Showing posts with label historical fiction. Show all posts
Showing posts with label historical fiction. Show all posts

Friday, June 1, 2018

Queen of Kenosha by Howard Shapiro

Rating: WARTY!

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

This is the third - and last as far as I'm concerned! - in a loose collection of comics telling supposedly positive and life-affirming stories. I was not impressed by any of them and the artwork was a bit odd to say the least, particularly in this one. there really was a Queen of Kenosha - Dorothy J Queen, who died in 2012!

In previous comics this author had depicted male characters who looked quite feminine for no apparent reason, but in this one we get the opposite: the female characters look rather masculine. I don;t know if this is a deliberate gender-bending effort or simply accidental, but it didn't work. I don't mind feminine-looking men or masculine-looking women, but if you're going to put them into a graphic novel and you don't want your reader to be continually distracted by them, then there really ought to be some sort of reason for it. There was none here that I could see.

Nina Overstreet used to be in a duo with her cousin and now her cousin is no longer is part of it, for reasons which go unexplained, but is still Nina's 'manager'. One night, an odd event happens which brings Nina to the attention of a secret government agency and for no real reason whatsoever they recruit her, while still demeaning her as a female.

This is particularly odd because their idea is purportedly that a female can offer distraction and an intro into areas where a man might stand out, but the author drew Nina as very masculine-looking, so it begs the question as to why these guys are hiring her as a female distraction when she looks just like one of the guys! It made zero sense.

Add to this the fact that one of the two guys is a complete jerk, while the other is an obvious love interest, who also acts like a jerk at times, and you have a very predictable story at best and at worst, a disaster in the making. Nina is supposed to be a strong female character, but she really isn't. She wasn't impressive and the story was boring. It was set in 1963 and they're talking about Nazi sympathizers and a network of underground Nazi spies? If it had been Soviets instead of Nazis, I might have maybe bought that, but like this it was a joke and it read like a really bad fifties B movie. I cannot recommend it.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Sashenka by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Rating: WARTY!

Sashenka was another audiobook experiment I tried that failed. I don't normally go for the longer books because my time is valuable and it's a bigger investment of it to put it into a longer book and have that fail. If it works out, it's great, but given that I take more risks with audiobooks, they tend to fail more than other media, so I tend not to go for the longer ones. This one sounded like it might be good if it worked out, but it didn't.

If it had bee about half the length it was, I might have been willing to invest more time in it, but it was endlessly rambling, jumping back and forth, and worse, the author seemed like he was obsessed with showing off his knowledge of the classics instead of telling a succinct and engaging story. He spewed out title after title, some of which I'd even heard of, but it served the story not at all. Writers who do this are among the most pretentious, substituting books for smarts, and book names for knowledge and sophistication.

Despite this focus on showing how intellectual the main character is, the ham-fisted book blurb describes her - sixteen-year-old Sashenka Zeitlin - as "Beautiful and headstrong" like her best trait is her beauty. I detest writers who reduced women to skin-depth, like a woman has nothing else to offer and their character is quite useless except for her 'beauty'. What does it matter where she is on the dangerously sliding scale of beauty to ugliness if she's an interesting character? Is she so boring that the author has to make her beautiful in order for her to have anything at all to offer the reader? Because that doesn't work for me.

It's not just the book blurb writer. The author himself is equally culpable, sexualizing his character very early on in the story when he informs us that she has the "fullest breasts in her class." How is this remotely relevant to anything? If the story were about sex, then I can see how it would be something of import, but it isn't. It's supposed to be about this woman and her life in Tsarist and then revolutionary Russia. Her breasts are really nothing to do with her story unless she goes to work for the communists seducing political enemies, in which case I could see some relevance. if the tit doesn't fit, you mustn't acquit, and I find this author guilty.

I thought it might start to get interesting when Sashenka is thrown into prison as a political offender because of her association with her uncle, but no! The novel is set in 1916, right before the Russian revolution, and I thought this might make it quite gripping, but the author seems to have sterilized it so effectively that the rich soil of a potentially entertaining novel is reduced to unproductive sand.

The only interesting thing to me was the repeated mention of gendarmes, which I had never heard of in connection with Russia, but these were the political police. It would have made more sense to call them jandarmov, which is how the Russians pronounced it.

The author may be able to write knowledgeable non-ficiton about this era, but he has no clue how to write a gripping novel, a compelling main character, or realistic female characters.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Thomas and Buzzy Move Into the President's House by Vicki Tashman

Rating: WORTHY!

This was a great idea: teaching children history by letting them see it through the eyes of well-known historical figure's pets - and at the same time, in this case, allaying fears a child might have about a change or even upheaval in their life - such as moving to a new house.

I'm not a fan of Jefferson and see no reason for deface on Mount Rushmore(!), but whether you like an historical figure or not has no bearing on whether it's worth learning something about them, and I think this is a charming way to do it: seeing Jefferson through the eyes of his French chien bergère de Brie (sheepdog of the brie region - the home of brie cheese).

Beautifully and artistically illustrated by the talented Fátima Stamato (I loved her image of Buzzy on page six, at the start of chapter two, which is monitor-screen wallpaper-worthy!), this book tells of the worries of Buzzy, when she learns that Jefferson is going to become the new president (in 1801) and has to live in the President's House, now much more commonly known as The White House.

Buzzy (which actually was the name of a dog owned by Jefferson) is afraid of moving and leaving her beloved farm and friends behind (a horse, another dog, and a mockingbird Jefferson got to replace an earlier one he had bought from a slave), but when she realizes she can bring along her favorite pillow, and her fetch toy, and water bowl, and set them up where she wants in this new residence, she feels a lot more comfortable. Some things change, but others remain much the same, and finally she's happy with her new home.

The author rather glosses over the fact that Jefferson had been vice president for the previous four years (a position he got through a mistake in the constitution!), so while he had not been resident in the White House (vice presidents lived in their own home until relatively recently, when a government residence was opened for them) he certainly knew it quite well, both inside and out. That doesn't mean Buzzy ever visited, of course, so this was more than likely a very new situation for her.

The author also glosses over the fact that Jefferson soon became a breeder of the variety of dog (indeed, Buzzy gave birth on the trip back to the US, so Jefferson actually arrived here with three dogs). Buzzy was not the only such dog at Monticello, but to have multiple "Briards" running around would just confuse things as would it have done to depict Buzzy more accurately as an outdoor dog, rather than living in the house. Dogs back then were considered working animals (and even pests in livestock country, the ownership of which was taxed), so the mockingbird, "Dick" was much more of a pet to Jefferson than Buzzy was, but again, this makes for a better story for children, even if somewhat inaccurate, so overall I was very pleased with this book, and I recommend it as a worthy read for the intended age range (4 - 8yrs).

Saturday, May 9, 2015

MASH by Richard Hooker

Title: MASH
Author: Richard Hooker
Publisher: Harper Collins
Rating: WORTHY!

Audio Book read excellently by Johnny Heller.

According to wikipedia, Richard Hooker's real name was Richard Hornberger. He died in 1997. I'm not sure why a guy by the last name of Hornberger would change it to Hooker! That's hardly an improvement in my opinion, but I guess it's his choice! It was his experience working in the 8055th M.A.S.H (Mobile Army Surgical Hospital) during the Korean war that gave him the background for the story. Here again is a case where a novel that turned out to be successful was rejected repeatedly by Big Publishing&Trade; despite the runaway success of its spiritual predecessor, which was Joseph Heller's renowned Catch-22 which I reviewed in February 2014. The two novels are very different though.

Hooker worked on this novel for eleven years, we're told and then had a sports writer polish it before William Morrow had the smarts to pick it up and publish it in 1968. It was pretty much immediately turned into a movie starring Donald Sutherland as the main character Benjamin Franklin "Hawkeye" Pierce, which I also review on my blog. It led, two years later, to the long-running TV show. I was never a fan of the TV show. It kinda sucked. The movie, which I enjoyed, is closest to the novel, but it excludes a lot perforce. You have to actually read the novel, which is quite short, to get the full flavor of the joy and humor of this excellent story, or listen to the audio book narrated by Johnny Heller, as I did.

The novel (as does the movie) begins with Duke Forrest and Hawkeye Pierce arriving at unit 4077 (the double natural). They have traveled there by jeep over a long day and have bonded on the journey. Colonel Henry Blake, their CO, puts then on night shift and they billet with Major Jonathan Hobson, a highly religious guy who spends a lot of time praying. In the movie, they conflate this guy with Major Frank Burns, and in the TV show they conflate Burns with Charles Emerson Winchester III.

Life in the camp is a series of days with literally nothing to do, punctuated harshly and violently with endless hours in surgery as soldiers are brought in from the latest offensive or defensive. The hi-jinks and trouble-making naturally occur during the surgical downtimes, but the two new surgeons prove themselves highly competent, and are soon liked by pretty much everyone despite their lax attitude outside of the OR. Friction soon erupts with Hobson, and eventually the other two talk Blake into sending him home. Blake in the novel is nothing like either of the Blakes on the screen.

As their experience of the types of injury grows, Pierce and Forrest decide they're getting too many chest injuries that neither feels very expert at tackling, so they prevail upon Blake to get a "chest cutter" and he shows up in the form of "Trapper" John McIntyre, who is cold and distant to begin with, but eventually warms to his situation and the two men with whom he shares a tent. Their domain is known as the Swamp (after Hooker's own billet in Korea) and the three together are frequently referred to in the narrative as "The Swamp Men".

The chaplain had quite a role in the TV series, but in the movie and the novel he's very much a minor character. Since he's Catholic, Forrest, a protestant, demands a like-minded chaplain, but the one they get is completely clueless and likes to write peppy letters to families about their wounded sons. This idiotic misrepresentation finally goes too far, and the Swamp men threaten to burn him on a cross at one point. This is omitted from both the movie and the TV show. The movie does retain the funeral of Captain Waldowski, the camp dentist, which is never actually a funeral. He is depressed however, so they hold a service and drop him from a helicopter. After he sobers up the next day he's fine.

The Swamp men also take a dislike to Major Frank Burns because he's a jerk whose only real skill seems to be his facility with open heart massage. Both Duke and trapper deck him at one time or another, and Blake is furious. It's at this point that Major Margaret Houlihan, a stickler-for-rule-rules chief nurse shows up. She sides with burns and detests the Swamp men as an unruly, disrespectful rabble. This culminates in a fight which Pierce provokes and Burns falls right into. The fight is witnessed by Blake, who sends Burns home, and bitches out the swamp men for now depriving him of two surgeons.

Another incident missed from the movie is the Ho-Jon affair. The Swamp Men pretty much adopt their Korean houseboy, and when he's drafted into the Korean army, they try to keep him out of it. He comes back to them wounded and after saving his life, decide to sponsor him to attend Pierce's own college. They raise money for this by selling signed photographs of Trapper John dolled up to look like Jesus Christ. People actually buy these and before long they have several thousand dollars and off goes ho-Jon.

In a sequence very similar to that depicted in the movie, Trapper and Hawkeye are tapped to fly to Japan to perform surgery on the son of a US congressman, and they take advantage of this to tighten up their golf technique. They also fix up a child who is being taken care of in the local pediatric hospital-cum-whorehouse.

One of the most amusing sections, for me, was when Blake is ordered to Tokyo and is expected to be gone for several weeks, so a temporary CO is drafted in and although he isn't too bad, the Swamp men want to avoid him. In a sequence reminiscent of the man who saw everything twice form Catch-22, the three of them come up with a plan to convince the temporary CO that Pierce is in need of psychiatric treatment. The three of them get to go for evaluation, talking of mermaids and epileptic whores. The way this is written is hilarious, but it's entirely omitted from the movie, which by-passes this and jumps straight to the football game.

The movie portrays it slightly differently, but in the novel, Radar is calling plays based on his supernatural senses, and with twenty-twenty-twenty-four points on the board, the opposition's sedated (or at least their leading player is), and because Pierce got Blake to bring a in professional football player who is also a surgeon, the 4077th squeaks by with a 28-24 win and makes a mint out of it.

The story winds down a bit flatly, with nothing going on, and the original two, Forrest and Pierce pretending to have battle fatigue and presenting themselves as chaplains, so they have an easy ride and no work to do. I had one major issue throughout this novel which was Hooker's addiction to adding "he said" after very nearly every speech. It became annoying in short order in the audio version; maybe reading it yourself would make it feel less glaring. I don't know. I could have done without that, but on balance I recommend this novel. It's not the classic which Catch-22 is, but it is a decent second-best. It parallels Catch-22 in some regards, but it is its own novel, just as goofy, although rather less crazy. I recommend it for anyone who is interested in war stories with a humorous angle.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Rupert's Parchment by Eileen Cameron

Title: Rupert's Parchment: Story of Magna Carta
Author: Eileen Cameron
Publisher: Mascot Books
Rating: WORTHY!

DISCLOSURE: Unlike the majority of reviews in this blog, I've neither bought this book nor borrowed it from the library. This is a "galley" copy ebook, supplied by Net Galley. I'm not receiving (nor will I expect to receive or accept) remuneration for this review. The chance to read a new book is often enough reward aplenty!

This is an amazing story for children - not your usual bland stuff. It's a true story in a way, but of course it's fictionalized since no one actually recorded whose sons were there at Runnymede. Maybe it actually happened this way?

To begin with, I found myself wondering how many American kids would like this story. Could they relate to it? But then I found myself wondering how many English kids could. Finally I found myself realizing that if they were anything like me when I was a kid, they'd more than likely love it because it involves a true story, and kings and knights, and nobles and barons, and the secrets of the trade, so what's not to love - and learn from?

Rupert is the son of the parchment-maker (don't worry, it's all explained in this book). He's happy to help out and learn an important trade which will see him set up for later life. On the day soldiers show-up and deprive his dad of their hand-cart, some monks also show-up asking for the very best parchment Rupert's dad can supply. What's going on?

Rupert has no idea. His family is happy to make it from one day to the next. They're really not up on politics and royal intrigue. He is up for adventure, however, so he's thrilled to get the chance to travel along with the scribes to Runnymede where a bunch of irate noblemen are about to harangue the only English king to be named after a toilet, about injustices.

Rupert gets to see (and spy) first hand on the activities and to celebrate the resulting Great Charter which laid the foundations of a constitution for the nation, from which we could view distantly, had we the foresight, the earliest beginnings of a significant loss of royal power in Britain.

Monday, February 23, 2015

The Dream Lover by Elizabeth Berg

Title: The Dream Lover
Author: Elizabeth Berg
Publisher: Random House
Rating: WARTY!

DISCLOSURE: Unlike the majority of reviews in this blog, I've neither bought this book nor borrowed it from the library. This is a "galley" copy ebook, supplied by Net Galley. I'm not receiving (nor will I expect to receive or accept) remuneration for this review. The chance to read a new book is often enough reward aplenty!

Not to be confused with half-a-dozen other novels which use this same title, this is a fictionalized story set in the world of real-life writer Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin, more popularly known as George Sand. Starting in January 1831, it features George embarking upon a stagecoach ride to Paris where she will try to interest a publisher in her novel Aimée (a fictional novel as far as I'm aware since Sand never published any work with that title).

This novel has no numbered chapters, just chapter headers. I skipped the prologue as I habitually do (prologues, forewords, introductions, prefaces, etc). If the author doesn't consider it sufficiently worthy for incorporation into the body of the book, I don't consider it worth expending my time upon.

The novel is also first person PoV, a voice which I detest because it's the most selfish voice: all 'me', all the time, and it didn't work here. Few writers can honestly make it work, quite frankly. It all-too-often comes off sounding inauthentic, or really irritating, and I wish writers would avoid it unless they have a really, truly, honestly compelling reason to go there.

Chapter '2' consists of a huge historical info-dump which I skipped since it seemed irrelevant to me, and more like the author was simply showing-off how much research she'd undertaken. Chapter '3' was the same. Finally, in the next chapter (after a bit more flashback) we get back to the current story. Unfortunately in the very next chapter after that, we get another huge flashback to 1805.

It was then that I realized that I was being told two stories, only one of which I had any interest in. The first was of George's childhood, and the second was what was happening now (now being 1831 in the novel). I had whiplash by this point. Can we not tell the current story? If we're obsessed with flashbacks, why not write that story first, then make this the sequel? I rather suspect that the answer to that is. "Because it wouldn't sell". If that's the case, then that alone ought to tell you that it, perhaps like George Sand on occasion, oughtn't to be there between those covers!

So the next chapter went to 1808, and it the chapter after that where we finally got back to 1831, and we learn that George's novel is considered inadequate by an older male writer who tells her to quit with the writing and go make babies instead, but right when I really wanted to see how she reacted to this, we're suddenly back in 1808 in the next chapter. Seriously? I was beginning to detest this switch-back method of story-telling at this point.

I honestly did not care about her childhood. I wanted the 'now' story. If I'd wanted to read of George Sand's childhood, I would have read an autobiography. I thought, hoped, that this story would tell me something inventive, unique, and interesting. It didn't. It was at this point that I looked at the page count and it showed 48 out of 374, and I did not want to read even one more of those remaining 320+ pages. I really didn't.

I could not continue reading this because what I'd read so far had convinced me thoroughly that the real George Sand had to be far more interesting and arresting than was this limp, passive, and rather schizophrenic (am I a child or am I a grown-up acting like a child?) character which was all we had available to us here.

The story was far too dry and passionless, far too info-dumpy and in the end, pointless. There was nothing to draw me in and make me want to read. Unless you're going to use your fiction to take the character in some new direction, why not just write a biography? If you're interested in writing a biography, why the fiction?

I don't know how this writer feels about George Sand and actually, that's the problem in a nutshell. I felt no passion coming through from the author to the character, and if she feels so cold about it, why should I feel differently?

The novel made no sense, and didn't offer me a thing to feed on. George was presented (unintentionally, I hope) as this self-centered, self-obsessed narcissus who basically has no time for anyone but herself (hence her leaving her husband, no doubt). People like to talk about how scandalous George was but she really wasn't that different from a host of other women in that era (Mary Shelley was one, for example). This novel could have made a difference to my feeling that, but it didn't.

Admittedly I didn't read it all, but I was given no incentive to do so, and based on what I read of it, I cannot honestly recommend this.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Executioner's Daughter by Jane Hardstaff

Title: The Executioner's Daughter
Author: Jane Hardstaff (no website found)
Publisher: Egmont
Rating: WORTHY!

DISCLOSURE: Unlike the majority of reviews in this blog, I've neither bought this book nor borrowed it from the library. This is a "galley" copy ebook, supplied by Net Galley. I'm not receiving (nor will I expect to receive or accept) remuneration for this review. The chance to read a new book is often enough reward aplenty!

Note: Not to be confused with The Executioner's Daughter by Laura E Williams (which I haven't read), not with The Executioner's Beautiful Daughter by Angela Carter (which I also haven't read), nor with The Executioner's Daughter by Miguel Conner (which I also haven't read). Note also that this novel has a sequel, River Daughter, which I haven't read either. Shame on me! What's wrong with me - all these novels I haven't read?!

This story is quite a bit different from a lot of what I've been reading lately, and it was as welcome as it was a charming read. It's 1532 (that's just after three-thirty for those of you not familiar with military time), and Henry 8.0 is on the throne of England. Young Moss is the daughter of the executioner at the Tower of London. Moss's job is to catch the heads of the beheaded in her little wicker basket when they fall off. She quite good at it, but she hates her life, and her father's job.

One day she learns from him that he's been lying to her about why they never leave the Tower! Moss is furious at this revelation. She's been held prisoner just as effectively as enemies of the state, and none of it was necessary. It turns out that her dad is hiding her from someone who is apparently coming to claim her on her upcoming birthday. The Tower, he believes, despite the fact that it's right on the banks of the Thames, is the only safe place safe for her. Yeah, that plot-point is a bit thin, but the story-telling was so good that I was willing to forgive the author this - and her portrayal of the Thames freezing over that winter (it didn't!). The Thames froze - or partially froze - in 1514 and 1537, but not 1532-3.

Moss, in her wanderings around her 'home' has found a secret route that leads outside, away from the eyes of the Tower guards. Now she takes to it with a vengeance, abandoning her father and eventually ending up with a guy who ferries people across the Thames for a coin here and there. He's also a scam artist who puts himself first and foremost, and Moss becomes very disillusioned with him. She strikes out on her own one frozen night determined to find the place where her mother gave birth to her.

Is the inexperienced Moss going to survive alone on one of the coldest nights of the winter? Will she find what she seeks? And what, exactly, is it she thinks she's been seeing following her around, but forever staying below the unforgiving waters of the great river, and snaking beneath the impassive ice? I'm not going to tell you!

This novel was very well written, original, entertaining and engrossing. I kept getting back to it every chance I got and it was a fast read. Most enjoyable. The only problem I had with it was in the Kindle, where every instance of "fi" was replaced by the letter À and every instance of "fl" was replaced by the letter Á. You can see an example of it in the illustration on my blog, where the offenders have been underlined in red. I did not have this same problem in Adobe Digital Editions or in Bluefire Reader on the iPad.

Despite that annoyance, I was able to read and enjoy it without any real problems (please note that this was an advance review copy and not a regularly purchased copy, so the problem may well have been fixed in the commercial version). I recommend this novel, and I am definitely interested in reading more by this author.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Wizzywig by Ed Piskor

Title: Wizzywig
Author: Ed Piskor
Publisher: Top Shelf Comix
Rating: WORTHY!

DISCLOSURE: Unlike the majority of reviews in this blog, I've neither bought this book nor borrowed it from the library. This is a "galley" copy ebook, supplied by Net Galley. I'm not receiving (nor will I expect to receive or accept) remuneration for this review. The chance to read a new book is often enough reward aplenty!

This one had me at the cover. Now I'm pissed off that I didn't think of that first! This graphic novel follows closely the real life of Kevin Mitnick, here naming him Kevin Phenicle. I have no idea where that came from unless it's somehow a reference ot Phenic acid. Maybe it's pure invention. The novel tells the story of his initial hacking attempts (the LA transit system, believe it or not, to get free rides!) of his being bullied, and of his subsequent initiation into phone phreaking (the first real form of hacking). All of this takes place at an early age, and is prep school for his alter forays into computer hacking. His best asset was what's known as "social engineering" - finding out secrets from people just by being friendly and sociable towards them. Mitnick excelled at this.

At the time of his arrest in 1995, a pursuit documented in Tsutomu_Shimomura's Takedown (1996, Hyperion Books, which I recommend reading in tandem with Mitnick's side of the story) Mitnick was the most-wanted hacker in the USA. The events have been made into a movie known as "Track Down", which as of this writing I have not seen. The hacker quarterly, 2600 produced a documentary titled Freedom Downtime in response to the movie There has been considerable controversy over these events, and Mitnick's resultant arrest and trial and imprisonment. Mitnick has written his own book (one of many since he was released from jail) about these events including some serious criticism of the story related in Takedown. As of this writing I have not read Mitnick's book. Mitnick now runs his own computer security consulting business.

This graphic novel is done in black and white line drawings, which are skillfully executed but very basic. Dialog is sparse. Contrary to popular media stories of hacking, especially those in film, this novel tells it much more like it really is. The most successful hacks (until those which have been in the news recently, such as the stuxnet business in Iran) weren't done in Mitnick's era by someone using advanced hacking software, but by tried and proven methods of dumpster-diving (finding vital passwords and log on information from discarded business materials), and from social engineering (befriending or becoming an acquaintance of someone on the inside, and using information garnered from interactions with them to derive passwords and network navigation information.

I recommend this graphic novel. It's a really interesting piece of history and it makes a fine tale, well-told.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Pandora of Athens by Barry Denenberg

Title: Pandora of Athens
Author: Barry Denenberg (no website found)
Publisher: Scholastic
Rating: WARTY!

DISCLOSURE: Unlike the majority of reviews in this blog, I've neither bought this book nor borrowed it from the library. This is a "galley" copy ebook, supplied by Net Galley. I'm not receiving (nor will I expect to receive or accept) remuneration for this review. The chance to read a new book is often enough reward aplenty!

So it's December sixteenth which must mean it's time for a novel beginning with the letter 'P'!

This is one of at least three books in "The Life and Times" Series, the other two being Atticus of Rome written by the same author as this one, and "Maïa of Thebes written by Ann Turner.

This story is of course about a girl named Pandora, who learns at the start of the book that she is named after the woman who was created - in a creation story which was obviously taken from the same roots as the Biblical creation fairy tale - as a punishment for humans accepting the gift of fire from Prometheus (who subsequently contracted a severe liver complaint!).

Pandora lives with her strict father Alcander, and her increasingly snotty brother Polybius. Being men in a man's world, those two had it easy, and had all the freedom they wanted. Pandora had heavy restrictions placed upon her behavior and freedom because she was a woman, and she resented this immensely, but she was at least blessed by a stepmother who was a Spartan!

I don't normally do covers for the very reason (inter alia) I'm about to highlight: my blog is about writing, not window dressing, which is all covers are: fluff at best and fraud at worst. The writer has little or nothing to do with the cover unless they self-publish, which is why we get dumb-ass covers such as the one this books sports. Cover artists never, ever, ever, ever read the novel which they illustrate. If they did, then this artist would have put the amphora on the girl's head, where the text quite clearly states she carried it, instead of on her clavicle - not even her shoulder!) as the artist cluelessly cants it!

Some parts of this novel were interesting, but I got the distinct impresison that the writer had a list of facts about life in Athens, and he was determined to put all of them into this story no matter what, so some parts of it read like a shopping list.

Another issue I have with historical novels - particularly those written for young people - is how they depict real historical characters. They're usually depicted as clowns or geniuses, neither of which portrait ends up being very complimentary to them. This happens here, with Socrates presented as some sort of brilliant genius and super-hero philospher when he was no such thing.

Since everything we know about Socrates was written by Plato and others, we really don't know Socrates at all. All we know is what people said about him. He was evidently against democracy and something of a hypocrite, as well as being arrogant in the extreme. He purportedly believed that might does not make right, but he supported the Spartans against Athens!

So, all in all I am not going to recommend this novel unless you want to read it as a laundry list of aspects of life in Athens in 399BC, in which case it's not bad, I guess, but you can get a better deal by actually reading a book about life back then rather than this novel.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

Title: Oliver Twist
Author: Charles Dickens
Publisher: BBC audiobooks
Rating: WARTY!

Read in an okay manner by Martin Jarvis

So, if it's December fifteenth, then it must be time for a novel with a title starting with 'O'! Here 'tis!

Oliver Twist: The Parish Boy's Progress was a diartibe against the abuses of the poor and orphaned, and it was the second novel published by Charles Dickens. I have to say I was disappointed in this. The reading of the audiobook was okay - nothing spectacular, nothing atrocious - but the story itself was annoyingly preachy, its attempts at humor ill-conceived and flat, and it was, in the end, really boring. I was unable to finish listening to it.

The basic story is rags to riches - almost literally in this case. Oliver's mom dies in childbirth, and Oliver is raised in the poor house where he was born. He's treated abominably by our standards, but no worse than any child (or woman for that matter) of impoverished circumstances was treated back then. Eventually even he rebels against his circumstances and runs away, ending-up in the "employ" of Fagin, who fences whatever the boys steal, and takes care of them (after a fashion) in return. Eventually the boy grows up and discovers he's really from a wealthy family, whereupon he abandons and forgets everything and everyone from his past, and lives the life of luxury.

Highly, highly improbable, contrived, and above all else, boring.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Dangerous Deceptions by Sarah Zettel

Title: Dangerous Deceptions
Author: Sarah Zettel
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Rating: WARTY!

DISCLOSURE: Unlike the majority of reviews in this blog, I've neither bought this book nor borrowed it from the library. This is a "galley" copy ebook, supplied by Net Galley. I'm not receiving (nor will I expect to receive or accept) remuneration for this review. The chance to read a new book is often reward aplenty!

This is the 372 page sequel to Palace of Spies which I reviewed favorably on my blog in mid-September last year, so I was thrilled to have the chance to review its successor as well. Unfortunately, I was very disappointed in this second novel in the series.

It was about a hundred pages too long for a start, and I don't even know where the title derived, because there really wasn't anything going on here that was dangerous or deceptive - at least not any more so than in the last volume. The last volume was equally mistitled, but it at least had the distinction of being a nearly unique title, unlike this one which is one amongst two dozen.

The protagonist is the brave, inventive and sometimes smart Margaret Preston Fitzroy, commonly referred to as Peggy. This is a first person PoV story - a person which I normally detest, but some writers can carry it and render it in a non-obnoxious form, and Sarah Zettel is, to my everlasting gratitude and adoration, one of these writers. She has a way of writing these stories that make them seem authentic and highly amusing. It felt like coming home when I read, "…my rooms had remained cold enough that my fingertips had achieved a truly arresting shade of blue." Bless you Sarah Zettel! The problem is that this tone disappeared rather quickly, and the novel became a bog-standard humdrum YA historical novel all too speedily. The highly amusing title page (see image on my blog) was soon lost under YA trope.

This is an ARC which I was reading, so sometimes there are issues, even though, in this electronic age, there is very little excuse for them. Spelling and grammar should never be a problem, and on this score, a publisher doth protest too much I find, but in this instance, things were fine until I reached the last complete paragraph in page two, where I discovered that words containing an 'e' followed by a 'k' as in "weeks" and "housekeeping" had the 'ek' replaced by a bizarre symbol that looked like a bow without a string (see image on my blog).

Similarly, any word which contained the combination "eh" had those two letters replaced with an apostrophe, so that on page 4, "behind" became "b'ind" and on page five, "horsehair" became "hors'air", and elsewhere "somehow" became "som'ow", and "behaving" became "b'aving". Weird! Hopefully this will be fixed before the final copy is released!

There were other issues which are arguably arguable! Such as, for example, would a woman of that era write "more important" (as we see on page three) or "more importantly"? I would guess the latter, but it’s just a guess. On page ten we read that an acquaintance of Peggy's "...sailed through life as well as doorways" which might have been more quickly grasped had it read, "...sailed through life as readily as she did through doorways". On page 91, we might ask the question of whether an English woman of the era would write "…out the window…" or "out of the window…." But each to his or her own. On page 127, she gets it right when she has Peggy use the phrase 'exclamation mark' rather than 'exclamation point'. And I seriously doubt anyone in 1716 would say "Half six" in relating that the time was 6:30. The Brits say it now, but not two hundred years ago.

At the very beginning of this novel, Peggy's life is at once complicated by the arrival of her would be rapist and betrothed suitor Sebastian Sandford bearing a gift of tea. He wishes to talk to her, but she will have none of him, yet he presents her with a rather expensive gift of tea (Twinings was established a decade before this novel begins!), and takes pains to let her know that he will be available when she realizes that she does indeed need to talk. Rapidly on his heels arrives her nasty uncle to demand that she marry Sandford, but she refuses, and her adorable cousin Olivia stands staunchly by her side, rebelling against her own father. It’s all go, innit?!

I found it rather inappropriate that a man should call upon a woman who is not a relative, and in her chambers, too. It seems scandalous to me; however, eventually Peggy does decide to meet with Sandford, but nothing occurs to trigger her change of mind, which I found rather false, given how much she detests him. In the end the choice is removed from her and she does meet.

The story went into the doldrums about two-thirds or three-quarters of the way through and became quite boring, so I skimmed until we got to around page 315, where we find ourselves with a Casino Royale style showdown at the card table. Except that this is piquet, and there are only two players: Sebastian Sandford's brother Julius, who is playing against Peggy. Peggy has planned out this challenge and this game carefully, knowing that she can win if she doesn’t lose her concentration. How this works, especially given that Julius is cheating, is a mystery.

Sarah Zettel doesn’t write card games with anywhere near the skill that Ian Fleming did. And she evidently doesn’t know the rules of piquet, either. The piquet deck has only 32 cards. From a regular deck, this would mean the removal of all cards with a value of two through six, since only 7 and above, plus face cards and aces are used.

What this means is that the ending which Zettel wrote for the game made no sense. Peggy's win involved an errant two of clubs which could never have been in a piquet deck to begin with! Even had the card not been a two, but instead had been a non-face card other than an Ace within the confines of a piquet deck, this still offers no explanation for the game-changing conclusion which was drawn. Where's the basis for the assumption that the extra card is the one in his hand rather than the one on the floor? And why does Julius give up so quickly and equanimously? It made no sense given what we'd been told of him.

At one point - and without wanting to give too much away, there's an issue of what the Sandfords and her uncle are up to, and the answer lies in them having in their possession a massive amount of something. It's so obvious that it’s pathetic what all of that stuff was being stockpiled for, yet Peggy can’t figure it out. An army marches on its stomach dontcha know?!

In conclusion, I can't recommend this. It was unnecessarily long - far too long - and it was boring in far too many places. The tedious trope relationship between Matthew and Peggy is so awful that it makes for cringe-worthy reading. How this could have sped so fast in a downhill direction after the first volume went so well is a mystery, but I'm done with this series now.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Title: Little Women
Author: Louisa May Alcott
Publisher: ABDO
Rating: WARTY!

For some reason, this novel interested me for the longest time. There was something about the title which intrigued me, although I can’t say what it was or how it worked its influence. Finally, I decided to tackle this in an ongoing, if slightly unenthusiastic effort to read some of the so-called classics. I confess I've been almost singularly disappointed in this quest, and this novel was unfortunately no exception. It should have been titled "Little Mary Sues".

The story is rather autobiographical, drawing heavily on Alcott's own childhood (she is the Jo of this novel although their fates are different). It’s a story about four young sisters, Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, and their rather privileged and truly boring lives. Their father is a soldier in the American civil war, and the four of them live with their mother in comparative luxury all the while hinting at how deprived they are.

I was particularly sickened by the farcical description of their Christmas, where they give up their breakfast to feed a horribly impoverished woman and her child who live nearby in abject and miserable circumstances; then they promptly forget about her for the rest of the novel (at least they did as far as I read before giving up in disgust - this attitude of theirs may not have held for the entire novel).

I could not help but ask: how is it helping that woman at all to lavish attention on her for a couple of hours on Xmas morning, and then let her rot for the rest of the year? It would have made a far more interesting novel had they invited her into their home to live with them until she could get out of the circumstances which held her cruelly and rigidly trapped. Their home was spacious and comfortable. They had plenty of room.

That's not the story we get however. The main story here appeared to be that of Jo's love interest over her new neighbor, which was boring at best. That's as far as I got before I ditched this. I've learned from other reviews that she did not marry "Laurie" but married a mature professor with whom she had a much closer mindset, so kudos for that.

From what I've read of Alcott's life, she was very forward-looking and progressive, being both a feminist and an abolitionist, which begs the question as to why she seemed so desperate to marry-off the four girls in this novel and effectively kill both their independence and careers, when she herself had a long and distinguished career and never married. I don’t care if this is considered a classic, or if it was a best seller when it was first published - it’s really not very good, and I can’t recommend it.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

Title: To Kill a Mockingbird
Author: Harper Lee
Publisher: Audio Partners (website not found)
Rating: WORTHY!

Ably read by Roses Pritchard.

I picked up this book because I finally couldn't stand not knowing what the big deal was about a two-kilo mockingbird. I guess I misheard the title...just kidding!

Set in the mid 1930's during the "Great Depression" (but written in the late fifties and published in 1960), this story is told from the PoV of Jean Louise Finch, who was known as "Scout", but it's told in retrospect, by an adult Jean, remembering events years ago. Jean's mother was dead, even back then, and she lived with her father, Atticus, a lawyer, and her older brother, Jeremy, who was known as "Jem".

Harper Lee denied that the novel was autobiographical, but her own father was a lawyer, she had an older bother, she hung out with a new guy in town who lived next door, and there was a boarded-up house nearby about which they made up stories. Many events in this story actually occurred in one way or another, although they were modified for this story.

The Finch family lives next door to the reclusive Radley family, and because of this, they make up stories about the Radley's - a family which both scares and intrigues them. During this time, a local black guy, Tom Robinson, is accused of assaulting a white girl - which back then, and especially in the south, was a pretty much an automatic death sentence whether the accused did it or not.

Atticus forbids his kids from watching the trial, but they sneak into the 'colored seats' up on the balcony. By some careful legal footwork, Atticus eventually shows the court that Mayella Violet Ewell, the girl accusing Tom, and her father, Robert E Lee Ewall, are lying. It was Bob who beat Mayella, not Tom. Despite this, Tom is found guilty, and is later shot 17 times when he supposedly tries to escape from prison.

This story borrows a lot from the real-life Emmett Till case, which was equally messed up, with exaggeration and dissemination on both sides. The sad thing there is that while nothing happened (at least not through the courts) to the accusers in that case, the accused paid heavily for this event - which constituted rudeness at worst and a misunderstanding at best - with his life, in an horrific torture and murder episode in the early hours of one morning - and the accused was only fourteen years old.

This story ends in Bob Ewell's death after he launches a cowardly attack upon Jean and Jeremy as they walk home late one night from a school Halloween pageant. Why Atticus even countenanced their being unescorted given the preceding campaign of threats and intimidation which Ewell had launched against Atticus and his home is a mystery and an appalling example of irresponsible parenting.

I don't know if I would have enjoyed this had I read it rather than listened to it. It was entertaining to begin with, then got boring, then became entertaining again. Roses Pritchard did a good job or representing the older Scout reminiscing.

The story isn't a really great story, and some negative reviews I've read call it out correctly in some regards, but to me a story is either worth reading (a five-star) or it isn't (a zero-star represented by a one-star since zero isn't an option). Yes the characters were a bit flat, and yes it was a very black and white story in more than one way, but did it entertain me? Yes!

Another complaint I read was that there was no character growth, but to me, character growth is over-rated! I don't need a character to grow in a story (unless they're really awful to begin with in which case growth is a requirement!). All I need is for the characters to be entertaining. Indeed, some stories which have entertained me well are enjoyable in part because the character doesn't change. In this case I neither expected it nor needed it, and I considered this one a worthy read - or more accurately, a worthy listen.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Fagin the Jew by Will Eisner

Title: Fagin the Jew
Author: Will Eisner
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday
Rating: WORTHY!

This is a great graphic novel which takes a look at the story of Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist from the PoV of Fagin. Note that I come into this having never read Olvier Twist - an omission I shall now have to make good, I guess!

Will Eisner, who actually has a book award named after him, was disturbed by how 'dishonest Jew' bigotry had grown from roots in stories like this and Shakespeare's Shylock character from The Merchant of Venice. Dickens was not anti-Semitic, and he was aware that his novel had caused issues. He sought to correct the erroneous view he'd created, but he was too late. It had already taken root in society.

We're introduced to Moses Fagin (why Eisner chose to refer to him as 'Moses' rather than 'Moishe', I don't know) as a youth and follow his sorry life, seeing his ambitions and dreams fall apart in the face of a harsh reality made worse by Fagin's own bad choices. Eisner draws a distinction between the Sephardic and the Ashkenazim Diaspora in England, the former coming from Portugal and Spain, the latter from Germany and Poland. Both groups migrated to escape anti-Semitic pogroms, but while the former were in general, a rather well-off and elite society, the Ashkenazim were people of the land, much poorer than the Sephardics.

Fagin falls into one problem after another and ends-up serving ten years hard labor in 'the colonies'. He returns to England with an entirely different outlook on life, and finds that he can make a pretty penny by employing children as thieves, and then fencing the stolen property. This is where the story joins up with the Dickens original.

This is illustrated as a sepia-tone novel, and it's well written, and well thought-out. The artwork is really good and very endearing, and the story makes for engaging reading. I recommend this graphic novel.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Dark Secrets, Deep Bayous by Meg Hennessy

Title: Dark Secrets, Deep Bayous
Author: Meg Hennessy
Publisher: Entangled
Rating: WARTY!

DISCLOSURE: Unlike the majority of reviews in this blog, I've neither bought this book nor borrowed it from the library. This is a "galley" copy ebook, supplied by Entangled Publishing. I'm not receiving (nor will I expect to receive or accept) remuneration for this review.
My thanks to Entangled for allowing me the opportunity to preview this novel.

Set in Louisiana in 1815, this historical romance centers around land and love, lost sisters and lost property, contract marriage and piracy. It begins with a prologue which I skipped as I do with all prologues. If the author doesn't think it's important enough to get its own chapter (or at least share one) I don't think it's important enough to waste my time on.

I started out liking this novel because it seemed like it had something reasonably new and interesting to say, but unfortunately it quickly descended into nothing more than a litany of quickened heartbeats, intakes of breath, and over-heated skin. That's fine as far as it goes, but for me it simply doesn't go far enough unless there are real characters beneath that hot skin, breathing real words after those sharp intakes of breath.

Aurelie Fentonot started out as a worthy contender for an engrossing and proactive female, and she was not the usual pale-skinned waif either, so these were two strong points in her favor, but they were far too quickly overwhelmed by how weak she became whenever she was around Jordan Kincaid - the man to whom she was conjoined in a contract marriage.

There were good reasons for the marriage, and some serious rules which both parties agreed to follow when they entered into this arrangement, but from that point onwards, instead of developing a mature relationship that could have led to real love and trust, we got adolescents in heat, and this took away everything that the initial pages had built-up so beautifully.

One thing I found intensely irritating was the interjection of French phrases all over the place mixed in with English. Aurelie is purportedly from France, but of course she speaks perfectly good English nearly all the time. Indeed, she must since this is an English language novel(!), but the constant pop-up of French phrases just drove me nuts. It was as irritating to me as those web site pop-ups that get in your face right as you've begin to read something interesting that's now obscured. I felt it was a mistake because it served only as a constant reminder that the author evidently felt the need to re-establish her character's French credentials every few paragraphs when these had already been admirably established.

I struggled on with this for a long time after I felt I should give up on it, but I found myself skimming more and more paragraphs, and in the end decided I needed to just quit and move onto something which could not only attract my interest in the first place, as this one did, but then also hold it as firmly as the trope romantic male holds the trope romantic female, as this one didn't. I cannot in good conscience recommend this unless you're really just looking for a completely calorie-free romance (and recall: the calorie is a measure of what it takes to produce heat!).

Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Sweetness by Sande Boritz Berger

Title: The Sweetness
Author: Sande Boritz Berger
Publisher: She Writes Press
Rating: WARTY!

DISCLOSURE: Unlike the majority of reviews in this blog, I've neither bought this book nor borrowed it from the library. This is a "galley" copy ebook, supplied by Net Galley. I'm not receiving (nor will I expect to receive or accept) remuneration for this review.

I don't see any value to recommendations in the front of an ebook. In the print version they may sway a potential reader leafing through the pages in a book store. They would not sway me because I don't know any of those people, so their opinion carries no weight, especially since nearly all of them appear to originate from within the author's own community.

All they did was to make me wonder why they could find no one outside of that community to recommend this, or even if they actually asked - and if not, then why not? To put these in an ebook strikes me as ridiculous, because no one leafs-through an ebook. It's not even possible until you actually buy it! By then, of course, you already have the ebook in your possession, presumably because you already decided to read it, so what, exactly, is the point of these very limited recommendations? I don't know! I do find it curious, though. I think it's a symptom of the fact that print publishers have not actually begun to properly grasp the possibilities and the implications of the electronic book universe.

Set in World War Two, this novel follows the lives of two girls, Rosha in the Lithuanian city of Vilnius, and Mira in New York City, USA, who are cousins separated not only by the Atlantic ocean, but by a whole lifestyle. Mira is trying to break into the fashion business, whereas Rosha is in a country where the value of life is rapidly going out of fashion, especially if you're Jewish, Romany, gay, or otherwise classified as a person of vilification by the Nazis.

I think it might have been easier to enjoy this had I not recently read the real thing, Bedtime stories, and events from the Rear Case described by Anne Frank, which for me, I admit, set a standard that's going to be hard for anyone to surpass. I simply could not get into this novel no matter how hard I tried. It did not draw me in, nor did it engross me or make me want to turn pages. I could not find any compelling reason to pursue the story. I did not find myself interested in the characters.

In the interests of full disclosure, let me confess right here that I have no more respect for the fashion industry and those in it than I do for the cosmetics industry. I really don't. Both businesses are a grotesque insult to, and an abuse of women. I find them shallow, self-centered and petty, so Mira's story was pretty much a non-starter for me!

I could have become interested in her had there been something to spark such an interest, but there was not. Indeed, I found it very shallow, if not callous of her to be pursuing her petty interests safe in NYC, when her family in Europe was in such grave danger. Rosha's story was much more interesting, but even there, it was nothing new. I've read her story many times before, and there was nothing about this one to captivate me.

First of all, unlike with Anne Frank's case, this is fiction, and even though it has roots in reality, for me it needs to offer a lot more than just being another retreaded World War Two tragedy/drama if it's going to garner for itself any traction. When reading a story like this I have to ask: why was it written? What is its purpose? Was it because the story in question, over all others, has something new and original to impart to us? Or was it simply written because stories of this nature so readily sway a certain readership, and often garner awards for themselves not necessarily for any literary merit, but because of their very nature alone?

Yes, those events in Nazi Germany were awful almost beyond imagination and credibility, yet they were nonetheless true. The problem is that whilst it's easy to say that we must never forget, and never allow that to happen again, everywhere we look in the modern world, genocide does still happen: in Cambodia, in Rwanda, in the Sudan.

Unless you have a really original and striking story to relate - something which offers us a different category of interest than that which has been offered before (which IMO this novel does not), then it seems to me that it's quite wrong to continue to demand that we focus on the events of a half-century ago when there are much more recent, just as horrible tragedies which are in serious danger of being all-too-quickly forgotten. It seems to me that writers do the memory of those people from World War Two just as much a disservice as they do modern victims of equally horrible pogroms, by pouring out so many fictional accounts which offer nothing that's not already been trampled well down to the level of the insipid and the mediocre by scores of other heedless and ill-placed feet.

We must never forget, of course, what happened back then, but the saying remains true, that familiarity breeds contempt. So I have to ask: how easy is it for people to let their eyes slide away unseeing when presented with this plethora of stories focused on essentially the same thing? How much does it simply inure us against feeling anything for those real victims, to have fictional stories routinely trotted-out like a troupe of circus ponies? Does it not make more sense to for us to remember them by being keenly aware of the fact that whilst those people are lost to us forever, the mentality which hurt them so badly has not been lost? It's today's horrors upon which we must focus if we're to truly honor they who died the same way, albeit more than half a century ago.

It is for these reasons that I cannot recommend this novel.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Tale of Murasaki by Liza Dalby

Title: The Tale of Murasaki
Author: Liza Dalby
Publisher: Doubleday
Rating: WORTHY!

Murasaki Shikibu was a real person, who left us a diary and a novel - the earliest novel ever written of which we still have evidence - titled, The Tale of Genji hence Liza Dalby's own title. This novel (Murasaki's, not Dalby's!) was written almost a thousand years ago in what's now known as the Heian period of Japanese history. We only have it today because it was so popular in her own time that many copies were made and passed around. In modern terms, she would be a best-selling author even though she made not a single grain of rice off this novel.

Murasaki was not the only woman of that period who is remembered, curiously enough. There were several others, such as Akazome Emonis who was a waka poet, Lady Koshikibu, who was a contributor to a collection of stories titled Tales of the Riverside Middle Counselor, Izumi Shikibu, a poet whose mother (Michitsuna no Haha - her name is not known so this literally means Michitsuna's mom) wrote The Gossamer Diary, and Sei Shōnagon who wrote The Pillow Book. What a stunning group of women these were! Talk about strong females: these women were strong enough to last a thousand years and more!

Murasaki's success was in and of itself is quite remarkable, but she was distinguished in other ways, too. She was all-but unique in the fact that she could read and write Chinese, a prized skill found almost exclusively in men at that time - a time when women were not considered smart enough for "book learning"! This was important, too, because this was a period during which the Japanese were quite sycophantic about Chinese culture and language.

Most of the women mentioned above were not given, at birth, the names by which we now know them. These are nicknames or titles, describing them in terms of other things - such as a relative's occupation) rather than their family names or their given names. According to wikipedia, Shikibu is taken from her father's employment at the Ministry of Ceremonials, and Murasaki may have referred to the color of the wisteria flower. No one knows for sure what her real name was, but it may have been Fujiwara Takako (Fuji also refers to a violet color), which is the name I use here.

Fujiwara grew up pretty much with the same expectation of her that was held for all women of her time: that she would marry and produce male children for her husband. She had other ideas, however, and had a very strong personality and a real interest in and facility for learning. Her older brother was not very good at picking up Chinese, but Fujiwara, who would listen in on his lessons, mastered it. She was widely read and a good conversationalist.

As it happened she did marry, to an older man, and produced a daughter, but shortly afterwards, her husband died, and she wound up entering the royal court as a lady in waiting while someone else raised her daughter. This seems particularly odd to us today, but it was not considered out of the ordinary in her own time.

She spent some significant time at court and her relation of those days in this novel is as charming and engaging as it is revealing of court politics and antics. I loved the completely natural pace of the novel, the connection with the changing seasons, and real insight into Japanese minds from a thousand years ago. The novel is an easy read (not at all like modern historical fiction), and draws heavily upon actual historical sources with some creative fiction tying it together, written by someone who not only actually knows what she's talking about, but understands it completely. I recommend this highly.

La Princesse de Clèves by Marie-Madeleine Pioche de La Vergne

Title: La Princesse de Clèves
Author: Marie-Madeleine Pioche de La Vergne aka Madame de Lafayette
Publisher: Read a Classic
Rating: WORTHY!

I feel like I should write this in French, mais mon français aspire! (See what I mean?) Originally published in March 1678, in France as La Princesse de Clèves, and possibly written by Marie-Madeleine Pioche de La Vergne, aka Madame de La Fayette, this novel was a huge success in its day. And it had a less nonsensical cover than this modern edition does. Seriously - the title in half English and half French, the accent which should be on 'Clèves' is missing, but the dot over the 'i' in 'Princesse' is warped so much that it looks like an accent? What was the cover designer smoking that day? Old book covers?

The novel's main protagonist is 16-year-old Mademoiselle de Chartres, who is maneuvered by her mom into marriage at the court of Henri 2nd, to La Prince de Clèves. This is her best prospect financially and socially, but it isn't, of course, the one she would choose for herself. Had she that choice, she would have aligned herself with the Duke de Nemours, a dashing young man with whom she falls in love and he, it seems, with she. They do not pursue this affair physically, but instead meet irregularly, when he attends her "salon" - regular social gatherings which she holds in her new position as La Princesse de Clèves.

The duke falls afoul of a scandal for which he is blameless, but for which he assumes responsibility in order to protect another. The princess at first believes him to be guilty, but learns later that he isn't. It's also at this time that her husband, who loves her dearly, realizes that she's actually in love with someone else, and she admits as much to him.

This causes an onset of the wilts and the vapors for the Prince, who takes to his bed and dies, but not before extracting an evil promise from his wife that she will not pursue any relationship with the duke. The latter pursues the princess even more ardently now that she's a widow, but she rejects him and enters a convent.

I like this novel not because it's a great novel. Far from it: it's the worst kind of chick-lit, but it's ancient chick-lit and that's what makes it interesting to me. It enables us to get inside the mind of a woman from well-over three hundred years ago. We're treated to few such insights and that's what makes this fascinating as far as I'm concerned.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Les Misérables by Victor Hugo

Title: Les Misérables
Author: Victor Hugo
Publisher: Diamond Book Distributors
Rating: WARTY!

Graphic novel illustrated by TszMei Lee, edited by Stacy King

DISCLOSURE: Unlike the majority of reviews in this blog, I've neither bought this book nor borrowed it from the library. This is a "galley" copy ebook, supplied by Net Galley. I'm not receiving (nor will I expect to receive or accept) remuneration for this review.

Written in 1862 and covering a period of seventeen years, ending thirty years before the date of publication, Les Misérables tells a miserable story which has some of its roots buried in actual events. Unfortunately, this was a miserable presentation of a French classic which made little sense to me.

For inexplicable reasons, this French tale was rendered as a Japanese manga in every sense of the word, meaning that instead of starting at the beginning, at the top of page one, on the left, and proceeding through incrementing pages to the end, it began at the "end". Actually it doesn't even start on page one, but on page fifteen. In order to make sense of it you not only have to read this starting at the end, but also you must read the panels backwards, too - right to left - just like a real Japanese manga.

This made absolutely zero sense to me, especially since I was reading this in ebook form. Seriously? It was actually confusing because I started reading it at the beginning as any westerner would do. Page 302 (the printed page number) appeared on page 42, and 281 was on page 63 while page 283 appeared on page 61! It was only as I realized that the story and the frames were out of sequence that I discovered what had been done. Yes, the comic does explain this in some detail if you're into reading the small print, which I am not. I honestly didn't expect to have to read the instructions on how to read the novel before I read the novel!

» Indeed! «

I have no idea why English language comics are presented in this way. It's insupportable, and especially so in ebook format. I mean, if you're going to be completely ass-backwards about it, why not start reading the panels at the bottom instead of the top?! Why not print the thing in Japanese? It makes just as much sense to me as what was done here, but the real question to be answered is: do they genuinely want to get the classics out? If so, then why are they robotically trying to recreate something from one milieu and hammering it blindly into another, hoping it will eventually "fit"? I honestly don't buy that this is the right way to go about it.

That said, the graphics were not bad - no color, simply line drawings (but I did not get at all the grey gingham patterning). The story wasn't entertaining to me, not even read backwards. Actually reading it the way I did begin to read it, made it seem much more of a dramatic (if a little confusing!) story than it did when I started reading it as it was intended to be read. Go figure!

I'm sorry to say though, that overall it was neither particularly gripping nor impressive. I know Hugo's novel was a lot more text than this rendition of it is capable of reproducing, but it seems to me that Hugo's text could have had a better outing than this. So in view of all this, I cannot recommend this graphic novel.