Monday, March 13, 2017

BLOG TOUR: THE CONFESSIONS OF YOUNG NERO by Margaret George

I'm taking part in the blog tour for this wonderful new historical:
 
 
 
 
 
THE CONFESSIONS OF YOUNG NERO
by Margaret George
Berkley Hardcover
On Sale: March 7, 2016
Price: $28.00
ISBN: 9780451473387
 
PLOT SYNOPSIS
THE CONFESSIONS OF YOUNG NERO takes readers through the early life of Rome’s infamous Nero. Through the machinations of his mother, Agrippina the Younger, Nero became emperor at the age of sixteen, the last of the Julio-Claudian dynasty. But the road was a frightening one.  The young boy, an intelligent, sensitive and watchful child, had a series of psychological shocks from an early age.  His cruel uncle Caligula and his scheming cousin Messalina threatened his life, and his domineering and ambitious mother Agrippina married and poisoned two men en route to securing the throne for her son. Agrippina viewed Nero’s power as an extension of her own will. But once on the throne—like the teenage boy he was—Nero did not want to take orders from his mother.  Soon the world was not big enough for the two of them. Thereafter he was remembered as a hedonist and tyrant who “fiddled” while his people burned. But the truth behind the caricature, revealed here, shows Nero to be instead a product of his mother’s relentless ambition, and the incest, violence, luxury, and intrigue that have gripped Rome’s seat of power for generations.
 
AUTHOR BIO
Margaret George is the author of the bestselling Autobiography of Henry VIIIMary, Queen of Scotland and the IslesThe Memoirs of Cleopatra; and Mary, Called Magdalene.
 
 
I knew I'd signed up for this tour but couldn't find the info about it so thought I'd missed it. I ran my review early, but loved the book so much I'm posting it again.
 
REVIEW:
I received this book for free from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.

Last summer, while on a family vacation to Germany, we visited museums in one city (I think it was Trier) that presented a special exhibit on the Roman Emperor Nero. The theme of the exhibits was that Nero got a raw deal from historians. (He’s known primarily for fiddling while Rome burned, which isn’t even true.)
In fact, he was an able administrator and was very much loved by the Roman people, if perhaps not so much by the Senate. Apparently, he took great pleasure in athletic and musical competitions, which was considered beneath the dignity of the office. No surprise, he always won first place. It was a very interesting exhibit and new perspective.

So I was eager to read Margaret George’s new book, The Confessions of Young Nero. Margaret George is well known in historical fiction circles for epic biographical novels. I’ve had her on my to-read list for a long time.
Nero was a member of the imperial family, though he was not expected to become emperor. His father died when he was young and his mother, Agrippina, had been banished. During Caligula’s reign, Nero was raised by an aunt. (He barely managed to survive Caligula’s casual murderousness.) The manipulations of his family to get rid of Caligula and to jockey for position at court make for interesting reading. Things really get going when Claudius becomes emperor and Agrippina returns. She reclaimed her son and started plotting.

During his formative years, Nero (then Lucius) had no dreams of seizing power. He was content to study history with his tutors, to sneak into an athletic training camp to wrestle and race, and to learn to play the cithara.

Nero is presented as a sensitive and intelligent boy/young man, cursed with a fiercely manipulative mother. Agrippina married Claudius and had him adopt Nero. Claudius’s own son was displaced. To help move things along more quickly, Agrippina employed the family poisoner, Locusta, whose point of view is presented in a few chapters for additional historical perspective.

Nero watched with fascination and horror. At first, he was merely swept along in the current that carried him to the throne. But, once he became emperor, Nero discovered his own taste for power.

George does a wonderful job showing Nero’s growth, his loss of innocence, and his slide from a boy with a conscience to a power-crazed dictator who ceases to listen to his advisors and who believes he is entitled to whatever he desires just because his power is limitless. He’s not a warrior as his predecessors were, which means Rome is able to enjoy a period of peace and prosperity, but he is extravagant and vain.

The book is long but reads quickly. It weaves together politics, court and family intrigues, and romance. It carries the reader up to the burning of Rome. Here, the story breaks off but with the promise of a second novel in the works to continue Nero’s story. For anyone who loves Roman history or epic biographical fiction, this new novel by Margaret George is highly recommended.

Friday, March 10, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: Mad Richard by Leslie Krueger

I received this book for free from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.

Life keeps happening and it’s really cutting into my reading and blogging. Still, I did squeeze in this gem, Mad Richard by Leslie Krueger.

This literary historical novel introduces us to Richard Dadd, a talented nineteenth century British artist who was mentally ill, grew increasingly violent, and was eventually admitted to Bedlam. The novel begins with a visitor to the insane asylum who comes specifically to speak with Richard: Charlotte Bronte. The encounter did happen, though the details here are fictional.

The story branches out to follow the lives of both these characters. Although they don’t come in contact again, they know some of the same people so the links between them hold the separate narratives together. One person who looms large is Charles Dickens. A boyhood acquaintance of Dadd’s, his path keeps crossing Dadd’s and they keep tabs on each other’s professional careers. Bronte and Dickens are not friends but are literary contemporaries.

Charlotte’s sections are somewhat dreamy, as the author is at a later stage in her career, her siblings are dead, and she is contemplating living out her life as a spinster caring for her father in the parsonage. It’s not the life she particularly wants. She has fallen in love with her editor, a handsome younger man, who supports her as an author and friend, but who shies away when her deeper feelings become more obvious. Charlotte is wooed in turn by her father’s curate, a sober, quiet man. Charlotte’s father sent him away, appalled that he dared approach his social superior, the famous author. However, Charlotte keeps him on a string while she decides what course to take. She fears life alone but also fears a life without writing and worries marrying the curate will cut short her career.

Dadd’s life is more tumultuous. One of nine children, Richard is his father’s favorite. His father is a successful chemist who has pinned all hopes for the family’s rise in the world on Richard. This exceptional son is given a first class education and, when he decides he wants to be a painter, tutors are hired and connections are tapped. Richard also finds his own group of up-and-coming artists, and it seems he is on his way.

But Richard is slowly losing his mind. He immerses himself in his art and his interpretation of art, but his thoughts drift farther and farther from reality. Part of the time he frightens himself, but other times he is inspired by his own intellect. Pushed by his father to accept a position accompanying a gentleman on a tour of Egypt, Richard falls off the cliff of madness in the exotic climes. By the time he returns, he is hearing the voices of Egyptian gods telling him to commit murder.

This is a beautifully written book that succeeds in weaving together the stories of these two very different people, who have in common ambition, a love of art, and an ambivalent feeling about fame. Charlotte’s story is bittersweet and grounded in reality. Richard’s is horrifyingly tragic and surreal. The author does a wonderful job of presenting his descent into madness in a vivid, realistic, and sympathetic way.

Monday, February 13, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: The Confessions of Young Nero by Margaret George

I received this book for free from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.

Last summer, while on a family vacation to Germany, we visited museums in one city (I think it was Trier) that presented a special exhibit on the Roman Emperor Nero. The theme of the exhibits was that Nero got a raw deal from historians. (He’s known primarily for fiddling while Rome burned, which isn’t even true.)

In fact, he was an able administrator and was very much loved by the Roman people, if perhaps not so much by the Senate. Apparently, he took great pleasure in athletic and musical competitions, which was considered beneath the dignity of the office. No surprise, he always won first place. It was a very interesting exhibit and new perspective.

So I was eager to read Margaret George’s new book, The Confessions of Young Nero. Margaret George is well known in historical fiction circles for epic biographical novels. I’ve had her on my to-read list for a long time.

Nero was a member of the imperial family, though he was not expected to become emperor. His father died when he was young and his mother, Agrippina, had been banished. During Caligula’s reign, Nero was raised by an aunt. (He barely managed to survive Caligula’s casual murderousness.) The manipulations of his family to get rid of Caligula and to jockey for position at court make for interesting reading. Things really get going when Claudius becomes emperor and Agrippina returns. She reclaimed her son and started plotting.

During his formative years, Nero (then Lucius) had no dreams of seizing power. He was content to study history with his tutors, to sneak into an athletic training camp to wrestle and race, and to learn to play the cithara.

Nero is presented as a sensitive and intelligent boy/young man, cursed with a fiercely manipulative mother. Agrippina married Claudius and had him adopt Nero. Claudius’s own son was displaced. To help move things along more quickly, Agrippina employed the family poisoner, Locusta, whose point of view is presented in a few chapters for additional historical perspective.

Nero watched with fascination and horror. At first, he was merely swept along in the current that carried him to the throne. But, once he became emperor, Nero discovered his own taste for power.

George does a wonderful job showing Nero’s growth, his loss of innocence, and his slide from a boy with a conscience to a power-crazed dictator who ceases to listen to his advisors and who believes he is entitled to whatever he desires just because his power is limitless. He’s not a warrior as his predecessors were, which means Rome is able to enjoy a period of peace and prosperity, but he is extravagant and vain.

The book is long but reads quickly. It weaves together politics, court and family intrigues, and romance. It carries the reader up to the burning of Rome. Here, the story breaks off but with the promise of a second novel in the works to continue Nero’s story. For anyone who loves Roman history or epic biographical fiction, this new novel by Margaret George is highly recommended.

Monday, February 6, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: The Martian by Andy Weir

This month’s book group selection is The Martian by Andy Weir. Despite all the hype, I wasn’t intending to read this one. I watched the movie on a long plane flight last summer and really enjoyed it, but figured the book would be somewhat spoiled since I knew how it would all end.

Still, I hope to make it to book group this month and didn’t want to be the one who just watched the movie.

It is a wonderful book!

Set in the not-too-distant future, NASA is sending manned space explorations to Mars. A crew is on the surface of the planet doing what astronauts do, when a sudden windstorm blows in, threatening the mission and the lives of the astronauts. Those outside have to hurry back to the safety of the MAV (the ship that will lift them from Mars and take them home.) Those inside are agonizing over the tilt of the ship and the possibility that it will fall over and never be able to lift off. The heavy winds rip an antenna loose, and it hits and impales one of the crewman, Mark Watney, sending him flying. His crewmates search but can’t locate him. Signals they receive from his biosuit indicate that he’s dead. The only thing that they can do is evacuate, leaving him behind.

Turns out, he’s not dead.

Much of the book consists of Watney’s logs as he struggles with harsh conditions, loneliness, and the near certainty of death. Being the mission’s botanist and engineer, he has a lot going for him. He records in detail how he approaches each of the challenges that face him. Eventually, an astute satellite analyst discovers that he’s still alive. NASA, then the world at-large, and finally his crewmates become involved in a massive rescue operation.

At first, I did find it a bit slow, partly because the movie covers the same material in a much more condensed and visually interesting way. Watney’s logs showcase his wonderful voice, but they are very detail oriented and get a bit bogged down in the weeds. Still, the amount of detail gives the story great credibility. Things get more interesting when the people back on earth get involved. All that dedication and ingenuity both on Earth and on Mars create a very compelling story–even when the ending is known.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: Ilsa by Madeleine L'Engle

I received this book for free from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.

I can’t claim to know anything about Madeleine L’Engle except that she wrote the marvelous A Wrinkle in Time. When I saw this re-release of her 1946 novel, Ilsa, available on Netgalley, I was eager to read it. This is her second novel, written for adults. It’s been out of print for ~60 years.

Ilsa is about unhappy, unfulfilled people, primarily Henry Porcher (pronounced Puh-Shay) and Ilsa Brandes. They meet as children. Ilsa is a three years older and Henry is immediately smitten. She’s a wild and independent girl, living off by the sea with her naturalist father. The circumstances of her birth are mysterious. Henry is an unobjectionable child from an extended southern family who look down on pretty much everyone, but particularly on Ilsa and John Brandes. Henry is forbidden to spend time with Ilsa. Whether he might have rebelled against his parents is a moot question because a fire consumes the town and Henry leaves with his family, not to return for many years.

The rest of the novel is taken up with Henry’s wistful pursuit of Ilsa, which consists primarily of him hanging around despite everyone telling him she’s not interested and he should move on. Ilsa marries Henry’s hateful, drunken cousin Monty because he’s handsome and can be charming. Henry goes away to Paris for eight years, has a meaningless fling with yet another cousin, then returns home to moon after Ilsa some more.

There are a couple of cousins who manage to find a semblance of contentment, but most are miserable. Henry eventually learns the truth about how his family is connected with Ilsa’s, which goes a little way to explain why so many of them are such a mess.

There is some pretty writing in the novel. Unfortunately, it’s dull overall. The plot meanders and doesn’t reach much of a conclusion. Much of the dialogue is stilted. The characters, except for Ilsa, are weak. Ilsa has strength and independence, but terrible taste in men.

Although it was interesting to have a look at a novel so very different from A Wrinkle in Time, it’s not a book I would seek out for its own sake.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: An Irish Country Girl by Patrick Taylor

One of the authors I go to when I’m looking for a sweet, feel-good (even a bit corny) read, is Patrick Taylor. His Irish Country Doctor books are consistently enjoyable. So I moved on to Book 4: An Irish Country Girl.

This novel is a departure from the chronological progression of the first three novels which focused on the newly minted Dr. Barry Laverty and his crusty mentor, Dr. Fingal O’Reilly. These good-hearted, dedicated physicians serve the small country village of Ballybucklebo. They are supported by the calm, kind, and highly efficient housekeeper, Maureen (Kinky) Kincaid. Throughout the course of the previous books, it’s been demonstrated that Kinky is, in addition to her more down-to-earth talents, gifted with “the sight.”

An Irish Country Girl gives us Kinky’s backstory.

Kinky is preparing Christmas dinner for the two doctors and their friends. While the doctors are at a party prior to dinner, Kinky entertains the local children with a story from (about) her youth. A young man in her town defied the fairies and was horribly punished. At a suitable stopping point in the fairy tale/ghost story, Kinky dismisses the children and gets back to work. As she prepares the dinner, she reminisces about her youth and the young man she met and fell in love with.

It’s a pleasant enough story with scattered exciting events and some tender family moments. Overall, though, the pacing was uneven and I found the love story to be unconvincing. It’s a love-at-first-sight romance, and I always find those unsatisfying. The device of Kinky remembering the story was also strained as every minute detail is relayed. While that helps put the reader into the moment, it made Kinky’s storytelling feel false.

All in all, it was nice filler in the series, but didn’t feel necessary. Although, maybe as I get farther into the series, I’ll better appreciate this glimpse into Kinky’s life before Ballybucklebo.

Monday, January 16, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: Truly Madly Guilty by Liane Moriarty

Truly Madly Guilty by Liane Moriarty is a contemporary novel about dysfunctional relationships. It uses one day in the lives of three couples (and their children) as a pivot point. One day, an impromptu barbecue is held in the backyard of one of the couples, and the event that takes place impacts all their lives.

Each of the couples is happily married, with husband and wife well-suited to one another, aware of the necessary compromises, etc. As groups of friends, however, they have little in common and don’t mesh well. Nevertheless, they have this barbecue and this thing happens.

The chapters alternate points of view and time periods, going back and forth to the barbecue (with its horrible thing) and the future, which is painfully altered by this disastrous shameful happening that no one can talk about, but that can be hinted about and obsessed over. Each of the barbecue chapters bring us a tiny step closer to finding out what happened, but ends on a cliff-hanger just as an important piece of information is about to be revealed.

The characters and their individual problems were interesting enough, but the book moved slowly as the narrative had trouble taking off. I found myself annoyed with the choppiness and nearly stopped reading, but felt I had invested too much time in the book to give up. I had the impression that whatever the terrible thing was that someone did (or that they all did?) would end up being anticlimactic because the build up took so long.

Once the big secret was revealed, the book actually got better as the characters settled down to healing their wounds and getting on with their lives. There were still a few loose ends to keep the story going until everything could be neatly wrapped up by the end. As it concluded, I found it to have been an interesting plot with likeable characters who grew and learned. It was only the structure of the book that I found off-putting. However, I think it’s the suspense created by this structure that is responsible for the book’s success, so it may be that I was just in the wrong frame of mind for reading it.