So much fun! I picked this out to read on a train because I was struggling to concentrate on anything 'heavier', and although I wasn't expecting much...moreSo much fun! I picked this out to read on a train because I was struggling to concentrate on anything 'heavier', and although I wasn't expecting much from it, I found it immensely enjoyable. I really liked the first couple of books in Quinn's Empress of Rome series, but found the third dull: this one reminded me what I enjoyed so much about those first two. It also confirmed my suspicion (also discussed in my review of Karen Maitland's The Vanishing Witch) that I'd rather read unashamedly trashy historical fiction than the type that tries to be serious and falls flat due to lack of research/authenticity. With a book like this, you don't really care if the characters (for example) use modern figures of speech, or if Italians in the 15th century use puns that only work in English, because it's just like watching a highly entertaining historical soap opera.
The Serpent and the Pearl follows a tried and tested formula: it's loosely based on real events (here the rise of the Borgias in 15th-century Italy), it uses a variety of narrative voices (Giulia Farnese, the mistress of Rodrigo Borgia; Leonello, a dwarf who becomes her bodyguard; Carmelina, a cook in the Borgia household) and it is packed with twists and moments of suspense, usually at the end of a chapter. Quinn is great at writing strong, interesting female characters you can't help but like, but this perhaps isn't that unusual for a female author of this type of fiction. What she's also great at is writing men who should be completely detestable, but are somehow imbued with such charisma and magnetism that you are nevertheless drawn to them. She clearly knows something about the sexiness of power, and how to translate that to the page: her male characters may not be likeable, but they are always completely compelling. At the beginning I hated Giulia's relationship with Rodrigo, and couldn't see that changing: skip forward a few hundred pages, and I came to root for it so much that I was desperate for them to be reunited.
There are occasional flaws that do stand out, despite the enjoyability factor of the book. The characterisation can be heavy-handed at times - we know Carmelina's a cook, no need for endless references to food/recipes/Santa Marta (patron saint of cooks and servants) in every sentence. And unlike the Rome books - which were part of a series, but each worked fine as standalone novels - this is a very open-ended 'to be continued' sort of story, and you need to read the next one to find out what becomes of the characters. Which means I have to read the next one at some point... because dammit, I really want to know what happens. However, this also means the chapters become a bit repetitive towards the end as the author stretches out the story, building up to a cliffhanger ending.
The Serpent and the Pearl left me with the same indulgent feeling of satisfaction as eating a bag of donuts or binge-watching a whole TV series. I'd recommend it to anyone who's enjoyed Quinn's Rome books, and to fans of Karen Maitland, Kate Furnivall, Robert Harris's Cicero novels, etc. (less)
I had absolutely no intention of reading this - McEwan is not a writer whose past books have impressed me as much I expected them to (I've read Enduri...moreI had absolutely no intention of reading this - McEwan is not a writer whose past books have impressed me as much I expected them to (I've read Enduring Love, Amsterdam and On Chesil Beach and rated them all averagely). I just started reading a preview to see what it was like, and was so swept up in the narrative I had to continue reading the book.
This is a simple, short, elegant novel about a female judge, Fiona Maye, who is called on to make a quick decision in an urgent case: she must decide whether a seventeen-year-old boy should be forced to have a blood transfusion that will save his life. The boy, Adam, and his parents are Jehovah's Witnesses, and have thus far refused the treatment, although Adam, being a few months off his eighteenth birthday, is technically still a child and so Fiona has the power to overrule their decision. At exactly the same time, Fiona's husband, Jack, asks her permission for him to be able to have an affair with a younger colleague (a dilemma identical to the one faced by the protagonist of Siri Hustvedt's The Summer Without Men). In five parts, The Children Act explores the consequences of the decisions Fiona makes in both situations.
Many of the events on which the story focuses - (view spoiler)[Fiona's decision to force Adam to have treatment; Fiona and Jack's reconciliation; Adam's death/suicide (hide spoiler)] - are either easy to predict, or obviously signposted. I didn't find anything in the plot surprising, but I did find the book elegantly written, compelling and perfectly paced. I thought the parallels between the court case and the affair question were obvious, but that isn't the same thing as thinking they were heavy-handed. In fact, I found McEwan's handling of both the case and Fiona's marriage very well-balanced. In both cases, both sides are represented well; nobody comes off as necessarily wrong.
I know the portrayal of religion has been an issue for many other readers, that much is evident from scanning the reviews here, but I can't personally say that I found anything about that aspect of the story problematic. It seemed evident that the religious issues discussed were intended to apply only to the characters in the story; I didn't really feel the author was trying to make any wider points about religion. In the same way, it's clear that Fiona's regret about her own childlessness is specific to this character, not that the author is implying such feelings should apply to all women. As for Adam, while many others have found him unbelievable, his character worked for me. As a naturally intelligent boy who has led a sheltered, restricted life, his combination of sarcastic wit and childlike guilelessness felt quite natural. There are, of course, moments in which the story steps outside what could be considered realistic, as when Fiona visits Adam in hospital - and there is something transcendent about all of the scenes involving music - but I really liked how these were woven into a narrative very much couched in extensively researched legal detail.
I did find one thing odd: rape is mentioned twice in this book, and both times in the context of a man being falsely accused. In one of these cases it is even said that the police didn't investigate evidence the sex was consensual because 'they had targets to meet in rape cases'. Given actual statistics about false accusations vs. successful prosecutions, this seemed like a strange inclusion to me. One case, maybe, but two in such a short book with a plot which has nothing to do with this type of crime anyway? That said, this probably stood out to me for personal reasons while, as a non-religious person, I didn't subject that element to an enormous amount of scrutiny.
I keep coming back to the word 'elegant' when considering this novel. That's how I'd describe it in a single word. I liked it far more than I would have guessed (based on both my opinion of the McEwan books I've previously read, and the idea of the story itself).["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
Way too young for me, but good fun and a nice palate-cleanser. Jackaby is a paranormal historical detective story, set in a 19th-century American port...moreWay too young for me, but good fun and a nice palate-cleanser. Jackaby is a paranormal historical detective story, set in a 19th-century American port where a runaway English girl, Abigail Rook, meets an eccentric investigator, R.F. Jackaby. The much-quoted claim that this is 'Doctor Who meets Sherlock' is actually pretty accurate, and the author's grasp of witty, quick-fire dialogue is excellent. The characters and their interaction are by far the most interesting bits; the paranormal stuff is a bit pedestrian, and my eyes glazed over during a few of the action scenes, but then, I am not the audience for this book. With a strong and funny heroine/narrator and a plot that focuses much more on friendship and adventure than romance (thankfully there is no romantic relationship between the two leads), I wouldn't hesitate to enthusiastically recommend this to younger readers.(less)