My Name is Victoria

51CcJuhIa1L._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_  Lucy Worsley describes herself “by day Chief Curator at Historic Royal Palaces, and by night a writer of history books.” I first met her as the narrator of a BBC documentary about the wives of Henry VIII as she whispered commentary behind the scenes of the royal trysts.  Dressed as a maid servant in the series, her short blonde bob and posh accent gave her an air of the friendly yet knowledgable expert in British royal history.  With PBS Masterpiece Theater about to launch the third season of “Victoria,” her children’s book about an overlooked chapter in Queen Victoria’s young life is tantalizing.

As I read, I checked Worsley’s facts.  She didn’t make it all up; her historical novel fictionalizes a relationship between young Victoria and John Conroy’s daughter that did exist, and marks the introduction of Victoria’s beloved spaniel Dash into court life.

Kensington Palace may hold the upscale apartments of Princes William and Harry today, but Victoria felt trapped inside its dreary walls when she was a young girl, waiting to be queen.  John Conroy, the villain Irish comptroller and lover to her mother the Duchess of Kent, imposes rules restricting Victoria’s access and keeping her under constant guard, not only to keep her safe from her relatives who would kill her to get themselves closer to the throne but also to control her.  To offer some respite from the hostile environment of his Kensington System, Conroy brings his young daughter and her dog Dash to live as companions and playmates.  His daughter, Miss V, also named Victoria is also expected to spy on the young princess.

Historical references to Queen Victoria’s diaries have Miss V as a despised and suspicious tool of her father, but Worsley discounts those descriptions and has the two girls as friends growing up together.  The famous dolls are featured as are Victoria’s temper tantrums and her resistance to handing over regency power to the ambitious Sir John.  Handsome Prince Albert makes an appearance later in the book.

Worsely deftly educates the reader while offering some tantalizing possibilities about Victoria’s personality.  Her surprise ending actually has some creditability, feeding on the nineteenth century rumor of Victoria’s illegitimacy noted in A.N. Wilson’s biography Victoria: A Life.   It was still a surprise,and I loved it.

Never again will readers think of Queen Victoria as the overweight matron in black.  Worsley reminds us – like everyone who grows old, she once had a life.

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We Were Liars by E. Lockhart

9780385741262_p0_v3_s260x420E. Lockhart’s young adult novel We Were Liars has been designated by some as the Gone Girl of the teen set. Similarities include an unreliable narrator who leads the reader astray, the unexpected twists that change the plot, and of course, the shocking revelation at the end.  Do not skip to the last section titled “truth” if you like to savor the mystery and try to figure it out yourself.

  • The setting:  a rich family summering at their Martha’s Vineyard compound
  • The characters: the wealthy family patriach, with three divorced daughters bickering over trust funds and inheritance, and assorted grandchildren
  • The Liars:  the three teenage cousins, including the narrator, Cadence, and a handsome outsider, Gat, a love interest for Cadence

Summers in New England are intense, as Lockhart methodically peels away the facade of the perfect rich family, revealing petty jealousies and hidden prejudice. An accident during the summer of her 15th year leaves Cadence with crippling migraines and total amnesia. She cannot remember what actually happened, and Lockhart cleverly sustains the mystery, with clues that don’t seem obvious until the end.  When Cadence returns to the beach, two years later, all is revealed in a stunning plot twist.

Throughout the story, Lockhart inserts shortened versions of fairy tales, linking the cousins, their mothers, and the grandfather – an eerie Grimm perspective.  Like a Grimm fairy tale, the story has a moral and a high price for redemption.  The ending left me wondering if Cadence ever would recover – although she does finally remember.  Lockhart may have offered a strong lesson for younger readers about greed and keeping up appearances, but I will remember her observations of the fairy-tale family who actually lived in a nightmare.

The Diviners – ALA Best Fiction for Young Adults (2013)

9780316126113_p0_v1_s260x420When the American Library Association names a book on its best fiction list, the story is usually guaranteed a page turner, and Libba Bray’s The Diviners would have my vote too.

Although this young adult fiction does follow a formula with stereotyped characters and a predictable plot, Bray uses the setting to give a history lesson on Manhattan in the Jazz Age from a teen perspective.  The main character, Evie, a rebellious yet charming seventeen year old, who is banished from a small town in Ohio to the big city to live with her bachelor professor uncle, encounters the joys of the Ziegfeld Follies with Eddie Cantor, secret clubs with forbidden booze,  music at the Hotsy Totsy club, and Clara Bow haircuts.  Bray weaves the seamy side of numbers runners, the Eugenics movement, and the Chinese Exclusion Act into the horrors of a monster returning from the dead and a spooky house on the hill.

Evie’s supporting cast includes two love interests, one a steady hunk with a strange past and the other a rakish thief with the power to disappear; the others – her supportive unpopular friend, a gay piano player, a black numbers runner who writes poetry – follow the star seventeen year old flapper into solving the case of a serial murderer who plans to eat his way to redemption and a new world order – think “Silence of the Lambs” crossed with “Seven.”  Although some of the scenes are gory, Bray keeps the action moving quickly to the inevitable satisfying ending, when the world is saved – for a while anyway.

The last few chapters are strained as they establish the premise for the sequel, but to her credit, Bray does tie up the loose ends of the initial plot in this first book.  Teens who follow vampires and zombies may find another set to track in these superheroes (Diviners) with Mentalist powers.  One was enough for me, but I had fun with this quick diversionary read.

Other YA Books Recommended by the Librarian:

Young adult books are fun and quick reads – some better than others.  My friendly librarian recommends these debut novels:

A Girl Named Digit by Annabel Monaghan

With current events focusing on a computer nerd who can crack codes, this timely teen novel’s heroine, Farrah  “Digit” Higgins is a high school genius bound for MIT. After this daughter of a UCLA math professor unknowingly cracks a terrorist group’s number sequence,  she is recruited by the FBI, running from terrorists, faking her own kidnapping, and romancing a handsome agent.

Poison by Bridget Zinn

When medieval sixteen year old potion maker, Kyra, tries to protect her kingdom, the plan backfires and she becomes a fugitive in this fantasy adventure.  Although the premise has the possibilities for sequels, this young author died before her book was published.

Between the Lines

Samantha Van Leer collaborated with her famous mother and author, Jodi Picoult, to write this fairy tale that has a character from a book come alive and yearn to escape his story prison – a teen reader and her Prince.

Divergent and Insurgent

For fans of teenage adventure and bravery, twenty-two year old author, Veronica Roth renews the fervor of The Hunger Games with her Divergent trilogy – a fantasy young adult thriller based in the not too distant future. With Insurgent, the second book now on the New York Times best seller list, Divergent – the first book – is already in paperback. Those predictable cliffhangers are torture, so I bought the paperback, placed it on my shelf, and waited patiently for my number to come up on the library waitlist for Insurgent. After reading the two books in less than two days, I was rewarded with yet another hanging element – to be published Fall, 2013. Maybe the intermittent movies will sustain the momentum.

Beatrice Prior, aka Tris, lives in a world of the future with limited choices at sixteen years old. When her aptitude test fails to designate a “faction,” one of several adult living options with names defining the group, she defies tradition by leaving her home in the selfless, community-oriented Abnegation group, and opts for the challenge of the exciting warrior Dauntless clan. Through her harrowing training, she connects with other teens, vying for acceptance, and meets her true love, an eighteen year old instructor, Tobias, nicknamed Four.

The story follows the formula of a coming of age exploration, with futuristic omens and narrow escapes from both internal insecurities and jealous friends. The plot is fast-paced, easy reading, and Tris is a match for Katniss, and a fun beginning to Roth’s futuristic rebel cause.

Insurgent continues the quest for a better world that will use the talents of the five factions: Erudite (the brainy ones), Amity (peace and love for all), Candor (mostly honest), Dauntless (brave), and the idealistic Abnegation (selfless). Tris, with her brother Caleb and true love Tobias, along with foils Peter and Marcus, find the factionless – the future version of homeless – who have banned together to form a rebel army.

The action in this book has more romance and violence, with references to teen jealousies and clicks, and not as satisfying as the first book. The ending is the requisite cliffhanger, but the dystopian world view seems hopeless.

Bitterblue

After recently watching the Queen of England parachute into the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games with the king of spies, the fantasy of queens and adventure seems closer to reality.  In Kristin Cashore’s Bitterblue, young Queen Bitterblue goes undercover at night to explore the underbelly of her kingdom, looking for connections to her people, and the reasons for their unrest.  Of course, she meets a handsome leader of the resistance who reveals uncomfortable truths.

Although I have not read the first two books in the trilogy, Cashore’s interview in the New York Times –By the Book – prompted me to find her most recent contribution to young adult fantasy – Bitterblue, the third book in the Graceling trilogy.  Queen Bitterblue rules over the realm of Monsea in the Seven Kingdoms, where some are born with a “Grace,” a superhuman skill that can take any form, from super strength convenient for a bodyguard, to extraordinary memory, good for the librarian/archivist, or telling mind-altering lies that people believe, like the former King.  The “grace” may be also be as simple as baking good bread.

Cashore weaves the story with adventure and fills in the backstory for those who have not read the first two books.  The plot has a young queen trying to overcome the horror her father left behind in the abused kingdom, while trying to decide whom she can trust.  Her romance with the rebel leader provides some angst when he discovers who she really is, but the ciphered messages in the embroidery and books offer her as much challenge as learning how to wield a sword.

A fun young adult fantasy… I never did solve what Bitterblue’s “grace” is – maybe it’s becoming the fair and noble queen.