"Jordan." "Tom." "What are you thinking?" "Stuff."
This could have been a much better book than it was.
First of all, it's tough to pull off an epistolary...more"Jordan." "Tom." "What are you thinking?" "Stuff."
This could have been a much better book than it was.
First of all, it's tough to pull off an epistolary novel because sometimes a writer needs to convey gathering action and building intensity of conflict... and it comes off very poorly if you've already locked yourself into an epistolary style.
For example, there's a scene in The 19th Wife where Brigham Young is locked in a jail and thinks he sees people coming through the night to murder him. But because Ebershoff decided to do all the "historical" parts of the novel epistolary-style (though please note, it's ALL fictionalized, except for one chunk of one of Brigham's speeches... even things that didn't need to be fictionalized such as the origin and name of Ann Eliza Young's mother), the result is some of the most awkward craftsmanship I've ever encountered in a novel.
I listened to the audiobook, so quoting exactly is difficult, but basically, Brigham is writing along, then he suddenly goes on a diversion about the people he sees coming through the night to kill him. Obviously it strains credulity to think that somebody who believes murders to be coming for him right that moment would sit there and calmly record all this thoughts and feelings on paper as it's happening, and evidently Ebershoff understood this, because he then throws in a line or two (from Brigham's POV, of course) about how he just got up to check and see if the people outside the jail are still there, and sure enough, there they are. Time to keep writing about this. What?!
Nearly all of the epistolary bits were equally awkward. It was simply a poor device to choose for such an action-heavy storyline, and apparently the only reason such a device was used was to include the "Kelly" storyline -- the young woman who's researching Ann Eliza Young for her Master's thesis. So the epistolary bits are intended to be "historical documents" that she is reading.
Great, except for one thing: there was no point at all in having Kelly's storyline included in the book. Aside from the fact that she briefly meets up with Jordan and Johnny, and takes Johnny in for a short time (to conveniently get him out of Jordan's hair), Kelly had nothing whatsoever to do with Jordan's mystery and his struggle to save his mother.
In fact, no part of the Ann Eliza Young storyline had anything to do with Jordan's storyline. Except for the fact that both women were the "nineteenth" wives of their respective husbands. But even that coincidence never had any bearing on the story. Ann Eliza's history had zero to do with solving Jordan's mystery. These were two parallel stories in the truest sense of the word "parallel" -- at no point in time did the storylines touch, except in the most superficial ways that had no true bearing on the plot of either.
Each story would have been far more enjoyable if they'd been allowed to play out on their own.
A novelization of Ann Eliza Young's life and speculation about her end would have made a wonderful historical novel. And without having to cram it into the modern day, there would be no need for Kelly, the modern-day student, and thus no need for the obnoxious and distracting epistolary style.
Jordan's story interested me far less, even though I like a good fundie-Mormon thriller (see Michael Wallace's awesome The Righteous series for several excellent modern-day polygamist-Mormon crime novels.) But frankly, Jordan's voice was irritating and stilted and difficult to listen to/read (see the quoted dialogue at the beginning of this review for explanation.) The constant harping on his dog got really old, and I predicted the twist at the end of the book miles before it came. Plus, Jordan's thread of the story relied far too much on coincidences, over and over, to be believable or to feel truly tense. Jordan had so many opportunities and clues dropped into his lap that he almost felt like a passive character. Throw in my annoyance with the confessional note at the end -- NOBODY would do that -- and my eyes rolled all the way back to the nineteenth century. But as much as I disliked Jordan's part of the story, it still would have been a more effective story on its own instead of being hitched into this awkward troika with Ann Eliza Young and Kelly, the utterly pointless Master's student.
Plus, if we had no Kelly storyline to deal with, I never would have had to waste my time listening to the Lorenzo parts. Lorenzo was one of the most irritating and useless characters I've encountered in fiction, though I suspect he would have been far less annoying if his observations about dolphins (which had not a thing to do with the story) weren't conveyed via a freaking letter.
All in all, I wouldn't be quick to recommend this book to anybody, although the parts about Ann Eliza's life, although needlessly fictionalized far away from her true biography, were interesting. So bonus star for that. However, Ann Eliza herself was a very capable and engaging writer. Her autobiography, Wife No. 19, is well worth a read all on its own.(less)
The Borgias are one of those popular subjects in historical fiction that, for me, just don’t captivate my imagination. I know. I’m gaping at me in dis...moreThe Borgias are one of those popular subjects in historical fiction that, for me, just don’t captivate my imagination. I know. I’m gaping at me in disbelief, too. IT MAKES NO SENSE.
There is so much rich potential in the basic story for unending fascination: the corruption of the Western world’s greatest superpower (the Vatican), plotting and scheming, sumptuous settings, rumors of all kinds of skeevy things like murders and incest and not just regular incest but ornate polygons formed of super-incest. It’s a goldmine. And yet every time I’ve tried to get into a Borgia story, whether a novel or that one TV show, I just get bored and drift away. Even if Jeremy Irons is involved!
So I was very pleasantly surprised to find that I was hooked by The Serpent and the Pearl, sucked straight into the story, and totally unwilling to let it go when it ended. (I immediately bought the next audiobook in the series, The Lion and the Rose, moments after the first one ended.) I was so into this story that I listened to it non-stop while painting fancy accent walls in my new apartment. I had my phone stuffed into my bra, blasting The Serpent and the Pearl in my face while I stood precariously on a chair to reach the very high ceiling with a roller.
Imagine Kate Quinn’s irresistibly lush words emanating from my boobs. (Kate, if you want to use that as a blurb on your next release, please feel free. I know it’s a stirring image.)
So, yes, a book managed to make me interested in the Borgias. Although I must confess it’s not really the Borgias themselves that interest me in Quinn’s series…though they are wonderfully portrayed here, with their legendary skeeviness dialed back (in most cases) and their personalities far more humanized and sympathetic (in most cases) than popular accounts of the famous family would have you believe. No, I found the Borgia characters ambitious and overstuffed on the feast of their own power, but wholly human, not unlikeable, and very easy to swallow.
But it was Giulia and Leonello who really won me over.
Giulia Farnese, the notorious mistress of Pope Alexander VI, would be an easy character to do all wrong. She was beautiful, and it’s so easy for authors to make a young woman’s beauty her most remarkable feature. It’s also rather a cliché to make a woman as stunning as Giulia either vapid or cruel. Quinn’s Giulia is neither. She’s intelligent but subtle, aware of her strengths and her limitations, and clever enough to turn tricky situations to her advantage more often than not. In addition, she is incredibly kind, generous, and loving. All in all, she is a character you can root for and love without any reservations.
Leonello is a little harder to pin down. Smart, resourceful, and ferocious when he needs to be, one is never quite sure whether it’s care for his friends that motivates him, or his desire to come out on top, to be the winner, to solve the mystery. (And there is a mystery.) I suppose it’s impossible to avoid comparing him to Tyrion in A Song of Ice and Fire (Leonello, too, is a dwarf) but although both characters are subtle and brainy and book-lovers, and friends with whores, I never felt like Leonello was in any way a copy of or even an homage to Tyrion. The two characters are dramatically different where it counts, deep in their personalities.
A third narrator also shares the spotlight, Carmelina, Giulia’s cook (view spoiler)[and a run-away nun (hide spoiler)]. While Carmelina’s point of view was never torment to read/listen to, I just didn’t connect with her as strongly as I did with Giulia and Leonello.
Against the overall story of Rodrigo Borgia’s rise to the papal seat and his family’s moments of drama, a more intimate and urgent story propels the book forward at a compelling rate: the mystery of who is murdering young women in Rome. All the murders are the same, with the victims staked down with knives or daggers through their palms, and their throats cut.
By about halfway through the book, both Leonello and the reader have a pretty good idea of whodunit (though…things might not be quite as they seem) but the sense of satisfaction doesn’t come from answering that question. It comes from watching three ultimately powerless figures struggle to bring an untouchable criminal to justice in a world he very nearly controls.
Not only is this plot obviously amazing, and the characters wonderful and fascinating, but Kate Quinn’s prose never drops below the octave of “awesome.” It frequently soars up into a sustained pitch of transcendent beauty. The scenes featuring Carmelina’s aphrodisiac feast were written in achingly gorgeous prose, as were many others. In parts, the book tiptoed near the edge of Hilary Mantel’s territory with regards to the loveliness of the writing.
So, with a tight plot, deep and dimensional characters, and wordplay to die for, The Serpent and the Pearl gets the highest possible rating from me. Bonus: Quinn pulls off that trick I’m always ranting about, first-person narration in historical fiction. It’s so often botched, but here the reader doesn’t miss a speck of emotion or detail, in any of three narrators’ points of view.
And I must say, the narrator who does Leonello’s parts in the audiobook has the sexiest voice. He sounds just like Jeremy Irons! I think I am developing a little crush on Leonello. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
I picked this book up after stumbling across the author's blog while scouring the internet for information on Rhodopis. Th...moreAll in all, not a bad story.
I picked this book up after stumbling across the author's blog while scouring the internet for information on Rhodopis. The "original Cinderella" of Greek-period Egypt has a moderately-sized role to play in a book I'm currently working on, and it's darned hard to find any resources on her life -- either the character of the legend or the real hetaera who went by the professional handle of Rhodopis. So I was very pleased to find this novelization of Rhodopis' life.
Hetaera: Daughter of the Gods takes the reader from the famous courtesan's earliest days as a Thracian adolescent through some harrowing times up until her final triumph as the consort of Pharaoh Ahmose II (called Amasis in the novel.) Along the way she meets and joins forces with Aesop (he of the infamous fables), and has...some kind of interaction with Sappho, the famous poet. It's an engaging tour through a fascinating part of Mediterranean and Egyptian history.
I had a few quibbles with the book. I felt the writing style was a little dry and flat for my taste; I would have liked a lot more show instead of tell. And I felt like some plot lines were a bit unresolved. Some, like Rhodopis' interactions with Sappho, felt as if they were leading up to more story...but in the end were not explored any further, and I found myself wondering what the heck happened with that character (and some others.)
On the whole, though, it was a fun story that kept me reading until the end. I'll be glad to check out the author's next book, which is about Semiramis (another woman from history about whom not nearly enough has been written!)(less)
A unique and unforgettable take on the Norse gods.
The culture of Iceland is explored, during the time period when Christianity just begins to encroach...moreA unique and unforgettable take on the Norse gods.
The culture of Iceland is explored, during the time period when Christianity just begins to encroach on the old religion via Norway. It's a beautiful blend of myth and history, weaving such characters as gods, half-gods, "dwarves" and "giants" into a tapestry of characters who feel lush and real.
The book does a marvelous job of turning the original legend of Freya's necklace into a plausible story (as long as you're willing to accept a few premises, such as the concept of a woman turning into a falcon with the aid of a magic cloak.) As various characters struggle for possession of the legendary necklace, the Brisingamen, it becomes clear that they are really struggling with various aspects and facets of love. Their individual conflicts play out against the violent and chaotic landscape of Iceland, culminating in inevitable geologic tragedy that still has a bit of a silver lining.
The structure leans more toward the literary, with focus on prose and style, so if that's not your thing you probably won't enjoy Ice Land. However, if you are a fan of rich words, poignant emotion, and experimental structure, this is one you won't want to miss.
I listened to the audiobook with Davina Porter narrating. Every time Porter opens her mouth solid gold falls out, so if you want a bonus treat, get the audiobook version of Ice Land and enjoy.(less)