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.