Whitefern – VC Andrews

Whitefern, the long-awaited 2016 sequel to the 1982 My Sweet Audrina, takes place following the death of Audrina’s father, Adrian. It turns out Adrian left controlling interest of his company to Audrina, much to the consternation of her husband, Arden. (Andrews had a thing for alliterative names). The book follows Arden’s pressure to make Audrina sign over her share of the company, along the lines of ‘it looks bad for a man to not have control of his business’.

(It’s been a while since I read My Sweet Audrina so I’m not sure of the exact timeline, but I think it’s set in the 50’s. Perhaps it even made sense, albeit in an old-fashioned way, in 1982. But it really grates in 2017.)

Whitefern is basically all about Arden being angry that he isn’t in control of the Adare company and isn’t getting what he wants (a son) and the lengths he goes to to rectify those two factors. A lot of the reviews on Goodreads are to do with how far removed My Sweet Audrina‘s Arden is from Whitefern‘s, but I disagree. I found the Arden of MSA to be a coward who made excuses for his behaviour and justified the actions that had caused Audrina so much trauma through inaction. It didn’t surprise me that the Arden who could behave the way he did in MSA, keep quiet about it for over a decade and continue to justify his behaviour to the woman he claimed to love who he had helped traumatise, was capable of doing the things he did as a grown man with his heart set on owning an extensive business and having a son – regardless of who those things might belong to, legally and morally. It’s not spectacularly well-written – none of Andrews’s work was, and even less so since Andrew Neiderman has been ghosting writing since Andrews’s death in 1986 – but I felt the levels of entitlement, cowardice and even sociopathy that Arden displayed at a young age were presented very plausibly in adult Arden.

This book is definitely intended for fans of Virginia Andrews, but I found it to be significantly better than much of what Neiderman has written since 1986; perhaps, like his work finishing off her other series, he actually made an effort to match up the characteristics with established work rather than write a new novel with new characters that doesn’t have her voice at all. I read the books about twenty years apart, and my tastes have changed since (not to mention my opinion of cowards who cause trauma through inaction) but I found Whitefern to be a very satisfying conclusion to My Sweet Audrina. 

The Dismissal – Paul Kelly and Troy Bramston

The Dismissal is the latest in a long line of works that covers one of Australia’s most (im)famous points of history, the dismissal of an elected government, headed by Gough Whitlam, by an appointed Governor-General, John Kerr, who was largely meant to be in a ceremonial role, at the behest of Opposition Leader Malcolm Fraser.

(For those of you reading internationally, a quirk of the Australian political system is that our liberal party are known as Labour – fair enough, since they were founded on the trade union movement – and our conservative party are known as Liberal, an idiosyncrasy no-one has ever fully explained to me. If anyone can shed some light on this, please do.)

The Dismissal doesn’t really shed a lot of new information on a situation which has been one of the most reported on and analysed events in our history. Rather, it focuses on the different personalities of the major players, primarily Whitlam, Kerr and Fraser, and how the rigid attitudes of each man contributed to a situation that could have been avoided at a dozen different points had  any of them been a little more flexible and far-sighted. As it was pointed out, Fraser most likely would have won the next election anyway, to push the matter and create so much division, even forty years later, was a huge price to pay for an extra few months in power.

Whitlam and Kerr don’t escape criticism either, the former being to wrapped up in his vision for Australia to see what was happening and how little compromise it would take to avoid it (among others, Bill Hayden, Bob Hawke and Paul Keating all saw Kerr’s treachery coming) and the latter being self-serving and cowardly – he acknowledges he should have given Whitlam fair warning of his actions, but to do so would have got him dismissed himself. (The irony!) Kelly and Bramston acknowledge that while Kerr took the lion’s share of the blame for the events, all three men were to blame, not to mention a political system whose exploited flaws have never been addressed. (The reserve powers of the Governor-General remain to this day.)

It closes with a postscript as to what happened to all the main ‘characters’- all three men are now dead – as well as the thoughts of every Prime Minister since, including Malcolm Turnball. It’s fascinating to read how divisive the event remains in our political history, and having read it, I have a much better understanding of why this book was filed under 320 (polical science) and not 990 (Australian history).

A Fighting Chance – Elizabeth Warren

US Senator Elizabeth Warren’s autobiography Fighting Chance is a very engaging read, and goes into her childhood and career as a lawyer and advocate for the vulnerable members of society and how those experienced made her the woman she is today. The early section of the book looks at her parent’s struggles to stay solvent, and how little safety net there is the the US job market and welfare system (and this was growing up in the 60’s – she acknowledges how much cheaper university was for her) to her young marriage and motherhood and coming to the realisation that she simply wasn’t cut out to be a stay-at-home wife and mother. Some of her adventures in cooking – or at least, attempting to cook, two vastly different things given Warren’s impressive ability to set the kitchen on fire with a toaster – are told humorously and and unapologetically. Warren is not the least bit sorry she isn’t hardwired to play the traditional wife and mother.

Law and justice have always been passions of hers, and a significant portion of the book focuses on her fight with the Big Banks over underhanded and illegal activities that, in her mind, caused the 2008 GFC as well as destroyed thousands, if not millions of lives targeting the most financially vulnerable members of society with difficult-to-understand jargon, false promises and outright lies, while those who did the damage got off scot-free. A lot of her political career happened by accident, and as she didn’t much care what Washington insiders thought of her, she felt she had nothing to lose by being true to herself and the causes she was passionate about, and her determination has paid off impressively in the face of fierce opposition.

Reading her autobiography has helped me better understand why so many Americans are pinning their hopes on her for 2020 after such a contentious election (not that I doubt a strong-willed women, independent of most of the allegiances you would expect to find of a career politician, will create her own set of controversies). She makes me think of another trust-busting* politician who Big Finance did everything they could to stop, and in the end only made stronger, a certain Mr. Theodore Roosevelt.

*Of the Big Finance kind, not the public kind

Moranifesto – Caitlin Moran

Such a enjoyable book, a collection of thoughts, opinions, words of wisdom and the occasional fanwank (which, given it was in regards to Benedict Cumberbatch, I didn’t mind in the slightest) from English journalist, broadcaster and reporter Caitlin Moran. She covers a range of topics, including feminism, politics, social welfare (Moran was a working-class child in the Thatcher era) celebrity, pop culture, feminism, David Bowie, technology, social media, feminism and a delightful entry about Elizabeth Taylor and her jewels that had me both chuckling and yearning for an era where the Taylors of the world were equal parts glamour and vulgarity and dared you to tell them the two were mutually exclusive.

If it wasn’t obvious from the first paragraph, Moran is an unrepentant, colours-to-the-mast women’s libber (though in all fairness, she has a strong social conscience when it comes to other put-upon groups, including the LGBT community and stateless refugees) But don’t let that put you off; her sense of humour shines through that makes it relatable, perhaps, even, piquing a reader’s interest into picking up something more in-depth, which is for another post.

This was a very engaging book and really deserving of a longer review, but all I can say is buy or borrow it and enjoy it for yourself. I’ll close with a quote from her which is very relevant for me at the moment, in a postscript she wrote for her daughter:

The main thing is just to try to be nice. Keep turning it up, slowly, like a dimmer switch, whenever you can. Just resolve to shine, constantly and steadily, like a warm light in the corner, and people will want to move towards you in order to feel happy, and to read things more clearly. You will be bright and constant in a world of dark and flux.

Anne and Henry – Dawn Ius

I was really looking forward to an atrocious book, and was actually rather disappointed. Anne and Henry, the modern day retelling of the story of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII, set in an American High School, was decided blehh, although somewhat excruciatingly awkward when it came to its attempt to update such a setting.

As a stand-alone novel, it is decidedly ok, typical spoilt teenagers behaving badly. It’s in the adaptation that it becomes cringe-worthy. The ‘characters’ simply don’t translate well in a modern setting. Tudor England was a deeply patriarchal culture, no better exemplified in Henry VIII, a totalitarian who had all-say in what was done in his kingdom. In a society when even the smartest and most ambitious woman could only attach herself to a man she hoped was as smart and ambitious as she was (and that he wouldn’t take the credit for all her ideas and shove her in a nunnery when he got bored), you can understand why someone like Anne Boleyn focused her intellect, ambition and sensuality on the highest prize in the land – a crown. And you can understand why so many courtiers were just as focused in dragging her down and installing their own girl in her place.

The concept simply doesn’t translate well in a modern setting. A woman with Anne’s abilities in today’s culture wouldn’t be satisfied with being the accomplished girlfriend of the real star; she would want to be a star in her own right. Ius’s Anne doesn’t even seem too concerned with Henry’s wealth and desirability and likes/loves him for himself. She has a back story of being abused and exploited by a series of men, including her sister Mary’s boyfriend, who sounded kinda sociopathic to be honest, and ended up in an institution after she caught Anne and her boyfriend together. (The real Mary Boleyn outlived both her siblings as well as their parents, and lived her remaining years in wealth and happiness to her second husband, a love match.)  I think the point was that men love to pursue women and twist the story around to make the woman look like the bad guy but it all seemed rather pointless and soapie to me.

Katherine Aragon has turned into a rich-bitch-scorned type character who persecutes and humiliates Anne for daring to go out with Henry after he had broken up with her. She and her gang of rich, spoilt kids behaving badly set Anne up (who’s main crime seems to be a tendency towards drinking too much in times of crisis – utterly not what the real Boleyn would have done) to be dumped by Henry and kicked out of school. I think the Katherine character is the most obvious way the story fails to translate into a modern high-school setting, because Katherine of Aragon was, by the time Anne came along, a middle-aged woman who had sacrificed her youth and health trying to have a son, not to mention kept England afloat with her military mind and diplomatic ties. That Katherine had every right to be pissed about being dumped. Ius’s Katherine is closer to Katherine Howard.

As I said the story itself was an average rich-kids-behaving-badly story. (Speaking of high-school retellings, it reminded me a little of Cruel Intentions.) It’s the subject matter that makes it awkward to read because so many of the personalities that stood out in medieval times don’t have a place in modern society.

At least Anne got to live, walking out before they could officially expel her and doing some damage on her motorcycle on her way out. I can’t help but hope that Anne  went on to do great things that made Henry, Katherine, et al, look even smaller than they were.

The Santangelos – Jackie Collins

A Facebook memory reminded me of how much I hated Jackie Collins’s last novel, although I have since come to the conclusion that either the chemo had turned her brain to mush or, like the Harper Lee conspiracy theory, she was bullied into it by a greedy ‘carer’ in her vulnerable final months. It really was an extremely disappointing end to an engaging series that, while it had been flagging in its last few installments, did not end to deserve on such a blehhh note.

Lucky Santangelo is still her typical bad-ass, and that’s where the resemblance to the rest of the series ends. Paige, who Lucky previously had an excellent, part-maternal, part-sisterly relationship with, has morphed into a gold-digger who shares a mutual loathing with her step-daughter and her previous healthy, curious bisexuality has morphed into something depraved. I was half-waiting for the dogs and peanut butter to come out. Naturally, in the epilogue, she meets a depraved end fitting her depraved lifestyle.

And Venus? Remember Venus? Feisty, whip-smart chameleon who changed from day to day into whoever she felt like being that moment? Fun, canny Venus who was profoundly insightful as to the double standards of Hollywood, and society at large, who had made a lot of sacrifices to be true to herself but was happy with those sacrifices, if not the society that said she (but not any of her husbands or lovers or her bludging brother) had to make them? That Venus has become a woman who moulds herself to whatever her current man desires. It comes across a lot worse in the book than how I just wrote it.

And Gino. I knew Collins would eventually kill Gino off – the guy had to be pushing a hundred and hadn’t been hugely relevant to the story for half the series. But I was hoping he might at least be afforded the dignity of a brave death – perhaps facing down a mountain lion that was threatening his grandchildren? Something very Gino-ish like that, who was as loyal and brave as he was fierce and bad-ass – after all, he was Lucky’s father, she had to learn it from somewhere. But instead, he gets shot in the back and much of the novel meanders through figuring out whodunit (while interjecting sadsack no-identity Venus and gold-digging Paige.)

Spoiler alert: it was some far-flung Bonatti relative. I think they imported the guy from Italy. Seriously, at what point of half a century of the Santangelos wiping our any Bonatti who came their way should they have stopped and thought, hey, this feud started before any of us were born, everyone who’s tried to kill them has ended up dead themselves, the pile of bodies is entirely on our side, maybe we should give up and live in peace with them? Every time a Bonatti shows up, their motivation is even flimsier than the previous installment. I actually got it when it was about Enzio and his sons (why wasn’t Donatella all, ‘Score, the Santangelos woman got rid of my abusive husband for me!’?) but after that that it was like, what do these people hope they’re trying to achieve that a dozen people before them failed to???

You know what would have been a great read?  A book where Lucky breaks the REAL Paige and Venus out of wherever they’ve been stashed and the three women go on to annihilate their doppelgangers.I want THAT book. Joan, for the love of God and your sister’s memory, PLEASE write that book. I’m willing to forget The Santangelos ever happened if you do.

Katherine Howard; The Tragic Story of Henry VIII’s Fifth Queen – Josephine Wilkinson

It’s a toss-up between which of Henry the Eight’s two beheaded queens have been the most blackened by history, though I’m inclined to believe Katherine Howard has copped it worse than her cousin Anne Boleyn. Josephine Wilkinson’s biography of the tragic girl-who-was-barely-a-woman goes a long way towards rehabilitating Howard’s reputation as silly and promiscuous.

Rather than painting her as a silly teenager who had no idea the consequences of her actions, Wilkinson’s interpretation of Howard is that of a woman who had a strong sense of obligation and could have made a great queen, has she been given the time to establish herself – or at least a great wife and mother, had circumstances been a little kinder to her. Wilkinson is in no doubt that her ‘relationship’ with Francis Dereham was one of ongoing abuse, a man who believed ‘yes means yes and no means yes’ and that women were flighty, indecisive creatures who drove men to sexual misconduct. She hypothesised that such sexual abuse at such a young age caused damage to her body, either by physically being crushed or disease, that left her unable to conceive during her marriage to Henry.

Wilkinson also vindicates her friendship with Thomas Culpepper, portraying him to be something akin to a stalker who Howard attempted to discourage. Seriously, what kind of nitwit harrasses the king’s wife, especially when the king in question in Henry VIII? Her research suggests Howard had a reasonably friendly relationship with Henry’s oldest daughter Mary – all the more impressive that Mary was actually older – and that she was largely brought down because of her and her family’s Catholic faith. This was an era when political winds turned on a dime, and a teenage girl had little to protect herself from what we would now call ‘career politicians’ willing to use any form of slander or doubt they could get their hands on to destroy those in power and elevate their own positions.

To be fair, none of Wilkinson’s ideas are especially new, although this is the first time I’ve seen such an extensive argument against the way Howard has been portrayed by history. Usually her story is told via someone else’s.

I said recently that I was fascinated in seeing where Alison Weir took her series on Henry’s wives, since so many of their stories overlapped with one another’s, and reading this fascinating biography of a much-maligned young woman has shored up that interest. I can’t wait to see what she makes of Katherine Howard, and hope she uses Wilkinson as one of her sources.

Parky – Michael Parkinson

Parky, Michael Parkinson’s autobiography, is as engaging a recollection of a long career in media and entertainment as I was hoping.

He recalls the seemingly endless list of celebrities he interviewed, including Elton John, Dame Helen Mirren, Jennifer Lopez and James McAvoy, bringing each to life with surprising depth given what sometimes amounts to a few lines. With others, such as Richard Burton, he demonstrates a succinct understanding of the culture that helped him destroy himself. One of his favourite interviewees, a man he met several times over his career, was Muhammad Ali, and he fleshed out such a complex man with insight and articulation.

(It didn’t hurt that he was a complete fanboy for Marilyn Monroe, and while she was before his time, he interviewed almost everyone still alive who had worked with her or known her.)

What I found most interesting was that while he never lost his fascination with the greats of their age and field – from David Beckham to Oliver Reed to Madonna to Oprah – he never seemed overawed of them, either, which is what helps him flesh out these individuals beyond mere fandom. And while he is hardly the most unbiased opinion towards his own professionalism, he seems to have maintained a strong sense of ethics during his career, as well as a strong sense of what will work and what won’t, including refusing Sasha Baron Cohen’s request to do a scripting interview in character as Ali G, and the fact it was only in the twilight years of his career that he was able to interview Madonna because of her insistence at having conditions put on the show, something he never agreed to. His refusal to concede on this matter has no doubt contributed to the longevity and quality of his career.

A great read, rather light-hearted for a work of nonfiction, but thoroughly enjoyable and a rather insightful look into the worlds of media and entertainment, and the frequent points where they intersect.

The Six Tudor Queens: Katherine of Aragon, the True Queen – Alison Weir

I love Alison Weir’s work, both her non-fiction and historical fiction (I believe her background as a historian has given her a strong foundation as a historical fiction writer) so I nearly squealed with excitement when I saw her new book, The Six Tudor Queens: Katherine of Aragon, the True Queen, which is to be the first in a six-part series portraying a fictionalised account of the wives of Henry VIII, though this being Weir, to refer to her work as ‘fictionalised’ feels like it’s demeaning the quality of her research.

Katherine of Aragon is often reduced to a stereotype of the weeping, discarded wife (and in all fairness, she had a right to weep over being discarded in such a humiliating fashion) but Weir brings her to life with nuances and layers that I don’t believe any writer, fiction or non-fiction, has done before. Her life is charted from her teenage years, unsure of herself and her place in a new country, her fumbling relationship with Arthur that eventually settles into a friendship – and no more. Weir definitely falls in the ‘marriage was never consummated’ camp of this particular historical debate.

She brings to life a young Henry VIII and illustrates the handsome, charming man that Katherine connected with so much more deeply than she did his brother, and portrays him quite sympathetically for several years, his love for Katherine, his anguish over their lack of ability to bear a male child – if this wasn’t a story that we’re all familiar with, Henry comes across as a fleshed-out and sympathetic hero that we hope will see the error of his ways in discounting Katherine’s love and loyalty.

But this is a story we’re all familiar with, and of course, enter Anne Boleyn. I’m fascinated to see how this series plays out, because so many of the wives’ lives overlap with one another’s. How will Weir tell the same events of the last third of the novel from Boleyn’s perspective? We root for Katherine as she hears Anne has miscarried; will we be crying for Anne when we read the same events from her perspective?

The Katherine of Weir of this novel is very much a woman of her time, clinging to her faith in a way that seems wasteful and willfully ignorant – and yet Weir makes it clear that we need to study her in her own time, not ours, and she provides a clear context for Katherine’s actions and behaviour.

Interestingly, one of her most loyal ladies-in-waiting in none other than Jane Seymour. I don’t know if this was true, or how much of it Weir embellished, perhaps to refer back to in a later novel. Will Jane be secretly pleased that she usurped the woman who usurped Katherine, and for the same reasons? As I said, there’s so much potential in this series to explore the overlapping lives of the six major characters, and I am eagerly waiting to see what she does with Anne Boleyn’s story. And Jane Seymours, and Anne of Cleves’s, and Katherine Howard’s, and Katherine Parr’s…

Afternoon Tea at the Sunflower Cafe – Milly Johnson

Afternoon Tea at the Sunflower Cafe is such a delightful indulgence of revenge fiction. Connie Diamond discovers that her husband Jimmy has been cheating on her with a nineteen-year-old Pole Ivanka as well as cheating her out of what should have been their shared wealth from his/their cleaning business; she finds this out from his right-hand woman Della, who was in love with Jimmy until she found out he was fooling around with the junior staff. Hell has no fury and all that.

Naturally, this being a delicious bit of revenge fantasy, the two women team up to bring Jimmy down. Initially, they dislike and distrust each other, but they grown to respect and admire one another and become friends. While setting up her rival cleaning business, Connie meets chocolatier Brandon Locke (Johnson has not yet found a chocolate-themed cliche about enjoying life she didn’t like) and starts on the road to new love. There’s a third main character, Cheryl, who’s beaten down by her gambling husband Gary, and it’s not giving anything away to tell you that all three women come ahead by the end of the book, as well as all the women employed by Jimmy who defected to Connie’s new business.

There’s a lot of cliches about having a wealth of friends, although it doesn’t hurt that these women end up with a  lot of actually put-it-in-the-bank wealth, too. Afternoon Tea at the Sunflower Cafe is a delightfully predictable tale of women treated badly who team up to get even with their dirty, rotten husbands by living well and forming beautiful friendships. I won’t remember this book in a few weeks, but I gobbled it up while I was reading it, itching to know how Jimmy (and Gary) get their comeuppance, never doubting that they would.