The Other Boleyn Girl
[Reading Challenge 2018]

The Other Boleyn Girl

by Philippa Gregory
A Touchstone Book, Simon and Schuster, 2003

[Challenge # 34: A book about a person you know little about.]

The Other Boleyn Girl isn’t the sort of book I usually read. But since I found a copy at one of the Little Free Libraries in my neighborhood, and had been on a minor Henry VIII kick at the time, I picked it up. The novel  fit into one of the categories for this year’s reading challenge, so I gave it a go.

Phillipa Gregory has made a career of writing about the Tudor age and from the get-go her writing was smooth and easy to read.  I learned a lot about the politics of the Tudor era and King Henry VIII and his courtiers, who were all continuously scheming to gain the favor of the King. Though mentioned only passingly in the book, Henry VII, his father, was the monarch who finally united England after a long period of civil wars. As my reading progressed it dawned on me that was why Henry VIII wanted a son so badly: he needed an heir and leader to ensure that England stayed united. The book makes it clear it was the only thing this powerful man could be manipulated with.  I was aware it was a novel, an interpretation of the bones of history, and not fact… yet it all seemed very plausible.

I also learned Henry’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon, was actually his older brother Arthur’s wife, and she was six years older than Henry, who was pushed to marry her after Arthur died at the age of 16. Pretty strange stuff.

Unlike some historical novels about political scheming, Gregory’s prose made it easy to follow for someone not versed in the era, choosing to convey the events of Anne Boleyn’s rise and fall through the narration of Mary Boleyn, her younger sister and “the other Boleyn girl” of the title.  At the young age of 14 Mary is already in an arranged marriage but she catches the eye of Henry who is wont to seduce ladies of the court. She is pushed by her mother’s family, the powerful Howards, and tutored to fall into his arms. Her own husband realizes there’s little he can do; “You can’t say no to the King” was a common catchphrase of the book. Henry never realizes how completely he’s being played, which made the whole charade amusing to read, and then heartfelt, as Mary develops real emotions toward the young king.

But then she is then put into a bind, as she loves and respects Queen Catherine as well, whom she serves as lady-in-waiting. The author portrays this tension vividly, and it is fascinating, and heartbreaking, to see the Queen lose her status as the story goes on.  This is Mary’s first experience with the hypocrisy of court life, and eventually it sours her on the King and sets her on her own path.

Though the blurbs on the book play up the rivalry and competition between Mary and Anne (“two sisters competing for the greatest prize: the heart of a king”) this was true for only a small part of the book. Mary, pregnant with the king’s son, can’t have sex with him, so scheming Uncle Howard, the closest the book comes to a true villain, pimps out her sister Anne to take up the slack, his reasoning being that it’s better to have a Howard girl on the King’s arm than one from a rival noble family like the Seymours. (Of course, history tells us how that turned out.)

As it becomes clear Queen Catherine is too old to produce the son Henry wants, the stakes rise. Mary has both a healthy son and daughter by the King, and though they are illegitimate, there’s a chance her son may be named as Henry’s heir. But then Henry decides to take a new wife, declaring his existing marriage invalid because of that messiness of Catherine’s being wed first to his older brother. And Anne aims for that role with a superhuman campaign of flirtation, cajoling, and intrigue.

Henry VIII by Joos van Cleve

Henry VIII, by Joos van Cleve. I prefer this portrait over Holbein’s version because it catches his scheming, smarmy nature.

I thought The Other Boleyn Girl would be one of those books I would read only once for the novelty of its twists and turns, and then pass on. But when I had finished, I did in fact want to keep it and reread it again one day. It was that immersive. There is a reason why popular books are popular, and why book clubs choose one book and not another: they’re easy to digest, but also make you think.  The novel had the simplicity and timelessness of a fable. And fable it was: a human being’s rise to power, and then fall, through their own devices.

Make no mistake, Anne was the book’s protagonist, even though the title refers to Mary and Mary narrates. Anne is by turns a villainess and a victim. She is driven, charismatic, and  expert at projecting false emotions and covering up her real ones. She set herself to snag the king and she did it, even resisting sex with him for ages in order to keep him intrigued. This was the only part the book lagged, the months where Henry waffles about divorcing the Queen as a war in France heats up and cools down. Anne runs herself ragged trying to charm him and keep him appeased. She is a bitch, yet one can’t help feeling sorry for her.

If the book has a fault it’s that the sister rivalry never comes across as believable. Anne throws more barbs at Mary than Mary does at Anne, and even in the ones Mary does throw, she comes across as too nice and restrained. She is, in the book’s first part, the nice girl who does as she’s told and doesn’t protest too much. But as Anne begins her fall Mary comes into her own character, a pawn no longer. She finds a new romance after her first husband dies of plague, and boy, was it fun to see how her new love reacts to all the skullduggery going on.

My other favorite characters were Mary’s and Jane’s brother George, a charming rake who may have been  homosexual, and Queen Catherine, who never betrayed her dignity even as she was abused and discarded. Henry himself became less of a dupe as the plot went on, unwilling to put up with Anne’s shenanigans when she could not bear him a son either. He reacts with frightening expediency when he decides to move on, leaving Anne stranded in the dust and under arrest for treason. The other characters expect Anne will be divorced and exiled, but in a shocking turn to the characters (if not to the reader) she is executed along with George and many other members of the court. Mary has already positioned herself to make her own exile, to the country estate of her husband with her children, and the author implies she got the better deal out of life.

The Other Boleyn Girl is an epic book, yet surprisingly intimate and cozy. It has wit and banter, and also sheer horror. The descriptions of Anne’s miscarriages, one if which involved giving birth to a literal monster, made my skin crawl as well as any horror author’s.

Recommended. I give it four stars.

Worldbuilding Wednesday 10/17/18: Let’s Talk About
xxxxSalt Lake City


The Angel Moroni

Salt Lake City is a city with a most illustrious pedigree, having been settled by religious visionaries like many of the original towns of America’s East Coast. It was named in the Western tradition of naming towns after prominent landscape features, like Butte, Montana and Boulder, Colorado. Yet it also has a certain ring. The “salt lake” brings to mind the Dead Sea of the Bible, and indeed the Mormons are an offshoot of Christianity. It also carries a meaning of penance and purity, as salt is noted for its cleansing powers as well its painful ones when rubbed on a wound. The “lake” implies a place of recreation and pleasure.

Unfortunately, in real life the actual lake does not live up to its name. Recreational boating on it is fine, but no fishing. Fish can’t survive in its salty water, only brine shrimp. It’s the shorelines that team with life and serve as a stop for migratory birds. The lake is salty because it’s a dead-end for the streams and rivers that flow into it from the surrounding land. There is no outflow so the water evaporates, leaving its mineral concentrations behind.

Looking for a name with the same feel as Salt Lake City? Here’s a random list below. Admittedly, I would not want to live in a place named Feces Lake, but Saltbottle sounds intriguing.

Variations on Salt Lake City


Salt Tubes

Dark Lick

Ten Meadows

Yarrow Lake

Salt Hollow

Swan Claw City

Salty Sands

Salt Gate

Salt Canyon City

Opal Hill City

Salt Mountain

Lightning Lake

Salt Desert Butte

Dust Lake

Salt Valley

Saltshake City

Death Child City

Feces Lake

Saltwit Cabal

Quicksand River

Cold Man Dale

Salt Grass City

Fog Lake City



Death Lake

Salt Whisper City



Salt Grove


The Mutter Museum [Review]

The Mutter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia

by Gretchen Worden
Blast Books, 2002

It’s getting close to Halloween, and thus the time for creepy thrills. You can find them at the Mutter Museum in the city of Philadelphia.

The Mutter Museum was the brainchild of physician and educator Dr. Thomas Mutter. He left money in his will for its founding in order to share his extensive collection of artwork with other medical practitioners. Over the years the College of Physicians, the medical society that maintained it, continued to add, amassing in time an astounding collection of the gross and phenomenal: wax anatomy mannequins, early photographs of diseases and tumors, shrunken heads, and specimens of everything from human skulls to fetuses. All are arranged and displayed in the manner of a Victorian “Cabinet of Curiosities,” the forerunner of today’s natural history museums. For many years it was closed to the general public and visits were accepted only by special request. But curator Gretchen Worden changed all that. She brought the museum into the public sphere in the 1990s, opening it up to general admission and turning it into a more highbrow version of the Jim Rose Circus, which was also popular at the time.

This book was commissioned to highlight the museum’s collections. It’s a coffee table style publication in which photographers were invited to chronicle the displays each in their own style. They make the grotesque seem, if not exactly beautiful, aesthetic. The foreword gives the history of the museum’s founding and the stories behind some of its star exhibits, like Chang and Eng’s conjoined liver. It’s worthwhile to read for that alone.

My favorite pictures tended to be the most conventional, though I have a weakness for gelatin prints. My only criticism is that William Wegman’s Weirmaraner dogs, looking out dolefully between human bones, sort of broke the spell. The museum is a place of the dead, and though humor and social commentary can certainly be read into the history of medicine presented the decades, I’m not sure living creatures belong there.

If you can’t visit the museum in person, pay a visit to the Mutter website, where you can find rotating online exhibits and videos as well as an online gift shop where you can buy lovable stuffed versions of E. Coli, Malaria, and the HPV virus.



Speak only when you are spoken to. Excuse me, howled to.


Worldbuilding Wednesday 10/10/18: Elements

Unique and rare elements are a staple of worldbuilding when writing SF. Star Trek has its dilithium, Black Panther’s Wakanda vibranium, and the moon of Pandora, unobtainium. These elements serve as a means to explain a technology that does not exist, or serve as a McGuffin for conflict.

Looking for a new element? Here’s a randomgen list.

Imaginary Elements


























My Serpent Heart

It’s alive and hisses with passion.

The Shadow Glass [Review]

The Shadow Glass

by Aly Fell
Dark Horse Books, 2017


The Shadow Glass is filled with some wonderful artwork. The first page shows a view from the Tower of London overlooking a lovely harbor by the river Thames, a red and blue pennant flying, as a traveler named Thomas Hughes arrives. In night-muted colors an occult ritual then takes place at the home of John Dee, an actual historic figure of the time, with the Shadow Glass, a polished black mirror Hughes stole from pre-Columbian Mexico. The spell goes wrong, however, and the unwilling female subject sprouts tentacles. It’s a great beginning.

Unfortunately, the rest of the story left me wanting. I picked up the book because of the strength of the cover, picturing the adventures of a cross-dressing female swordsman in Elizabethan England. I thought it was a clever comment on the practice of Shakespearean theater of having female parts played in drag by male actors… no self-respecting woman would own up to being an actress back then, as it was synonymous with being a prostitute. I expected this gender aspect to work into the story somehow, assuming the writer and artist, Aly Fell, was a woman. Well, it didn’t; Aly Fell was a man, and the cross-dressing served no purpose or metaphor that I could see, save that the artist liked drawing young, hot women in doublets and hose.

I realize I’m being harsh on the guy; after all, this is a person I don’t know. But a lot of the story seemed to be generated from that aspect. It moved along like a storyboard for a movie production, rather than a comic where anything and everything is possible. Rosalind, the girl on the cover, is set up to be the protagonist of the story, yet she isn’t, really – she’s jerked around too much by circumstance, a puppet of those around her. She has no free will; the story just carries her along to her fate. She’s the daughter of Adam Larkspur, an old friend of Thomas Hughes, and her mother, it is revealed, is the woman possessed in the ritual of the chapter before. At 18 she learns that Thomas Hughes is her true father and goes to the home of John Dee to confront him, she being a student of his. While she’s there Hughes arrives as well and Rosalind secretly witnesses a second ritual with the mirror where an angelic being known as Madimi is summoned. Afterwards, she steals the mirror on Madimi’s urging. A hot angel-and-girl makeout session follows where it’s implied Rosalind has been sexually awoken. And the angel is revealed to be… a demoness!

All right so far. I expected the story to then offer some juicy twist, like Madimi and Rosalind run off together to create havoc at Queen Elizabeth’s court, while the men try to stuff the genie back in its bottle. But, no. Hughes is revealed as the villain and Rosalind is manipulated by both by him and Madimi. Both she and Hughes die while Madimi sails off into the sunset having possessed Rosalind’s body. It’s a fairly tropish ending, and the totally expected ending given that we are dealing with a female demon that possesses human females. Life’s a bitch and then you die. What was the purpose of reading the story again?

The Shadow Glass, by Aly Fell

History of the Shadow Glass

I suppose part of the problem is the story didn’t know what it wanted to be… supernatural horror, an adventure tale with a swashbuckling young female, or a historical could-have-been. It can be all three, of course, but ideally one element should have been raised over the others and given it some direction. I get the feeling that the author really wanted to write about John Dee and medium Edward Kelley, but got distracted by the girlflesh. Or a sexual splatter tale, but stuck in too much sedate conversation about fate and alchemy. I think it would have worked best as adventure, but then the protagonist would have to live. As it was, it was just a bunch of things that happened, tepid and without any deeper resonance.

Harping as a feminist here, I am really tired of seeing the virgin/whore, angel/demon dichotomy play out. It’s old and tired and lowbrow. Why does Madimi have to be one or the other? Why couldn’t she be her own being?  Where are her motivations?

In the end I couldn’t root for any of the characters and the story was shallow. The art is beautiful, though.


Worldbuilding Wednesday 10/3/18: Gaulish Tribes

If you’re from Western Europe, you will know who these characters are.

If you aren’t, know that they are Asterix the plucky Gaul, his big pal Obelix, and their pet dog Dogmatix, creations of French comic writer and artist René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo. They are the equivalent of Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck in France. Asterix and Obelix lived in the time of Julius Caesar, and many of their adventures concern outwitting the Roman leader and his troops. (They also had run-ins with Cleopatra.) They even have their own theme park.

If you need an imaginary Gaulish tribe for worldbuilding purposes, here’s a few randomgen ones.

Imaginary Gaulish Tribes
























[Reading Challenge 2018]


by Storm Constantine
Headline Book Publishing PLC, 1991

[Challenge # 1: A book that’s been on your TBR (to be read) list for over a year.]

British fantasist Storm Constantine is an acquired taste. Hermetech, published in 1991, is the one novel of hers I kept trying to start, and kept putting off. It’s one of her earlier works and plays with some of the same themes as her earlier Wraeththru trilogy and The Monstrous Regiment… sexual awakening/mutilation, the power of belief, a charismatic leader who is a little mad, and the need of the young and inexperienced to find their place among more worldly and sophisticated companions.

But boy, did it start off unpromisingly. The time is many centuries in the future and the Earth has been ravaged by environmental disasters. Most people live in domed cities with robot and AI servants. There’s a huge infodump off the bat about Naturotech, a “neo-pagan” group and its political arm the Tech-Greens, and an eccentric millionaire who created replicas of Stonehenge monuments complete with laser light shows and robot caretakers. Aimless, tech-savvy hippies roam the wastelands of this world like Burning Man refugees. One such group meets a teenage girl, Ari Famber, who has been genetically engineered by her scientist father to manifest “The Goddess” whenever she has sex. The group, headed by Leila Saatchi, Ari’s father’s ex-lover, asks Ari to join them and they journey to the city of Arkady where she is to lose her virginity and learn how to control her powers.

The concept was more science fantasy than science fiction, and hard to take seriously. In fact, SF author Bruce Sterling writes in a blurb that the author “… ignores every bourgeois rule of fiction” and that assessment is correct. Hermetech pushes buttons for both readers and writers.

Most of the book was travelogue. Leila’s band of misfits journey in two huge Humvee-type vehicles, manifesting petty rivalries and love triangles among themselves on the way. It’s a setting similar to the Mad Max-like Wraeththru world, but described in greater depth. The language borders on overripe, but it’s always entertaining, and there’s a well-worded psychological nugget of wisdom on practically every page. The cast of characters is large and the POV switches constantly, often in mid-page. It was jarring, but I was soon won over by the elegance of Constantine’s prose and the charm of her characters, who have high ideals but whose delusions are all too human. I’ve known people exactly like them. The book still  feels contemporary, like it could have been written today. Only the addition of Smartphones would be needed to make it into a still-plausible depiction of the future.

That said, a lot of the book was plain silly. The scientific geniuses are never shown doing anything with actual science, for example… they schmooze, try to one-up each other, and do something vague with brainwaves and laptops. The plot is all over the place, some elements receiving a buildup but panning out to nothing, while others depended on unlikely coincidences. The book was far too long for what actually happens in it, yet, enjoyable for that. It was a tale of human relationships – a comedy of manners almost.

The plot has some classic Constantine elements in it which added to my enjoyment. Like Zambia Crevecoeur, the Goth boy prostitute turned artificially hermaphrodite. The character serves as window dressing in the story and I wonder if, in an earlier version, he was to serve as Ari’s first lover instead of the teen boy who eventually does. He is slashy fun to read about, serving as a more mature Wraeththru figure: the beautiful, damaged male who descends into Gothic pain and madness as he’s transformed into a SHe, the pronoun the author chooses to give him. It’s a female who makes him over through surgery: Jahsaxa Penumbra, a sex club owner. Her thoughts on this creature are exactly why I love Constantine’s writing: it’s very rare that female rumination on androgynous male beauty is depicted so lovingly and unabashedly.

And what was it about Zambia Crevecoeur, archetypical street-urchin, cur-tempered to the end, that was so fascinating, so compelling for arch-madam, fantasy-spinner Jahsaxa Penumbra? A quality. She had simply defined it as that. The ache to touch, to sample, to receive any attention at his hands, so that even positive rejection would be a pleasure…it was for his face, his angles of flesh, his passage through space and time – a dance of movement. Zambia Crevecoeur, Jahsaxa suspected, did not naturally belong upon the street and doubtless had originally come from somewhere quite different. She knew many people came to lose themselves in Sector 23, but she suspected Zambia Crevecoeur had, in fact, found himself there. She also knew he could turn his attractiveness on and off at will, thus being able to hide effectively when it suited him. At present, it was most definitely turned off, turned inwards. She recognized the body language of self-loathing. Something would have to be done about that. The dog in him must be expelled. He must become cat: pampered, svelte, spoiled, confidant of his own unique beauty. It would be a pleasure to teach him that.

The excerpt gives an idea of the elegant decadence of the novel’s tone, and perhaps of the author, when faced with the unobtainable magic of a Goth club denizen in full costume in his natural environment.

Zambia becomes the lover of Tammuz Malamute, one of the scientific geniuses of the story and, as it turns out, Ari’s father. This subplot, as with some others, could have been cut for a leaner novel, or better yet, Zambia graced with a story of hir’s own.

Other superfluous characters were downright annoying, like Reynard Lennon, Jahsaxa’s man-at-arms who enters the story in its last quarter, and leaves it abruptly, and a sewer-dwelling oracle that makes one or two pronouncements to no effect. Other characters could have been fleshed out more, like Nathan, the teen boy who is chosen to deflower Ari and activate her sex powers. Leila’s group picks him up casually along the way to the city two-thirds through the book and he is barely developed as a character. The plot could have been streamlined into a more cohesive book dealing with Ari’s coming of age; it might have even made a wonderful YA dystopian novel, if the very adult sexual travails of its characters were excised.

The novel’s ending was also something of a cheat, though not unexpected.  It ended the same way as each book in the Wraeththru trilogy did and The Monstrous Regiment… with a magical ritual turned battle that neutralizes the villains in a deus ex machina blowout and leaves the main characters to pick up the pieces. We never get to find out if Ari’s powers are enough to heal the ravaged Earth as was hinted at, or who or what is now a danger to her. We never got a sequel. But I can’t complain too much, as with Constantine the journey is pretty much the destination.





I’m trapped in an old anatomy textbook with my throat cut open. Help?