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

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

What You Don't Know by JoAnn Chaney

Rating: WARTY!

What you don't know is how bad this book is! This audiobook was so hard-bitten it turned me right off. It made me think of eating soft tacos that were encased in in heavy-duty aluminum foil instead of a soft tortilla. The reader was Christina Delaine, who pretty much growled her way through it and I couldn't stand the tone, nor did I like the story, so I gave up on it and consider this a truly warty read/listen.

The basic story sounded interesting from the blurb, but the execution as poor. The story is that of two people, one, a police detective who was involved in bringing down a serial killer, and the other, a newspaper reporter who covered the story. Now both have fallen on hard times, him stuck on resolving cold cases, and she selling make-up in a mall. How that happened I don't know because I didn't listen to this for very long, but when a new series of murders begins, both of these people see this, rather sickly, I have to say, as a chance to get their lives back. Why that would be, again I don't know, but it smacks of that old sawhorse of the retired police detective being pulled back in to solve a new case because evidently the entire police force is utterly incompetent and only he can save them. The same thing applies to the reporter in a different way. I don't like that kind of story, so I guess I should never have picked this one up. My bad!

The blurb mentions that the wife of the serial killer didn't suspect a thing, so she claimed. Now I'm wondering if she's the real killer and her husband was innocent, or at least whether they were working together, and that's how these murders have started up again, but I didn't like how this story was told, or the narrator, so I wasn't about to listen to it anymore just to satisfy that curiosity. The author spells her first name with a capital A, but because of the idiot cover designer, you'd never know this since her name is block caps. Another publisher fail! Long live self-publishing.

Dark Voyage by Alan Furst

Rating: WARTY!

There is no 'dark voyage', so that's the first problem with this book - or at least there wasn't in the first third of the book which was all I read before I gave up in disgust. There's more than one voyage, but the one I read about was hardly dark, and where I thought it was going to include some good action stuff: spying, infiltration, sabotage, adventure, instead it was largely a boring account of day-to-day activity on a boat, no adventure involved. Yawn. The author seems to somehow be missing the point of what a thriller is supposed to be.

It interested me because it was about this Danish boat captain who was helping the allies in World War Two, and his crew was diverse, including a couple of Germans who hated Hitler as much as the rest of the allies did, but the story-telling and the pacing was uninteresting and tedious respectively, and the story was more about the captain than ever it was about the voyage or the adventure such as it was. I felt completely misled by the book blurb, which I believe is on the publisher, not the author, but the author wrote the story I read and it wasn't up to par, so that's on him, and I can't commend this one based on what I could stand to read of it.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

The Time Machine by HG Wells

Rating: WARTY!

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

Published under the banner of "Classics Reimagined", this is a reproduction of the text of HG Wells 1895 novella. I requested this for review mistakenly thinking it was a graphic novel. It isn't; it's an illustrated novella. In it, a man who is never named in the story, but referred to simply as 'the Time Traveller' (note that this is in an era when characters in stories were often named "Mr B_____" or Mrs "M______", or whatever, builds himself a time machine and travels to the year 802,701.

Why that particular year, I have no idea, but by then London, his starting point, has long gone, as has every vestige of the society he knew. In its place is what appears to be a purely natural world in which dwell two peoples, the childlike androgynous Eloi, and the subterranean-dwelling predatory, and of course ugly, Morlocks, who groom the Eloi as their prey. The time traveller befriends one of the Eloi who is unfortunately named Weena, which sounds to me like some sort of sausage. Why Wells made the predators ugly was to me a bad piece of writing. If you looka t nature, the apex predators are enver ugly - theylre sleek and admirably-appointed - think of the lion, the tiger, the leopard, the jaguar, the cheetah. Often it's the prey who look stupid or behave, well, like cattle. But each writer to their own.

Much of the story is spent with the time traveller blundering-around trying to find his time machine which has been hidden by the Morlocks, but later they use it to lure him into their clutches, not grasping that he can escape in it. For some reason, he next travels some 30 million years into the future where the Earth is dying (this was a little premature by Wells, but he was writing in some scientific ignorance, let's not forget). In that future, the Sun is dying, and Earth is degenerating, exhibiting only lower life forms. After he has returned and told his story, he takes off again, promising to come back, but he never does.

The story is told in a frame set by the time traveller's return from this expedition, where he narrates this entire story, never once interrupted by his guest audience, and his eidetic recollection is miraculous given what he went through, so there's a certain falsity or lack of authenticity about it. It was never one of my personal favorites, and the sad thing for me is that the only difference between this 'updated' version and the original is that it has some artwork added, created by the studio team of 'Ale + Ale'. While the art is quite good in its own right, it really contributes nothing to the story, and the story itself is unchanged. Indeed, the art is false too in some regards, because the Eloi depicted in the art don't match Wells's description in the text, which I found strange. If you're going to leave the text totally unchanged, why add art which differs and detracts from it?

Another problem with it for me was the formatting. There was random block-cap text at various points in the middle of the narrative (a quote from the regular text), and which was larger than the regular text font. It was inserted into the main text like this was some cheap tabloid newspaper with sensationalist headlines. This interrupted the original text and I found it annoying, especially since it was in different font sizes which often stepped on the toes of the rest of the text in the same quote. I saw only the ebook version of this so I cannot comment on the print version (assuming there is one), but to me, the ebook looked messy and unappealing, and that along with the rambling story and mismatched artwork made for a disappointing experience. I cannot commend this as a worthy read.

Friday, January 11, 2019

An American Plague by Jim Murphy

Rating: WORTHY!

The attribution of this audiobook is rather misleading in more than one way. Jim Murphy was really the editor, not the writer. I had initially thought that this would be a dramatization, but it was the dry reading (very dry and pedantic delivery by reader Pat Bottino) of a bunch of diary and journal entries, medical reports and newspaper articles (such as they were back then) about the epidemic of Yellow Fever that laid Philadelphia low in 1793. These were strung together with some narrative from the author.

The book was listed in the local library among the children's books, but I cannot imagine for a minute that very many children, especially not younger children, would find this remotely entertaining, or even educational because they wouldn't sit through it, or they would tune it out.

For me it gave me two different ideas which I can use in future novels, and it was interesting. It's a very graphic story which pulls no punches in describing bodily emissions under duress from this nasty disease caused by a virus carried by the Aedes aegypti mosquito. Today we can vaccinate against this, and treat it for those who become infected, but with climate change already rampaging across the globe, this is one of many thoroughly noxious diseases that will doubtlessly spread.

Back in 1793, when Pennsylvania had an appreciable amount of skeeter-breeding swamp, and when the disease process wasn't remotely understood, this thing got out of control and eventually killed one in ten of the original population of the city. That's nowhere near the death toll exacted by the 'Great Plague' of medieval Europe, nor is it even a match for the same plague which struck the USA in 2015 killing one in four victims, although the death toll there was considerably smaller despite the higher rate.

Why Murphy chose to title this 'An American Plague', as though it affects no one else is a mystery smacking of self-importance and pretension. Not everything is about the USA! This book isn't even about the USA as such, it's about one city; although Philly was the seat of government, and relations between it and other cities are mentioned towards the end, including some shameful as well as generous conduct.

In 1793, Washington was president and the government was located in Philly, but heroic George wasted little time vacating the city. He fled so hastily that he left behind essential papers which would have enabled him to do his job. He wasn't so heroic either, when a foreign envoy arrived soliciting his help in siding with France, which had been instrumental in aiding the fledgling USA against Britain. He cold-shouldered the very people who had facilitated the very existence of the USA! He tried to blame this on not having his paperwork with him.

The contribution of African-Americans at least gets its fair due here, which is nice to see. Black nurses were of critical value in a disease-ridden city where everyone was panicking, those who could afford to were leaving in droves. Very few dared come near to others in this highly-religious society for fear of 'contracting' this disease. Germ theory wasn't even a remote twinkle in anyone's eye, and the so-called doctors of the period were obsessed with blood-letting and poisonous purges which did nothing to save lives despite dishonest claims to the contrary. More than likely such dire stratagems actually hastened many a shuffle off this mortal coil. (How is earth a coil? Anyone know? LOL!).

Given that they had some immunity to malaria, it was considered that slaves and free people of color would also be immune to Yellow Fever, but they were not. They died at the same rate as whites, but nonetheless they willingly acted as nurses. So popular were they that people tried to outbid each other for their assistance, and then these same assistants were maliciously accused of callous price-gouging by jackass racists.

It was interesting to read of the problems that people like Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and John Adams encountered in trying to attend to their duties. Government was moved (illegally as it happened!) to Germantown ten miles away and Jefferson could not get a decent room. The other two were forced to sleep on benches in a common area. Of course this was before any of them had become president, although they were each men of high importance even then. Another interesting aside was that Dolley would never have become first lady had not the Yellow Fever taken away her first husband, freeing her to marry James Madison later. The plague made a difference to a lot of things and in ways you might not consider at first blush.

As I said, I have grave doubts about both the suitability and utility of this for children, but I consider it a worthy read.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

Swimming With Horses by Oakland Ross

Rating: WARTY!

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

I was disappointed in this story. From the misleading blurb I'd assumed it was about a mysterious black woman named Hilary Anson from apartheid-riven South Africa who moved to Canada and later disappeared, leaving a murder behind her. Sam Mitchell, who Hilary helped with his learning to ride a horse, later sets out for South Africa to solve the 'mystery' of her disappearance like it's any of his business.

I went into this under the impression that this would all take place when Sam was an adult, but after reading a third of the story and seeing it go literally nowhere, I DNF'd it. It was boring. The characters are uninteresting, and literally nothing was happening. Even by a third the way through, it had not even remotely progressed to the point where, as an older man, he decided to investigate her disappearance. I have better things to do with my time than read ponderous, pedantic, and sluggish novels like this which seem to promise one thing and deliver quite another.

Hilary wasn't black, she was white, which for this particular story framework reduced my interest significantly. The entire first third of the story switch-backed between her time in South Africa - the easily-manipulated, spineless and wayward daughter of a wealthy rancher, and her time teaching Sam how to ride his horse during her 'exile' in Canada. Throughout this entire time there was no mystery to solve and nothing whatsoever that was new, original, engaging, or even appealing. We never actually got to know Hilary at all. Everything we read about her was vague allusion, with nothing really happening and no information as to why Canada had been her destination; Canada being nothing like South Africa.

From what little I learned of her, I developed no interest at all in getting to know this foolish and clueless girl better, so it was of no consequence to me that she later disappeared. I honestly didn't care. Sam was a complete non-entity, and what I read of him in that first third offered no reason at all why he should go off to South Africa looking for her or why I should care if he did. Maybe things happened later, but an entire third of a novel to read through without anything of interest occurring was way too much of my time wasted and I frankly did not care what came next. In short, there was nothing about either of these characters that appealed to me or invited me to continue reading and I had no idea what the title had to do with the novel! I normally avoid books with this kind of a pretentious John Green-style title, so I guess I learned my lesson!

Frankly I had wanted to quit this long before I did, but I kept reading on in the hope it might improve. In the end it was a classic example of the sunk cost fallacy where people believe that if they have invested a certain amount in something, they need to stick with it. Well, I don't subscribe to that delusion and while I was willing to go a little further since this is an ARC, I didn't sign up to be bored to death. This just goes to show that you should go with your first instinct. If a novel starts out unappealingly, it's highly unlikely to turn around no matter how much more you read. I wish the author all the best, but I cannot recommend this based on what I read.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason Fagone

Rating: WORTHY!

For a book offering a sort of biography of a woman who was both an outstanding and unassuming code-breaker, Elizebeth Smith, and who was such an important part of solving codes both in wartime and peace time policing operations (such as breaking rum runner's codes for example), I was a little disappointed that the story seemed to defer regularly to the men in her life, as represented by her husband and another man named Fabyan who was a patriarchal and hyper-controlling figure, but who nevertheless saw her potential and first invited her into his group before she ever met her husband-to-be.

Naturally you can't tell her story without including those people, but it seems that in trying to be so many things, the book failed at being the thing it claimed to be: a story of a woman who smashed codes. In view of this, I often found myself wondering, as I read it, if the author had initially written it about the married couple as a team, which they very much were, both professionally and personally, but later tried to change this by purveying it as a story about this one woman. I don't know if he did or not, but looking at it that way seemed to be the only way to make sense of the way it was written. The only other explanation is that he simply didn't get it. If that's the case, at least he can take comfort in the knowledge that our misogynistic jackass of a president would be proud of him.

There are bits in this book which seem irrelevant or hypocritical. The book often goes off at tangents and rambles on as much about those many other things as it does about its 'star'. It's supposed to be championing Elizebeth Smith, as judged by the title, but when this little code-breaking lab run by Fabyan brought in army officers to teach them about these techniques, it mentioned that four of the officers wives also took the course and did well in it. It also highlighted that even while praising them, this guy Fabyan made no mention of them by name, only as the wives of the officers, yet the book commits the very same sin by not telling us who these women were! This was another thing which made me wonder if the subject of the book originally had not been Elizebeth, but 'Mr and Mrs Friedman'.

That said it does tell a strong story about her and I learned a lot from it, so on that basis I am willing to rate this as a worthy read. You can always skips the bits that don't concern her, but I recommend getting this book from the library as I did or buying it used.

Girl Waits With Gun by Amy Stewart

Rating: WARTY!

I picked up this audiobook because it was based on a true story which I found fascinating. The title comes straight from a newspaper headline about the very character this novel is based on. I didn't realize it was the start of a series since there was absolutely nothing on the audiobook cover to indicate any such thing. Thanks Big Publishing™! We do understand that you don't give a shit about readers, but could you at least show a modicum of kindness by not making your disdain quite so painfully obvious?

The novel interested me to begin with, but the story took so drearily long to go anywhere at all that I became bored and ended up DNF-ing it about halfway through. I honestly couldn't believe that such a fascinating true story could be rendered so horribly boring. Way to go Amy Stewart.

It was read by Christina Moore and I still can't make up my mind whether I found her reading acceptable or not; it was right on the cusp of okay and annoying! What bothered me most though was that the main character, with the highly amusing - but real - name of Constance Kopp, seemed so lackadaisical and retiring. I am guessing she was not at all like that in real life, so it felt like an insult. I don't mind so much if a characters starts out less than prepossessing, but when they show little or no sign of improving, growing, or changing in any way, it irritates me.

The Kopp sisters lived together in an old farmhouse and in this story are constantly quibbling with each other. Sometimes this was annoying, other times amusing, so that was a mixed bag. Just how realistic this was is anyone's guess, but there really were three sisters.

The author encountered their story when researching a different novel. She discovered an article from 1915 which talked about a man named Henry Kaufman who ran his automobile into a buggy being driven by these sisters: Constance, Norma and Fleurette Kopp. He refused to pay and when they pursued him for damages, he began a concerted campaign of harassment against them. Kaufman's family was wealthy and he was privileged and thought he could get away with intimidating them. He couldn't.

A local sheriff armed the three sisters and eventually Kaufman was fined $1,000 (about $24,000 today) and warned-off interfering with the sisters ever again. Constance, who was six feet tall - very tall for 1915, even for a man - then worked as an undersheriff for two years and afterwards disappeared into obscurity. It seems to me the real story of this woman would be far more engrossing than this rather bloated fictionalized version, which I cannot commend.

Monday, October 8, 2018

Cuba My Revolution by Inverna Lockpez, Dean Hapiel, José Villarrubia

Rating: WORTHY!

Told in stark red and black, this is a story based on the writer's own life. In the story, 17-year-old Sonya has ambitions to be an artist in Habana, Cuba, but ends up joining the Castro revolution and becoming a doctor where she encounters the horrors of war during the Bay of Pigs debacle, and ends up being imprisoned as a CIA spy by her own fellow soldiers. She's tortured brutally, but eventually is released. Despite all of this and the now constant feeling of stress and insecurity, and despite what she sees happening to her country on a daily basis, she continues to believe in the revolution, but as six years slip by and nothing improves - in fact things only progressively become worse - she finally reconciles herself to leaving, and finds the opportunity to move to the USA.

This is what the real life artist and medical trainee did, and she says that the events depicted here were real, but some changes were made to the story. The story serves to show that any radical ideology on a national level like this necessarily becomes a brutal dictatorship and a series of pogroms no matter how idealistic it maybe have been in embryonic form, and no matter how well-intentioned its supporters were. The story is a depressing read, but essentially a true story and I commend it because there are lessons to be learned here.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

冬には動物園 (Fuyu ni wa dōbu-tsuen - A Zoo in Winter) by Jirō Taniguchi

Rating: WORTHY!

Chevalier Jiro Taniguchi (he's a knight in France!) died last year at the age of 69. I understand that this book, published in 2008, but set in 1966, is autobiographical and tells the story of how he got into manga in the first place - on the production side, not the reading side. That distinction is important, because this work almost never shows him reading a comic! When we meet him, that's all we get: someone on a voyage, or more accurately adrift, apparently never having departed a port. There's no history here excepting in what we learn tangentially as he floats along, carried by life's currents rather than rowing his own passage. As an autobiography it also drifts from reality in that he's a character with a different name in the story.

He is working in a small textile business and hoping to get a shot at design when, on a trip to visit a friend, he finds himself hijacked into working for a major mangaka - a creator of manga. I'm far from convinced that exchanging the life he had in what I understand is a beautiful Kyoto was worth moving to megacity Tokyo for (the population there was ten million even in 1966!), but never having been to either place, knowing only what I read, I have to take his word for it! I do find it intriguing that Kyoto becomes Tokyo by simply moving the first three letters to the end of the word! This works equally in Japanese or English, but whether it means the same thing when switched in Japanese, I can’t say.

But I digress, as usual. His lowly job is filling in the blanks in the artist's work - painting backgrounds and so on. This seems highly suitable since he is himself a background to the lives of others as told in this story. Eventually he gets his own work published and the rest is history. The story is a bit weird at times and slow moving, but overall I liked it and I recommend it.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

Hattie Ever After by Kirby Larson

Rating: WARTY!

This was another audiobook experiment. The blurb sounded wonderful, but the story, not so much. Read pretty decently by Kirsten Porter, the story was supposed to be a sequel to Hattie Big Sky about little orphan Hattie who inherits a homestead. I never read the original, but in this sequel, we learn of Hattie Inez Brooks that "Nothing can squash her desire to write for a big city newspaper." Except the author, who never lets her near a story. Hattie never reports on anything (at least not in the portions that I listened to). She claims she wants to report; she moves to San Francisco purportedly to pursue her desire; she reads newspapers, but nowhere did she ever pursue a story. It was pathetic.

This is one good reason why I rarely like series! The story falls apart! I can't speak for the first volume, but I understand it told the story of sixteen-year-old Hattie taking over a homestead that was bequeathed to her, and making a go of it. It sounds like a Mary Sue prequel, but given that opening story, how she changed from fighting for that, to completely abandoning both it and her love so easily is a complete mystery.

I didn't even realize this was a sequel at first, and if I had known there was a volume one and it had won a Newbery, I would have avoided it and this one like the plague. This second volume was pretty pathetic and exactly what I would expect from a Newbery author. Newbery is a stamp of approval for bland and tedious. I would feel insulted if I were ever offered one and I would turn it down.

So, I listened to two of the five disks, skimmed the third, and then listened to portions of the last one, so I think I got a pretty fair sampling of it, and nothing changed. The story should have been titled 'Flaccid Ever After', or 'Mary Sue Goes to San Francisco' since everything she dreams of seems to fall into her lap without her having to strive for a single thing. And this is after she callously ditches her love for her career. Kirby Larson is known for her children's books. I positively reviewed one of these, titled Dash in September of 2017, but listening to this, it was easy to see why she's known for writing for children and not for adults.

I got the impression that the author had done a lot of research, but instead of using that as background for her story, she was so thrilled with herself over how much she knew about the era that she wanted to lecture the reader about it, and so instead of actually telling Hattie's story, the author spent almost the entire time showing off her research. Instead of a story, we got a series of info dumps, and the whole thing was a sorry mess. I cannot recommend this based on my experience of it.

Friday, June 5, 2015

À la Recherche Du Temps Perdu par Marcel Proust

Title: Remembrance Of Things Past
Author: Marcel Proust
Rating: WARTY!

Adapted and illustrated by Stéphane Heuet
Coloring by Véronique Dorey

Remembrance Of Things Past (French: À la Recherche du Temps Perdu) begins wiht a guy who can't even remember where he is when he wakes up in his own bed. What's his problem? He's obviously been complete mesmerized by the magic lantern showing of the opéra Geneviève de Brabant is an bouffe, or operetta, by Jacques Offenbach whose last name is "Beforeyouexpecthimtobe".

Alas, the little whiny-assed brat's problem is that he's a little whiney-assed brat and his parents are deadbeats. À la recherche du temps perdu technically means "seeking lost time" but is typically rendered as "a remembrance of things past", but having read this, a better rendition, it seems to me, is "a remembrance of things passed" - from the bowels. And there was evidently an obstructive mass of it, because the original ran to seven volumes and over three thousand pages.

This was written over a century ago, and I promise you if the same thing had been written today it would be rightfully trashed, but since it's old, and French, it's now looked upon as romantic and classical. The author seems to have had a very resentful memory of his childhood which he allows to flood his adult thoughts tainting them with the smell of a swamp. His past is the only present he will gift himself with for the future.

One really odd thing about this graphic novel is that many of the image panels were fully occupied by text such that it was only barely possible even to see what the image was. Some entire pages consisted almost entirely if text and the art work was of the most simplistic kind, so sparse it promises to start a post-minimalist movement evidently to be named scarcism.

Friday, May 1, 2015

The Six Wives of Henry VIII by Alison Weir

Title: The Six Wives of Henry VIII
Author: Alison Weir
Publisher: Grove/Atlantic
Rating: WORTHY!

This is one of a dozen books with the same or a similar title. I've read only this one and I can recommend it for its great detail and thorough coverage. Indeed, it may be a bit too detailed and too dense for some readers, but it worked for me. The only issue I had with it was with the Kindle ebook version, which I read on a smart phone. The formatting was questionable at times. Words which would normally be hyphenated were often missing the hyphen, but instead of sporting a space in its place, they were run together to make one word. A spell-checker would catch this, but what I suspect happened here was that the original typescript was fine - it was the conversion to kindle format which screwed it up. This is just my guess.

The other Kindle issue I had was that the location tracker, which monitors how much reading you have left to do and displays it as a percentage, was totally screwed-up. When it shows page 396 of 571 at the bottom of the screen on the left, it should then show 69% completed at bottom right. Instead, as you can see in the image on my blog, it shows only 50% completed! That's quite a discrepancy. Now there were end notes and a bibliography, but if this is included in the page count, then the percentage is still wrong. If it's not, then the percentage is reflecting the entire book, not what's left to read. It's misleading at best.

On top of that, sometimes I would start a chapter and the screen would tell me I had a minute left to the end of the chapter, then I swipe to the next screen, and it would adjust to show five minutes or fifteen or whatever. A couple of times I started a new chapter and it would tell me I had an hour's worth of reading, which was never the case, and the estimate would drop precipitously as I swiped the screens as I read. Clearly something was not working properly here!

There were a couple of other minor errors, too, such as misspelling 'curtsies' as "curtsys", and telling us (of Anne Boleyn watching workmen build her death scaffold): "On the green outside her window she could see workmen erecting a high scaffold, for which they would be paid £23. 65. 8d." Given that there were only twenty shillings to the pound, you can't have 65s in the middle like that! The most you could have is 19, and I'm wondering if it should have been either just the 6 or just the 5, but I can't find any on-line account which records this sum. Google doesn't help. It just ignores the pound symbol and returns any result containing 23, for instance, if I run a search for £23 connected with Anne Boleyn.

That said, I enjoyed the book immensely. It was very readable and painted a clear picture of these poor women who had to put up with this ruthless dick-head of a king. That said, a couple of the women were quite as ruthless as Henry himself was, and these were the ones he tended to behead. Katherine of Aragon, or to give her her much more beautiful Spanish name, Catalina de Aragón y Castilla was first in line, and her marriage was needed to cement a relationship with what we now call Spain, as a bulwark against the French. Of course at other times Henry would seek to marry into the French royal family to cement an alliance against Spain.

Katherine was rather aged (by fertile bride standards of the time), being in her mid twenties, and she failed to produce Henry a male heir (at least none that survived more than two months after birth), which of course, back then, was the only heir worth having. This made it quite ironic that Henry's sole male heir from all his marriages died young, and thereby brought two successive queens to the throne (three if you count Jane Grey), one of whom, Elizabeth, presided over what has come to be called England's golden age.

Since Katherine was initially married to Henry's older bother Arthur (until Arthur died young), Henry used this as an excuse to ditch her, claiming the marriage was not legal because the Bible says you can't marry your brother's wife. Throughout her life, Katherine resolutely maintained that the marriage to Arthur had never been consummated, but Henry was hypocritically religious (as far too many people seem to be even today), and though he dissolved the monasteries, this was for no other reason than to fill the royal coffers. He never abandoned the Catholic church and was dead-set against the protestants (although nowhere near as set against them as was his daughter by Katherine, who became known as Bloody Mary when she came to the throne). He had no qualms about using religious excuses to change wives. Katherine was lucky and got off lightly, although she felt robbed and was indeed badly treated both before and after the marriage.

Henry had become enamored of a scheming little vixen, one of the ladies-in-waiting, by the name of Anne Boleyn - who I used to feel sorry for, before I read this. Henry had already bedded Anne's sister Mary, but Anne was not about to be as free with her body as Mary evidently was. She schemed her way onto the throne very expertly, holding her virginity, if indeed she retained it, as a prize, but ironically, she didn't know when to be satisfied, and she continued scheming and running merciless vendettas even as queen. That and her failure to produce a male heir (like Katherine before her, she produced only one daughter, this one named Elizabeth) was what brought her down and meant that there was no one to speak in her favor. Anne was even more 'antique' than Catherine had been when she married Henry, but Henry was so blinded by her charm and enticement, and his own unbridled lust that he really didn't consider whether she could actually produce him an heir.

What I still feel sorry for is how Anne was rail-roaded by Henry before there even were rail-roads. She was sent to the chopping block with trumped-up charges of adultery (which was probably not true and certainly not a capital offense, even then) and treason, which was indeed a capital offense, and probably not true either in this case. Her ladies-in-waiting had to pick up her severed head and drop it and her lifeless body into a basket so it could be carted off like offal.

Henry had of course already set his eyes on his third bride before Anne ever climbed those stairs, and Jane Seymour, only a few years younger than Anne, actually did provide him with a male heir, who was named Edward before going on to have a great acting career (I might have made-up that last bit). The truth was that she died within a week or two of Edward's birth.

Henry perhaps actually loved Jane, and pined for her, but nevertheless he felt compelled to marry again because he had only one male heir and the attrition rate for children (and indeed adults) back then was stupendous. Every year in the summer, Henry and his court absconded from London because of plague outbreaks. They also moved almost continually from one residence to another because each palace became so filthy and stinking after a while, that it had to be aired out and thoroughly cleaned before it was fit to occupy again.

Enter Anna von Kleve, better known as Anne of Cleves. She came from what is now Germany and was once again chosen to cement an alliance, but Henry, having received her sight unseen (apart from an evidently over-flattering portrait), rejected her from the off, although he could not be seen to openly reject her because of the alliance. He claimed she smelled funny, which is hypocritical at best, because by this time Henry was suffering a weeping wound in his leg which plagued him for the rest of his life, gave him a nasty temper at times, and smelled something awful by all accounts. Anna went easiest of all, the marriage being annulled and she being treated and addressed as the King's sister, and living in comfort the rest of her life. She was not the longest lived of Henry's wives (that being Catalina), but she was the last to die.

Catherine Howard and Anne Boleyn were first cousins, which makes it darkly interesting that these were the two he accused of of adultery and treason, and beheaded. Catherine failed to produce an heir, and really was (more than likely) guilty of adultery. The treason charge was simple trumped-up so they could behead her. An act of parliament made it a treasonable offense for a new queen to fail to disclose to the king, within twenty days of the marriage, a previous affair, and evidently this was retroactive. Catherine was nineteen when she was beheaded.

Finally there arrived a queen who out-lived Henry while she was still queen. Catherine Parr was almost twice her predecessor's age and Henry was, at this point, perhaps marrying for comfort having given up on everything else. Catherine also married almost as many times as Henry did - four in all, including her last one in secret, just six months after Henry died. Divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived.

After Henry's death, Edward 6th, his son by Jane Seymour, came to the throne at the age of nine, but he died in his mid-teens, the very kind of thing of which Henry had been afraid, having had only one male heir. Edward nominated Lady Jane Grey - the well known actor (just kidding again) as his heir. She was Henry 7th's granddaughter and was "queen" for nine days, but was overthrown by Mary, Henry 8th's daughter, and beheaded at the Tower of London. Mary became queen and slaughtered a protestant a week until she died, whereupon Elizabeth came to the throne, the third of Henry's children to rule England legitimately.

I recommend this book. it;s full of fascinating detail about Tudor life and court intrigue, and disturbing detail about how cheaply life was held five hundred years ago.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

From Hell by Alan Moore

Title: From Hell
Author: Alan Moore
Publisher: Top Shelf
Rating: WARTY!

Art work: Eddie Campbell and Pete Mullins

This is the graphic novel from which the Johnny Depp movie of the same title was derived. I'd recommend the movie as an entertaining bit of nonsense, but I cannot recommend this rambling miasma of absurdity and boredom, which is really no more than a graphic realization of a Jack the Ripper Masonic conspiracy pulled directly from the 1976 book Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution.

The conceit here is that Jack the Ripper was really a doctor to Queen Victoria's royal family, William Gull, who was charged with covering up an indiscretion by an immediate member of the royal family. This is a nonsensical conspiracy theory hasn't a grain of truth to it and is in effect a scandalous libel of Doctor Gull.

The story pretends that Prince Albert Victor one of Victoria's children, secretly married "a commoner" named Annie Crook, with whom he had a child. Annie supposedly had no idea who he really was. When Queen Vic learns of it, she locks up Annie in an institution for the insane, and when she learns that a handful of prostitutes know the truth, she tasks William Gull with covering it up. Gull is supposedly a Mason, and ritually kills the girls for purposes of his own.

The daughter sired by the prince and damned by all is inexplicably not slaughtered, but left with a painter by the name of Walter Sickert (a real person who has also been named as the Ripper by a assortment of writers!).

The story lacks life and luster, and it became so boring when Moore decided to spend page after page after endless page taking us on a tour of London and trying to tie everything into a Massive Masonic Mystery Tour. I felt bad for Eddie Campbell and Pete Mullins having to draw all that crap. I expected Beatles music, which I didn't even get to offset the pictorial disaster. I noticed, also, that Moore is yet another writer who doesn't understand that there's a difference between stanch and staunch (page seven). I can't recommend this one at all.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde Adapted by Jerry Kramsky

Title: Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde
Author: Jerry Kramsky (no website found)
Publisher: NBM Publishing
Rating: WORTHY!

Art work by Lorenzo Mattotti.

I have no idea what the heck Barnes and Noble thinks they're doing with this novel, but they have author Jerry Kramsky listed as himself and as the fictitious Jerry Kransky, and they have no artist listed! I wonder if the entry was written by the same guy who wrote the script for the movie My Cousin Vinny. Maybe we should call Jerry Callo and ask! or is it Gallo?

This is a large format graphic novel, about the size of two regular comic books laid side-by-side and rotated 90 degrees. There's nothing wrong with that, of course. Authors are entitled to present their titles (now that's how those two words should be used!) in whatever form they wish - especially in this age of ebooks, web comics, and self-publishing, so that wasn't a problem. It does explain why my blog doesn't have any full page samples like I normally include. The few panels I show are all that would fit the scanner window!

My problem with this work is that it simply wasn't appealing to me. The artwork is interesting in how it's done, but I didn't like it. I don't know what it was about it in particular. It was very colorful, but the style just turned me right off.

The story-telling wasn't very inspired, either. I mean it was the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as told in the 1886 novella written by Robert Louis Stevenson, but here it was uninspiring and the images often seemed at odds with the text.

I can't recommend this graphic novel. I feel I did a better take on it in the short story included in my own Poem y Granite.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

All Clear by Connie Willis

Title: All Clear
Author: Connie Willis
Publisher: Brilliance Audio
Rating: WARTY!

Read shrilly by Katherine Kellgren.

This was awful! I can't believe how bad this was. I think it's very possibly the most irritating and boring novel I've ever not read - I listened to it. Or to as much of it as I could stand anyway. I got only 10% of the way through it before I threw it away. Not literally, I dutifully and promptly returned it to the library.

It’s book 2 in what’s at least a dilogy, something which I didn’t know, going in. Not that it really matters that much. Connie Willis herself warns at the beginning that you really ought to read book one before you start on this, but what’s the point, honestly, of issuing that warning when you’re sitting there driving down the highway (or even up the low-way) listening to it already? What I’m saying is that it’s a bit late at that point!

I got this from the library and there was nothing in the description on the library's website to warn me that I should read book one first – or even to say this was book two! Here’s the library’s blurb:

Nebula and Hugo Award-winning author Connie Willis returns with a stunning, enormously entertaining novel of time travel, war, and the deeds, great and small, of ordinary people who shape history.

“Connie Willis returns” tells me this isn’t her debut novel. It doesn’t tell me this is book two of a series! Shame on you librarians who evidently just lifted a blurb from somewhere and thought no more about it! (I love them really!) The reader was Katherine Kellgren, and her voice was appropriate to the era, but this merely meant that it was high pitched and shrill, which was really, and I mean really, off-putting. If you must read this, I recommend that you actually read it, and avoid the audio book version.

As for the story itself, I didn’t see the point. This is supposed to be sci-fi time-travel. To me there’s nothing more exciting, which makes me wonder why so many writers use that frame as nothing more than a bait-and-switch tactic to lure their readers into what is, in the end, merely an historical fiction, or worse, an historical romance. Seriously?

If all you’re going to do with your time-travel story is trap your main character in some historical setting, then I’m sorry but you’re really nothing more than a con-artist mis-representing your story! I will resent your tactics and read no more of your oeuvre. For me, there actually has to be some real sci-fi in a sci-fi story!

In this case, a team of time-travelers, who were evidently studying history (you’d have to have read book one to really understand what they were doing or why it even - supposedly - made sense), were somehow trapped in World War two London in 1940 during the blitz, of course, and were in complete disarray. For the first two disks they were obsessed with a store by the name of Padgett's and with whether three people or five people had died there. It went on and on - for two disks. God it was boring!

They're from the future, but were evidently and inexplicably completely bereft of any kind communication devices, and the entirety of the first two disks consisted of some time-traveler woman whining shrilly about her own personal circumstances amidst the destruction, death, and din of London. That was two disks too much ‘whining and dinning’ for me. I can’t recommend this.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Complete Raffles Volume One by EW Hornung

Title: The Complete Raffles Volume One
Author: EW Hornung
Publisher: Leonaur
Rating: WARTY!

I have to say that the title of this amused me – I mean how is it in any way complete it if it’s only volume one? And yes, I do know what they mean, but it’s still amusing to me.

I ended up with this from the library having failed to get my hands any Sexton Blake – which I had decided I wanted to read after having heard it mentioned several times in a Phryne Fisher story. I found that I liked this, but only in small parts. A lot of it was uninspired and uninspiring. The thefts weren't really very thrilling, and nothing like as complex as the misdeeds in your average Sherlock Holmes story - from which era these stories also hale, so be warned it’s not everyone’s taste. If you’re into this kind of story (adult historical which was actually adult contemporary when it was written), then you might like this.

EW Hornung was rather a prolific writer, and Arthur J Raffles, described as a gentleman cracksman – that is a thief - was perhaps his best known creation. How gentlemanly a thief could ever actually be is a matter for debate, but I guess Raffles fills the bill for some definitions at least. We meet him, as we meet Sherlock Holmes (to whom raffles came second in popularity in his own time), through the agency of his chronicler – a public school friend of his, who goes by the highly unlikely name of Bunny – which was no doubt quite likely in those days. His real name is Harry Manders.

Note that in Britain, a public school is actually a private school such as Eton or Winchester, which is where Bunny “fagged” for him. Note that a fag in this context represents a sort of servant (or more accurately, a slave!) who would run errands and perform other chores for this superior, such as cleaning his shoes and even doing his homework for him. It has nothing to do with homosexuality, although in some cases it could have, I suppose!

Raffles has other things in common with Holmes. At one point, he and Bunny are caught red-handed whilst committing a theft aboard a ship. That story is included in this volume. Raffles dives overboard to escape apprehension, and is presumed lost at sea, but after Bunny finishes his prison sentence, he discovers that Raffles is alive and well, and the second, and somewhat modified phase of their joint career is launched. That takes place almost literally half-way through this volume. At the end of this volume, Raffles is killed in the Boer war in South Africa, so god only knows what's included in volume two! raffles ghost stories?!

The best stories for me were Nine Points of the Law, which was very much in the mold of a Sherlock Holmes story, although from the PoV of the thief of course, and the one which followed it, The Return Match. Both of these were rather different from the stories which came before, which all seemed to be centered on jewel thievery. In both of these stories, Raffles was acting to help someone, although what he was doing wasn’t really legal in each case! In the latter case, he wasn’t even getting paid for his actions, although he did feel he was repaying a debt, if not being blackmailed.

One very much appreciated aspect of the stories is that Raffles doesn’t always get the job done, but despite that and some other bits and pieces I liked, overall these stories were tame and boring. They included very little atmosphere setting,and very little descriptive prose in terms of setting the scene. Most of it was simple conversations, in which Raffles is usually unnecessarily and tediously mysterious, and in describing, but in nowhere near enough detail, his exploits, so it was rather unsatisfactory all around for me. I can't recommend it.

Roughly half the book takes us to where Raffles literally jumps ship. The second half takes up form where raffles disappears until he's killed in the Boer wars. What's in volume 2 I have no idea!

One thing which both amazed and horrified me was how profligate these two villains were with their money. They have stolen jewels that they sold on for literally hundreds if not thousands of pounds. They stole other things too, and they retrieved a painting which netted them two thousand pounds each, yet they're always on their uppers, looking for the next opportunity to steal money? Where did it all go?!

Two thousand pounds is a significant amount (for most of us!) in 2015. In 1915, one pound was worth roughly five dollars, so we're talking about ten thousand dollars, but that fails to address the buying power of money then as compared with now. According to Measuring Worth two thousand pounds in 1915 would be worth somewhere between 140,000 and a million today depending upon how it's calculated. Even if we take the lower of those two, it's still an inconceivable amount of money to wade through, especially back then - maybe five million dollars?!

According to US News, In 1915, you could buy a house for three thousand dollars (=six hundred pounds). A car cost almost as much as a house! A decently-paid (by 1915 standards) woman would earn sixty pounds a year. A loaf of bread cost 7 cents, a dozen eggs 34 cents, a gallon of milk about the same as the eggs, and a pound of steak 26 cents (using the US News values) . What the heck were these guys doing with all their money?! And why should we feel any kinship with people who are so appalling wasteful and who actually help no one, especially not the common people. These guys were no Robin Hoods, let's face it!

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Murder and Mendelssohn by Kerry Greenwood

Title: Murder and Mendelssohn
Author: Kerry Greenwood
Publisher: Bolinda Audio
Rating: WARTY!

Read impeccably by Stephanie Daniel.

I first met Phryne Fisher on Netflix where two seasons can be found as of this writing, both of which I've seen. There will be a third series and perhaps more, since this is a real money-spinner for ABC (that's the Australian ABC, not the US ABC!) and deservedly so. I fell in love with Phryne from the first episode. Essie Davis is magical in the title rôle, and the whole show is smart, fast-paced, daring, socially conscious, and majorly fun. Note that the name is pronounced Fry-Knee - which is why the TV series came to be titled "The Miss Fisher Murder Mysteries" - no one wanted to have to teach everyone how to pronounce the name!

The problem is that when you're hit like that and become so on-board (with a movie or a show), it's a tough decision as to whether to go to the book, just as it is in moving the other way. Books and movies/shows are very different entities, and the trick when you wish to migrate one to the other is to capture the essence if not the letter. In this case, it worked, because now having read the first in the series of books which kicked-off the shows, I can come down very favorably for both outlets, although be warned, the two are quite different in many respects.

It pains me therefore to have to rate this, the latest volume negatively, but I have to! While I happily admit that there were parts of this novel which were the Phryne Fisher quality I’ve come to expect – blasts of sweet humor, highly amusing observations, delightful turns of phrase, amusing character foibles - the story was, unfortunately, also padded way beyond passing interest-level with endless rambling digressions into the activities of the choristers, which was – ultimately – irrelevant to the mystery, and quite frankly boring the pants off me (not literally, I’m happy to report, which would have been decidedly awkward at 65 mph down the highway). There were endless quotes of the lines they were singing, endless digressions into the politics of the group, endless descriptions of their activities, and it was, frankly, tedious and boring after the first one or two.

I don’t know if Kerry Greenwood was involved in, or has taken up, choral singing herself, but to paraphrase Sherlock Holmes (from A Study in Scarlet), and no matter how much you love your hobby, it is a capital mistake to theorize that everyone else will share your deep joy of your personal interests. It biases the judgment. This novel could have been lighter by many pages and the healthier for it had all this been omitted.

Another example of padding was the affair between Phryne and John and Rupert. Phryne’s purpose is, of course to achieve what she did indeed achieve in the end: the conjoining of the two men in a far more romantic and physical manner than they’d enjoyed hitherto. Admirable as that might have been, it had nothing whatsoever to do with the mystery and it annoyed me because I really didn’t like either character to begin with. If it had been dealt with peripherally and briefly, it would have been great, but it wasn’t. There was more than excessive meandering into this relationship which should have been in some other genre of novel the way it was written, and the supposed pinnacle of this story arc was more like a sinking pinnace.

From reading reviews others have written, the Wilson-Sheffield relationship was evidently Greenwood’s interpretation of the Watson-Holmes relationship, which is bullshit. This was not apparent in the audio book which lacked end notes and author commentary, but of which I have to say that the reader, Stephanie Daniel, was awesome, and way better than the material she had to read. Another thing some reviewers have commented on is the, in their evident view, impossibility of a homosexual guy having any sexual interest in a female. This is completely wrong-headed.

Greenwood wasn’t asserting the inverse of that clueless macho trope (as featured in Ian Fleming’s GoldFinger for example) that all a lesbian needs is a masculine guy to “cure” her. Greenwood was merely revealing a fact: that sexuality isn’t a binary thing. It’s not yes or no, on or off, plus or minus. It’s a sliding scale, and not only from female to male, but also within any individual. Just because a guy is preferentially homosexual (and I use preferentially not to indicate a choice, but an orientation) doesn’t preclude that in certain circumstances he might be attracted to a female. To say otherwise is to deny the existence of bisexuals – many if not most of whom doubtlessly have a preferential leaning towards one gender or the other, but this doesn’t preclude them from finding their ‘less-favored’ gender appealing!

What made this novel worse for me is that all of the three main characters in this story: Phryne, John, and Rupert, were complete Mary Sues (in the original sense). Admittedly, Rupert was endowed with a rudeness which gave him a token flaw, but it was such a caricature that it failed for me (and failed to evoke Sherlock Holmes, to boot!). This undiverting diversion was only exacerbated by Phryne and John’s endless perfection and rectitude, and by their endlessly unimpeachable character referencing, and so on. For goodness sakes! I could have done without that. I love Phryne, but the more I’m told how comprehensively wonderful, heroically selfless, unutterably perfect, and endlessly skilled she is, the less attraction I feel to her.

So in the end, I couldn’t finish this story. I got to within two or three disks of the end of the audio book and gave up on it. I honestly couldn’t stand to hear one more choral line quoted! I cannot recommend this, and I think I may have to take a break from the written Phryne for a while and succor myself on the small-screen version again to get over this particular novel.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

The Fade Out by Ed Brubaker

Title: The Fade Out
Author: Ed Brubaker
Publisher: Image Comics
Rating: WORTHY!

Illustrated by Sean Phillips.
Colored by Elizabeth Breitweiser.

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!

I favorably reviewed Fatale Book 4 by Ed Brubaker, Sean Phillips, and Elizabeth Breitweiser a year ago, and so I was pleased to have the chance to review this one, which I also found to be a worthy read. This one is a very different story from that earlier volume. Set in 1948, with World War Two a very fresh memory, and phobia related to the rise of communism turning the powers-that-be completely paranoid, this novel revolves around the people working at with a Hollywood studio. The studio is struggling and is in the middle of making a film with a very bankable female lead, Valeria Sommers, when she's found dead by one of the writers on the movie.

Not wanting to get involved, especially since he was drunk as a skunk and remembers nothing of the night before, the cowardly writer, Charlie Parish, cleans up all evidence of his presence in Valeria's house and sneaks off to the nearby studio as though nothing has happened. Later, he discovers that the studio has "spun" a completely false story around events. Now, instead of being found on the floor strangled to death, there's a picture in the local rag showing that she hung herself!

Conveniently, the actor who lost the role to the dead star, Maya Silver, is still around and ready to take over her dead rival's part in the movie. Curiously enough, she wants to befriend Charlie, who initially found the body. His fleeing a crime scene isn't his only transgression, as it happens, although his other one is much more noble. Because of the communist pogrom, he's actually only taking dictation from the real writer, Gil Mason, who's been blackballed as a communist. Why they never called that "red-balled' I don't know!

Charlie's doing this because he needs the work, and also because he's a good friend of the other writer's wife, Melba. He wants to help her and the children, since the man of the house is pretty much a no-good drunk at this point. The problem is that he happens to let slip that he knows that Valeria's death has been covered up. Gil is infuriated by the cover-up. And that's just the set-up!

I recommend this story - the beginning of a series, because it's so very well done. The writing is high quality - as I've come to expect from Brubaker from my admittedly limited acquaintanceship with his work. Breitweiser's coloring and Phillips's artwork are excellent - again, as I've come to expect. If you like film noir, you'll like this, as indeed you will if you like a comic well done.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Tulku by Peter Dickinson

Title: Tulku
Author: Peter Dickinson
Publisher: Open Road Media
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!

Set amidst the so-called "Boxer Rebellion" in China, over a century ago (around the turn of the nineteenth century), this is a story of Theodore, Lung, and Mrs. Jones, which starts out really well, but fades into rambling incoherence in the second half. Theo is a young man whose father is killed by the Boxers. These insurgents are trying to throw out the Imperialist occupiers of China who were milking money from the nation, and telling the Chinese their religions were useless and they really ought to migrate to Christianity!

Many nations formed a coalition against this rebellion and really stuck it to the Chinese, sending in an eight-nation army of some fifty thousand troops, occupying Peking, arranging the whole-sale slaughter of those involved, and fining the Chinese government millions of taels of silver in reparations (which was an astronomical fine even by modern standards).

The coalition was remarkable to modern eyes, rather reminiscent of the one which formed against Iraq after its invasion of Kuwait in the nineties. In this case it consisted of: Austria-Hungary, the Empire of Japan, the French Third Republic, the German Empire, the Kingdom of Italy, the Russian Empire, the United Kingdom, and the United States. This story discusses none of that. Instead, it wanders away into the hills and honestly? It gets lost.

I'm not a fan of organized religion, so I had no skin in this pissing contest between the Chinese religions, the Tibetan, and the Christian. I think all of them are silly, and in this case especially this nonsensical business of thinking that the Tulku reincarnates and can be found as a child. In some ways the story is very reminiscent of the 1993 Bertolucci movie Little_Buddha which was eminently forgettable despite its rather stellar cast - but it was better than this story!

The day after his father is killed by the Boxers, and his mission village is destroyed, Theo runs into Mrs Jones, her right-hand man (and lover) who is named Lung, and some pack horses. Jones insists he accompany them to the next mission. In the end, they give up on that plan and head for Tibet, where Jones, who is on voluntary exile from England for ten years - financed by a wealthy family to keep her away from their son - hopes to find flowers which have never been described before by science. In the end, they give up on that and retire to a monastery.

This novel, as I indicated, started out strongly and drew me in, but as soon as the three travelers meet the monks, it dissolves with disturbing rapidity into a vague and rambling tale of ceremony, sitting around, more ceremony, more sitting around and a fizzle of an 'ending. It creates expectations which are never met and became truly tiresome. I can't recommend this.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Ruined Abbey by Anne Emery

Title: Ruined Abbey
Author: Anne Emery
Publisher: ECW 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. The chance to read a new book is often enough reward aplenty!

This is a prequel to the Collins-Burke mystery series. I don't do series unless they're especially enticing and they rarely are, so this was a good one for me to review since it's not in the middle of anything and can be viewed as a kind of stand-alone. My conclusion having read 33% of it is that I'm definitely not interested in following this series. It's a bit frustrating, because I've had good success with at least one other volume from Entertainment Culture Writing Press.

The story is set in 1989, and starts out rather dramatically with father Brennan Burke, in New York City, receiving a call from his sister Molly, who's in jail in London. She's accused of being a member of a terrorist organization. He gets onto the first flight he can, and miraculously (he is a priest!) manages to get into the prison to see her first thing the next morning. She's soon sprung from jail. Her crime, evidently, was her obsessive-compulsive disorder vis-à-vis Oliver Cromwell. I kid you not. In short, this was all a stinking huge red herring which I actually didn't appreciate.

So right from the off, this novel made little sense. There's no reason a woman would be connected to terrorist organization just because she delivered a lecture complaining about Cromwell's behavior half a millennium before, in Eire. A police detective was also shot in his car that day, too, but although this is mentioned several times, the author never makes any attempt to show how this could possibly be connected with what happened to Molly (not in the portion of this book I read, at any rate. In short, it’s another red herring, and I have no idea why the author chose to juxtapose these two events.

The impression I got from the first few chapters of the novel, in fact, was that of some heavy-duty Brit-bashing going on, although this seemed to assuage after a while. It was weird to read it, especially since those events - the era of IRA terrorism in Ireland, and in cities like Birmingham and London in England - are now history. Maybe in some people's minds, they're still current?

I didn't get all this obsession with Cromwell. There is no doubt that he was a brutal man, but no more so than your average military commander in similar circumstances in what was a brutal era. The invasion led by Cromwell was preceded by the Irish rebellion of 1641, where the Catholics did the same things which Cromwell did, but to English and Scots protestants. The Irish Catholics and royalists also launched another attack right before Cromwell arrived. It's not like Cromwell & co just randomly decided to wander over there and Kilkenny.

Wexford was a different matter. Against Cromwell's wishes (he was trying to negotiate a surrender), his troops let loose of their own accord. Even then, the majority of those who died were military troops. Prior to these events there was, no doubt, something done to the Protestants by the Catholics, and prior to that, something done vice-versa, and so on ad infinitum.

Ultimately, this has nothing whatsoever to do with Cromwell or the English, or the Irish per se, as history has shown. I don't know why those who continue their pointless feud with Cromwell's dead body don't have the same antagonism towards Charles the Second, who betrayed his Irish Catholic allies by discarding the alliance in favor of a new one with the Scots Covenanters. It wasn't royalism, it was business!

The truth is that it was an ongoing religious war and even though, thankfully, the bloody violence is over for now, the religious war has not gone away nor will it, as long as there are religion-blinded factions which ignore their own Bible's injunction to turn the other cheek. In the end it had far less to do with Cromwell and royalists than it did with the Catholicism which Henry the Eighth rejected, and the Protestantism which was sucked into the vacuum that was left, because religion abhors a vacuum.

That said, the biggest issue I had in the first few chapters was in the chronic stereotyping of the Irish characters, making it look like all they were interested in was guzzling alcohol. It was like a page wouldn't pass by without one or other of them referencing alcohol, or planning on going to a pub, or drinking something alcoholic, even if it was only communion wine. Of course, that wasn't alcohol, it was blood. Seriously, this made me pity the characters, and view them with some disdain rather than identify with them. Is this what the author wanted?

The story was really rambling, too, like the author was so proud of the notes she'd compiled on character, plot, and location that she was really loathe to leave anything out. Based on the part I read, this novel could, without losing a single thing, have been edited down from almost four-hundred pages to two or three hundred and lost nothing in the process. In the end, what it did lose was my interest because of the tediously slow pace. I made it to the end of chapter 11, about one third the way through, and decided it was not for me. I'd started skimming paragraphs here and there even before that, because the ironically sober detail was leaving my glass more than half empty. Quite literally nothing was happening other than repeated visits to bars.

The main thrust of the story wasn't Molly's arrest, but her cousin Conn's arrest, and that didn't happen until almost a third of the way in. The novel could have actually begun there, but even when that event happened, nothing changed! I'd hoped at that point that things would finally start moving, but the pace did not pick up! The writing did not become more taut or exciting, and nothing significant transpired! A aged family member expired, but that was it. The entire story continued to plod on in the same old way, but I refused to plod with it. Life is too short, especially when there are huddled masses of potentially exciting novels invading my shore, clamoring to be heard.