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.

Friday, January 13, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante

I held out for a while, not wanting to bring the incredible reading experience to a close, but I finally couldn’t wait any longer. I just finished the fourth and final Neopolitan novel by Elena Ferrante: The Story of the Lost Child.

I’ve been addicted to this remarkable story of complex friendship and the detailed narrative of two entwined lives since I first picked up My Brilliant Friend.

Lila and Elena are now grown women. Elena has achieved the two main goals in her life: she’s a respected author and she’s finally in a romantic relationship with the man she’s loved since her childhood, Nino Sarratore.

Lila has remained in Naples and has set about organizing the decaying neighborhood in opposition to the Solara brothers, thorns in the sides of Lila and Elena since childhood. The brothers are now crime bosses and rule much of the neighborhood with legal and illegal businesses.

There is far too much going on to summarize. The plot is important–it’s the story of their lives and it continues through their middle age. Their lives are complicated and rich, and through them we get a glimpse of Italian political, literary, and intellectual debates of the times. But what makes the novels so compelling is not so much the happenings, but Elena’s interpretation of them and the way she connects everything to the push and pull between her and Lila.

Ann Goldstein’s translation is remarkable. The language is always precise and beautiful and I never feel like I’m reading a translation.

The novels go right to the heart of friendship, everything good and bad in a relationship that is intense in its devotion and rivalry. Family dynamics, love, disillusionment, and the satisfactions and dissatisfactions, joys and terrors of parenting are all shown with an intensity that always feels real. Ferrante’s ability to bring the reader completely inside the head of the protagonist, to let us empathize with Elena’s conflicts, her vanities, her doubts. . .even when Elena is behaving badly, stupidly pursuing Nino or descending into pettiness, even when she is lying to herself, she is honest with the reader. The ending is painful but perfect. These books are extraordinary. I don’t often re-read books any more because there is just too much out there to read, but I can see myself starting over again with book one.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: Someone to Hold by Mary Balogh

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

Mary Balogh is a Regency Romance writer whose novels I consistently enjoy. A couple of months ago I read the first book in her new Westcott series: Someone to Love. The second book, Someone to Hold, will be released next month and I was very pleased to receive a copy from Netgalley.

In Someone to Love, one of the women who suffers the most from Anna Snow’s good fortune is the disinherited Lady Camille Westcott. Camille discovers she is illegitimate and has no claim to her title. Although her newly discovered half-sister would love to share her inheritance with the family she desperately wants to be part of, Camille will have none of it.

Now, Camille and Abby, her younger sister, are living in Bath with their still respectable grandmother. While Abby tries to make the best of the situation, Camille has retreated from society. But Camille is no quitter. She answers an advertisement for a teacher in the local orphanage, the same orphanage where Anna grew up and later taught. Her motivations for doing so are mixed, but primarily she wants to do something. And she needs to discover, if she is no longer Lady Camille, who is she?

On her first day at the new job, Camille meets Joel Cunningham, a local portrait painter of some renown, who was and is Anna’s best friend. He also grew up in the orphanage and teaches there part time. He was also in love with Anna, but knows he has to put that love aside. He’s aware of how badly Camille treated Anna in the past, and he has no desire to see her step into Anna’s old teaching position. The two are predisposed to dislike each other.

Naturally, their initial dislike turns to grudging respect to love. Again, what makes Balogh’s novels shine is the characterizations of her protagonists. They are warm, intelligent people who deal with their problems in a mature, reasonable way. They have misunderstandings but don’t let them get ridiculously out of hand. They are frank, honest, and amusing.

It’s wonderful how Balogh can take the nastiest of characters from book one and show her in a different light—the same person, but with a believable change of heart and emotional growth. I don’t know who will be the focus of the third Wescott book, but I’m sure I’ll read it!