I can't really judge this book on character development or plot, since I only read the kindle sample which, though much longer than typical, admittedl...moreI can't really judge this book on character development or plot, since I only read the kindle sample which, though much longer than typical, admittedly can't showcase an author's strength in these areas. What I did read, however, gave me no confidence that the author would be capable of furthering her ideas of corporate time-travel, which seem derivative of "Doomsday Book, In the Garden of Iden, or Up the Line, mashed-up uneasily with romance-y type works such as Outlander or The Time Traveler's Wife. Maybe "derivative" is being a bit hard on the author as there is nothing new under the sun, and no idea that hasn't been used before. I will say, since I have read all of these other novels, that Ridgeway's book is by far the most poorly written, with stilted, simplistic sentences larded with descriptions of flashing eyes, flaring nostrils, and dastardly cousins; it is difficult to believe that the author is a college professor, as the first chapters are written on the sixth grade level. Her historical background, too, seems very thinly researched, as if she thumbed through one of Johanna Lindsey less-inspired offerings, and caught a glimpse of the words "cravat", "earldom", and "carriage" as the pages flashed past.
So maybe I am being unfair, but the scene that made me realize that this book could not be taken seriously was Nick's mother's actions after Nick's father dies in a riding accident. It seems to me that there are several realistic ways a human being, and not an inhabitant of Romance Land, would react to witnessing such a tragedy:
1) Race to the broken body of her spouse and call for aid, even though the situation looks hopeless. 2) Stand there in shock (or secret satisfaction, depending on the state of the marriage) and do nothing at all. 3) Faint or fall into hysterics. 4) Calmly realize that her husband is dead and, with a great deal of mental and physical effort, get the people around her to move the body.
What I CANNOT imagine is the new widow PRYING OFF THE RING from the finger of the still warm corpse of her husband, strolling over to her teenage son, handing him the ring, and CURTSEYING almost down to the ground. Really, now--who would do such a thing in real life? Did the author get confused and think that her book was set in a minor caliphate in a fantastic realm? I mean, come on. Could you imagine Jane Austen writing such a scene?
I'd like my characters in what is passed off as non-genre literature to behave like real human beings. Of course, if it is a romance novel you're writing, go right ahead and compose such a silly interlude. Knock yourself out. I might even enjoy it, if I were in the mood for such a thing and knew exactly what I was getting.
My feelings might change, of course, and I might try again, which is why this is not a DNF for me. I doubt it, however. The riding-accident incident hinted of worse things to come. And if you did like it, or think that I am just being hard on the book...well, that's fine. But you might prefer Kage Baker, who died far too young, if you like this sort of genre hybrid.(less)
I read a reasonable amount of historical fiction, and I like the depiction of past eras to be gritty and even grim, in a matter-of-fact sort of way. I...moreI read a reasonable amount of historical fiction, and I like the depiction of past eras to be gritty and even grim, in a matter-of-fact sort of way. If I'm reading about a housewife in Elizabethan England, I want to see her lifting up her skirts to step over the rivelets of ooze in the street if she is running an errand near the shambles, and I want to see any sailors, towards the end of a long period at sea, to be knocking the weevils out of their hardtack; heck, they should just ignore the wriggling creatures and go ahead and eat the biscuits; they are, after all, good protein. I also hope that my authors will strive to be as true as they can to the period they are writing about; I prefer the details to be correct. At the same time, however, I realize that authors of historical fiction can't be spending all of their time in research libraries; errors will creep in, or new discoveries will be made, no matter how conscientious the writer may be. The novel has to be written, in the end.
I understand, too, that there is disagreement on how much people have changed throughout the centuries. Are the mind-sets of people from other times so altered from the modern era? I happened to think that they were very different, so when I read a work from a author such as Robert McCammon, who states in his interview here http://www.robertmccammon.com/intervi... that he doesn't really believe people have changed very much, I am probably going to find his characters rather anachronistic; or at least, not accurate depictions of what I can only imagine long vanished people to be. Fair enough. I can't really criticize an author's decision to go in that direction. It is, after all, only a guess.
I can, however, call him to account for inexcusably sloppy research, and for a fascination for the foul and vile that borders on the lurid. I get it--past times were none too clean, epecially out on the frontier; people stank, clothing reeked, and houses crawled with insects and were choked with smoke. McCammon's seemingly new-found discovery of these not very interesting facts (history isn't stuffy! he exclaims over and over in the previously cited interview) is like a little boy who has skewered a pile of dog poop and goes waving his stick gleefully in front of the grown-ups. "Lookee here what I have found! Isn't it COOL!" (Actually, I should have written "skewered a rat" instead; so many rodents are pitch-forked, crushed, drowned, smashed, that at times I thought I had wandered into a William and Mary era whack-a-rat game show; McCammon seemed to have just tossed in another rodent death when he was at a loss for ideas, which was often.) All of this endless description, which slows down the pace to a crawl, serves no real purpose, especially as it is often not really accurate.
I almost stopped the book at page 75, when he made his first really big historical boo-boo. (I'll pass over the highly unlikely conversations the two main characters, the magistrate Woodward and his clerk Matthew, on their way to try a witch at the town of Fount Royal, have with the slimy innkeeper, but the manner in which sexual details are disclosed is beyond ridiculous.) McCammon describes the home of Bidwell, chief mover-and-shaker of the fledging town, as having a dining room that would serve as the centerpiece of an English castle. I'm sorry, but that is absurd. Here is Bacon's Castle, one of the most imposing homes of the time, located in Tidewater Virginia, one of the most highly developed regions of the early colonial era, constructed just before this period of this book:
(It was actually less grand at the end of the 17th century, since the service wing was rebuilt and the roof was raised a floor much later.) And here are two English houses of the same time period, which I also visited during my years living in England. (The first one, Wimpole Hall, once every season as it has an excellent home farm which kept my toddlers busy):
And Belton Hall, just up the road an hour or so from my home, which I include as it was constructed during the same decade as Bidwell's imagined mansion:
It's pretty clear that nothing constructed during the colonial era (or until the times of the robber barons) would be judged worthy of being the centerpiece of an English manor house. So McCammon's just taking a bit of artistic license, right? He just wants to contrast the opulent home, with the barely beaten back nature in the form of incessant insects buzzing around, with the wretched hovels. All right, but then he has Magistrate Woodward, who is portrayed as a decent, mild man, condemning young, pretty white Rachel to burn at the stake, for the crime of witchcraft, and for petty treason for supposedly killing her husband.
Guess how many white women in America were burned at the stake through judicial process during the colonial period? None. That's right: zero, nada, zip. There are NO adequately documented cases of a white woman being executed by this method in the colonies. English Common Law of the time period sentenced a person judged guilty of witchcraft to the gallows, as anyone even casually familiar with the Salem Witch Trials knows. And petty treason, though technically punishable by death by fire, was NEVER enforced on a white woman.* Clearly, if you were a black slave, man or woman, who dared to be involved in a slave uprising, or a white man who had the audacity to help in a revolt, you might very well be condemned to the stake. But a woman and her white skin was safe from the flames.**
So is Rachel's sentence an anachronism? A sloppy bit of research by the author? So what if Woodward--and by proxy the author--condemns her to the most gruesome and dreaded of executions--death is death, right? But I do think it matters, particularly as this barbaric custom is part of the story of slavery, and not of colonial white America. You have to decide how important this distortion is to you. I can only view McCammon's plot twist as the sensationalistic misreading of the historical record by a third-rate writer who is willing--even eager--to put a tawdry spin on everything. Why do I think this? Well, after starting to skim through the salacious and vulgar depositions (thorny cocks! blood dripping from female parts!) and the tedious descriptions of the thought processes of every single character that serves only to bloat an all ready deadly slow narrative, I was no longer terribly interested in the fates of the cartoonishly nasty characters (all the inhabitants of Fount Royal except the beautiful--of course!--young witch) and the Scooby-Doo-ish eager young Matthew. (Rachel herself is as wooden as the stake the townspeople want to lash her to; only Woodward was a well-defined creation who held my attention.) I kept going, however, as it was a buddy read, despite my suspicions that the author was revelling in the gross details. I stopped even skimming when I came upon the utterly out of place (view spoiler)[ drawn out account of a blacksmith's sexual assault upon a mare--complete with the love words whispered to the unwilling beast and an elaborate description of the mechanism designed to carry out such a foul encounter AND WHICH IS COMPLETELY IRRELEVANT TO THE PLOT AS WE HAVE ALL READY BEEN HIT ON THE HEAD THAT THE BLACKSMITH IS A DISTURBED INDIVIDUAL. There is also a sniggering insinuation that the horse enjoyed it. (hide spoiler)]. What's more, McCammon defends this disgusting and extraneous episode by saying that such events are part of the historical record. Very convenient of him to be suddenly concerned about historical authenticity, wouldn't you say? http://www.robertmccammon.com/intervi...
No, I did not finish the book. But I don't have to finish a bowl of stew, either, to know that something putrid lurks within it. (I did peek to the end of the book just to confirm my guess as to who the villain was; it was obvious when s/he first stepped onto the stage, so it wasn't even a good mystery.) Suffice to say that I was no longer feeling charitable enough to overlook the author having his characters using matches, envelopes, eating stewed tomatoes, using pounds instead of stones to describe human weight, referring to "tricorn" hats when the correct usage for the time would have been "cocked" hats, the use of "Violet"--a Victorian invention--as a proper name, or the countless other errors that showed that the author didn't even care to do more than a modicum of research. Just throw in another dead rat seemed to be his philosophy.
Not surprisingly, there wasn't even the consolation of interesting language to pull the reader along. McCammon's flat, leaden prose-- without style or grace--is as uninventive as his facts are made up. His sentences are just words slapped one after another like bricks upon mortar. But at least, at the end of the day, a mason might build something useful, like a wall. This book, on the other hand, is a poorly-constructed, ersatz fake that reminds me of nothing so much as:
If you are an uninspired author, you can pretend to bring the past to life, much as the theme park Dickens World pretends to bring back the Victorian era by releasing a few chemical smells in the air from strategically placed "smell pots". By focusing on the nasty and the reeking, and by conveniently ignoring the truth, you can sketch a shadow of the past for an unwary audience. But in the end, the unlucky reader of this book is not transported to another time, but just trapped in a modern warehouse, just like the ticket-holders of Dickens World. An affront to the serious reader of historical fiction, a tiresome slog for the seeker of some escapist fun, and an insult to horses everywhere, this book is to be avoided at all costs. In the spirit of the author's own words: eschew this turgid turd.
* The author of Women's Life and Work in the Southern Colonies, whose work remain the cornerstone of women's studies for Colonial Williamsburg--where McCammon did his research--states categorically that she could find no case in the South in which a woman was burned at the stake for petit treason.
This is my review, and my complaints are my own. Any tisk-tisking over my request that historical fiction remain somewhat true to the times (as if a less demanding reader is somehow more worldly wise in the ways of fiction) will be, depending on the tone of the comment and my mood at the time, either not responded to--or deleted. (less)
In "Loot" Sharon Waxman attempts to explain the story of how many of the great museums of the West acquired their artifacts, and how they expand upon...more In "Loot" Sharon Waxman attempts to explain the story of how many of the great museums of the West acquired their artifacts, and how they expand upon their collections today. Unfortunately, the author eventually succumbs to a shallow flashiness that leaves the reader without a full understanding of how the antiquity trade operates on a global scale.
Waxman examines her story primarily through a series of high-profile interviews with prominent operators such as Zahi Hawas, then secretary-general of Egypt's Council of Antiquities (and all-purpose thorn-in-the-side to the curators and collectors of the great museums outside of his country), Neil MacGregor, director of the BM, Philippe de Montebello, director of the Met, and Henri Loyrette, director of the Louvre. Much of the pre-twentieth century collections of these institutions were acquired (though acquired seems far too mild a word for works such as the zodiac ceiling of the Temple of Denderah and half of the statues of the Parthenon, both literally ripped from their masonry) under the auspices of the Ottoman Empire, which was indifferent if not outright hostile to the treasures of other cultures within its boundaries, or during, in the case of Egypt, a corrupt system of partage that existed until the 1920's. She dutifully recounts the early history of archeology since its beginnings in the mid eighteenth century, relying heavily (and I am putting this mildly) on such well-known works such as "Gods, Graves, and Scholars" and especially "The Rape of the Nile" to recount the horrifying antiquities-grab that occured during previous centuries. Waxman goes on to describe how buying objects with questionable--or often entirely unknown provenance--was considered acceptable untl the late 1960's. It was only then than the cultural branch of the UN put into place a series of strictures designed to prevent the looting or smuggling of artifacts.
It is to the author's credit that she remains objective and tries to examine both sides to this difficult problem. Should an institution be responsible for returning items obtained centuries ago under conditions that would now be considered illegal? Does an object belong to the world or to a particular people-especially when the cultural heirs of that culture have vanished? Is is better to keep a unique object in the holdings of an museum that can display it for more people to wonder over? In the case of an institution that doesn't have the financial ability to keep something safe (the tragic story of the golden hippocampus of the Lydian Horde, returned to the brief custodianship of a tiny provincial museum by a reluctant Met, and now gone, perhaps forever, is described in detail), should an item be returned at all? Does insistence of strict provenance for trading antiquities really help, or does it merely drive the trade underground?
At this point, I might have given the book four stars. I kept waiting, however, for something more. Waxman makes many digs at the patronizing or even culturally imperialistic stances of Europe and the United States, yet she herself is guilty of this myopic attitude. Of the huge problems of looting and smuggling that exist in Latin America and Asia she breathes not a word.( Only the sack of the statues of Benin are mentioned.) Of the industry of manufactured fakes? Nothing. Does she go out into the field except in Egypt--even to Ceveteri, the great Etruscan site just north of Rome, and the scene of so much looting? No, she does not. Does she make a foray to Geneva, a prominent conduit for so many antiquities due to its status as a free port and talk to a few Swiss paper-pushers and ask them to explain themselves? Nope. This latter omission is simply inexcusable as Switzerland is cited again and again as a problem in the antiquities trade. Indeed, Waxman pretty much confines her investigations to talks with the famous, their overworked curators, and a few rumpled and driven journalists for old time's sake. She scarcely talks to field archeologists, giving only a cursory nod to Jack Davis, head of the consortium of the US universities operating archeology programs in Greece--a person who should have had much more time devoted to his position, which is that most everything should remain in situ to begin with. Indeed, except for Usak, the little museum in Turkey, Waxman confines herself to exploring the cushy and the well-known.
This could be excused, of course, as perhaps acceptable gaps in an overview that can't do everything. Yet Waxman spends a huge amount of time and space dealing with the case of Marion True, the former antiquities curator for the Getty, who was tried by the Italian government for illegal antiquities trading. This last part of the book, frankly, is an embarrassment. She spends far too much time on the bed-hopping activities of the staff, making the feeble excuse for her own salacious interest that who is sleeping with whom somehow has something to do with greater problems at the Getty. She jets off to Paros, where Ms True bought a house with a questionable mortgage from donors, for a little look-see of the Greek Isles--entirely irrelevant to the greater story. She interviews Giacomo Medici, the source of many of the Getty's gains via Ms True, though she doesn't speak Italian and he doesn't speak English. Would it have killed her to use an interpreter for such an important part of the story? Indeed, her entire understanding of the Italian judicial system seems muddled and confused.
In the end, Marion True's career is over and the Getty was forced to return many of the highlights of their collection. The author makes a few weak recommendations that museums should do a better job of labeling their works and citing in greater detail where they come from. And there the book ends, not with a bang, but with a whimper.Even the author's last set-piece of the book, as she lingers outside a dealer's showroom window in the fabulously wealthy town of St. Moritz and ponders the treasures within, is more of a reminder that she perhaps cares more for an ego-boosting glamour-trot amongst the great and the good than to really demonstrate the true global ramifications of the international illegal antiquities trade, and the sacking of the world's patrimony.(less)
**spoiler alert** Sometimes a book makes such an error that the reader stops dead in his tracks. I'm not talking about nit-picking a small detail so t...more**spoiler alert** Sometimes a book makes such an error that the reader stops dead in his tracks. I'm not talking about nit-picking a small detail so that the reader can be accused of being pedantic. (In the early years of our marriage my husband would lean over to me in movie theaters and whisper that that guys in war movies were wearing uniforms that were a little out of date but I finally broke him of that habit). No, I'm talking about making a totally dumb factual mistake, like having a regency heroine taking a casual stroll to Windsor Castle when the author really meant Buckingham Palace, or misunderstanding a character's world point of view so fundamentally that the reader literally jerks his head from the pages, and even if he does manage to continue the book he never really trusts the author again. I once had a friend fling "Pet Cemetery" aside; no vet, she said, would be against sterilizing dogs and cats, and since she worked as a veterinary assistant she knew what she was talking about, and had no interest in reading a book whose protagonist was so far-fetched. Alan Brennert makes such an error in Moloka'i, only his misstep is even more egregious than Stephen King's since it is an important, though not central part of the plot.
In the beginning, I liked the book well enough. I lived in Hawai'i for some years. I know how deeply skeptical (to put it mildly) people born in the islands view haole mainlanders coming in and writing about their homeland, but I was willing to give it a try. Besides, what did I know about turn of the century O'ahu since I had never lived there, and one brief visit to Molokai and occasional chats about the island with an acquaintance who had grown up there certainly didn't make me an expert. It was a choice for my book group, too, so I thought I'd better get going.
Young Rachel develops leprosy in turn of the century O'ahu and is eventually sent to the colony at Kalaupapa. The description of the symptoms of the disease, and the long bureaucratic process that banishes her to the other island, make for interesting reading. The novel traces the course of her life, and as sometimes happens in this sort of historical novel which covers a long period of time, the author crams in a lot of laboriously-researched events and details that don't quite fit, and it may also be for that reason that the book had a certain emotional distance. I never felt that close to the main character. OK, a great many historical novelists fall into this trap; it's understandable that you want to share all that hard work.
It was at this point the author makes his big mistake.(view spoiler)[ Rachel and her husband have a baby, and they are forced to send the baby away. The little girl is adopted by a Japanese couple and they move to California. Eventually she and her new family are put into the internment camp at Manzanar.
It.Could.Never.Have.Happened. Not in a million years. Not today, and certainly not almost a hundred years ago. No issei peasant family would have adopted a child---especially a girl(!) that was a hapa (or as the Japanese say, hafu) girl from an unknown, "unclean" bloodline. It would have been out of the question. It simply is not possible. When I told my husband about this plot twist he looked bewildered and said "Was the family really Christian, or something? But even so...."
You see, my husband and I have lived in Japan, and one of the organizations I belonged to has sponsored an orphanage since the end of WWII. The children grow up there; almost none of them leave in "outside" adoptions. It is NOT a Japanese custom (or indeed an Asian custom) to adopt outside the family. Bloodlines are very important. And the idea of a non-Christian man with three boys agreeing to take in a strange girl just because his wife wanted a daughter was just so deeply wrong that I set the book aside and wondered if I should continue. I am sorry not to be PC, but these are the facts and the author should have known something about Japanese culture. It would have taken two minutes of research.
But no, the author was bound and determined to shoe-horn Manzanar into the plot, just so that he could make a heavy-handed parallel of the two internments, so he shoved it in, with no regards as to what actually could have happened. (hide spoiler)] Shaken, I continued (after all it was a book group choice) but my confidence in the author was gone. I kept wondering... what other facts had Brennert twisted and contrived to suit his purposes? What would a kama'aina reader think of this book? Was the Hawaiian viewpoint misrepresented as well and I wasn't close enough to see it? What else had I missed? Should an outsider even attempt to write about a fundamentally foreign culture? It really made me aware of all the manipulative tricks the author had used; I could barely keep my mind on the last part of the novel.
Now, some readers just read for the fun of reading about an exotic land and they might say I am just being fussy, and that it is OK, or not really important that he misrepresented another culture's mindset. But people, we read historical fiction to learn about other times and cultures. What's the point if the author holds up a mirror instead of a window, and pretends otherwise? It's just a cheat. Brennert's mistake bothered me. It really did. Because when an author breaks faith with his reader...well, what else is left?
Post Script Nov 7th:
I've made some strongly worded criticisms calling Brennert to task for a key implausability in his story, which are concealed in the spoiler. For those who are curious, or who need more convincing, please check the comments, where I've linked to half a dozen articles supporting my views. Any discussion on how important the truth is in historical fiction is welcome (with the caveat that comments along the line of oh-it-is-just-fiction-so-anything goes will not be viewed as a seriously debatable position); disputing the claims from sources such as the L.A. Times/Japan Times/Time Magazine/The Department of State/The American Embassy in Japan/ The BBC/ The Seattle Times/Reuters in favor of personal stories not really relevant to the main topic, or opinions based more on wishful Western feelings rather than facts will not be responded to. Thanks!
Not a bad book, but not a particularly engrossing one, either. I appreciated some aspects of this quarto-biography of the four Caton sisters (granddau...moreNot a bad book, but not a particularly engrossing one, either. I appreciated some aspects of this quarto-biography of the four Caton sisters (granddaughter of the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence, Charles Carroll of Carrollton) that are rarely covered in general histories of this period. The anti-Catholicism--not to mention the occasional "Anti Yankey-ism-" prejudice the three sisters who settled permanently in England faced, is a fascinating undercurrent in the book. And the author, who worked at Solomon Brothers, writes with understandable knowledge about jointures, entailments, the lack of rights of married women, the astonishing amount of debt so many aristocrats carried--all of the financial matters which underpinned Regency and Victorian society.
Unfortunately, her acuity in money matters does not extend to understanding the psychologies of the four sisters, nor to extending a satisfactory explanation of their actions. Indeed, she offers pages (and pages and pages) on South American gold mines, on Spanish stocks during the Carlists wars, on railway speculations, writing with more warmth on bank collapses than about the sisters themselves. What, really, was so special about these women except that they were taken up on a whim by the 1st Duke of Wellington? Did Marianne (a married woman and the eldest and most beautiful of the sisters) have an affair with the duke? Why did her marriage to his elder brother break down so quickly? Did Emily (the only sister to remain in Maryland) really manipulate her dying grandfather to change the will in her favor? And who WERE the men that the sisters did eventually marry--none of them emerge as more than ciphers. I appreciate that the author wanted to talk about more than the superficial gloss of the ton of Regency England, but she didn't succeed in making me care about any of the main characters as people, which is the primary reason for a writing a biography in the first place.(less)
Is there anything more annoying than a man writing a romance novel...without being aware that he has, in fact, written a bodice ripper? This is a prof...moreIs there anything more annoying than a man writing a romance novel...without being aware that he has, in fact, written a bodice ripper? This is a profoundly silly book that takes the lives of Bolivar and his mistress, Manuela Saenz, and reduces it to a few confused battle scenes, some chaotic political infighting, and a few frolics in the bathtub. Manrique never seems to understand his characters, or to provide them with psychological depth; Manuela comes off as the typical foot-stomping feisty heroine, devoid of introspection (or common sense), and Bolivar a wooden figure whose actions, so critical to the development of South America, are left unexplained. The two slave women's narratives, who might have added some well-needed perspective, are completely interchangeable, and serve as nothing more than a thin Greek chorus. A melancholy coda (though marred with some confused timeline shifts), when Manuela is exiled in Peru, is very well-written, and saves this from a one star. Even that is wrecked by a ridiculous ending (an homage to Carpentier, whom I discovered I don't really care for) that Manrique just can't pull off. Pity--there was--and is--a great novel to be written in the lives of the Liberator and La Saenz, but the reader won't find it here.
And yup, the sex scenes are really overwrought!(less)