Review – Reign of Madness

Reign of Madness

By Lynn Cullen

Putnam Adult

ISBN: 9780399157097

4 stars

Juana of Castile is a young girl at the Spanish court secure in the fact she will never inherit the crown and also secure in her parent’s marriage and love for one another. When her world view is suddenly shattered, her romantic ideals disappear — especially those of marriage and her parent’s marriage specifically — and it leaves her with a more pragmatic view of life. She now understands that love and marriage are not one in the same and she beings to see all the more clearly where her life will lead and what it will be like. When Juana’s marriage to Philip I, the Duke of Burgundy, is announced she makes her way to a foreign country with little preparation and an even smaller hope of finding happiness in her marriage and maybe even in her life.

Juana and Philip’s first meeting is odd and while it’s not the most reassuring start, it’s not as bad as Juana imagined. The first few years of their marriage are full of lust, if not necessarily love, and the two young and naive rulers stumble toward a future she never imagined — the crown of Spain. With every relationship in her life eroding — her mother’s silence, her husband’s strange behavior, and courtiers deserting her — Juana struggles to control her jealous feelings for her husband as well as awful thoughts toward a mother who has grown cold. Her children become her only happiness and Philip becomes tortuous holding her at arm’s length, taunting her, playing with her emotions, and doing all he can to make Juana doubt herself.

Philip’s plans to steal the Spanish crown become clear to Juana all too late. When she finally beings to fathom his cruelness, both physically and mentally, her reaction is long overdue. Unfortunately, he has convinced too many of her perceived incompetence and Juana can do nothing to dispel the rumors or fight back. Everyone now sees her as a lovesick, heartbroken, and mad woman incapable of caring for herself and certainly not the Spanish empire.

Juana does not start out as a particularly sympathetic character. She’s dropped, at a young age, all the pretentions of happiness knowing with clarity that her life is not truly her own. It’s because of this attitude you expect her to see Philip for what he is — a childish man who believes he can take all he wants without consequences. His attitude and cruelty toward her are evident rather early on in the marriage but she becomes wrapped up in trying to keep Philip happy that she overlooks clear warnings from family and friends.

What I found most astonishing was her own inability to use the strong women present in her life, preferring to placate her husband to keep his rather unpredictable behavior on an even keel. I wanted to shake her. I wanted her to open her eyes and take control of her life in some way.

Having read another of Cullen’s book, The Creation of Eve, I knew to expect interesting female characters. Even if in this case that female character wasn’t as strong as I would have liked. But this may be a case of me trying to apply my modern view of things to a historically based story. Juana is a smart person but sadly understands what’s happening in her life all too late to change anything. You do feel for her and even at times when I was frustrated with how poorly she was dealing with her husband, I couldn’t walk away. I needed to know how her story would end and what she would do.

Cullen deftly mixes fact and fiction creating a portrait of a woman marked as mad but with a husband who fits the description better. It’s told very effectively, eliciting strong emotions and in the process telling a wonderful story.

In addition to this blog, I also do reviews for The Book Reporter website. The above review was done for the Book Reporter which can be found here. The book was provided to me by the publisher.


The Sunday Salon – Non-Fiction

I’ve been reading a non-fiction book all week.  In general, I find it takes me longer to read non-fiction than fiction I guess because I’m paying more attention to facts, forcing myself to slow down so as not to miss an important detail that will be critical to the master plan later on.  Not really sure but I think I have pinpointed one problem with reading non-fiction — I must not read about the same topic twice.  I should probably explain that rather broad statement.  Follow me if you will…

Last year I read a book about the Jamestown settlement.  The book focused on several people and a specific shipwreck that was being sent to provide provisions for the settlers, and due to the ship being wrecked and its passengers being stranded on Bermuda, when the ship’s crew and passengers finally arrived (on a different ship the first being wrecked; see what I mean about important details in non-fiction?) in Jamestown, they sort of saved the place.  Not entirely saved, Jamestown was a debacle but you don’t need me to tell you that.  Anyway, the current book, Savage Kingdom.  It’s more about everyone and everything involved with the Jamestown settlement.  So not only am I getting information about the settlement itself, the Native American tribes (very interesting and part of the reason I wanted to read a second book on said topic) already inhabiting the Chesapeake area, but also goings-on in England and Spain.  It’s a rather far-reaching and all encompassing book and though I’m finding it interesting, I feel as though I’ve already read great parts of this.

Also, I feel like I’m listening to a lecture and it’s a bit disjointed as if the professor keeps jumping around saying things like: “Oh, before we talk more about Captain John Smith and his dealings with Powhatan, let’s go back to England for a minute and talk about what was going on with James II and his negotiations with the Spanish who had already setup house in Florida and were a little peeved about the English double-talk about Jamestown.”  This is where I would normally say, quietly and to myself, “What?!  Did I miss something?” and start wondering how I could go about transferring to another class.  Also, in the picture in my head, this professor keeps running his hands through his hair and he starts to look as if he’s been electrified.  Also, he’s a man cuz the author of the book is and for no other reason and have no idea why I needed to point that out but I did.

Let’s say I’m not feeling it this time around.  Did I mention that already?  Felt I should again just in case you didn’t get that from the long, rambling above section punctuated with generalized boring class behavior.

A goal of mine in 2011 is to read more non-fiction, once a month if I can.  My next non-fiction book is called Spook and is about the afterlife.  It’s by Mary Roach who wrote Packing for Mars which I absolutely loved and you should read it.  No, really, I mean that.  You should totally read it but don’t read it while eating because there’s a lot of talk about bodily functions.  Fair warning, it’s all I have to offer.  She also wrote a book about cadavers and when I mentioned that to my husband he looked at me weird and I’m pretty sure he was having a silent conversation in his head that involved taking away my library card.  There’s also a book about Cleopatra roaming around that I want to read so maybe I should mention this to him so he doesn’t wonder anymore about my reading.

If you made it his far, thanks for sticking with me till the end of paragraph six today.  Happy Sunday fellow readers.

PS — Next time I promise not to be so disjointed in my Sunday Salon.  Feeling inspired this week I guess.

The Creation of Eve

The Creation of Eve

The Creation of Eve

Lynn Cullen

G. P. Putnam’s Sons

ISBN: 978-0399156106

4.5 stars

In Rome 1559, Sofonisba Anguissola is training to be a painter. Under the tutelage of Michelangelo, she begins to stretch her talent to heights unheard of for a woman at the time. Her father places a lot of faith in her abilities and provides her with the best teachers, but her status as a woman means she cannot study, sketch, or paint the naked body. This leaves her with little understanding of the human form itself and she is told it adds an inhibited quality to her work that she struggles to overcome.

During her time in Rome, she meets and falls in love with another student of Michelangelo’s, Tiberio Calcagni. Their brief affair causes her shame and she leaves the city hoping that what happened between her and Tiberio will not be found out by her father who worked so hard to make sure she would have the chance to learn her craft.

Unaware of what will happen between her and Tiberio as there is no forthcoming proposal of marriage, she takes a position as a lady in waiting to Elisabeth of Valois, the young bride of Felipe II, the King of Spain. She is to teach the young Queen how to draw and paint. Unfortunately, her sad love life, or lack there of, weighs heavily on her. The love trials of the young Queen breaks Sofi’s heart while all this time she wonders silently about Tiberio.

Sofi’s heart suffers while she is at court and the growing attraction she sees between the Queen and the King’s brother, Don Juan, brings her even more heartbreak. Her choices are limited and she struggles with her heart, who she is, and what she must do for the Queen.

Very little action takes place in this novel but the affairs of the heart take center stage and the entire time you’re aware that the story is being told by an artist. The descriptions, colors, and experiences are filtered through an eye that is always looking for shape, texture, and depth.

Told through diary entries, each chapter begins with a painting hint or fact. I loved that the story was told through Sofi’s point of view as it allowed you to get close to the characters. Sofi’s descriptions of the court, the Queen’s dresses, the other ladies in waiting, and the palaces are wonderful and it’s as if you’re watching and hearing the conversations first hand.

Oddly enough this is a book about a painter but very little painting takes place. Somehow that’s a good thing as you come to know the artist behind the easel instead and it’s a good story. For anyone who loves historical fiction, this is a great read. You finish the last page wanting to know more about everyone in the story.

In addition to this blog, I also do reviews for The Book Reporter website. The above is a summary of my review, which can be read in full here. The book was provided to me by the publisher for The Book Reporter review.