Review: The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

imagedbcgi2The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett surprised me.  At 120 pages, it’s a novella, a bookish snack with an English twist.  Does that make it a scone, a biscuit, or a crimpet?  In any case, it was a tasty little morsel of a book that I thoroughly enjoyed (try it with tea!)  If I’d read this a couple of years ago, I don’t think I would have had the same appreciation for it.  I wasn’t the same kind of reader then and wouldn’t have been ready for it.  I was still munching on more common, undignified fare.   

The book is about how the Queen of England becomes a reader, accidentally.  On a romp with her dogs she stumbles upon a mobile library that makes weekly visits to Buckingham Palace.  She asks the startled librarian,  “Is one allowed to borrow a book?  One doesn’t have a ticket?”  and is told she may borrow up to six books.  “Six? Heavens!” she replies, and borrows one out of sheer politeness.  Inside the library she also meets a palace employee from the kitchen, the young Norman. 

One book leads to another, and another, and some more, and reading soon becomes a royal obsession.  The Queen brings Norman up from the kitchen to be her reading accomplice, suggesting books for her and going to great lengths to get them.  Everything changes for The Queen through her reading.  She feels as if she has wasted so much time, time that could have been spent with books.  She regretfully remembers meeting great authors at various functions but, having never read their work, realizes these were missed opportunities.  

The Queen’s newfound passion for the written word causes quite a stir and makes others uncomfortable.  Her people are up in arms because she’d rather read than carry out her duties.  When meeting her subjects out in public she no longer asks them the usual questions, such as where they are from, or if they have come from a great distance to be there; instead she asks what they are reading, and some people are embarrassed when they admit they aren’t reading anything. When she does encounter a fellow reader, the conversation is lengthy, causing long lines.  Soon people are giving her books out in public, and her ladies in waiting have to bring totes to carry these gifts.  It’s all becoming a bit tiresome for her attendants.  

Her private secretary, Sir Kevin, is especially upset.  “It’s important,” said Sir Kevin, “that Your Majesty should stay focused.”, however he concedes that he can understand Her Majesty’s need to pass the time.  The Queen replies, “Pass the time?  Books are not about passing the time.  They’re about other lives.  Other worlds.  Far from wanting time to pass, Sir Kevin, one just wishes one had more of it.”  At least her family is happy, because she is distracted and not so nit-picky and focused on them.  

Sir Kevin and the Prime Minister’s secretary conspire to end the Queen’s bothersome pastime that is making others so uncomfortable.  Norman is sent away under mysterious circumstances, and the books she packs for travel never arrive at their destination.  And yet, the Queen and her books continue to be a royal pain.  

Along with reading, the Queen begins having new ideas and feelings.  She starts to keep a notebook handy to copy down interesting passages, and soon starts writing down opinions and critiques of her own.  After a time she discovers reading isn’t enough.

“And it came to her again that she did not want simply to be a reader.  A reader was next door to being a spectator, whereas when she was writing she was doing, and doing was her duty.”

With writing, a new obsession is born..

I loved this tiny book and would highly recommend it to anyone who is passionate for the written word.  You will recognize yourself in Her Majesty and are sure to have a good laugh!

Review: The Last Queen by C.W. Gortner

 The Last Queen by C.W. Gortner is the fascinating story of Juana, daughter of Queen Isabel and King Consort Fernando of Spain (if you remember your American history, they were the rulers who sponsored Christopher Columbus’ search for the new world). Juana was the last queen of Spanish blood to inherit the throne.  

There’s tons of royal drama here.  Young Juana worshiped her father, respected her mother, the icy Queen Isabel, and had a fierce loyalty to her beloved Spain.  An arranged marriage was made to strengthen her parents’ political alliances.  She left Spain at sixteen to meet Archduke Phillip “the Fair” of Flanders, her betrothed yet a stranger. 

Phillip and Juana are so immediately taken with each other that they demand to be wed on the spot rather than wait, to the shock and disdain of her women, advisors, and escorts.  Their first few years together were passionate, but then it all quickly went to hell when Juana’s brother, sister, and nephew all die, making her the heir apparent to the Spanish crown.  

Suddenly Juana finds herself in danger.  She is a pawn who can trust no one except the loyal women who attend her.  Queen Isabel is in crisis mode- she detests Phillip and does not want him to rule Spain.  In secret she gets Juana’s assurance that she will do whatever it takes to inherit the throne, paving the way for her as best she can before her death.    

Phillip and his advisors have other plans.  Full of political aspirations, they use Juana’s fiery personality against her and begin whispering about her mental health. Emotional with a jealous temper, the unconventional princesa didn’t always conform, which made the insanity talk more plausible. 

Her husband, constantly strategizing and manipulating Juana, cruelly imprisoned her, beat her, humiliated her, lied to her, cheated on her, impregnated her for a 6th time through marital rape, and made every effort to destroy her.  If that’s not enough to make a girl MAD, I don’t know what is!  But was she insane?  Historians speculate that she was schizophrenic, driven to madness by grief over the loss of her husband (and there is in fact evidence of mental health problems in her family tree), but Gortner brilliantly casts doubt and challenges that theory.  

C.W, Gortner has written a stunning piece of historical fiction in The Last Queen.  Full of historical detail, danger, suspense, betrayal, and complex twists and turns, it is a captivating read.  Juana is colorful, courageous, and absolutely certain of her destiny.  Throughout her struggles I was rooting for her to prevail. 

Unfortunately, Queen Juana la Loca, aka Juana the Mad, ruled Spain from 1506-1509 after her mother’s death, but was then imprisoned for insanity for the rest of her life, in part because of her refusal to abdicate the thrown to her father.  This refusal, however, ensured that her children would later inherit the thrown, shaping history for generations to come.  

I didn’t know anything about the forgotten Queen Juana prior to reading this book- the extent of my knowledge about the 16th century royals was limited to a couple episodes of The Tudors on Showtime and the Philippa Gregory novel, The Other Boleyn Girl (Juana’s sister Catalina was Henry VIII’s wife, Catherine of Aragon). I was entranced by Juana and this extraordinary book and would highly recommend it. 

about the author

C. W. Gortner, half-Spanish by birth, holds an M.F.A. in writing, with an emphasis on historical studies, from the New College of California and has taught university courses on women of power in the Renaissance. He was raised in Málaga, Spain, and now lives in California. 

For more information, please visit www.cwgortner.com.  A special thanks to Pump Up Your Book Promotion for sending this awesome book!