Saturday, October 10, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks

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

I’ve long thought King David would make a marvelous protagonist for a historical novel. What a life! And when I heard that Geraldine Brooks had taken on the challenge, I couldn’t wait to read The Secret Chord. It’s newly released, and it is superb.

David’s life story is recounted by the prophet, Natan. Younger than David by several years, Natan came into David’s service while still a boy. He had his first vision when his father was killed by David and his band of rebels because he refused them provisions. Though it was odd under the circumstances to join the rebels, Natan saw no option. He was drawn to the young leader who would one day be king.

Natan is in a unique position. Rarely far from David’s side, he is able to describe in detail the various life stages of the man. And when David assigns him the task of chronicling his tale, Natan is able to visit with and interview important figures from his earlier days. As Natan is a prophet and David’s conscience, we are able to get an in depth look at the psychology of the king.

The story is fascinating. The rise from shepherd boy to King Saul’s (Shaul’s) favorite to shunned, hunted rebel, to king of Israel– and then that king’s downfall, is exciting and poignant. Brooks (through Natan’s eyes) does not sugarcoat the violent, brutal nature of David’s rise to prominence. He did what was necessary to forge a united kingdom. And he took what he wanted along the way, including many beautiful wives and concubines. His treatment of women is appalling in modern eyes, and it doesn’t help much to say: well, those were just the times. But Natan’s recognition of the injustices softens the impact. Just because David got away with it, doesn’t make it right. And, of course, David doesn’t get away with it. This very flawed man suffers very real consequences.

David is a biblical king, and the story does not shy away from his devotion or Natan’s. Though God’s presence is only distantly felt, there is no doubt He is present. The plot plays out according to a greater plan, and when David sins, his retribution is terrible. There is nothing he can do to atone.

Geraldine Brooks has received acclaim for her previous novels and her writing is gorgeous in this one as well. The Secret Chord is highly recommended.

Monday, October 5, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: Sir Nigel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Hurray! I’ve completed another book for the Back-to-the-Classics challenge. This time, it was the Forgotten Classic, defined as: a lesser known work by a famous author or a classic that no one reads anymore. I think my choice, Sir Nigel by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, fits the bill either way.

Doyle is, of course, the author of the Sherlock Holmes detective stories. However, he had a lot of other literary credits to his name, including seven historical novels (which he and many critics consider to be his best work.)

Sir Nigel, loosely based on the English knight Nigel Loring, is set during the early years of the Hundred Years War (appx 1350.) It follows the career of the gallant Squire Nigel Loring, an impoverished gentleman whose family lands have nearly all been stolen away by a neighboring abbey. Nigel lives with his aged mother, a formidable woman who has brought him up with the old ideals of chivalry. After a series of adventures, proving what a capable and romantic figure he is, he’s plucked up by one of King Edward’s best knights to be his squire. Nigel is to follow him off to war against the French.

After saying his farewells to a neighbor’s daughter, a serious, loyal damsel who loves him well, he pledges to return home to marry her. She doesn’t want to tie him down or hold him back, but he turns that to advantage by promising to do three honorable deeds proving his worth, entirely for her.

There are more adventures all along the way, and Nigel rises in the king’s favor as he completes more and more bold deeds. He is always chivalrous and true to his nature, sometimes impetuous to the initial dismay of knights around him, but he always prevails.

The novel is written as an old-fashioned romantic adventure, sounding in tone like medieval knights-of-yore stories. It is episodic, one thing after another, with the overarching goal to be to complete the three deeds, above and beyond the call of duty, to prove his honor and win his love. The story is battle-heavy and occasionally tension-filled, but there is never really doubt that he’ll succeed. Even when the action is not particularly realistic, it’s entertaining.

Several years ago, I was looking for medieval-type non-fantasy historical fiction for my son, who loved that kind of thing. This would have been a great one for him then. I fear he may be a bit too cynical for it now. But I recommend it for its innocent look at the notion of chivalry.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: An Irish Country Village by Patrick Taylor

Back in March, I read Patrick Taylor’s An Irish Country Doctor and enjoyed it quite a bit. It’s the first book in a fairly large series so I made a mental note to seek out the next one, but I wasn’t in a tearing hurry. It was a charming book, but not something with a cliff-hanger ending. (That’s a plus, not a criticism.)

Anyway, the mood struck me to return to Ballybucklebo and see what is going on with young Dr. Barry Laverty and his mentor, Dr. Fingal O’Reilly in book two: An Irish Country Village.

Although it’s been a few months, it was easy to slide right back in to the fictional world in a novel that essentially picks up where the last one left off. Dr. Laverty has been offered a more permanent position with Dr. O’Reilly, with an eye to becoming a full partner. Laverty has fallen in love with Ballybucklebo and with the vision of himself as a country physician. He is thrilled and honored to get the offer and is ready to sign on.

Double disasters strike. (Or one disaster and one dilemma.) First, a patient dies unexpectedly. Laverty had previously missed a critical diagnosis in this man–a mistake that he has already beaten himself up over again and again. Now, he’s horrified to think that his error might have led to the man’s death. Moreover, the man’s wife is threatening a lawsuit. While Dr. O’Reilly is standing behind Laverty and won’t rescind his offer, Laverty wonders if he’ll have to reject it. In this small town, the people will never trust him again if he’s sued.

Besides all that, does he really want to stay? He’s fallen in love with Patricia Spence, a civil engineering student away at college in Belfast. It’s difficult enough getting to spend time with her, but worth the effort. Yet now, his brilliant girlfriend is competing for a scholarship to Cambridge. To win would be a huge accomplishment, not just for Patricia personally, but to advance the cause of women in engineering. Laverty wants to be supportive, but he can’t bear the idea of her moving farther away for three years. He could go with her, but he doesn’t want to leave Ballybucklebo. Unless he has to. . .

Much like the first novel, the book follows the two doctors about their daily business, both medical and non-medical, as they care for the people of their small town in myriad ways. The people give back. Some are sweet, some cantankerous, some goofy, but they are all interesting characters. The lives of Laverty and O’Reilly continue to charm. Laverty is an intelligent, thoughtful protagonist. It’s a slow amble of a read, though never dull – a stop and smell the roses kind of book. I’m sure I’ll be picking up book three in another few months down the road.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: Smiley's Run by D.E. Osborne

For a change of pace, I decided to pick up a contemporary action thriller: Smiley’s Run by D.E. Osborne. This exhilarating adventure reminded me why it’s a good idea to jump outside my comfort zone.

Jason Smiley is an ex-cop, Iraq veteran, and former Guantanamo interrogator who, in his return-to-the-US life, has settled in as a private detective, chasing insurance frauds and cheating spouses. A Chicagoan at heart, he is now based in L.A. He can’t return to his native city for reasons that will become clear.

Smiley’s routine is broken when he wakes up naked in a strange hotel room next to a dead man. The man was a client, who worked for a low-level mobster. As Smiley’s mind clears, he remembers he had been on his way to meet an old army friend, Jack Nesmith. Jack had called him, out of the blue, saying he was in trouble and needed help to save the world.

Smiley is a hard-boiled detective, cynical for all the right reasons. He has few friends left in the world and trusts next to no one, but he does trust Jack. He does not trust the unknown woman who appears at the door to the hotel room with new clothes and an assignment for him, ostensibly from the mob: Find Jack– in Chicago.

What follows is an action-packed race around the country and to some Carribean islands as Smiley searches for his old army buddy. Along the way, he becomes embroiled in a complicated plot involving the mafia, Chinese terrorists, jihadist terrorists, and corrupt members of the Chicago police force, U.S. military, and the Department of Homeland Security. Someone has stolen triggers for nuclear bombs and will be attempting to steal the bombs. How much does Jack know? Who is working for whom? And can Smiley sort it all out before it’s too late?

Fans of superheroes without superpowers who have complex emotional baggage but nevertheless get the job done will enjoy this adrenaline-infused debut from D.E. Osborne. If Jason Smiley makes a return visit after a well-deserved rest, I’ll be picking up the next book too!

Thursday, September 17, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: The Sisters of Versailles by Sally Christie

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

Fans of Phillipa Gregory, or fans of romantic historical fiction who’ve had just a bit too much of the Tudors, here’s a novel tailor-made for immersing yourself in early eighteenth century France, the court of Louis XV. Before Madame de Pompadour, King Louis had a succession of mistresses, four of whom were sisters. We meet them all in The Sisters of Versailles by Sally Christie.

The Nesle girls: Louise, Pauline, Diane, Hortense, and Marie-Anne were relatively impoverished aristocrats whose prospects were dim until the death of their (infamous) mother. Louise inherited her position as a lady-in-waiting to the queen. At first shy, gauche, and determined to remain virtuous, Louise finds her footing at court when she is chosen to be mistress of the young king. King Louis wants to be a faithful husband, but he’s bored with his wife and very ready to be led astray. He and Louise begin a discreet liaison. All goes well until the secret gets out. Once sister number two learns of Louise’s position, and how little she is taking advantage of it, the scheming, ambitious Pauline decides she will come to court, usurp her sister’s role, and show her how it’s done. Being a king’s mistress should be a position of power. Never mind how many enemies are made. After the ambitious Pauline, come the complacent and somewhat goofy Diane along with the even more power-hungry and cruel Marie-Anne. (Only the beautiful, virtuous Hortense refuses to play.)

The novel is told from multiple first person viewpoints so that each of the sisters can tell her own story. Interspersed are artfully deceptive letters between the sisters that may or may not have deceived anyone.

Christie succeeds in creating distinctive, interesting women, each with her own voice, goals, and heartaches. Each has her own feeling about the king and reason for taking on the role of mistress. The trajectories of the relationships, and the relationships among the sisters, are well charted. Life at court, its vanities, gossip, fashions, and political maneuvering are also well portrayed. The historical context is given short shrift: what is going on in the bedroom is much more important than what is going on in the world beyond the walls. Occasionally, someone makes mention of the unpleasantness of the peasants. Or there is acknowledgment that King Louis doesn’t pay much attention to the duties of the realm, leaving the governing to his ministers. He does have to spend part of his days meeting ambassadors and signing papers, but there is no substantive description of troubles affecting France.

Nevertheless, the book is chock-ful of driven characters, motivated by love, lust, jealousy, greed for power, even gluttony. The novel pulls you irresistibly along on the journey with these sisters in this remarkable tale.

Monday, September 14, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: The Devil in the Marshalsea by Antonia Hodgson

The Devil in the Marshalsea by Antonia Hodgson is a gritty historical thriller that I could not put down. The author did a great job of pulling me into the story and into the horrifying world of a debtors’ prison in early eighteenth century London, so I loved the book even though I never did warm to the protagonist.

Thomas Hawkins in an unlikely hero. Brought up to be a "gentleman" and inherit his father’s position as a country parson, the Oxford-educated Thomas rebels when he gets a taste of wine, women, gambling, leisure, and satisfaction of his own wants. So far, he’s been able to afford his habits by gambling and sponging off others, but now his creditors are calling in his debts. His landlord will no longer wait for rent that isn’t being paid. Thomas has no choice but to beg money from his last friend, Reverend Charles Buckley, an old school chum who has made the opposite choices. Unfortunately, Charles’s purse is not deep enough to save Tom from debtors’ prison.

Tom’s pride will not allow him to beg his father. After all, the parson, deeply humiliated when Tom’s sins were paraded in front of the parish, disinherited him. So Tom gambles the little Charles is able to scrape together and, miracle of miracles, wins enough to save his skin. A little celebration is in order, naturally. After dulling his wits with drink and flirtation with a favorite madam, he sets off for his lodging too late at night, and he’s promptly robbed.

Thus, our hero is sent to Marshalsea after all.

Tom is not a sympathetic character. Nevertheless, no one deserves Marshalsea. The prison is a mini-city ruled by greedy tyrants. It’s divided into the Master’s Side, where those who still have friends and family can pay rent, buy food, and survive for a time, and the Common Side ("over the wall") where the truly destitute are thrown to die.

Tom is struck by terror at first and maybe even a little remorse as he realizes how close he is to ignoble death. He’s a gentleman, after all, and entitled to better. Fortunately, others seem to agree, but for differing reasons.

First, he is young, handsome, and bears a passing resemblance to a prisoner of Marshalsea who was recently murdered, Captain Roberts. Roberts had friends and left behind a beautiful widow. They want him avenged. Even his ghost cries out for vengeance. And they think Tom may be able to help.

Second, friend Charles happens to work for Sir Phillip Meadows, who administers the Marshalsea in the king’s name (meaning he hires the men who oversee it and make a tidy profit by all the corruption.) Tom depends on Charles to help him as best he can, and Charles comes back with this thin thread of hope: if Tom can solve the murder, Sir Phillip will be obliged and Tom’s debts will be forgiven.

Finally, there is Sam Fleet, a threatening fellow prisoner, universally hated in the prison and the prime suspect in the murder. Sam was Captain Roberts’ roommate until the night of his unfortunate demise. He’s taken a strange interest in Tom, including arranging to have Tom for his new roommate.

Tom is in the prison for five days with the stakes growing higher each day. He must solve the mystery or find himself thrown over to the Common Side, if he isn’t murdered first.

Tom has some redeeming characteristics. He is generous and charitable. He doesn’t let fear stop him from doing the right thing. And he is loyal to men who have done him a good turn. (As long as he remembers.) But Tom’s character seems to run fairly shallow. This is particularly true where women are concerned.

Generally, for me to really love a book, I have to be more impressed with the protagonist. I was much more impressed with Tom’s nemesis/co-conspirator Sam Fleet and with the cast of characters populating the jail than with Tom. The twists and turns of plot kept me turning the pages. And the star of the book was the prison itself. A sequel has just been released, The Last Confession of Thomas Hawkins, and I’ve got it on my to-read list. I’m curious to see if the character is deepened by his experiences in this book or if he’ll skate over the surface of another absorbing mystery.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by ZZ Packer

My book group chose a short story collection for our next book: Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by ZZ Packer. Some of her stories have appeared in The New Yorker and Harpers and have won awards, so this young writer is well-respected in the genre. And her writing is distinctive and edgy, with angsty characters in situations fraught with emotional and sometimes physical peril. If you’re a fan of short stories, this is a collection worth reading.

However, I think I’m just not much of a short story fan. Rather than depressing slices of life, I like more meat on the bones of a plot and time for characters to grow and develop. This is beautifully written, but in the end, that isn’t enough for me. There’s too much angst without resolution. The common theme seems to be things are not going to get better for any of the characters no matter what, and that’s not great incentive to read on.