Saturday, February 27, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: The Daughters of Palatine Hill by Phyllis T. Smith

Book was received from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Phyllis T. Smith’s first novel, I am Livia, hooked me completely. I couldn’t wait to see what she would write next, so I was thrilled to receive a copy of her new novel, The Daughters of Palatine Hill, for review.

Once again, Smith brings the early Roman Empire to life by portraying strong women struggling to balance the demands of love, honor, and service to Rome, while living within the inner circles of power and intrigue. These were violent times. Women were political pawns, granted little to no autonomy, with strict rules of behavior. The more "important" one was, the more strictly controlled. Yet they found ways to wield influence.

Livia, the wife of Augustus Caesar, is a central character. (She was the protagonist of I am Livia.) The story begins after Augustus’s defeat of Mark Antony and Cleopatra. Caesar brings back his war prizes, including the daughter of the defeated foes. Still a child, Cleopatra Selene has witnessed the deaths of her mother, father, and two older half-brothers. She fears for her own life and learns to submit meekly to whatever is required. Yet Livia promises her fair treatment in return for loyalty. Selene must make excruciating decisions about who can be trusted and to whom she owes that loyalty.

Finally, there is Julia. Augustus’s only child, a daughter by his first marriage, Julia has been raised by Livia but there is little love between them. Julia adores her father, but when she becomes old enough to be politically useful, she feels betrayed by his choices. Always searching for love and acceptance, Julia falls farther and farther away from her family’s protective embrace.

Smith has a knack for delving into the emotional depths of women who lead lives of turmoil during times of intense historical significance. Using the lives of these women as a framework, she is able to present a great deal of finely researched, complex history, without making it seem like a history lesson. The imperfect women are presented with empathy and understanding that compels the reader to care what happens to them. I highly recommend Smith’s work. Those who love novels of Ancient Rome should add these to their to-be-read lists. And for those who are not yet intrigued by Ancient Rome, try these and you will be!

Thursday, February 25, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: At the Edge of the Orchard by Tracy Chevalier

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

I’m a latecomer to Tracy Chevalier’s novels, but I’m going to work my way back through them now that I’ve started with her newest, At the Edge of the Orchard, to be released March 15.

At the novel’s opening, Robert Goodenough is a sensitive, serious, nine-year-old boy, growing up in a failing apple orchard in Black Swamp, Ohio, in the mid-nineteenth century. His father is a "tree man," devoted to growing a particular variety of golden sweet apples. His mother is a drunk. Selfish, lazy, and possibly mentally ill, Sadie Goodenough is abusive to her children and to her husband. With an inflated opinion of her own charms, she is not above flirting with the itinerant tree salesman (Johnny Appleseed) or dallying with strangers at camp meetings. Sadie is a horrifying character, and the reader’s pity for her children takes a turn when the setting abruptly changes. It is years later, and the grown-up Robert is found in California after a lifetime of wandering during which he attempting ranching, gold-mining, and petty thievery. He finds his niche when hunting down a rumored grove of massive trees, the Giant Sequoias. Awed by the grove and disturbed by its transformation into a tourist trap, Robert meets a like-minded tree man and botanist, William Lobb, an Englishman collecting seeds and seedlings to send home to a nursery in England. Robert links up with the man and settles in to a job that suits him perfectly.

One would like to think this new career would help soothe Robert’s restlessness, but there is still the question of what drove him from Black Swamp all those years ago. Robert does not dwell on the past, but it’s clear he’s avoiding something. Because of it, he avoids entanglements with people, particularly women. All that is about to change, when his past finds him.

This book shows the beauty of nature and contrasts it with the harsh realities facing early settlers on the westward moving frontier. The characters are well drawn but somewhat distant, appropriate to the narrative. The detailed descriptions of daily life and work make this a fascinating historical novel.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

The buzz for The Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante snuck up on me. I don’t know when I first caught the name or heard the suggestion that these books were should-reads, but all of a sudden, they are everywhere. There are four of them, and they seemed to burst on the scene simultaneously. I think that has something to do with them being Italian novels that were more recently translated and released in English, so a large following was already there. However, no matter how it happened, I felt I had to hurry up and get started because I was already behind.

Elena Ferrante is a pen name for a an acclaimed Italian author whose real name is kept secret. Her novels have all been translated by Ann Goldstein. Often when I read a translation of something contemporary I feel like the prose is a bit clunky. That is not the case in this first novel of the series: My Brilliant Friend.

These novels follow the intense friendship of two women living in Naples in the 1950s and 60s. It didn’t sound like something I would necessarily be interested in, but I couldn’t ignore the hype. (The New York Times Book Review called Ferrante "one of the great novelists of our time.") So I started with book 1.

My Brilliant Friend begins with Elena Greco, now middle-aged, receiving word that her best friend, Lila, has disappeared. The disappearance is total. Clothes, personal belongings, photographs, everything that bore witness to her existence is gone. Elena knows this erasure of life is intentional on Lila’s part.

Elena pushes back, in part from resentment, in part from love, in part from exasperation. She decides to recreate Lila’s existence by telling their story. The two lives are so intricately interwoven that you couldn’t tell the story of one without the other. So she begins.

This first novel recounts their childhood, growing up in the midst of poverty, violence, and traditional expectations for men’s and women’s roles. Elena, exceptionally smart, is a timid, well-behaved child who loves the attention she gets from being good and smart. Lila is rebellious, sullen, and a trouble-maker. But Lila is brilliant. And determined. No one stands in Lila’s way.

Elena suffers from always being second best, or believing herself to be second. She spends her childhood and teenage years competing with her friend and finding herself pushed away and pulled back close. She has a lot of insight into her own psychology, perhaps because it is her older self telling the story, but she only ever catches glimpses of what Lila might be thinking. Yet these glimpses, and Lila’s actions, give us a picture of her that is as complex and sympathetic as the one Elena paints of herself.

I’m not sure what makes this novel as fascinating as it is, but I could not put it down. These characters are extraordinarily compelling, even if what they are doing is nothing earth-shattering. They are simply living their lives as best they can in difficult situations. Yet Ferrante is able to insert us into their stories so completely that we can feel what they are going through. We turn the pages looking for the small moments of happiness and it’s addictive because the promise of finding the key to a more permanent happiness is always there, but always just out of reach.

I’ll soon be reading the second book to see where life takes them next.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Dead Wake. The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson

My history/historical fiction book group is meeting this weekend. Our choice was Dead Wake by Erik Larson. I’ve been curious to read this author so I was pleased with the pick.

Dead Wake is the story of the sinking of the Lusitania on May 7, 1915 by a German U-boat. Meticulously researched and reported in an organized, detailed fashion, the book sets the tragedy in historical context. By switching focus between the captains of the ship and the U-boat, interspersed with personal stories of passengers (survivors and victims), the narrative is humanized. Larson provides a good deal of backstory, yet the pace doesn’t lag. The sense of impending doom hangs over the first parts and, when the torpedo does hit the boat, the account is riveting and horrifying.

Much of the subtext of the story is exploring how much British Intelligence knew and, ultimately, how complicit they were in allowing the Germans to fire upon this enormous, celebrity ocean liner. The British were growing desperate for American intervention in the war. It would seem they possessed the means to prevent the deaths of more than 1000 civilians, but instead left things to chance–or even deliberately helped increase the likelihood of attack.

The more I read about WWI, the better I understand the enormity of the tragedy. Dead Wake presents yet another piece of the story and demonstrates again the evils of war.

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.