Wednesday, May 28, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: The Iron King by Maurice Druon

I love historical novels that plop me right down in the middle of serious history. I like quieter novels too. And I enjoy novels that sidestep the history that’s going on in the background to present a nice love story or mystery. But I really love historical novels where the history is the focus, even if there’s a little embellishment of the facts to enliven the story. (It is historical fiction, after all.) So I’m thrilled to have come across Maurice Druon’s The Accursed Kings series. These French historical novels set in the Middle Ages begin with Philip the Fair and the demise of the Knights Templar and take the reader through to the start of the Hundred Years War.

These books are more than fifty years old but the English translations are being re-released with a foreword and recommendation by George R.R. Martin, who calls them the "original Game of Thrones." How’s that for marketing? I haven’t watched any of the show and although we have the books (my son is a huge fan), I’m daunted by the investment of time it will take to read them. So if I can read the "original" instead–and these books are historical novels. . .there’s no contest.

Book One, The Iron King, was written in 1955. It focuses on events surrounding the execution of the last Grand Master of the Knights Templar, Jacques de Molay. The Templars were branded heretics, were forcibly disbanded, and their immense wealth was confiscated by Philip the Fair, King of France, in cahoots with his Pope, Clement. Aiding Philip in this and in all things was his Keeper of the Seals and Secretary-General, Guillaume de Nogaret. As Jacques de Molay is burned at the stake, he curses the king, pope, and secretary-general, announcing they will be dead within the year. He then curses the king’s line through the thirteenth generation.

While this is going on, there is abundant political intriguing and scandal within the court. An interwoven plotline is that of Robert of Artois, who feels he has been robbed of his inheritance in the County of Artois which was given to his aunt, Mahaut, Countess of Burgundy. Mahaut had a claim to the same land but the reason she won her suit was that she married her daughters to two of the king’s sons and her cousin to the third. Robert of Artois will stop at nothing to see the princesses ruined and Mahaut disgraced.

Luckily for Robert, he is on friendly terms with Philip the Fair’s daughter, Isabella, who is married to King Edward II of England (to her misfortune.) Isabella despises her sisters-in-law and is only too happy to help Robert in his schemes. (Also luckily for Robert and Isabella, the princesses are unfaithful wives and not very discreet.)

There is a lot to keep track of. Scenes change rapidly and the plots move right along. This is old-fashioned historical fiction and it’s translated from the French, so there is some clunkiness to the prose. An omniscient narrator jumps in offering his two cents every now and then in a fairly obtrusive way. And yet, it’s such a great tale that I got lost in it and didn’t mind that it wasn’t prettily written. Normally, I want well developed characters and expect the character development to help drive the plot. This novel is much more plot oriented, populated by numerous characters that we don’t get opportunity to explore in much depth. Still, I found The Iron King a quick and enjoyable read and I definitely plan to continue with the series. I’m eager to watch the history unfold.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Yikes! It’s almost June and I’ve only reviewed one book for the Back to the Classics Challenge. I decided I’d better stop slacking off or I’ll never get that challenge completed. A book that has been on my shelf for many years (TBR-pile challenge!!), Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, was my pick for the twentieth century classic.

The book is constructed so that Janie Crawford (who just returned to the town she walked away from two years earlier in the company of a man twelve years her junior) tells her story to a sympathetic friend. She knows the rest of the town is gossiping eagerly, gleefully certain the young man abandoned her, running off with her money. But no. The man is dead. Janie settles in to explain.

Her story begins when she is a teenager, dreaming of love. Her grandmother, who raised her, is terrified that Janie will end up downtrodden like her mother, like any other pretty girl with nothing but her looks to recommend her. So her grandmother sees her safely married off to a significantly older man with property. Janie tries to love him, but fails.

One day, a well-dressed sweet-talking man passing through the property on his way to something better happens by. This man is convinced that he can make something of himself in a town in Florida built and owned all by blacks. He decides he wants Janie by his side. He persuades her to run off with him.

This man dazzles the people of Eatonville, Florida with his take charge ways. Before long, he has set up a store, organized the town, and gotten himself named mayor. This makes Janie Mrs. Mayor. But he has set ideas about the way Mrs. Mayor must behave. Janie can’t be herself. It doesn’t take her long to realize this isn’t love either.

There isn’t much she can do but suppress her unhappiness. But this husband is also older than she is. Eventually, he dies. Janie is free and she is now a fairly wealthy woman.

Enter Tea Cake. He’s a wanderer, a gambler, a charmer–and he is twelve years younger than the widowed Janie. All the single men for miles around have had their eyes on Janie, for her money and for her beauty–even though she’s approaching forty! But it’s Tea Cake who steals her heart. He says he’ll provide for her. He’s not after her money. And off they go.

They head off to the Everglades where they plant and pick beans. It’s hard work, but for the first time in her life, Janie is happy. She’s in love.

This does not end well. In an exciting and tragic conclusion, Tea Cake dies, which brings us back to the beginning–Janie telling her story to Phoeby, explaining that Tea Cake is dead, but also explaining that she did find the love she was searching for all her life. She doesn’t care what all the gossipers in the town are going to say.

So, take that bare bones plot outline and wreath it in dialogue that is rich in period and cultural dialect. Put the characters in beautifully described settings and then populate those settings with abundant lively characters that jump out at you. Some of the secondary characters are more lushly described even than Tea Cake or Janie.

The middle bit of the book did drag a bit. Some of the conversations on the porch that Janie found so amusing, I found a bit tedious. However, that might be partly due to my lingering reading slump problems.

This is a wonderful story of love and of resilience. Janie is, after all, a survivor. She was able to hold onto the memory of what she wanted and she had to courage to reach for it when she saw it, despite what her peers would think.

Not only a Back to the Classics Challenge book (hosted by Books and Chocolate) but this is also a TBR pile challenge book (hosted by Bookish.) I’m behind on that one too. I need a long vacation!

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: Sedition by Katherine Grant

It's time for one of my occasional plugs for the Historical Novel Society. If you're a fan of historical fiction, consider joining up. In addition to a quarterly journal of reviews, they have a fantastic website and, every other year, conferences. The conferences are incredibly fun and informative--and you can meet authors, agents, editors, and readers who love the same books you do.

I contribute sometimes to the Historical Novels Review. My review for Sedition appeared in print in the May2014 issue. It was an editors' choice and can also be found online at the HNS website here. But here it is again:

As a fan of K.M. Grant’s historical fiction for children, I was eager to read her adult debut. Set in London in the late 1700s, Sedition is a darkly comic tale of music and sexual politics. Four wealthy businessmen have five marriageable daughters among them, and the fathers have decided their fortunes will buy the girls titles. The daughters, save one, are nothing special in themselves, so in order to attract the attention of eligible young lords, the fathers come up with a plot. They buy a piano, hire a teacher, and schedule a concert to which gentlemen will be invited and the girls’ talents displayed.

Everything that can go wrong does. The embittered piano maker convinces the piano teacher to seduce the five innocent girls, ruining them for marriage. The daughters prove difficult to teach. The piano teacher’s seductions don’t go quite as he’d hoped. Somehow, the men who imagine themselves in charge find themselves undermined every which way.

This is a startlingly good read. Grant, a skilled writer, makes each of the characters distinctive. She immerses the reader in late 18th-century London. The novel relies heavily on music, and when the characters sit down to play, you can practically hear the piano. It’s a wonderful story that is not as farcical as the plot outline would suggest. Underlying it all is the darkness of the sexual politics and the sex, which permeates the story. Love plays very little role, although there is an impressive love of music. And although I recommend this fascinating story, be prepared for an adult book.

Monday, May 5, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: While We Were Watching Downton Abbey by Wendy Wax

I’ve been in a bit of a reading slump lately. I decided I needed something to shake me out of it, something out of my norm- so I picked up a book that I won in a giveaway from Kristin at Always with a Book.

While We Were Watching Downton Abbey by Wendy Wax is contemporary women’s fiction. The title caught my attention and the description sounded appealing so I entered the giveaway. I was lucky enough to win the book and it was a perfect Friday night read, just the thing for pulling me out of my slump. (Thank you, Kristin!)

The novel follows three very different women in a luxury condo in Atlanta who are at difficult points in their lives, who meet and bond during weekly screenings of Downton Abbey.

Samantha Davis is a wealthy, middle-aged socialite, a long-time resident of the condos. She is the woman everyone else envies. She’s married to a handsome lawyer who seemingly dotes on her. But no one knows what goes on in her head. She was orphaned at 21 and left with two young siblings to raise. When Jonathan proposed, she saw it as a kindness. He was a friend of the family offering a lifeline. He has been bailing out her family ever since, and she has been eternally grateful. But after more than twenty-five years, her gratitude is wearing a little thin and she’s terrified it might no longer be enough to hold onto him.

Claire Walker was also married young. She had a child, divorced young, and raised a wonderful daughter on her own. But the daughter has just left for college. Claire moved in to a small apartment in the complex. She is embarking on a whole new life–one where she will be writing full-time. (She is a writer of historical romance.) But she discovers that with so much empty time on her hands, she is unable to write and the future she envisioned is becoming cloudier and cloudier.

Brooke MacKenzie is recently divorced with two young daughters. She put her nasty husband through medical school and residency so that he could establish himself as a plastic surgeon. However, when she refused to let him turn her into a walking billboard, and when he decided she was not good for his image, he divorced her. She got the luxury condo and the kids. He got a beautiful young girlfriend.

The concierge of the complex is the very proper Englishman, Edward Parker, who is in the process of building up his own company, Private Butler services. The wealthy residents find that things run very smoothly overall, but Edwards strives for a bit more sense of community, hence the weekly screenings of Downton Abbey. He serves drinks and themed snacks, and brings the tenants together. Mostly, he brings together Samantha, Claire, and Brooke.

The women get to know one another and soon become vital support for each other helping one another through the rough spots of a particularly trying year.

The novel is sweet. The bad-guy males bring conflict to the storyline and the female friendship is nicely empowering. I did find Samantha’s trouble to be a little contrived. I’m not sure she could really be married for twenty-five years to a man that perfect and not "get it." But the bond between the women was more important than the love stories, and as a book about female friendship, this one excels.

As a bonus, there are references to the plots of some of the episodes of Downton Abbey. It isn’t enough to slow down the book, but just enough to be fun, recalling particular scenes. But if you haven’t seen Downton Abbey, you can skim over the paragraphs lightly and not miss anything important, plotwise.