for the casual reader. But for the right reader, it's a wonderful path.

Kaiser Wilhelm II: A Concise Life
Kaiser Wilhelm II: A Concise Life
Price: CDN$ 9.99

5.0 out of 5 stars A "concise" life, indeed..., Nov. 16 2014
German historian John CG Rohl has written "Kaiser Wilhelm II: A Concise Life". When I ordered it, I didn't know just how "concise" the book was, but after reading it, I realised that it was exactly what I was looking for. The book is relatively brief, but Rohl does an excellent job in distilling Wilhelm's life to manageable size without leaving much out.

Wilhelm II was a problem-child who grew into a problem-adult. He was born with a withered arm - the result of a difficult birth - and suffered emotionally and physically. His mother - the eldest child of Queen Victoria - was cold to him and Wilhelm intensely disliked her his whole life. He was given a good education but concentrated on military issues. He considered himself a "warrior", despite his physical handicaps. Wilhelm came to power in his late 20's when his father, Frederick, died soon after assuming the throne on his father's death. He was an undisciplined ruler; often asking and then disregarding advise from people who knew far more than he did about the military and economics and politics.

Most of the Rohl's book centers on the pre-WW1 and war years. Wilhelm had been preparing for war against Russia, France, and England since the late 1800's. The Balkans - that "tinderbox" - had been waiting to explode long before the Austrian heir Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in June, 1914. Building up his army and navy, as well as his delusions of what he wanted after defeating England and France and Russia, Wilhelm was outplayed in the Great War. He abdicated and went into exile in the Netherlands in 1918. He lived until 1941 and was a great proponent of Hitler and his Nazis.

John Rohl's shortish book gives you a good look at Wilhelm. But if you'd like a longer book, order his three-set volume of Wilhelm's life. That set of books has 3884(!) pages and is available on Amazon/UK. I think this "concise" version might be more "doable".

Margot at War: Love and Betrayal in Downing Street, 1912-1916
Margot at War: Love and Betrayal in Downing Street, 1912-1916
Offered by Hachette Book Group Digital, Inc.
Price: CDN$ 16.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Affairs of state...and of the heart., Nov. 16 2014
This year, 2014, is the centennial of the start of World War I. Many books have been written about the war and the years before and after. The best books seem to be ones which center on an event or a person involved in the war. British author, Anne de Courcy, has written an excellent book, "Margot at War: Love and Betrayal in Downing Street, 1912-1916", about Prime Minister Henry Asquith and his wife, Margot.

The title, "Margot at War" seems able to be construed two different ways. "War", of course, can allude to the World War I and the attendant matters of those years, BUT, it can also allude to an on-going battle Margot waged against her step-daughter, Violet, and Violet's best friend, Venetia Stanley, for Henry's affections.

Margot Tennant was Henry Asquith's second wife. He was her first husband. They married after the death of his first wife, with whom he had four sons and one daughter, Violet. With Margot, Asquith had two children who lived past birth. Margot was known for her wit and intelligence and she married Henry Asquith for love. Unfortunately, after the birth of her last child, she was advised by her doctors not to have more children. She broke off marital relations with her husband, but remained devoted to him.

Anne de Courcy does an excellent job in expanding her book past the affairs of the heart. Henry Asquith's pre-WW1 years in office were not placid ones. The questions of Irish Home Rule, the Suffragette movement, the changing economic society, as well as the on-going diplomatic questions as Germany and Great Britain jockeyed for power, were all problems to be dealt with. Deal with them he did, as he also fell madly in love with Venetia Stanley. But was he "in love with Venetia" or "in love with being 'in love'"?

Was Henry Asquith having a physical affair with Venetia Stanley? He was 60 and she was in her mid-20's. He was England's Prime Minister and she was an unmarried society darling. Author de Courcy doesn't answer the question; maybe it can't be answered. Certainly Asquith was in love with Venetia. He wrote her love letters every day, often while in government sessions. His aides and others he worked with often noted his paying more attention to Venetia than his duties of state allowed. The war was going badly, government and military scandals abounded, and the Prime Minister was writing copious numbers of love letters, often containing government secrets. By the end of 1916, Asquith was forced from office. By that time, Venetia Stanley had married another man. Henry Asquith and Margot retired together. One of his four sons from his first marriage had been killed in battle, just one of the millions on both sides killed in a senseless war.

Anne de Courcy's book is an excellent look at affairs of state and affairs of the heart. There's much more on the affairs of state, but love - whether requited or not - is part of the picture.

The Goddess of Small Victories
The Goddess of Small Victories
Price: CDN$ 9.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Quite a first novel..., Nov. 15 2014
There have already been 30 or so excellent reviews on Amazon/USA - ranging from five to three stars - on French author Yannick Grannec's first novel, "The Goddess of Small Victories", so my own review is superfluous. But since I read the book for Vine, I have to review it. So, here are some points.

1. Yannick Grannec uses the two competing narratives in her book. I've read several books - "Possession" by AS Byatt, "Julia and Julie" by Julie Powell are a couple of the books I can think of - and this is a tricky writing style. Usually one of the stories is more powerful/better written/important than the other and the reader tires of going back and forth between two story-lines. In "Goddess", Grannec does a pretty good job at keeping the two stories evenly matched, but still, for me, the more important story was the one of Adele and Kurt Godel. That story began with the meeting of the meeting, wooing, wedding, and long married life of the two, beginning in 1930's Vienna and ending in 1970's Princeton, New Jersey. The other story, one of the aged Adele and a young woman who has been assigned by Princeton's Advanced of Advanced Studies to befriend her in order to get Kurt Godel's important papers after Adele's death. This young woman, Anna Roth, (one of two "Annas" in the story) is somewhat bedraggled and is looking for her place in the world.

2. Good historical fiction about real characters can teach as well as entertain. Have access to Wiki available as you read this book. I was constantly looking up - and learning about - historical figures like Kurt Godel, Oskar Morgenstern, and mathematics theories as I read the book.

3. The translation of this book from French to English was done by Willard Wood and he has done such a good job that I was half-way through the book before I realised that it had been written in another language. The book just flowed...

I have struggled with the rating of this book. I keep going back and forth between a four and a five. "Goddess" is a wonderful book to read - and, no, you don't have to be a mathematician to appreciate it - but I ended up with the four. I heartily recommend this first novel. I also wonder what, if any of the story, is auto-biographical?

Beijing Bastard: Into the Wilds of a Changing China
Beijing Bastard: Into the Wilds of a Changing China
by Val Wang
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 20.06
18 used & new from CDN$ 16.98

5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful memoir..., Nov. 12 2014
Memoirs are not autobiographies but rather a shorter, snapshot look at a particular part of the author's life. The best memoirs are those who capture that segment of life in a beginning, middle, and end. Val Wang, in her memoir, "Beijing Bastard: Into the Wilds of a Changing China", brilliantly writes about her post-collegiate life in Beijing and how she experienced her life changing along with those larger changes within Chinese society at the same time.

Val Wang is the American-born daughter of parents who had emigrated from China to the United States when they were young. The parents - whose own parents bought into the dream of the US - raised Val and her older brother in a traditional home, stressing the values of both education and modest living. But Val didn't want to merely conform to her parents' dreams, but rather, she wanted to forge her own. In the late 1990's, after graduating from college, Val moved to Beijing (after a short stint in another Chinese city) to make her way. She wasn't the first post-graduate ex-pat to try living in a foreign country and she surely won't be the last. What Val Wang learned in her five or so year stay in Beijing is the subject of the memoir.

Wang had extended family in Beijing and began her stay in the city living with them. She soon learned that the housing of her relatives definitely wasn't what she was used to in the United States. Quite a bit of the book is about Chinese housing, which is an interesting subject in Val Wang's talented hands. The reader might not know the intricacies of the housing stock and housing market, the first of which took physical blows and the second took financial blows in the pre-2008 rush to make the city ready for the Olympic games. She begins her stay in one home that will be wrecked and ends it in an apartment that may not be waiting long for the wrecking ball.

How does a young woman, who wants to be a film-maker after watching an independent documentary called "Beijing Bastards", make her dream come true. She's somewhat hampered by not having production experience or contacts within the Beijing film crowd, but takes a series of temporary, then permanent jobs with alternative newspapers. She begins shooting a documentary, using borrowed equipment, about a family of actors at the Peking Opera but never completes it; the dynamics between her and the family of performers is not good. Val does "this" and "that", she meets and befriends interesting people, including one woman who lends her a camera and editing equipment. But she realises she's ready to go home to the US after 9/11.

Val Wang has changed in her five years in Beijing and she has watched as the city changes with her. Not much stays the same for either young woman or the city she's adopted. But she's matured and her relationships with her family in the US - once so fraught with misunderstanding - go through a material change. Her memoir is a wonderful look at an extended family and a changing society, as told by a young and talented writer.

Autumn All The Cats Return
Autumn All The Cats Return
by Philippe Georget
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 14.44
34 used & new from CDN$ 10.39

5.0 out of 5 stars Second in a series, another season..., Nov. 10 2014
French author Philipe Georget's novel, "Autumn, All The Cats Return" is the second in his series of police procedurals, set in the southern France city of Perpignan. Featuring detective Gilles Sebag and his fellow-policemen, the story combines murder with history. Actually, the murders ARE the history, as the OAS and the Algerian War feature prominently in the story more than 50 years after the war's end and the French Algerians moving to France.

In 2012, old men living in Perpignan are turning up dead...murdered, actually. The killer does nothing to disguise his fingerprints and Sebag and his partner and other policeman begin to trace the murderer by tracing the lives of the victims. Both - so far - had fought in the war and it's quickly determined that the murdered men were part of a group of four who had fought together. One had been killed in Algiers; the other three had returned to France in 1962 to rebuild their lives. Now, two are dead and the third is threatened by the unknown assassin. Another, seemingly unrelated case Sebag is also working on, concerns a 14 year old boy killed when his motor bike is hit by a reckless driver.

Perpignan is located on the French side of the French/Spanish border. It is considered Catalan, though I don't quite understand the French relationship with the Spanish Catalonia and the political actions in Spain. Some of the action in the book takes place in the Spanish city of Girona. So Georget's novel is actually about two political movements in history; France and it's long-time colony, Algeria, and the Catalonia independence movement. (You can get an idea of the French/Algerian/OAS history by reading Frederick Forsyth's excellent novel, "The Day of the Jackal").

Georget's novel is also an excellent look at how police work affects the personal lives of those doing the work. Sebag has a somewhat troubled relationship with his family, though it appears to be one-sided and a figment of his imagination. I don't know what the title means as there aren't any cats important in the story. Oh well, I have Georget's first novel, "Summertime, All the Cats are Bored" on order, so maybe I'll know then where the cats are and why they're important. I'll report back. In any case, this book is an excellent read for those international crime lovers.

Let Sleeping Dogs Lie: A Novel
Let Sleeping Dogs Lie: A Novel
by Rita Mae Brown
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 19.44
23 used & new from CDN$ 17.86

5.0 out of 5 stars Another in a good series..., Nov. 6 2014
I am comparing "Let Sleeping Dogs Lie" with the previous ones in the "Sister Jane" series, not with other mysteries.

One of the fun things about reading a new book in a series is to return to the characters we've grown to like in previous books. It's like catching up with old friends over a dinner table. We find out what's been going on in their lives and their plans and hopes for the future. In Rita Mae Brown's "Sister Jane" series, we not only catch up with the humans, but also with the animals - the foxes, the hounds, the horses, and even the birds - who are all part of what makes these stories so charming. However, any new reader should know that the "Sister Jane" books are not particularly "plot driven". In fact, the plots are normally secondary to the characters. The plot in "Sleeping Dogs" is a bit lame - but in general no lamer than the previous plots - involving a discovered murder from 1921, DNA-in-horse bloodlines, and a bit about a local girls' academy.

It's the characters who shine in "Let Sleeping Dogs Lie". "Sister Jane" Arnold, the "master" of a mid-Virginia hunt club, is a wonderfully drawn woman who has seen and done much in her 70+ years but has remained grounded by her devotion to horses, hounds, and friends and her love of the hunt. By the way, American fox hunters do NOT kill the fox they're chasing. The fox escapes to run another day, in another hunt. Jane Arnold is joined by her "gentleman friend" Gray Lorilard, Shaker Crown, and others (including a foe) who make up the Jefferson Hunt Club. Their lives also evolve in the books and the reader is carried along, from book to book.

Even though I've enjoyed the "Sister Jane" books, it's a bit difficult to recommend them to the average mystery reader who's looking for a hard-boiled plot. The plots in these books couldn't be softer-boiled without falling apart completely. But for the reader who is looking for a "cozy-with-an-edge" (murders do occur on the pages), I heartily recommend Rita Mae Brown's series. But you also must know that there are quite a few hunting scenes, told by both the humans and animals. As long as you're not reading other books with these scenes, I'm sure you'll find them just filling enough.

Common People: The History of An English Family
Common People: The History of An English Family
Price: CDN$ 16.04

5.0 out of 5 stars A look at the "real" English..., Oct. 25 2014
I suppose when we go delving into our family histories, we hope to find the odd billionaire, a pirate, a famous actor or, at least, someone "interesting". Interesting and rich is a good combination. But most of us, like British author Alison Light, find solid citizens who live fairly quiet lives, passing along from one generation to another. A "family" that is actually a combination of tree limbs that come together to make one individual. We are a combination of all those who came before us. Alison Light, in her thoughtful book, "Common People", gives us brief histories of her forebears.

Light's ancestors really were "common people". Not an earl or pirate or rich guy among them. Most were economically of the working class (or sometimes lower in bad times), while some made inroads into the British middle class. Her "people", on both maternal and paternal sides, rode the wave of the economies of Victorian and 20th century England. Coming from Ireland, Wales, Birmingham, Portsmouth,and rural areas in southern England, they were often tossed in times of economic and societal need. Large families regularly lost members - young and old - to tuberculosis and other diseases that were particularly pernicious in the slums the families often lived in. Other family members spent time in "work houses", institutions for the real needy. Others died forgotten in the crude mental hospitals of the times. A few left for Australia - usually as penal deportees - but most spent their lives moving around the areas I've listed above. Curiously, no one seemed to end up in London.

Alison Light's extended family - from four or five generations back - really is the story of Britain and the affects of the Industrial Revolution. Her writing is always light and she tells the story of her people in almost a fictional way. But, her people were real, as are their stories. This is a really good book.

Berlin: Imagine a City
Berlin: Imagine a City
by Rory MacLean
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 14.84
12 used & new from CDN$ 14.84

5.0 out of 5 stars Glimpses of the city and its people, Oct. 24 2014
This review is from: Berlin: Imagine a City (Paperback)
British author Rory Maclean has written a "history" of Berlin, that is really not straight history. It is, instead, a series of short "glimpses" at the city and its people, beginning in the Middle Ages when Berlin was just a settlement. He continues in time to today, mostly focusing on the last four hundred years.

Maclean writes his story in both fiction and non-fiction; from straight prose to play-form he tells the stories of the unknown Berlin resident to the well-known Berliners who have contributed both the good and the bad to society. For every Fritz Haber - a converted German Jew who was the chemist who formulated poison gasses in WW1, leading to the gasses used in WW2 concentration camps - Maclean highlights the life of artist/pacifist Kathe Kollwitz, whose work was condemned to the fires as "subversive" in 1930's Berlin. (Ironically, Fritz Haber's development of Zyklon B was used to murder his own nieces and nephews a few years after his own death.)

Rory Maclean sometimes uses secondary characters to describe life in Berlin through the ages. For instance, when writing about the GDR, he doesn't use the life of Erich Honecker - the post WW2 Communist leader - but rather uses individuals, "the people", when describing life under Communist rule. A devout Communist "Wall-maker", Dieter Werner - son of a Nazi soldier - is profiled in that section. During the Nazi era, Maclean focuses on architect Albert Speer and propagandist Joseph Goebbels - rather than Adolf Hitler, to look at the both the grotesque use of architecture and mind-warping to involve Berliners in Nazi will. He contrasts Nazi film-maker Leni Riefenstahl, who glorified on film the excesses of Nazi rule to actress Marlene Dietrich, who fled Berlin in the early 1930's rather than work under the Nazi regime and who entertained the Allied troops and did other war-work to help defeat Germany in WW2. The choice of those persons highlight Maclean's work; the individual always seems less than the over-all city of Berlin.

Rory Maclean's book is one of the best history books I've read all year. But, it's not history-in-the-conventional sense, so beware of buying the book if you're looking for a straight history of the city. There are plenty of books for that by other writers; Rory Maclean's "Berlin" is about the city and its people.

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