Saturday, November 24, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: The Splendor before the Dark by Margaret George

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

It’s closing in on two years since I read Margaret George’s superb historical novel of the formative years of Emperor Nero: The Confessions of Young Nero. Her follow-up book, The Splendor before the Dark has been recently released. Details from the first book are fuzzy in my mind, but the characters come alive again in this novel which could be read as a stand-alone.

Nero has now been Emperor of Rome for ten years. Married to his great love, the renowned beauty Poppaea, Nero rules supreme, paying the barest of lip service to the Senate, employing a competent civil service of freedmen and spies to keep the empire running. He is a good administrator, but prefers spending his time with Rome’s literary elite and in training for racing his own chariot, pursuits considered beneath the dignity of his office.

The book opens on the eve of the great fire (the one where he gained his reputation for fiddling while Rome burned.) In fact, he had been out of the city (performing on his cithara) when he got word of the fire and raced back. In this novel, he throws himself into the firefighting efforts, risking his own safety, demonstrating a great deal of concern for the poor and common people. It was a little difficult overcoming a learned bias against Nero to buy into this heroic image but I pushed on through to see the aftermath of the fire.

Much of the city is destroyed, giving Nero an opportunity to rebuild Rome according to his own wishes. Some of his plans are good for the city and its inhabitants, like widening the streets and forbidding wooden overhangs that are fire hazards. But his main project, a huge new home for himself with fountains, parks, and a massive room with a revolving removable ceiling, was simply a monument to his own ego – as well as being a drain on the treasury.

Nero was popular with the people of Rome. He was generous with bread and circuses and, at times, opened parts of his palace for the people to view. But a broad swath of the senators and leaders saw him as a tyrant. There was considerable unrest in the aftermath of the fire with rumors sprouting that he had been responsible for it to clear the real estate he coveted. Disturbed by the rumors, Nero, who believed the fire had been accidental, started looking about for a scapegoat. He embraced the idea that it had been the Christians, coming to believe it himself, and began a large-scale persecution.

When a plot arose to assassinate him, something of a tradition in ancient Rome, particularly among Nero’s family, he was warned just on time. The plotters were executed or allowed to commit suicide and the confiscation of their property helped to refill the treasury so that Nero’s building binge could continue.

George is able to take the reader inside Nero’s head. He is a mass of contradictions: completely confident of his right to have whatever he wants, whenever he wants, certain in his decisions, and yet, wounded by criticism of others and given to moments of self-reflection. After which, he manages to conclude that he is right and others are wrong.

Nero’s reputation has been rehabilitated to some degree by recent scholars and George paints a balanced picture of a ruler with positive as well as negative traits. Rome did enjoy a period of peace under his reign, before the empire started unraveling at its seams. He did patronize the arts and inspired architectural and engineering feats in pursuit of his goals. And yet, it’s hard to embrace Nero as a great man when he is such a megalomaniac. He was nowhere near as great and beloved as he believed himself to be. I’m not sure if I’m meant to pity him when the inevitable downfall occurs, but I don’t.

Margaret George’s historical fiction is well-researched and vividly detailed. These two novels of Nero are highly recommended.

Thursday, November 22, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: Earl to the Rescue by Jane Ashford

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

Interestingly, as I started to read Earl to the Rescue by Jane Ashford, I noticed it is a re-release of the 1980 novel titled Gwendeline. Whether this explains the less-steamy nature of the novel or whether the author generally prefers to shy away from more explicit sex in her books, this is a refreshingly sweet Regency Romance despite some dark undertones and a tendency toward melodrama.

Gwendeline Gregory is a recently orphaned eighteen-year-old gentlewoman whose father gambled away the family resources and whose mother’s reputation was no better. Gwendeline hardly knew her parents since they buried her away on a country estate while giving themselves over to a hedonistic lifestyle. They died in a carriage accident, leaving her with nothing.

Despite an inborn resilience and stubbornness, as well as a conspicuous beauty, Gwendeline has nothing to fall back on and she’s beginning to despair. The estate is just days from being sold off to pay creditors. Then Alex St. Audley, Earl of Merryn, pays a call.

The earl is young, wealthy, strikingly handsome, and possesses a forceful personality. He introduces himself as a friend of her parents. He’d come to take over care of the daughter of these friends, having just learned she existed. However, he was expecting a young child. He has to adapt his plans on the fly. Although Gwendeline initially resists being managed, she has no other choice. She finds herself carted off to London to be housed and brought into society by the earl’s mother.

Gwendeline adapts well to the ton. She’s beautiful, charming and intelligent. She is befriended by another debutante and hires an ex-governess to be a companion in the townhouse provided to her by the earl and a concerned group of her father’s old friends. Yet the earl’s story doesn’t quite add up. She can’t find out who these other friends are. It is shockingly unacceptable for her to be "kept" by the earl alone. And people drop references to her parents that make her aware that they were even worse than she’d realized. Most disturbingly, she is stalked by a "friend" of her mother, whose interest in her is blatantly unsavory.

All the while, the earl pops in and out of her life, always seeming to be present when she needs a helping hand, but mostly keeping his distance. She is intrigued by him, though frustrated by the suspicion he is hiding something.

Eventually, all the old secrets come to light, but not before she is abducted, twice, and rescued each time by the earl. Of course she has fallen in love with him, but doesn’t understand that he has also fallen in love with her.

Gwendeline pulls off the feat of being naive, yet smart. The earl is controlling, yet not quite arrogant. The antagonist is chilling and convincingly evil. The remaining supporting characters are entertaining. I’m glad Sourcebooks brought this novel back for Romance fans to enjoy.

Friday, November 9, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: A History of France by John Julius Norwich

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

I’ve read a couple of John Julius Norwich’s histories and although the style is rather old-fashioned, focusing on great men/great events, I’ve found them to be very useful for providing broad, sweeping, big-picture narratives.

Norwich died in June, but managed to complete his final work, a labor of love: A History of France (which is also published, I think, as France: A History: From Gaul to deGaulle.)

In just 400 pages, Norwich races through the history of France up to WWII. It’s a book for those who want to know about France but need a place to start. He works his way chronologically through the major leaders in the pre-king stage, then through the kings, then through the Napoleons, and finally through the Republics. He writes in a chatty way, interrupting himself with entertaining anecdotes (often mildly racy and essentially the only place where women enter the picture, except, of course, for Joan of Arc.) In this way, he succeeds in delivering a vast amount of information painlessly.

The Netgalley version, unfortunately, did not contain the illustrations or the bibliography, so I can’t comment on those. The bibliography would have been interesting, since Norwich doesn’t cite references as he goes and seems to be relying more on his memory than on specific sources. In fact, part of what makes the book so entertaining is that some of the unsourced anecdotes are a little vague and he admits he may not have the story exactly right. It’s like listening to an accomplished storyteller at a dinner party after a few glasses of wine, one who has most of his facts right or, at least, close enough.

The history is straightforward and surely oversimplified. This is Norwich’s interpretation after having synthesized a good deal of material over many years. He tells us who the good guys are and who the bad guys are, leaving out the nuance and controversy in order to give the reader a framework to build upon. And this framework is something I sorely need since my "big-picture" history knowledge is sadly lacking.

If you’re curious about how France came to be France, this is a great place to start.

Saturday, November 3, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: Founding Brothers. The Revolutionary Generation by Joseph J. Ellis

Founding Brothers. The Revolutionary Generation by Joseph J. Ellis is our book group’s next pick. This relatively short book examines the crucial post-Revolutionary War period when the U.S. was not at all united and was in danger of being unable to fulfill the lofty goals of the war. Having won independence from Britain, the revolutionaries were not quite sure what to do with it. Or, more accurately, each was quite certain he knew what should be done if only everyone else would just get in line.

The men treated in this work, primarily Hamilton, Burr, Jefferson, Adams, Madison, and Washington, are more usually referred to as Founding Fathers. Ellis uses the term Brothers to emphasize that rather than spreading a mature, protective, paternal wisdom over the newborn nation, these men grew up with it, squabbling all the way.

The first two chapters can be read as background to the extraordinary musical Hamilton. "Chapter One: The Duel" leads us into what the author describes as an anomalous outcome of the brothers’ squabbling: violence and death. "Chapter Two: The Dinner" had me singing The Room Where it Happens in my head. Other chapters discuss Washington’s Farewell Address (who wrote it and what a legacy it was), the collaborative efforts, infighting, and strained friendships among the men, as well as the taboo subject of slavery.

With such fascinating subject matter, the author does an admirable job of focusing each chapter around its theme. Some chapters are less interesting than others and in places he wanders too far into the weeds, but overall there is a good balance of big picture versus close detail. If you feel your historical knowledge of the time period could use a little filling in, this book is a good place to start.