As you probably already know, this book is notable for being the first-person narrative of the life of an autistic boy: he starts out trying to investAs you probably already know, this book is notable for being the first-person narrative of the life of an autistic boy: he starts out trying to investigate the murder of a neighbor's dog, and winds up in the middle of a family crisis. The protagonist, Christopher, also inserts into the text a variety of things that interest him: math and logic problems, discussion of space and astronauts, and so on.
The most interesting thing about this book is its unique point-of-view. While Christopher certainly can't be taken to represent everyone with autism, it's still interesting to read his thought processes and learn about how he sees the world. But beyond that, what I admired most about this book was its honest portrayal of how having a child with special needs affects a family. Haddon doesn't sugercoat it; this isn't one of those works that portrays special-needs children as a constant joy to everyone around them. It seems that a lot of reviewers despise Christopher's parents, but I see where the parents are coming from--I can't imagine living with him day in and day out for years on end--and I was pleased to see the author take a more realistic and sympathetic look at the family.
Beyond that, I don't have a whole lot to say about this book. The plot and prose style are both quite simple, but that fits the story and the narrator. The most problematic thing for me was that Christopher shows no empathy for others; not only does he not understand emotions, he doesn't seem to care, and he doesn't seem to be attached to anyone around him. That may be realistic, but it makes for a very cold character. At any rate, this book didn't inspire any particular passion in me, and I'm not entirely sure why it's as popular as it is, but it was a quick read and I found it to be worthwhile. ...more
I'll admit from the start that I read Falls the Shadow soon after The Sunne in Splendour; this book, while not bad, suffered by comparison. Besides, II'll admit from the start that I read Falls the Shadow soon after The Sunne in Splendour; this book, while not bad, suffered by comparison. Besides, I can't read too much of one author too quickly without becoming annoyed by her quirks. That said, Falls the Shadow was something of a disappointment.
First the good. As always with Penman's books, I learned a lot. I knew little about the time period and this book brought it to life. The major players are excellently drawn: Henry III, Simon de Montfort, and Nell (Henry's sister and Simon's wife) in particular. (I especially liked Nell, who's more spirited than Penman's previous heroines.) An author who's both renowned for historical accuracy and skilled at creating real people and interesting scenes out of history is a rare treasure. Finally, tics of dialogue that irked some readers in previous books (think "I do be tired" and overuse of character names) are much reduced here.
Speaking of tics, though, brings me to the problems. Penman seems to have taken a personal dislike to the word "and," and her preferred sentence structure began to grate on me ("He made a jest, laughed loudly"). More importantly, while Penman's books always span decades, here I really felt like it hurt the story. The Sunne in Splendour spans 27 years (not counting the six-years-later epilogue) in over 900 pages; Falls the Shadow has 575 pages to cover 36 years. Only toward the end does the story focus in enough to have several chapters set in the same year, with the result that for most of the book it's hard to keep track of the characters. Simon spends years on crusade and makes a name for himself there, but we never see a single scene of it; Simon and Nell go from meeting to declaring their undying love in all of three scenes together.
Even worse, while Simon fought to defend the Oxford Provisions and there's much talk about his belief that kings should be responsible to the people, I still have no idea how the Provisions were meant to accomplish that. A bit more discussion of the specifics (as Welsh law is discussed in Here Be Dragons) would have helped immensely for those of us lacking extensive prior knowledge of the period. The provision that's repeatedly mentioned is keeping foreigners off the king's council; I don't know why this was important, especially to the foreign-born Simon. Thus, it was hard to care as much as I should have about the ideals he was fighting for.
I'm of two minds when it comes to Penman's take on anti-Semitism here. On the one hand, it's to her credit that she deals honestly with a problem that's almost always ignored in medieval fiction. There are a couple of sympathetic Jewish characters, but Penman doesn't whitewash the Christian nobility, many of whom seem incapable of interacting with non-Christians without becoming violent. Still, I'm uncomfortable with Penman's use of the two token Jewish characters; besides telling us how much their lives suck, their primary purpose in the story seems to be praising London's (Christian) mayor.
Finally, Falls the Shadow suffers from being the middle book in a trilogy, if a nontraditional one. There are scenes with Llewelyn Fawr, Joanna, and Elen which add little and seem to be present mostly due to the characters' prominence in the last book. And there are more scenes with Llewelyn the younger which also add little; we meet him as a kid and then he gains great renown off-screen, but Penman's main concern seems to be keeping track of him long enough for him to star in The Reckoning. Overall, it's not a cohesive book.
I don't mean to discourage Penman lovers: this isn't a bad book by any means. Still, it's not her best. ...more
I'd read one of Penman's books before, and was impressed, but this one really blew me away.
For starters, I like historical fiction but don't usuallyI'd read one of Penman's books before, and was impressed, but this one really blew me away.
For starters, I like historical fiction but don't usually read the sort that stars real historical figures. The characters in such books often lack personality and the plots are frequently dull. Happily, The Sunne in Splendour bears no resemblance to such books.
This is the story of the War of the Roses, spanning 33 years, from 1459 to 1492. It's also the story of Richard III, one of the most vilified kings in English history. When I picked up this book, I didn't understand the time period at all; I'd read some summaries but found them confusing. I "get it" now: in 931 pages, Penman shows us the battles, the politics, the intriguing, and the rise and fall of kings (plural), and without resorting to simplification, conveys it all so that it not only makes sense but is memorable. As for Richard III, I had no opinion about him before reading this book, but Penman has turned me into a partisan--which is, I'm sure, exactly what she intended.
So what makes Penman's work great isn't just her attention to historical detail (although I've never seen anyone question that) but her attention to psychological complexity. The characters are real people, with conflicting loyalties and moral ambiguities and all the rest. There aren't any evil villains (although there are characters you'll dislike) and there aren't really any heroes (even though Penman really likes Richard), but there are a lot of interesting and complicated people, who experience a lot of interesting and often tragic events. It makes for great drama.
In the end, I think maybe this book is so universally admired by readers--although it's Penman's first book, many consider it her best--because it's so passionate. She's passionate about her subject, and the characters are passionate about a variety of things, and it all adds up to a truly compelling read. There were a couple of minor annoyances, like the overuse of character names in dialogue, but I found them easy to overlook.
On a more mundane note, I want to commend Penman and/or her publisher for including a couple of things that greatly enhanced my reading experience: one, a map of Great Britain and northern France with all relevant locations marked; and two, a family tree as of 1459. That's right: for those of us who don't know who marries whom, or when major characters die, there are no spoilers in the family tree. Thank you for that.
This book captivated me for several days, and I fully enjoyed it despite its faults. As anyone stumbling across this review probably knows, this bookThis book captivated me for several days, and I fully enjoyed it despite its faults. As anyone stumbling across this review probably knows, this book is about the building of a cathedral in 12th century England and spans several decades. It features Prior Philip of the monastery building the cathedral, the family of builders who direct the work, and the local nobility. My favorite aspect of Pillars (aside from the plot, which despite the book's length is always moving) was the depiction of the way regular people lived in the 12th century. It felt very gritty and realistic. And of course, you'll learn all about the building of cathedrals: not only the architecture, but the politics behind their building and financing.
Because so much has already been said about this one, I'd like to address specific issues that dissatisfied readers often bring up:
- The characters. They're decently well-developed, but nothing spectacular. There is some moral ambiguity to the "good guys," but not as much as there might have been; Follett neatly aligns all the sympathetic characters on the pro-cathedral side, while the unsympathetic characters are almost all anti-cathedral. The villains are polarizing: I found them believable, but if you want fiction to "explain" sadistic behavior through childhood traumas (or if you're especially disturbed by graphic rape scenes, of which there are a few), this book may not be for you.
- The writing. Follett is a thriller writer and this is not a literary book. Sentences like "Tom felt depressed" are not unusual. If nearly 1000 pages of that would drive you nuts, don't read it. Also, the language is modern (to be fair, people at the time would have been speaking Middle English if they were commoners, or Norman French if they were nobles, so Follett can hardly be expected to use authentic 12th century diction).
- The role of women. There are a couple of self-sufficient female characters in the book, which feels anachronistic to some. It worked for me--there were craftswomen at the time and it's silly to suggest that no female possessed business sense before the 20th century--but I thought Follett took it too far when he introduced the adult Sally at the end. This is the one potential exception I see to the historical accuracy of the work.
My biggest issues with the book were 1) that some major plot points depended on characters doing things obviously antithetical to their interests, like not escaping from jail when they had the opportunity, and 2) that the conflict dragged a bit in the middle, with the same villains throwing up more obstacles, only to be outwitted again by the heroes. Also, I'd have liked a diagram of a cathedral, since the book used terms I don't know. Overall though, I enjoyed this book and would recommend it to those who don't demand literary merit from their reading material. ...more
This is an entertaining book about the life of Nell Gwyn, favorite mistress of Charles II of England. It moves briskly, covering 8 years of her life aThis is an entertaining book about the life of Nell Gwyn, favorite mistress of Charles II of England. It moves briskly, covering 8 years of her life and introducing a large number of characters from the royal court.
I enjoyed this book and would recommend it as a good light read, with the added bonus of learning some British history; however, nothing about it really stood out. The epistolary format works well in some ways: by including a variety of diary entries, letters, gossip columns, official papers and so on, the author keeps things moving and is able to give a sense of the wider picture. This also allows the book to cover eight years without awkward time-skips. On the other hand, the modern language is jarring when it's purported to be the characters' own 17th-century writings, and nobody really writes a diary the way Nell writes hers here (complete with dialogue, entire scenes and so on).
Also, while the characters have some personality, the epistolary format seemed to get in the way of knowing what they were really like as people. I would have liked to see Nell from a third-person narrator's point-of-view; she seemed like a great character but didn't quite reach her full potential. I was a little disappointed that the author chose to take out some of the spicier parts of her character; for instance, where she's reputed to have given a romantic rival a laxative, the book portrays her as innocent, and it eliminates sassy remarks she's reputed to have made (for instance, when her coachman nearly got into a fight to defend her honor, she's reputed to have said, "I am a whore. Find something else to fight about"). She's still sassy and fun here, just a bit whitewashed. It's telling that the playful nickname "Nell" is relegated to her stage name here, while among family and friends she goes by the primmer, duller "Ellen." This version is definitely an Ellen, not a Nell.
A couple of notable secondary characters: Aphra Behn is great, and I've love to read a book about her (so she was a spy, and traveled the world, and was one of the first professional female writers.... remind me again, why are we reading about Nell Gwyn instead?). Teddy seems to get a lot of love, but he's such a stereotypical gay character, of the woman's-BFF-in-romantic-comedy variety. I quite liked reading about Nell's family, though, and thought her previous affairs were well-handled.
At any rate, this novel is decent fun and would make a great beach or airplane read. Nothing really memorable, but nothing seriously wrong either....more
If you're like me, you like well-written books but you're a little skeptical about classics. The question in your mind while reading reviews is somethIf you're like me, you like well-written books but you're a little skeptical about classics. The question in your mind while reading reviews is something like: "Okay, so it's great literature, so it paints a complex portrait of mid-19th-century England, that's great and all, but is it FUN? Will I actually enjoy my time with this book?"
My answer is yes.
So I'll talk about the plot. It's not a fast-paced modern thriller, but it is fun and engaging. There are mysteries and secret identities and midnight dashes across the countryside. There are murders and suicides and spontaneous combustions (okay, one of those). There is a court case at the center of the plot, but the book is about so much more than that. It's a complicated, sprawling story, and at times you'll wonder how all this could possibly fit together, but in the end it does so remarkably well. So don't worry about being entertained.
Dickens is famous for his vivid characterization, and Bleak House is no disappointment in that regard, either; even the minor characters are colorful. About half of this book is narrated in first person by Esther Summerson, and the other half by an omniscient third-person narrator, and at first I found Esther cloying. But she gets better. Dickens keeps in mind her limitations as a narrator and often makes us read between the lines and come to our own conclusions--too bad more authors don't give readers this much credit. At any rate, in the end I found Esther convincing and more complex than she initially appears. Most of the other important characters are also excellently drawn (Sir Leicester and Inspector Bucket stand out), although a few (like Ada) are oddly flat given their prominence. My biggest reservation while reading this book was that some of the minor players are characterized almost entirely by their eccentricities, and as a result seem so bizarre that I wondered how they could function in the everyday world--but in the end, I was convinced.
Many people have criticized Dickens's female characters, and yes, he does idealize the housewifely types, while women with other preoccupations don't come across so well. But I'm just not worked up about it; although he was writing in the mid-19th-century, he has female characters with strong personalities and positive, plot-relevant relationships with each other, which puts him miles ahead of even many modern male authors.
The writing itself is very good and yet accessible by 19th-century standards; while slower going than modern novels, it's clear and non-pretentious. I also enjoyed the detailed setting and vivid descriptions, which provide a full picture of Victorian England without bringing the plot to a halt.
Finally, there's lots of social commentary in this book, addressing everything from domestic violence to self-absorbed "do-gooders" who produce more noise than results. It speaks either very well of Dickens, or very poorly of humanity (perhaps both?) that so much of this is just as relevant today as in 1853. Reading this for the first time as a law student meant I found the legal aspects especially interesting, as well. One scene in particular stands out, in which Esther observes proceedings in the Court of Chancery. She knows it's widely disparaged and that these lawsuits ruin people's lives, but what she sees is everything running smoothly and everyone getting along well, with no acknowledgement of the real-life consequences or the wider picture. It's a disconnect that's just as jarring in the modern world--definitely food for thought.
Overall, I found this book enjoyable, insightful and good literature. The Barnes & Noble Classics edition has some helpful footnotes, although its endnotes are generally useless and too frequent. The length may seem daunting, but it's absolutely worth the effort. This is definitely my favorite of the four Dickens novels I've read, and one of my favorite classics, period....more
I quite enjoyed the two previous Seton books I’ve read; her strength is in writing well-detailed historical novels with strong, entertaining plots, anI quite enjoyed the two previous Seton books I’ve read; her strength is in writing well-detailed historical novels with strong, entertaining plots, and in that regard this one is no different. I was consistently entertained and kept wanting to know what happened next. And I learned a fair bit about the Jacobite rebellions, and some about colonial Virginia. The settings are well-done and enjoyable to read about. Seton’s books are certainly more immersive than those of many other historical fiction writers, who tend to skip over the description and assume readers will fill it in for themselves; Seton takes worldbuilding as seriously as many a fantasy writer and I always appreciate that.
I’m of two minds about the characters. Charles Radcliffe is possibly the most complex character here, and his exploits are interesting to read about. His daughter Jenny takes center stage for most of the book, and she’s just okay--she has her moments, but Seton’s rhapsodizing about her beauty and inviting us to feel sorry for her because other women are jealous and therefore dislike her often tends to overwhelm her actual personality. Her friend Evelyn is the more interesting of the two, and with far less screen time. And, unfortunately, a lot of Jenny’s time is spent on a quite unromantic romance (I concur with the other reviewers who called this the least interesting part of the book), which Seton nevertheless seems to expect us to find romantic. It reaches the height of silliness with a contrived “devil worship” episode, which, while one of the most important scenes in the book as far as its effect on the plot goes, takes up all of three pages including build-up and immediate aftermath, making it near impossible to take seriously--and it was a goofy idea besides.
Finally, every time I review an Anya Seton book I find myself writing some variation on: “Overall, this book has aged well for something written 50-60 years ago, but....” What comes after the “but” is always different. In this case, it’s a particularly unfortunate sequence from which it appears that Seton realized it’s a really bad thing to hit or rape one’s spouse, but considered such actions easily forgiveable if the offending spouse apologizes and promises never to do so again, and furthermore, that that person can show their continued love by making decisions for the other person without asking their preferences one way or the other. (Also, a kid with a limp and webbed fingers is better off dead? Huh?)
Meanwhile, the prose itself is serviceable, although the foreshadowing is about as subtle as a sledgehammer. Three stars is perhaps a bit generous in my view, but Devil Water is overall an entertaining book and well-executed, although not on the same level as Katherine or The Winthrop Woman....more
Lady's Maid is the fictional life story of Lily Wilson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning's maid. Since all I knew about either of the Browning poets beforeLady's Maid is the fictional life story of Lily Wilson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning's maid. Since all I knew about either of the Browning poets before starting this book was the little bit I remember from high school English, I wasn't sure if this was the book for me; fortunately, it really is the story of Wilson (as she is called throughout the book), and background knowledge about her employers is not essential. In fact, being famous poets, I expected to see them romanticized, but they're not; this is an unflinching tale of the conditions of 19th century servitude, including low wages and the impossibility of starting a family and retaining work as a maid. Parts of the book are likely to leave the reader angry with the Brownings, which may be disappointing for fans of their work.
The book is narrated in the 3rd person and almost entirely from Wilson's perspective, but peppered with letters she writes to friends and family, long enough that at times it feels as if the book is jumping back and forth between 1st and 3rd person. The beginning positively drags, but the pace picks up slightly as the book goes on and Wilson travels with the Brownings and courts several different men. I found this to be an engaging book and well worth reading if you're interested in seeing life from the servant's perspective; somehow all those books where the main characters are served fail to portray the difficulty a servant faces if she dares to want a life of her own. And Lady's Maid is also an interesting study in co-dependency in its portrayal of Wilson's relationship with her mistress. At 550 pages, the book at times feels overlong, although I understand the difficulty in trying to cover 17 years of a woman's life while including enough concrete scenes that we still feel connected to her.
Overall, I would recommend this book if you have the patience to see it through and still think it worth your time. If nothing else, it's an honest look at relationships that transcends any specific time period. ...more
Author Margaret George wrote The Autobiography of Henry VIII in an attempt to create a sympathetic and historically accurate picture of this much-maliAuthor Margaret George wrote The Autobiography of Henry VIII in an attempt to create a sympathetic and historically accurate picture of this much-maligned English king, and in my judgment she succeeds on both counts; at least, as much as is possible given the limitations of the material. I'm not surprised that this book receives high marks; I would expect anyone with a special interest in Henry VIII or Tudor history to gobble it up.
I, on the other hand, picked it up merely because I was looking for an interesting historical novel, and found it.... loooooong. My copy has 932 pages. George's breaking it up into 133 short chapters (plus a prologue and epilogue) goes a long way toward making it readable, but for me it was anything but a can't-put-it-downer.
- George seems to have done a good job in assuming Henry's voice. While most authors, writing in first-person, feel the need to make their narrators wise (and coherent), she allows him to go off on self-deluded rants, which--as they're typically brief--are entertaining and realistic.
- The "autobiography" structure, along with the author's commitment to historical fact, result in a non-traditional sort of plot: no rising action, no climax, lots of extraneous elements. For instance, why include Henry VIII's bastard son, who plays no real role; what's his relevance to the plot? Well, none, but he existed in real life, so he's here too.
- On the other hand, this structure allows us to read the comments by Will, Henry's companion and jester. This was an astute decision on the author's part, allowing the reader not only to be present at crucial events Henry misses, but to gain perspective, stepping back from the narrative and realizing where Henry is self-deluded, ignorant, even lying to the reader.
- This book primarily focuses on Henry's emotional life, his relationships (with wives and advisors mostly--there's very little about his kids or sisters) and his spiritual life. Issues of public policy and governance are rarely mentioned unless they're related to one of those three points--his evolving relationship with the Church is explored in detail, and there's some talk of foreign policy and wars, but if domestic policy existed at the time outside of religion and defense, I'm still unaware of it. There was more information about his health problems and description of festivities than I was interested in.
- The bulk of the book details Henry's later life, when he was more controversial; the first 30-odd years, where he's beloved by his subjects, Catholic, and married to Katherine of Aragon, are breezed through in a mere 250 pages or so.
- Speaking of wars: don't expect action sequences of any sort. This is a biography after all.
- This is without a doubt Henry's story: a character study and a biography of his life. The wives are reasonably well-developed, but beyond that, almost all of the other characters remain flat. For instance, Henry's childhood friends: they're listed whenever they're present, which is frequently, but aside from Brandon we never learn enough about them even to distinguish them.
- The material has its limitations. For instance, I was unsatisfied with the story of Anne Boleyn: the book simply concludes that she was an evil, adulterous witch and moves on. Of course, there's a reason for that: the premise of the book is "let's have a sympathetic portrayal of Henry VIII" and if this character who's supposed to be sympathetic has had his wife executed for adultery and witchcraft, at the very least he'd better actually believe it. In my judgment George made the best choice available to her, but from an artistic standpoint (and a historical one) it was disappointing.
Ultimately, this is a great book for those looking for a heavy dose of history in the guise of fiction. I'd be hesitant, though, to recommend it to the casual reader. This book is exactly what it claims to be--a fictionalized biography--and if you'd never read a nonfiction biography of Henry VIII, this might not be for you either. ...more
This book is... interesting. I've never read anything quite like it before. The story is set in an alternate 9th century Earth and ties together the EThis book is... interesting. I've never read anything quite like it before. The story is set in an alternate 9th century Earth and ties together the English, Welsh, and Vikings. After finishing it a week or two ago, I'm still not sure what to think, so I'll just list my impressions:
1. Historical setting feels very authentic and well-researched. Sure, medieval England and the Vikings have been done to death, but Kay gives them new life here. There's no sugar-coating (fans of GRR Martin will feel right at home). And settings are excellently drawn. 2. Excellent prose. Kay has a style all his own. If the character development was better, I'd be calling this literary fiction. 3. Unpredictable plot. Others have said they saw major events coming, but not so for me. And Kay is intelligent and subtle; he gives you something to think about rather than just a quick bit of entertainment.
1. Character development so-so. Some of the main characters are quite good, Aeldred especially. But Ceinion is the stereotypical wise-and-practical cleric, Alun the stereotypical boy-avenging-family, etc. Bern, who gets the largest chunk of page time, was the worst, a distant stranger to me for the entire book. My conclusion is that there are simply too many main characters for a work of this length (my copy just under 500 pages) to sustain. 2. Dialogue not what I'd have expected from such a renowed author. Long scenes where characters tease each other or fight about silly things always feel amateurish to me. 3. Random "romances" springing from nowhere at the end... neither believable nor romantic.
1. I've never read a fantasy book (even historical fantasy, which rarely uses the "save the world" plot) with quite so little at stake. As we're told many times, life is difficult in the northlands... but by the time identifiable villains appear, they're so unambitious and so lacking in passion for their goal that there's little threat to the main characters, beyond the constant danger inherent in living in a violent time period. Aeldred's backstory would have made a far more exciting story, but it's interesting to wonder what Kay's point may have been in writing this story instead. 2. Random asides of several pages giving the life stories of side characters who briefly intersect with the plot... or, in some cases, don't. For instance, we get the life of Jarmina, a girl living in a village near a battlefield; she neither witnesses nor affects the battle in any way. Embedding loosely related short stories into a novel is an odd way to add depth to the setting, if that's what they were meant to do. 3. Random philosophical lectures by the author. To give a brief example: "Time does not pause, for men or beasts, though it might seem to us to have stopped at some moments, or we might wish it to do so at others, to suspend a shining, call back a gesture or a blow, or someone lost." These can go on for paragraphs and to me seemed rather trite.
This is the first of Kay's books that I've read, and since I understand that it's not his best, I'm still looking forward to reading more. It's far from a bad book, and would have been truly great had the character development only been been better. Three stars is a little low for this one, but despite its strengths, for me it was something of a disappointment. ...more
I usually shy away from historical fiction starring real people, finding that such books are often dry--that, or widely derided for inaccuracy. This iI usually shy away from historical fiction starring real people, finding that such books are often dry--that, or widely derided for inaccuracy. This is one of those rare books that is neither, that is thoroughly researched but never reads like biography; the characters and their inner lives and relationships are fleshed out in a way that would make any novelist proud.
Here Be Dragons spans 51 years of Welsh and English history (from 1183 to 1234), focusing on the lives of three main characters: Llewelyn, the Prince of Gwynedd; King John of England; and Joanna, John's illegitimate daughter and Llewelyn's wife. The character development is excellent, with nuanced portraits of each. I found them all ultimately sympathetic, but there's a lot of gray area and controversial decisions, just what I like in fiction. The time span, though, is both good and bad. On the positive side, we get a broad view of the historical picture and see the characters grow and mature; the love story, instead of just showing the courting phase, covers a decades-long marriage, which is especially refreshing because the portrayal is neither excessively idealistic nor depressingly dreary. The downside is that timeskips tend to be jarring; so much happens offstage in both the personal and political realms that constant exposition (often thinly disguised as dialogue) is required to keep us up to speed. I often felt like I lost track of the characters due to their rapid aging; Llewelyn, for instance, pops in and out of the narrative for the first 20 years covered, remaining distant from the reader up until his marriage with Joanna. This novel might have worked better as an entire trilogy! Without question, I thought the best part was the 50% or so in the middle, which spanned only 10-15 years and slowed down enough to allow the reader to become truly involved.
But any book with this many 5-star reviews has obviously hit on something, and Here Be Dragons has a winning combination: excellent history, but wonderfully readable, turning the characters into people who are fully realized and sympathetic. There's some action, and a fair number of events and situations that are truly bizarre--all of these, of course, grounded in the historical record. Overall, it's good stuff, and I would certainly recommend to historical fiction fans and those interested in sampling the genre. ...more
I loved Whitfield's Benighted and was so excited to read her second book that I pre-ordered it from Amazon. Now I'm wishing I'd waited to get it fromI loved Whitfield's Benighted and was so excited to read her second book that I pre-ordered it from Amazon. Now I'm wishing I'd waited to get it from the library, or skipped it entirely.
The premise of the book is this: in an alternate-history version of medieval Europe, kings must retain the support of the "deepsmen" (merfolk), such that every country with access to the ocean is ruled by a half-blooded king. Being jealous of their power--in the form of the ability to communicate with the deepsmen, whose communication consists of dolphin-like sounds that "landsmen" (regular humans) can't produce--the royals have any non-royal half-blood child killed. But England is in trouble: the king is old, and the only heirs to the throne are a couple of teenage girls. Enter the protagonists: Henry, an unauthorized half-blooded child, and Anne, the younger of the two princesses.
A large part of my problem with this book is that I didn't buy the premise. Now, the idea of the deepsmen is fascinating. These aren't your mythical merfolk; Whitfield must have really thought about what such people would actually be like, and they're anything but romanticized. If you're looking for new ideas and something that hasn't been done before, you might find this book worth reading for this alone. But the way they're portrayed--with an intelligence level somewhere between that of a normal human and that of a dolphin, and primarily concerned with their own survival--I never bought into the idea that they were essential allies for anybody. And even supposing that they were, the idea that disabled kings (did I mention that the half-bloods can't walk, and at best hobble around with canes? It's painful to read about) could hold thrones all over Europe for hundreds of years merely because they can talk to the deepsmen is both ridiculous and unnecessary. That's what ambassadors are for.
Moving on to the story itself, though, we follow Henry as he's being secretly raised to be a king (having been conveniently discovered on the beach by someone who was willing to risk execution to keep him hidden) and Anne while she's... well, that's another problem. For the first half the book or so, Anne doesn't do much. At about 130 pages, I put the book down in disgust and left it for a month or so, but once I've bought something I hate to not finish it. It does get better in the second half, and one thing I can say for it is that both the plot and characters are original; since it's not something I've seen before, I didn't know how it was going to turn out, and that's always nice. It turned out to be a quick read, but with nothing memorable except the idea of the deepsmen; the prose and the character development are competent, but things become far easier for the protagonists than they should have been, and opportunities for action and excitement are continuously evaded. The dealing with the two major antagonists toward the end was unrealistic and silly. It can be rather difficult to sympathize with the protagonists as well: we're supposed to support Henry in his quest for the kingship, when he wants it only to avoid execution for his bloodline. He clearly has no aptitude for the position, even flat-out stating that doesn't care for or know anything about the people of England. (The author, who's British, seems to be counting on nationalistic sentiments here, since the other option is French. As an American, I thought the other option was much better.)
This isn't necessarily a terrible book. There are some good parts--the feral-child part of Henry's story, Anne's growth and learning how to take responsibility, and most of all the originality. Thematics are certainly present and may redeem the book in the eyes of more "literary" readers than I. Still, due to plotting and believability issues, I can't recommend it. ...more
I picked up this book in large part because of all the comparisons to Gone With the Wind. The plot and character similarities are numerous, and althouI picked up this book in large part because of all the comparisons to Gone With the Wind. The plot and character similarities are numerous, and although that classic is still the better book, Forever Amber is great fun and absolutely worth a read. Amber is an English country girl who in 1660 follows a gentleman to London to become his mistress, only to be left alone and pregnant. The result is a fascinating page-turner that takes the reader through all classes of London society over about a decade in time. Not knowing much about the Restoration, I learned a lot about the time period and particularly appreciated all the research into social history that the author had obviously done. We witness the Great Plague, the Great Fire of London, and day-to-day life from the prisons to the palace. Meanwhile, Amber's life is never dull and it's great fun to read about her going through men as she makes her way up the social ladder.
There's nothing particularly notable about the character development or quality of the prose, although I didn't find them especially bad either. The descriptions are quite evocative, even though the descriptions of finery are overdone. And it's not exactly a romance novel, in that there's precious little actual romance in the book. What we actually get, though, is better: a vivid portrayal of the decadence of Charles II's court and an era when morality and love were scorned in favor of hedonism. (Yes, believe it or not, this isn't just a bodice ripper; it's actually got something to say.) As for the book's salacious reputation, it's quite tame by today's standards; Amber has a lot of sex, but none of it is on-screen or described in detail.
I was not as interested in the chapters about King Charles and his mistresses, and didn't think they added much to the book, although I seem to be in the minority there. And I felt rather let down that many of the secrets and misadventures from the early part of the book had no effect on the later plot. For instance, the prologue shows us that Amber is secretly the daughter of nobility--but she never finds out, and her true identity has no effect on the plot. I'm not sure why this subplot exists at all. And the ending was quite abrupt. Still, these are minor quibbles about what is otherwise a delightful book. ...more
I read and enjoyed Rutherfurd's Russka and didn't realize till near the end in what contempt he held his female characters, but by a few stories intoI read and enjoyed Rutherfurd's Russka and didn't realize till near the end in what contempt he held his female characters, but by a few stories into this one it was unmistakeable.
Now let me be clear: I'm not objecting to the lack of rights and opportunities women have in the distant time periods portrayed. That's historical accuracy. But a modern author demeaning women, portraying them as interesting only in regards to their relationships with men, is inexcusable.
I'll give an example: One of the stories involves a woman named Elfgiva. She holds to the polytheistic religion of her ancestors, but her husband is a Christian. He insists that she converts. Because she's a silly stubborn woman, she refuses. Her husband shrugs and decides that he'll get a new wife. But she's still in love with him! She can't just accept that and leave him! So she sticks around, even though she has the means to leave. He demeans her in every possible way, refusing to compromise on the issue. She witnesses him cheating on her (with her friend, by the way; you'll be unsurprised to hear that her rare conversations with another woman are always about a man), and that makes her unhappy, and what's more, lonely. Then she has an epiphany. What is her pride, her dignity, her heritage and religion, compared to the love of her husband (who has made clear by his behavior that he doesn't care for her at all)? Her gods aren't warming her bed, after all! She knows her husband is likely to set her aside for another woman in the future, but she's willing to give up her self-respect and take him just for now. She does the proper female thing and gives in, and the story ends happily.
Let me go clean the vomit out of my mouth. I have no intention of reading any more Rutherfurd books ever again. Which is kind of shame, because otherwise he's a decent author and does his research. But this kind of misogyny is simply inexcusable....more
Rounding up to 5 stars because this book takes a lot of flak from people who just aren't the right readers for the book.
Jonathan Strange & Mr NorRounding up to 5 stars because this book takes a lot of flak from people who just aren't the right readers for the book.
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is the story of two magicians in early 19th century England.... an alternate England, readers quickly discover, where magic is widely accepted (if no longer practiced) as a part of life. The strengths of this book lie primarily in the character development, the author's excellent recreation of early-19th-century-style prose, and the superbly drawn backdrop and atmosphere behind it all: from fashionable London social gatherings to the bleak northern England landscape where the heart of English magic seems to lie.
If the above paragraph doesn't constitute much of a recommendation in your mind--in particular, if you're distressed that I did not say anything about a fast-paced plot or action scenes--then you should not read this book.
I was immediately drawn in by the first scene of this book: a rather humorous account of a meeting of the Learned Society of York Magicians, none of whom have ever done any magic; within a couple of pages I understood why Clarke is often compared to Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. The characters come instantly to life, even the ones who aren't very likeable. The relationship between the title characters is the focus of this novel, and it's so complicated and human and believable that I couldn't help but keep reading.
The prose is great and does an excellent job of maintaining the sense of immersion in the time period. Most historical fiction authors make no attempt to use period language--nor should they--but Clarke can pull it off and it's brilliant. I love her subtle wit, and the footnotes are excellent. Normally I'm not a big fan of footnotes, but the way Clarke uses them, to give us background information, flesh out side-stories and cite to fictitious works of magic, adds so much to the story.
And of course, the alternate-history worldbuilding is excellently done. Clarke does a great job re-imagining how England would be with magic as part of its makeup; quite similar to the real England in many respects, but the deviations are well woven into the setting and learning more about how it all fit together kept me reading. And as I mentioned before, the atmosphere and scene-setting are excellent.
I will still voice a few gripes. Some of the secondary characters did not seem quite as well-developed as they could be given the amount of page time they got; I suppose it's their English reserve getting in the way, but I didn't feel that I knew characters like Childermass or Lascelles very well at all. The scenes with Stephen Black--although he's a great character--became repetitive. And especially for a female author, I found Clarke's female characters a bit passive. They have personality, but when a man and a woman wind up in the same unpleasant situation for most of the book, he manages to carry on as normal while she does little but sulk. For a decade. Come on, have some strength of character, please.
At any rate, I highly recommend this book, but to a specific subset of the population: only if you're happy to read a long, slow-paced book for the characterization, setting and prose. Read the Amazon excerpt before you buy. ...more
So, having already read Sharon Kay Penman's excellent The Sunne in Splendour, I picked up this book, also about the War of the Roses, because I thoughSo, having already read Sharon Kay Penman's excellent The Sunne in Splendour, I picked up this book, also about the War of the Roses, because I thought it would be cool to read about the same time period as seen through the eyes of Marguerite of Anjou. By 75 pages in, I realized the characters were all way too bland to hold my interest. Besides, Higginbotham's "rethinking" of Marguerite looked like it was going to boil down to "she did everything to protect the rights of her husband and son" and, well, I gathered that from Penman's version.
Could work as brain candy. But not what I was looking for....more
Unlike some other reviewers, I wouldn't call Tides of War boring, but I will say it tries to do too much with too many characters in too little time.Unlike some other reviewers, I wouldn't call Tides of War boring, but I will say it tries to do too much with too many characters in too little time. More specifically, it isn't that there are too many characters based on sheer numbers: it's that there are too many different stories being told at once, too many independent arcs. First we meet Harriet and James Raven, a newlywed couple separated when he's set off fight Napoleon's troops in Spain. We meet the Duke of Wellington, and Lady Wellington, who's finding her own independence while her husband is away commanding troops. Okay, fair enough. Seems like a manageable number of main characters, if a bit high for a 368-page book. But, no, here's an army doctor, a volunteer, a middle-aged army wife, a financier, an aide-de-camp, a weaver-turned-soldier, a painter, a widow.... oh, and who's that Herriers guy again? I count at least a dozen "main" characters in this book, in that they all get sections from their own points-of-view following their own independent storylines--no wonder this book is a mess. The storylines often don't intersect that much, there isn't much time to develop them, and in some cases I simply don't see the point. And it doesn't help that the characters are introduced in quite unmemorable ways, so it takes awhile to sort them out. (Speaking of unmemorable introductions, this book makes my all-time top two for "least interesting first sentence." But it does get better.)
Just as the book has too many main characters for its length, it also tries to deal with too many big issues--everything from the psychological trauma caused by war and the soldiers' difficulties in reintegrating into civilian society, to the technological changes inspiring the Luddite movement, to women's rights, to imperialism. The book is so overwhelmed with themes that it can't do any of them justice.
Also, there are some technical problems: there's a lot of "head-hopping," where the point-of-view shifts from one character to another without any page breaks to tip the reader off, and unattributed dialogue, necessitating re-reading to figure out who said what.
Tides of War isn't, however, an irredeemably awful book. The scenes themselves are interesting, the characters' personalities are well delineated for the amount of screen time they get, and the writing style is not bad. On many (most?) of the themes, I think Tillyard has interesting and insightful things to say; the book felt fresh in a lot of places, but before it could delve much into anything it was on to something else. The psychology of the characters felt real and the history was interesting. Unfortunately, this isn't enough to bring the book up to a higher star rating; it certainly has potential, and if Tillyard had had a better editor (and a more generous word limit?) it might have been a very good book. As is, though, I can't recommend it.
And a warning: the book has a fair number of potentially disturbing elements. There's a character who performs experiments in transfusion on animals, there's at least one detailed field-operation scene, and most notably, there's a brutal gang rape described from the point-of-view of one of the rapists. (By contrast, there's a minimal amount of battlefield violence depicted.)
Finally.... while I wasn't bored by the book, it was not compelling reading and I nearly didn't finish it. Two stars. ...more
Having been disappointed with most of what I’d been reading lately, I decided to read this book even though I’m not a short story fan, because I thougHaving been disappointed with most of what I’d been reading lately, I decided to read this book even though I’m not a short story fan, because I thought Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell was an absolutely brilliant book. And I was in the mood for something I knew would be good.
And it was good. These eight short stories, set in the same imagined England as Clarke’s novel, share much of its atmosphere and wit. As is to be expected, they’re also very well-written, in the same sort of nineteenth-century language as the novel. I enjoyed them--particularly the title story, “Mrs Mabb,” “Mr Simonelli” and “Tom Brightwind,” all longer stories dealing with the relationships between people and the magical world.
But I can’t say this collection has converted me into a fan of short stories—I find I have little to say about it. They’re certainly well-done, but it’s Clarke’s next novel that I’m really waiting for....more
This will be a personal reaction, not a proper review. And yes, 4 stars, which for a book of the stature of Middlemarch, translates as, “This is veryThis will be a personal reaction, not a proper review. And yes, 4 stars, which for a book of the stature of Middlemarch, translates as, “This is very good, but I was disappointed.”
Middlemarch is the story of a number of people in an English town in the early 1830s, written decades later with the benefit of research. There’s the idealistic Dorothea, who wants to do good in the world; the equally idealistic Lydgate, who wants to reform the medical profession; the careless but good-natured Fred; the evangelical banker, Bulstrode, who has a dark secret; and many more. Several storylines intersect throughout the novel, which touches on politics, religion, medicine, social change and a good deal more.
Eliot has a reputation for writing great characters, and yes, the characters here are all distinct, complex and believable. And yes, the writing is genuinely insightful, and when the narrator (as she often does) comments on some aspect of human nature, it’s likely to be something you’ll recognize, perhaps something you hadn't quite put your finger on before. And yet, it is a long and slow-paced novel, taking a lot of time for scene-setting and extended metaphors, and also a rather didactic one; I felt the characters were explained more than shown, smothered under layers of authorial intent. I never felt much connection to this story, though it did become more interesting as it went. While I recognize Eliot’s talent here, it’s not a book that captured me and I find myself with little to say about it.
However, my lukewarm response may not predict yours. First, I enjoy strong writing and complex characters, but am less interested in more academic aspects of literary writing, such as classical references, symbolism, or extended metaphor; those who eat all that up are likely to love this. And second, I’m just tired of reading about well-to-do, repressed English country people in the 19th century; I think I’ve reached the point at which, however insightful an author’s vision may be, it loses its luster by focusing on this particular milieu. Within that setting, Eliot’s scope is much broader than, say, Austen’s, but for all the books that have been written about it, this society is simply not that interesting. On to something else, and maybe in 20 or 30 years I’ll reread this and like it more.
On the edition: I read the Penguin Classics version, which is fine. Endnotes are somewhat more numerous than necessary, but at least they don’t spoil anything....more