Thursday, February 4, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: The Vatican Princess: A Novel of Lucrezia Borgia

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

Were the Borgias – Rodrigo (Pope Alexander VI), Cesare (Duke of Valentinois) and Lucrezia – as power-hungry and evil as all that? In a word, yes. If you’re appalled by the insanity of current day politics, reassure yourself with some historical fiction. Fifteenth-century Italian political intrigue was deadly.

C. W. Gortner is one of my new favorite authors. (See my reviews of Mademoiselle Chanel and The Confessions of Catherine de Medici.) He has an extraordinary talent for telling the stories of complex, strong, and often maligned historical women. The Vatican Princess: A Novel of Lucrezia Borgia, which will be released on February 9th, explores the life of this scandalous fifteenth century daughter of Pope Alexander VI.

Lucrezia has earned a bad reputation as a femme fatale because of her failed marriages and adultery, but the real reason for her poor reputation was her involvement in the affairs of her father, Pope Alexander, and her monstrous brother, Cesare. In this sympathetic novel, Lucrezia was not at fault. Although politically astute, proud, intelligent, and loyal to her family’s interests (at least, during her younger years), Lucrezia is not as ruthless as her Borgia blood would have her be. A woman’s influence could only go so far, and she was mainly a pawn in the games of the men in her family.

Gortner’s novel puts Lucrezia’s story in her own words. We follow along as she grows from a devoted young daughter, married off for political advantage, yearning to please her father and favorite brother, to a worldly-wise woman who wants only to escape their snares.

As usual, Gortner is able to immerse the reader in a vividly described past with a compelling narrative. The political maneuvering of the Borgias is complicated but presented in an accessible way. On occasion, this necessitates Lucrezia eavesdropping on men who say things like "as you know" before they present material to each other in a way that seems designed for Lucrezia’s ears and the readers’ eyes rather than a natural conversation. But the device is not used so much that it detracts from the flow of the book. Moreover, the crucial historical context is what elevates this novel to such a convincing fictional biography.

Historical fiction fans will love this latest offering from C.W. Gortner. And if you can’t get enough of the Borgias, I also recommend City of God by Cecelia Holland.

Monday, February 1, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: The Lion and the Cross. A Novel of Saint Patrick and Ancient Ireland by Joan Lesley Hamilton

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

First published in 1979, The Lion and the Cross: A Novel of Saint Patrick and Ancient Ireland by Joan Lesley Hamilton has been re-released by Open Road. Generally, I’m a big fan of historical novels written back in those days (how long ago the 70's seem!) and Saint Patrick is an ideal protagonist, so I was happy for the opportunity to review this book.

Patrick (Padraic) is an old man of forty, looking back on his life, as the prologue opens the story. This device allows the older but wiser man to pass judgement on his younger self and thereby mitigates some of the judgement the reader might want to pass upon him. Young Patrick was not a likeable guy. Spoiled, rebellious, too sure of himself, and an avowed atheist (in defiance of his very religious parents), the youth is running amok himself on the day barbarian raiders from Eire sweep through his village, looting and pillaging. He returns just in time to stumble upon the raiders, who cart him back to their homeland to be a slave.

His stubborn defiance serves him well in some ways, but he is slow to see or accept the workings of God in his life. Eventually, he rises to a position of some prominence in the court of a powerful king, a warlord, though it is always understood he is a slave. He wears his Christianity as a symbol of his defiance, and takes a good deal of pride in the superiority of his God and therefore himself. Always, Patrick is certain of what God wants for him and what God surely must not want, and when those expectations don’t correspond with current reality, Patrick’s response is anger or doubt. The miracles God works through him and the visions Patrick is sent, even the voice of God speaking to him directly, each only temporarily convince Patrick that God is, in fact, with him. This is understandable enough as Patrick’s life is extremely challenging. But his vacillation gets a bit wearying and his arrogance makes him an unappealing protagonist. These things make the story more difficult to read, even if this realistic approach is ultimately rewarding.

It takes the remainder of his youth and many bitter adventures before God humbles Patrick to the point where he can be a useful servant. The novel ends before Patrick returns as a missionary to Ireland, but the fact that he will do so is no longer in doubt.

I had a mixed reaction to this book. The story is interesting and a credible representation of a life that is poorly documented. The author does a good job of creating a life story from the few facts and the legends that have sprung up around him. She also does a wonderful job of making Ancient Ireland and Briton vivid and real. The key events in Patrick’s fictional life are compellingly presented. However, there is a lot of wandering in the wilderness for this lost young man, a lot of soul-searching and backsliding. I found myself skimming over parts of it, just enough to get the gist of what was going on, as I got bogged down in the sometimes over-written prose. It was difficult to connect with the other characters, despite finding them convincingly portrayed, because Patrick himself doesn’t connect in lasting or meaningful ways. His friendships are fairly shallow, because he is always angry and superior. His relationships with women are not relationships, but rather he lusts after or condescends to them, worships or hates them. He never really sees them as people.

For historical fiction fans who are interested in this Dark Ages time period and/or those with an interest in great historical religious figures, this re-release is worth a look.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Announcement from Google to followers

Sorry for the inconvenience, but Google has made changes to Friend Connect. As I understand the gist of it, they want everyone who follows a blog to do so through a google account. So, if you've chosen a service other than google, they will not allow you to use friend connect to follow blogs run through the google-supported blog service. Here is their announcement: 

"In 2011, we announced the retirement of Google Friend Connect for all non-Blogger sites. We made an exception for Blogger to give readers an easy way to follow blogs using a variety of accounts. Yet over time, we’ve seen that most people sign into Friend Connect with a Google Account. So, in an effort to streamline, in the next few weeks we’ll be making some changes that will eventually require readers to have a Google Account to sign into Friend Connect and follow blogs.

As part of this plan, starting the week of January 11, we’ll remove the ability for people with Twitter, Yahoo, Orkut or other OpenId providers to sign in to Google Friend Connect and follow blogs. At the same time, we’ll remove non-Google Account profiles so you may see a decrease in your blog follower count.

We encourage you to tell affected readers (perhaps via a blog post), that if they use a non-Google Account to follow your blog, they need to sign up for a Google Account, and re-follow your blog. With a Google Account, they’ll get blogs added to their Reading List, making it easier for them to see the latest posts and activity of the blogs they follow.

We know how important followers are to all bloggers, but we believe this change will improve the experience for both you and your readers."

In light of this, if you previously followed my blog using another service and want to continue following, google won't let you, but there other ways. Bloglovin works well for me. You can also like my author page on facebook or friend me through goodreads. (links in sidebar.)  I'll post direct links to reviews from there.

Thank you to my followers for sticking with my blog!

Thursday, January 28, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: It Ended Badly. 13 of the Worst Breakups in History by Jennifer Wright

Usually the nonfiction I read is informative and interesting, but very rarely do I consider it fun. However, my most recent non-fiction read was pure entertainment. It Ended Badly. 13 of the Worst Breakups in History by Jennifer Wright is a clever, somewhat tongue-in-cheek look at thirteen couples (with some additional players) whose relationships fell apart in spectacular ways.

Some of the choices for inclusion were obvious: Eleanor of Aquitaine and Henry II; Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard; Lord Byron and Caroline Lamb; Edith Wharton and Morton Fullerton; Elizabeth Taylor and Eddie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds. But others I’d never heard of: Anna Ivanona; Timothy Dexter; Oskar Kokoschka and Alma Mahler; and more. The stories range from horrifying (Nero) or horrible (Norman Mailer) to sad (Oscar Wilde) to bizarre (Oskar Kokoschka). Wright’s enthusiasm for the subject, her upbeat insights, and her amusing asides make this fast-moving book about failed love thoroughly enjoyable.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Georgia by Dawn Tripp

I won this book from goodreads! This did not influence my review.

Receiving an ARC of the novel Georgia by Dawn Tripp from goodreads did not influence my review, but it did lead me to read the book sooner than I might have done otherwise. I love biographical novels about exquisitely talented people, but I generally prefer reading about literary figures rather than artists or musicians.

Nevertheless, Georgia O’Keeffe’s work is intriguing and the blurb hinted at a fascinating life, so I settled in to see what I could learn about the artist. This novel was so much more than I expected.

Georgia is narrated in O’Keeffe’s voice, an older woman, looking back on her life. Most specifically, she looks back on the part of her life that she spent with the acclaimed photographer and art connoisseur/manager, Alfred Stieglitz. Their passionate love affair was consuming, but not all-consuming. It shaped the art that both produced, yet it was devotion to their separate artistic visions that sustained them as individuals. Georgia narrates the course of the relationship with painful emotional intensity and with a somewhat wistful clarity that comes with hindsight.

Georgia O’Keeffe was a small-college art teacher in Texas, whose charcoal drawings, sent to a friend in New York, caught the eye of Stieglitz, who owned and ran a gallery in the city. He was well known, not only for his own brilliant photography, but for his support of artists he believed in. His praise of her early drawings brought her to New York. An immediate attraction formed.

Stieglitz was, unfortunately, married. It took a little time and effort to ditch his first wife so he could devote himself to Georgia—her career and her person. Older, established, and manipulative in ways that seemed subtle at first but then became obvious, Stiegliz loved Georgia’s freeness, while at the same time, he sought to control her. Georgia’s need to paint, to be free to create while someone else handled the business end of her career, put her more and more under his direction. That didn’t mean their love was any less real or important. But over time, she began to see that she needed to break free of him in order to have her own life back for herself and her art.

This is a beautiful novel, showing a love that flames and then runs its course as betrayals and one-sided sacrifices take their toll. And it’s a beautiful homage to the brilliance of Georgia O’Keeffe.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: A New England Nun by Mary E. Wilkins Freeman

Mary E. Wilkins Freeman was a very popular "regionalist" author in the late 19th century, writing short stories and novels set in small town New England. They deal with domestic situations and the subdued romances of the times and place.

A New England Nun and Other Stories is one of her best known collections. In the title story and in others, she explores the idea of spinsterhood, showing that the strong, self-sufficient women are not to be pitied. Other stories look at marriage, at sibling relationships, and at error and redemption. The settings give a wonderful sense of the homes, streets, shops, and farms. Her characters represent the stoic, warm but reserved old New England stock. Like most short story collections, you won’t find many happy endings, but the stories are poignant rather than tragic.

I don’t often read short story collections, but chose this one for the Back-to-the-Classics challenge. I’m glad I did. Mary Wilkins Freeman is a master of the art and deserves her revival, (which has occurred thanks to feminist re-evaluation of her work.)

Sunday, January 17, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Health and Wellness in 19th-Century America by John C. Waller

Every once in a while, I dip my toe into the ocean of the history of medicine. Health and Wellness in 19th-century America by John C. Waller is part of the Health and Wellness in Daily Life series published by Greenwood. Although I think I would find their Health and Wellness in Antiquity through the Middle Ages more interesting, I went with 19th-century America because it’s a time of great change, encompassing the birth of modern medicine.

This book takes a broad view of the subject, looking at the roles of environment, education and training, faith and religion’s overlap with medicine in healing, the health of women, children and infants, infectious diseases, occupational hazards, war, the rise of commercial pharmaceuticals, the changing place of hospitals, and a host of other topics. The differences in medical care for rich and poor, and between white, black, and Native American populations are also pointed out each step of the way. There is a fair amount of repetition from chapter to chapter, but this is helpful if you are particularly interested in one or a few of the topics but not in the whole book.

As is typical in such sweeping introductory books, it conveys a lot of information but broadly, without a whole lot of depth. I found a few things I would like to know more about, so this is a great jumping off point. After I delve into a couple of the topics, I may go locate a copy of the Antiquity through Middle Ages volume.