I give this three stars because the author really nailed the language of the 18th century, at least from what I can tell of Fanny Burney and Henry Fie...moreI give this three stars because the author really nailed the language of the 18th century, at least from what I can tell of Fanny Burney and Henry Fielding. But the characters were lamentably wooden, particularly the main couple, a young nobleman and the wellborn girl who inexplicably (in an age when the appearance of maidenly virtue was vital to one's prospects) embarks on an affair with him. The story is apparently based on a true story (Alexander Pope, one of the characters, based a famous poem, "The rape of the Lock" on it) and the author seems not to have had a clue on what motivated the protagonists. She tries, but it just doesn't come off. Lord Petre (I listened to this book on CD and unfortunately every time I heard that name I thought of Dorothy Sayers' detective) is also involved in a plot to bring back one of the Jacobean pretenders to the throne, and his feelings about that are so lukewarm it's puzzling that he would risk his life and money for it.
I could go on with more criticism, but it's not worth it. I'll just say that as an English major and history aficionado I found the description of events, particularly relating to Alexander Pope, interesting, but didn't warm to the people at all. (less)
I am in awe of writers who can create a vast array of characters, each with their own distinctive stories, voices and personalities. Tolstoy is one of...moreI am in awe of writers who can create a vast array of characters, each with their own distinctive stories, voices and personalities. Tolstoy is one of these; Amitav Ghosh proves to be another. A cornucopia of personalities inhabit these pages, but each is so distinctive and instantly recognizable that it is no problem to jump from one to the next.
Set in India around the time of the Opium Wars (which are lurking in the near future)"Sea of Poppies" follows ten or so "pilgrims" (as you might call them) who, due to the whims and winds of fate, find themselves on board of a ship named the Ibis, bound for the adventure of their lives. There are Indians, Chinese, French Americans, Englishmen and women, and their perspectives shine a marvelously revealing light on the different moraes and cultural habits of their era. I was particularly blown away by a particular English merchant who unblinkingly defends the business of selling opium -- and in fact, forcing it on the Chinese nation -- as a godly mission in the "holy" service of free trade and liberty. (Sound a little familiar?) You know that Ghosh had his tongue firmly in his cheek when he wrote this passage, and yet the merchant is terrifyingly realistic, with a callously blind and blinding zeal that would put Jack Abramoff to shame. You almost expect a chorus of pigs from "Animal Farm" to pop up, singing in chorus: "War is Peace!" And yet it doesn't dip into caricature.
I also loved the wonderful sense of place, the feeling of voyaging to another world and another time -- you smell the smells, feel the sensations, view the panoramas, all the time never losing sight of the wonderful cast that peoples the canvas.
I feel I am not giving a full and proper tribute to this wonderful book, so I'll just say: Read it. And review it, doing a better job than I have! (less)
**spoiler alert** Finally, finally I finished this book, all 19 CDs of it. The good things about it were that it painted a thoughtful and seemingly ac...more**spoiler alert** Finally, finally I finished this book, all 19 CDs of it. The good things about it were that it painted a thoughtful and seemingly accurate picture of Spain after the Civil War. (I found it particularly interesting because as a child I lived in Spain for a number of months when Franco was still in power and I can attest that even then people were scared and resentful of him.) Samson is a decent writer who put together a fairly interesting plot with a more than exciting climax, though the aftermath of that was a let down, even if fairly realistic.
Now the things I didn't like:
Although a decent writer, Sansom is far from great and he's never met an adjective he didn't like. Had I been reading this novel rather than listening to it, I probably wouldn't have been able to prevent myself from jotting down the many times he used two synonymous adjectives or even adverbs to modify one noun or verb. In America (I realize this is probably an America versus British nitpick) writers are told to avoid adjectives/adverbs if at all possible, and while I don't hold with that, Sansom's really excessive use of them drove me crazy and made the prose feel turgid. I picked up the actual book after I was done to find some specific examples but I'm afraid that after 10 pages I couldn't bring myself to keep reading, so you'll have to take my word for it or find out for yourself.
And then there's the matter of the characters. It is not a good thing when the most interesting individual in a book is the villain. The protagonists in "Winter in Madrid" are Harry Brett, a demobbed soldier who is sent to the English embassy in Madrid during World War II as a translator/spy; Barbara Clare, a British nurse who, after losing her English communist boyfriend during the civil war, ends up staying in Madrid and entering into a relationship with a public school fellow of the boyfriend; and Sandy Forsyth, the bad guy boyfriend, who is trying to set up some business ventures with the Franco regime. There is also Sofia, the young Spanish woman Harry falls in love with. The problem is that Harry, Barbara and Sofia are so noble and proper that I found them incredibly boring. Harry in particular was such an honorable wuss that I longed for him to swear or get drunk or do something selfish, just to prove he was human. Barbara strengthened as she went along but she too was pretty one-dimensional. And Sofia was the clichéd romantic interest, brave and loyal and keeping her starving family together by dint of (you guessed it) noble effort. Oh, and I forgot Bernie Piper, the communist boyfriend who turns out not to be dead but in a prison camp. He had a bit more fizz than the honorable crew trying to rescue him, but that's a low standard. Sandy, a boy who hated his hidebound, judgemental clergyman of the father, is a guy who's completely out for himself, yet the author gives him a few redeeming characteristics and he certainly is the most three-dimensional and vital.
So basically the book, dwelling on these people as it does, drags. The action turns on the dual stories of Harry trying to find out whether Sandy is developing a gold mine which will enrich the falangists and facilitate the Spanish entry into the war, and Barbara trying to get Bernie out of his camp. Neither plot line seemed highly compelling to me. I knew Franco didn't get into the war, and I didn't really care whether Bernie was rescued. I was curious, and I did find the ending much more exciting than the rest, but when you don't have an investment in the characters it's hard to care about the book.
One last thing: there was a great deal of breastbeating (on Harry's part) about the fact that he was a spy and thus lying to Sandy and particularly Barbara for much of the book. There was also much blame dished out from Barbara when she found out. Okay, I understand the feelings; I understand that spying can be a dirty business; we've all read John le Carre, etc. etc. However, I was surprised that honorable Harry never made the point that it WAS kind of important to keep Franco out of the war, and that perhaps breaking some eggs in the service of this goal might not be the very worse sin anybody had ever committed.
In sum, I found the history of the period interesting, and certainly Sansom's storytelling and writing and even character skills are far above, say, Danielle Steel's, but he really could've used a better editor.
I enjoyed this book, though I didn't adore it, because the main story, about a specialist in restoring old books (such as the Haggadah in this one) is...moreI enjoyed this book, though I didn't adore it, because the main story, about a specialist in restoring old books (such as the Haggadah in this one) is constantly being interrupted to give us backstories of the various people who contributed to preserving the Haggaddah over the centuries, which I found distracting. I wanted to stay with the main character. But I did find it informative, even though I gather it was all made up. It gave me a sense of history, what might have happened. I learned a lot.(less)
A thoroughly engrossing and fascinating read. I'm a sucker for books that resolve mysteries that happened in the past, but I give kudos to Lippman for...moreA thoroughly engrossing and fascinating read. I'm a sucker for books that resolve mysteries that happened in the past, but I give kudos to Lippman for making the past and present intertwine so seamlessly, and for ceating suspense that makes the events seem as if they happened yesterday. I was also impressed by what a good writer and psychologist she was, able to get into multiple heads and create multiple rounded characters. There's a depth to her writing that made it feel different from a lot of mysteries, that says: what is happening isn't just a who-dunnit, it's important, it's meaningful, it's about the breakup and reassembling of lives. I had some suspicions about how it would end, but ultimately I found the denouement both suprising and satisfying. I would put this in my list of favorites.(less)
A history of the Edwardian era through World War I masquerading as a novel. Every character seems chosen to represent some aspect or group -- suffrage...moreA history of the Edwardian era through World War I masquerading as a novel. Every character seems chosen to represent some aspect or group -- suffragettes, fabians, socialists, artists, writers, war poets -- rather than for his/her intrinsic interest. And there were so many of them I found myself forgetting who they were even after 700 pages. I found the book moderately interesting as a sampling of social mores of that time but soooo disappointing novelistically after "Possession" where the characters were richly three dimensional.
I wonder what Byatt was thinking, what was in her mind when she started writing. Did she have in mind something more personal? Did she start to feel overwhelmed by her cast of characters and writing by numbers? I also wonder what the Booker Man people were thinking when they chose this as one of their finalists: can't offend Byatt, she's too big a name?(less)
**spoiler alert** This is my second book by Thomas Cook (my first was Breakheart Hill) and it says something that it took me almost three years to suf...more**spoiler alert** This is my second book by Thomas Cook (my first was Breakheart Hill) and it says something that it took me almost three years to sufficiently recover from that one to re-engage with this author. Thomas H. Cook is not a cheery fellow. His protagonists are almost all bitter, disappointed, wasted people, bowed half flat with guilt and rage. A sort of fated misery seems to hang over them (and by implication, all mankind) and from the first you feel you are in a frozen tundra of a universe where the cold wind howls and the soul shrivels and there is not a damned thing you can do about it.
And yet he is such a stylist, such a psychologist, and such a master plotter that I ended up being swept up (and shredded by) this one just like I was the last time. Partly it's the deft hand Cook has with his characters; partly it's the Mephistophelean way he has of unpacking his box -- always, so far, a winding circuitous journey into the past, dipping, feinting, intermingling past and present, juxtaposing cold investigation with agonizing, nails-on-the-blackboard emotions. And I have to say that for all my confidence that I had guessed the outcome, I wasn't even close.
Definitely not for everybody. Not even for me, always. But absolutely incandescent on the right day. (less)