Sunday 7 December 2014

First post for December...

On this bright, chilly Sunday morning, I’m sipping my chai tea and enjoying a slice of freshly baked Banana Bread as I think about our book club discussion yesterday and the audiobook I just finished listening to earlier in the week.

The Winter Palace
was definitely a success with my book club ladies.  Everyone loved it – no one had a single negative thing to say about it.  Well, that’s not entirely true – one member said she had an issue with the subtitle, A Novel of Catherine the Great, as she said it wasn’t really about Catherine the Great, but more about Barbara, her maid/servant/lady-in-waiting.  The novel, told from the point of view of Barbara, chronicles the rise of Catherine the Great from a feisty teenaged German princess, Sophie, to a powerful Russian Empress during Russia’s “Golden Age”.  I made two pages of notes during the meeting, and will summarize the main points of discussion here, in no particular order.  One member said this was one of the best books she’s read in a long time (YAY!!), and that it was fairly historically accurate.  The person who objected to the subtitle said she loved reading about the Winter Palace, and the changes it underwent during the course of the novel, suggesting that it was almost a “character” in itself; she paralleled the transformation of the Winter Palace to Catherine’s own transformation, so maybe in that way, the subtitle was appropriate.  Speaking of characters, most everyone’s favourite characters were Barbara and Sir Charles. Barbara was an excellent mother to Darya and a good friend to Catherine throughout the novel, someone who was able to resist corruption.  The relationship between Barbara and Egor was strained at first, but with the birth of their daughter, everything changed and Egor was a good father and a good soldier.  This contrasted drastically with the awfulness of the political characters, the decadence and debauchery of those in the Palace, in the political inner circle, with their ermine-lined cribs, diamond-encrusted gowns, and vodka fountains.  Sir Charles, likewise, was a softer, gentler character, a stabilizing figure who helped to keep Barbara on the straight path.  We also thought that Barbara’s maid, Masha, was a stabilizing character for her, helping not only with Darya but with Barbara’s choices throughout the story.  The Orlov brothers, too, were good characters who helped more than they harmed.  The other characters, we all agreed, were greedy and power-hungry.  The Empress Elizabeth was a piece of work, a terrible leader who just got worse over the course of the novel.  Someone offered this quotation:  “Power corrupts, but absolute power corrupts absolutely”, and that was demonstrated aptly in this novel.  We all had a very strong negative attitude towards the Chancellor, who was referred to by Barbara as “the Old Fox” – one of my members, a retired high school English teacher, used the term “worm tongue” to describe him, someone who whispers into people’s ears to influence their decisions, and turn one character against another.  One member was fascinated to discover that so many crucial political decisions were made “in the bedroom”.   Motherhood had a huge influence on the characters in the novel.  Barbara lost her mother at a very young age, and was then raised by her bookbinder father, a good man but very different from her mother.  Barbara then became a good and loving mother, who also shared her daughter with Catherine after Catherine’s children were unceremoniously taken from her and raised almost exclusively by Elizabeth.  In this way, Elizabeth’s and Catherine’s experiences were similar, as neither woman raised their own children, although Elizabeth never had children, adopting/appropriating her orphaned nephew, Peter, at an early age to become the heir to the throne, then seizing Catherine’s children to raise.  Catherine had to make due with as much involvement in the life of Barbara’s daughter, Darya, as she could manage, and one member suggested that it was Barbara’s love for her daughter that ultimately steered her away from Catherine’s court and saved her from corruption.  The fact that Catherine was viewed by Elizabeth as little more than a breeder surely contributed to her bitterness and her ultimate decision to orchestrate a coup and seize the throne from her husband, as a form of revenge.  Names were also important in the book;  Sophie becomes Catherine, Barbara becomes Varvara and Varenka, Darya is also Darenka, Barbara refers to Elizabeth as “the obstacle” or “yesterday” in her secret conversations and letters to, I think, Sir Charles.  And friendship is an important factor in the novel.  We all agreed that there was real friendship between the girls when they were young, and that Barbara stayed loyal and true to Catherine to the end, while Catherine’s relationship with Barbara got corrupted along the way.    Oh boy, was there a lot to discuss about this book!  I came across a review of this book in Quill and Quire that summarized the issues I have with historical fiction perfectly: “Historical fiction can suffer from the impulse to educate the reader… The Winter Palace, however, is seamless in its depiction of place and time, and its telling of a complicated, human story of two women in very different – and very dangerous – positions.  Readers looking for a history lesson regarding Catherine the Great and the societal forces at play during her reign may, in fact, be disappointed:  this is a story of the behind-the-scenes intrigue, hidden love letters, illicit trysts, and sacrifices made for the future” (  This explains why I so enjoyed this novel but have had issues with other more traditional historical fiction titles.  Verdict:  excellent book, and great book club choice!  And, although we all know that Catherine the Great ends up on the throne and rules Russia for many years, Stachniak even manages, somehow, to make the ending a mystery!  That is truly the sign of a great author.  I’m interested to read her next book, about the reign of Catherin the Great, entitled Empress of the Night (but not right away… I need a break to read something more contemporary for a bit).

I also finished listening to Mo Hayder’s mystery, Hanging Hill, and it was an excellent listening experience.  The novel begins with the discovery of the body of Lorne Wood, a teenaged girl who was brutally murdered and left lying near the canal on the outskirts of Bath, England.  The case is investigated by DI Zoe Benedict, a woman with her own hidden past, and Ben, her sort-of boyfriend and partner.  Also involved in the story are Sally, Zoe’s estranged sister, who is learning to deal with her newly divorced status, and Sally’s daughter, Millie, a classmate of Lorne’s.  These characters become interwoven as the investigation proceeds and another death/missing person occurs.  I don’t want to give anything away, so I won’t get into detail, but the main plot involving the investigation was more than enough to hold this listener’s interest, while the subplots that explored the relationships Zoe has with her sister and Ben were expertly interwoven into the text.  The narrator was great, and the story was interesting, although it had parts that were a bit over-the-top at times.  I found myself making excuses to create listening opportunities, like taking the extra long route home from work – that is always the sign of a good audiobook, in my opinion.  I don’t know anything about Mo Hayder, but I’m now interested in trying something else written by her.

OK, that’s all I’ve got for today.  Have a great Sunday!

Bye for now…

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