Thursday, July 29, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Raphael: Painter in Rome by Stephanie Storey

Earlier this year I read and loved Stephanie Storey’s Oil and Marble: A Novel of Leonardo and Michelangelo. I’ve been waiting to dive into her newest book, Raphael: Painter in Rome. Again, Storey brings Renaissance Italy alive through its art and artists. 

Raphael is a handsome, exceedingly charming young man from Urbino, whose life’s ambition is to be known as the world’s greatest painter. He wants to achieve nothing less than perfection. (These ambitions were instilled in him by his father, also a painter.) To achieve these ends, Raphael knows he must make his way to Rome and paint for the pope.

The Vatican in particular and Rome in general are hotbeds of political intrigue. Raphael is told time and again that he’s too nice for Rome. The lovely thing about this novel is that Raphael actually is nice. He succeeds because of it, not in spite of it, sometimes accidentally, sometimes from sheer dumb luck, and mostly because of his talent.

The book is told in Raphael’s voice and he is the only narrator. Although his rivalry with Michelangelo is every bit as tense and competitive as was Leonardo’s, in this novel we don’t get to see the world from both points of view. Raphael’s is the one that matters. He’s tired of being a peripheral figure in Michelangelo’s world and this is his chance to tell his side of things.

Raphael’s voice is witty, youthful, clever, a little bit smarmy—he comes across as every bit the courtier he’s known to be. He is inherently honest, a rare trait for a man in Rome, but learns to lie when necessary. He’s ambitious, but doesn’t let ambition ruin him, choosing to do the right thing even when it means thwarting his own aims.

The novel deals with the politics of the times only through the lens of how it affects the art, in particular the competition between Raphael and Michelangelo. The pope, a true patron of the arts for all his other, numerous flaws, decides that by making them competitors, he can wring the best work out of both. The competition makes for an exciting narrative. But it’s Rafael’s personal journey, independent of Michelangelo, that makes this a beautiful novel.

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Waterloo: The History of Four Days, Three Armies, and Three Battles by Bernard Cornwell

Despite being an avid historical fiction fan, I’ve never read a novel by Bernard Cornwell. Instead, when I decided it was time for me to learn some factual information about the Battle of Waterloo, I turned to Cornwell’s account: Waterloo: The History of Four Days, Three Armies, and Three Battles.

This is a wonderful explanation of the battle. It provides just enough lead-up to orient the reader, then gives a fascinating description of what took place over those four days (with the caveats that some details are unknowable.) While clearly favoring the Duke of Wellington and the British forces, Cornwell also pays attention to the Prussians under Blucher and, of course, Napoleon and his French armies. We learn about numerous commanders and the roles they played. We also learn about the heroics of common soldiers and the enormity of the tragedy. Although I’d known it was a huge battle with great losses on both sides, I hadn’t really grasped how huge, or how near the allied (British and Prussian) forces came to defeat. Even though the outcome is known, (spoiler alert: Napoleon loses!) the book is gripping.

There is a fair amount of repetitiveness in the writing. In some places, I felt it bogged down the narrative, but then again, in other places I was glad for the reminders as the scenes shifted from one part of the battle to another. I decided the repetitiveness helped for overall clarity. I came away with a much better appreciation for what took place.

Monday, July 26, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: In the Cafe of Lost Youth by Patrick Modiano

 I saw this post: French Books You Can Read in One Sitting at the Readerbuzz blog and, having read half of them at one time or another, decided to tackle one that was new to me. 

In the Café of Lost Youth by Patrick Modiano (translated by Chris Clarke) is a lovely, sad novella that can be read for the beauty of the language and the intriguing structure and characters. I was pulled into it by the dream-like voice which continued on, with slight variation, through four different narrators. Their identities aren’t really important, except perhaps for Jacqueline (a.k.a. Louki), the female character at the center of the story. The others all tell of their fascination with the mysterious girl. When she speaks, relating her backstory, there is a frankness to it that should dispel the mystery, but doesn’t. It’s almost as if she doesn’t exist, despite drawing the attention of all the men she drifts near.

I’m not a huge fan of literature dealing with alienation. There is a hopelessness to those stories that seems melodramatic and a distance that keeps me from caring too much about the characters. (That distance is largely the point, but still.) Nevertheless, this book is touching and beautifully sorrowful. Of course it is. It’s French!

Saturday, July 24, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: The Duke Who Loved Me by Jane Ashford

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

Jane Ashford’s newest Regency Romance looks to be the start of a new series. The Duke Who Loved Me is a pleasant romance, but more enjoyable for its side characters, the four young debutantes who are befriended by the heroine, than for the courting couple.

Miss Cecelia Vainsmede is an organized young woman, beautiful and intelligent, who has been managing the financial affairs of James Cantrell, the new Duke of Tereford since he was an orphaned lad of fifteen and she was the nine-year-old daughter of his trustee. As the man was a disinterested guardian, and James needed guidance, Cecelia stepped in to fill the void. She mediated between the two men for ten years, until James reached his majority. They have been frenemies all along. However, in recent years, Cecelia has fallen for James and wishes he would see her differently.

James Cantrell has just inherited the dukedom from a great uncle whom he never really knew. The man was a recluse. When James enters the London townhouse, he learns the man was also a hoarder. The mess is unmanageable. At least, for him. James is fairly good-hearted, but his only concerns are trivial ones: his own comfort and presenting himself to the ton as a handsome, fashionable sportsman. He prides himself on his boxing ability. He’s self-centered and, frankly, not too bright. It isn’t entirely clear what Cecelia sees in him, except for his good looks, their long acquaintance, and the fact that he has been kind to her sometimes in the past.

Cecelia is no longer a debutante. In fact, she’s in danger of ending up “on the shelf.” She’s had proposals in the past, but turned them down, waiting for love. Waiting for James. Things change abruptly when he inherits the new estate and is suddenly weighted down with responsibilities he doesn’t want. It dawns on him that, seeing as he needs a wife and hates that all the ambitious mothers are pushing daughters at him, he can kill two birds with one stone by marrying Cecelia and having her take over the management of his problems. He proposes about as romantically as that and is stunned when she refuses.

Cecelia decides to move on. A handsome, charming-if-somewhat-oily German prince is visiting London. He begins to pay particular attention to Cecelia. This awakes all of James’ competitive spirit and he tries to court her more earnestly. Things go disastrously awry.

James has a need for a very steep growth curve and, for the most part, the novel succeeds in growing him into a worthy husband for Cecelia. Still, it seemed the poor heroine deserved better than either of her two suitors. 

The commentary provided by Cecelia’s four new friends, who have embarked on their first Season and don’t like what they find, adds insight and some humor to the story. I like this author and will likely continue with the series, even though this book was not a favorite.

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: All's Well by Mona Awad

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

Magical realism is my least favorite genre. However, I’m occasionally intrigued enough by a blurb for a story to give one of these novels a try. All’s Well by Mona Awad had an interesting premise, so I requested it. I found it impossible to put down.

Miranda Fitch is the unfortunate protagonist. A young woman, once an up-and-coming stage actress, Miranda suffered a fall during a performance of Macbeth which has left her with severe, debilitating, chronic pain. She has tried everything: surgery, physical therapy, acupuncture, massage, psychiatry, and large doses of pain killers and muscle relaxants. Nothing helps. Suffering destroyed her career and her marriage. It has aged her beyond her years.

When it first became apparent that Miranda could not return to the stage, her husband urged her to apply for a teaching job in a small theater program at a local college. She was hired and has, for a few years, directed the annual student Shakespeare play. This year, she intends to direct All’s Well That Ends Well, a play she once starred in and remains obsessed with. However, the students, particularly the spoiled and minimally talented female leader of the theater group, Briana, want to put on Macbeth. Since Briana’s parents are the main financial supporters of the college’s theater program, Miranda finds herself backed into a corner by the administration.

So far, the novel hasn’t strayed from contemporary realistic fiction. It presents a horrifying picture of chronic pain syndromes. In particular, it demonstrates how chronic pain is poorly understood and how female pain, in particular, is perceived as not quite real. Because the myriad physicians and therapists Miranda sees are unable to find an anatomic reason for her pain, they are dismissive of it. Or are they? They continue to treat her to the best of their ability. However, they grow impatient with her and frustrated by her. Maybe they do believe her, but they can’t help her.

It’s not surprising that Miranda is unpleasant to be around. It’s understandable that she is so miserable that she spreads misery. I wanted to mentally distance myself from her, so I can imagine how her fictional friends, colleagues, and students wanted to avoid her. I found myself growing anxious, knowing that accidents happen and chronic pain can strike anyone. Yikes! Awad does a wonderful job of showing Miranda suffering the throes of pain and loneliness.

Then, things get weird. She meets three strange men, witches of a sort, in a bar. They seem, somehow, to know all about her. They offer her a drink, an elixir, that puts her into a dreamlike state, and they explain that pain can move. From person to person. Miranda discovers she can alleviate her pain by transferring it to others. And, naturally, there are people whom Miranda would like to see suffer.

Miranda is transformed from a suffering, somewhat unpleasant, but generally good person, to a giddy-with-health, sexy, playful, absolutely horrible person.

The magical, otherworldly part of this novel fits right in with its Shakespearean themes. Even though it’s weird, I was drawn into the weirdness. Miranda is such a believable character, that even when the world around her spirals out of control, even when she seems lost in other-worldliness, the story remains grounded in her struggle against what pain had done to her. Even though it’s in the magical realism genre, I was wowed by this thought-provoking book.

Sunday, July 18, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: The Strange Case of Eliza Doolittle by Timothy Miller

 The Strange Case of Eliza Doolittle by Timothy Miller is a delightful mash-up of Victorian literature.

Colonel Pickering (of Pygmalion or My Fair Lady fame) is concerned about the young protegee Eliza Doolittle of his friend Professor Henry Higgins. Higgins took a pretty flower-seller from the streets of London into his home and, upon a wager with Pickering, set about turning her into a proper lady by teaching her to speak the queen’s English. Higgins has been so wildly successful (or Eliza has) that she seems a different girl altogether. Perhaps even a duchess or princess. Thus far, the story is a familiar one. However in this novel, Pickering is afraid she is a different girl altogether and the original Eliza may have come to harm.

What else is Pickering to do, but call upon on old army friend, Dr. Watson, to see if Watson knows anything about the famous detective Sherlock Holmes. Is he still working? Can he be found?

Watson and Holmes have long since retired. They are old men now. Holmes has taken up bee-keeping in the country. But Watson is intrigued by Pickering’s story. He writes to Holmes, who invites the men to his home, then takes the case.

Holmes has aged. His mental acuity is perhaps not as sharp as it once was. Or, perhaps this case is more difficult than any he has encountered before. Still, he’s determined to solve it. He adopts the persona of a shady American businessman who has come to see Higgins for elocution lessons. Watson is his personal secretary. They begin to investigate.

I was intrigued by the premise. After all, the Pygmalion story is far-fetched on its surface. And it’s possible Sherlock Holmes could put a new spin on the tale. But the author has more in store for the reader than this. The title of the book should have been a clue. He also incorporates the horror story Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde into the mix.

There is a lot going on in the story but the author manages to make it all work. This is largely due to the wonderful, convincing voice of Watson as narrator and the skill with which the author immerses us in early twentieth-century London. A general familiarity with the three main stories will increase the reader’s enjoyment, but you don’t have to be a Holmes fanatic to get the references.

Friday, July 16, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: The Master of Measham Hall by Anna Abney

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

The Master of Measham Hall by Anna Abney is a newly-released historical novel set in England during the Restoration. (The novel starts in 1665.)

The heroine is a young Catholic gentlewoman, Alethea, sent to London by her stepmother to serve as a a companion to another family. Mainly, the stepmother wanted to be rid of her so her own children would be heirs. Alethea’s beloved older brother, William, had been exiled to France after he killed a man in a duel. Her father is a distant figure. Alethea is quite alone.

In these difficult times (religious persecution and plague), Alethea has to downplay or hide her Catholicism, a fact that doesn’t bother her except when she thinks of her devout, deceased mother.

The woman Alethea is staying with in London (Lady Culverton) takes against her when the man of the house (Lord Culverton) seems to be taking too much interest in her. Alethea is sent off on a fool’s errand while the rest of the household escapes to the countryside to get away from the plague. Clearly, the woman intended Alethea would die. She does not.

Instead, she decides to walk back home to her family estate, Measham Hall, convinced her father, at least, will welcome her.

It’s not a very safe plan and she is almost instantly attacked, but she is rescued by a lowborn, independent-minded man named Jack, who is also walking away from London. They end up in the forest, taken in by a small group of religious dissenters. Alethea adapts quickly, dropping her religion in exchange for theirs, primarily because of their charismatic leader, Samuel.

When this life is disrupted, she begins her trek home anew, this time accompanied by one of the young women from the group. Along the way, Alethea learns her entire nuclear family died from the plague except William, who is still missing. She decides that rather than present herself at the estate, she will impersonate her missing brother, in order to avoid being shunted aside by more distant relatives eager to claim the property.

The novel presents the debates over religion in the Restoration period in an interesting way, allowing Alethea to adopt different beliefs as she goes along, internally and sometimes externally debating the issues. However, in religion, as in pretty much all aspects of her life, Alethea is fickle, adopting whatever beliefs and actions are most convenient at the time, allowing her to get what she wants. She doesn’t have strong convictions and her main moral guide seems to be Machiavelli, whose teachings she reads about in a book gifted to her by Lord Culverton.

Alethea is a sympathetic character at first. She is kind and means well but is almost painfully naive in the ways of the world and suffers for it. However, over time, she learns how the world works and is happy to shed principles in order to arrange things to her liking. She becomes less and less likeable as the story progresses. It’s interesting to watch her transformation and the novel is satisfying as a character study, even though the plot is a bit slow and, in parts, a bit far-fetched. 

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: The Most Hated Man in Kentucky: The Lost Cause and the Legacy of Union General Stephen Burbridge by Brad Asher

 History buffs, particularly readers interested in the U.S. Civil War, Kentucky history, or “Lost Cause-ism,” should put Brad Asher’s latest book, The Most Hated Man in Kentucky: The Lost Cause and the Legacy of Union General Stephen Burbridge on their reading lists.

This newly-released biography of Kentuckian Stephen Burbridge primarily focuses on the 11 months (March 1864-February 1865) when Burbridge was the military commander of Kentucky. Ambitious and fervently Unionist, Burbridge had the unenviable task of shepherding the state through a period of enlistment of Black soldiers into the Union Army. Asher makes a compelling case that it was the commander’s willingness to enlist slaves, a process that resulted in their emancipation and sounded the death-knell for the continuation of slavery in the state, that earned him the enmity of white Kentuckians, whether they be Confederate sympathizers or Unionists.

Burbridge had a storied career that included varying degrees of success as a soldier and commander, followed by the near-impossible tasks of 1) recruiting enough Kentucky soldiers to serve the war effort AND protect the state from Confederate raiders and guerillas, and 2) navigating the wartime and post-war politics of the divided loyalties of Kentuckians. These included those fully committed to the Union cause and those only nominally committed, so long as there was no Federal interference with their “right” to own other human beings. To that mix, one must throw in Confederates returning to the state following the war and swaying the sympathies of the state to the Lost Cause of the South. This succeeded to the extent that, even today, many people have a hard time believing that Kentucky was not part of the Confederacy.

Burbridge, whose zeal for the cause of the winning side should logically have seen him rewarded with post-war political appointments, instead became such a lightning rod for Kentuckians’ anger at the war’s outcome (emancipation) that he became a pariah. He spent the remainder of his life exiled from his home and regarded as the state’s most hated man.

This meticulously researched, readable, scholarly work brings to light a little-remembered Civil War Union leader—little remembered outside of Kentucky, at least—and, through the lens of his life, examines broader issues of historical memory and the enduring myths of the Lost Cause.

Full-disclosure: the author of this superb biography is my brilliant husband! That didn’t influence this review (but it’s the reason I read the book!)

Sunday, July 11, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: A Comedy of Terrors by Lindsey Davis

 I received this book free from Netgalley. That did not influence this review.

The Comedy of Terrors by Lindsey Davis is the 9th book in the Flavia Albia series, historical mysteries set in Ancient Rome. I’ve been following Albia since book one, The Ides of April, and followed her informer/detective adoptive father, Falco, throughout his 20-book career. So, I’m obviously hooked on Davis’ novels.

The current book is set during Saturnalia, party time in Rome, which is currently under the rule of Emperor Domitian. Albia is looking for work, but discouraged by the holiday break in family discord, which is where she generally finds clients. Her husband, Tiberius Manlius, a soon-to-be retired aedile is still searching out small-time corruption occurring on his watch. However, he stumbles onto dangerous large scale, mob-type criminal behavior by investigating holiday nuts gone bad. Someone is muscling in on the nut trade, making a profit selling rotten product. Needless to say, the threat is bigger than bad nuts.

Albia manages to scrounge up a client, a woman whose husband is allegedly straying, and tackles the investigation while simultaneously attempting to provide a holiday atmosphere for her disorganized household, which now includes Tiberius’ two young recently orphaned nephews. 

The novel is a little slow to start, but that’s because the groundwork must be laid for the interconnecting plot lines. Albia’s trademark cynical observations and snarky wisecracks give the story its familiar voice, but at times, I wanted the mystery to move along a little faster. When it does kick in though, the pace picks up and clues come fast and furious. Albia is a brave and smart investigator and her husband is a reliable sidekick. 

The author manages to bring all the various threads together to solve the mysteries and dispense justice. There are even satisfying glimpses of the old crowd (Falco, Petro, Helena) for nostalgia purposes. The series continues to entertain.

Monday, July 5, 2021

BOOK REVIEW: Man of the World by Layne Maheu

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

Man of the World by Layne Maheu tells a story of the early days of aviation when airplanes were experimental, exciting, and dangerous. In these heady optimistic times, many intrepid investors and adventurers were determined to make it possible for people to fly.

The hero of the novel is Hubert Latham, a restless adventurer who finds a focus for his ambition in piloting a French-designed plane, financed in part by the father of the woman with whom he is hopelessly in love. The woman, Antoinette, loves Latham in return, but she’s married with a toddler son. It’s a little unclear why she married someone else, but it may have been that their families were against the match, though that’s also unexplained since the families had been friendly, vacationed together, and seemed to have been of the same social class. 

A second main character is Auguste, a young man who leaves his father’s farm and the deaf girl he loves in order to follow Latham and his crew. They have taken him on as a mechanic, but he seems to be more of a mascot. They’ve named him “Potato,” half mockingly and half affectionately. He narrates some of the activity surrounding the attempts to take to the air–particularly the attempts to be the first to cross the Channel from Calais to Dover. 

Auguste is aware that Latham is infatuated with Antoinette (after whom the successive planes made by their investment group are named) but he isn’t really privy to their meetings or secret exchanges. His observations of things are always somewhat superficial and bewildered.

The scenes describing the fledgling flights are interesting and Latham’s struggles are heroic. But much of the book is bogged down in long passages where nothing really happens. One of the observers, César, a friend of Latham’s, is given to lengthy philosophical musing. The scenes between Latham and Antoinette are murky and strained. Potato’s guilelessness works to introduce him to this group, but as the story progresses, his presence distracts from the action. Overall, the story has great potential but is so diffused that the pace slowed to a crawl and the plot fizzled to its end.