Day 975: Master & God

Cover for Master & GodFor many years I faithfully read Lindsey Davis’s entertaining mystery series set in ancient Rome and featuring informer Marcus Didius Falco and his lovely wife Helena Justina. I only stopped reading after about 20 books because I was a little tired of the situation. Still, I occasionally pick up one of the series.

So, when I saw that Davis wrote a straight historical novel about the reigns of Domitian and Vespasian and Titus (Domitian’s father and brother), this seemed perfect to me. The novel covers the whole of the Emperor Domitian’s reign and has as its main characters Gaius Vinius Clodianus, a Praetorian guard, and Flavia Lucilla, a hairdresser.

And this was a bit of a problem. I initially had a hard time getting into this novel, and one reason, I think, was the sort of bifurcated story of Domitian’s reign. Gaius Vinius and Flavia Lucilla are just too far removed from the action to integrate them successfully into this story. The result is that the bulk of the novel is exposition, pages and pages of the author telling us what’s going on rather than events being told through the story of its characters.

Later, the two main characters become more important to the general thrust of the novel, and it improves. But for most of the novel, we’re left with a two-pronged approach, Domitian’s reign on the one hand and the romance between the two main characters on the other. This approach even becomes three-pronged during several years when Gaius Vinius is prisoner in Dacia. I couldn’t help contrasting this novel with Colleen McCullough’s excellent Master of Rome series (about Sulla, Julius Caesar, and Mark Anthony), or even better, Robert Harris’s series about Cicero (reviews upcoming).

This isn’t to say that I didn’t eventually settle down and enjoy the novel. I did. I just didn’t think it was one of Davis’s best. Occasionally, a hint of her trademark sardonic humor appears, but overall, I feel that she struggles to keep the novel moving.

Related Posts

Alexandria

Quo Vadis

Acté

Day 974: Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mew’d

Cover for Thrice the Brindled Cat Hath Mew'dI wasn’t sure whether I wanted to continue with Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce mystery series, because it seemed to be going a bit off-kilter with the turn toward espionage. Still, at the end of the last novel, Flavia was sent home from school, and I thought I would continue with the return to Bishop’s Lacey.

Now 12 years old, Flavia returns near Christmas time happy to be home, but her expectations of being greeted by the family aren’t met. Instead, only Dogger comes to the station, reporting that Flavia’s father is in the hospital with pneumonia.

Flavia isn’t allowed to visit him, so she distracts herself by going out to see friends. The vicar’s wife, Cynthia Richardson, is also ill and sends Flavia on an errand to take a message to Mr. Sambridge, the church wood-carver. At Sambridge’s she finds the man dead, hanging from a frame on the back of his bedroom door.

One clue Flavia picks up is a curious link to Oliver Inchbald, the author of children’s poetry who has been dead for some years. Mr. Sambridge has a collection of his books, including one owned by a local girl, Carla Sherrinford-Cameron. When Flavia looks into this connection, she finds that Inchbald died in odd circumstances, apparently pecked to death by seagulls on a small island. The woman who identified the body died shortly thereafter in an aqualung accident.

Were all these deaths suspicious? As Flavia investigates, she turns up some odd connections.

link to NetgalleyThis Flavia novel lacks the snap and humor of the first few books. As Flavia ages, she’s becoming more thoughtful, but she is not nearly as entertaining. There are still some flashes of that wonderful combination of book knowledge and naivete that made the first novels so good, though. And I confess, I did not figure out the solution to the mystery, although I felt that one secret was obvious. On the other hand, I’m not happy with what is happening in Flavia’s personal life.

Related Posts

Speaking From Among the Bones

As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust

The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches

Day 973: The Lie

Cover for The LieHelen Dunmore has this thing she does. I’ll be reading along, moderately interested, and then at the end of the novel she’ll do something that makes me realize the novel is much better than I first supposed. She does this again with The Lie.

Daniel Branwell has returned to his home town in Cornwall from World War I. A dying old lady took him in when he arrived home, and he cared for her until her death. He doesn’t want to mix much with other people, though. He is traumatized from the war and particularly by the death of his friend Frederick, who is haunting him.

As Daniel struggles to make a living, his memories alternate between those of the war and of his childhood friendship with Frederick. Although Daniel was bright and did well in class with an eidetic memory for poetry, he was forced to drop out of school at the age of 11. Frederick, as the son of a wealthy man, was being prepared for better things. Still, even as young men, when Frederick was home they were nearly inseparable.

Daniel meets Frederick’s sister Felicia, now a widow with a young daughter. Their mutual grief brings them together, and they begin spending time with each other, he helping her around the house or both of them visiting the sites of his adventures with Frederick.

But Daniel has told a lie about something. Because of it, he is aware he’s being misunderstood by the village.

This is a powerful novel that I may not have looked for were it not for my Walter Scott Prize project. Although I have not enjoyed all of the short listed books, this one sneaked up on me.

Related Posts

Exposure

The Greatcoat

No More Parades

Day 972: The Scottish Highlands

Cover for The Scottish HighlandsI will frankly admit here that I am a massive Dorothy Dunnett fan, and as such, I am eager to read anything she wrote. In this case, it’s an homage to the Scottish Highlands that she wrote with her husband Alastair, illustrated by photographer David Paterson. Alastair Dunnett was a journalist, novelist, and man of many talents. Dorothy Dunnett was an internationally known historical novelist and portrait painter.

This book is beautifully written and has gorgeous photographs. It is oddly organized for this type of work, though. The photographs and the text are presented independently, even though some overlap occurs. First, there is a section of text by Dorothy Dunnett, divided into areas of the Highlands. After that, the rest of the book is divided into the same areas, with Alastair’s text followed by Paterson’s photos. No attempt has been made to integrate the two Dunnetts’ text with each other, and little attempt has been made to integrate Alastair’s text with the photos.

A contrast to this book’s approach is James Herriot’s Yorkshire, where Herriot’s text and photos about the same places appear together. It’s almost as if the editors of The Scottish Highlands were putting together three different books. Still, it does make me want to visit the Highlands. Of course, I already wanted to.

Related Posts

King Hereafter

The Game of Kings

The Disorderly Knights

Day 971: Basil

Cover for BasilSuch a deal. Last spring I purchased the collected works of several writers from Delphi Classics in e-book form. I made my choices from authors whose works I thought may not all be available in hardcover, which I prefer. Wilkie Collins was one of them, although I already own copies of several of his novels.

I also decided to tackle these works in the order in which they appear in each collection, which is often in order of publication. That may not have been the best idea, because in some cases, although not all, it subjects me first to the novels that are, shall we say, less polished. In the case of Collins, I found his first novel, Antonina, unreadable. It is his only historical novel, set in Roman times, and it features turgid prose and overblown pseudo-archaic dialogue.

Basil is his second novel, and here he gets right into the sensationalist fiction for which he was known. The first thing I want to say about it is that usually I try not to judge an older book by modern standards, especially in regard to customs or mores. But I am going to have to address this subject a bit later on. First, I’ll tell you what the book is about.

Basil is the younger son of a very proud, wealthy upper-class man. Basil has always striven to please rather than to disappoint his father, unlike his older brother. But one day Basil decides on a whim to take an omnibus home. Such daring! On the bus, he sees a beautiful young woman and falls madly in love with her. To his dismay, he learns she is the daughter of a linen draper named Sherwin. Even though Basil knows his father will never approve, he enters into a secret marriage with Margaret. However, he agrees with her father’s demand that he live apart from her for a year, never to see her alone during that time.

Although any child could see through the cupidity behind this demand and understand that it was suspicious, Basil goes through with it. He marries Margaret when he has known her about a week and spoken to her only a handful of times.

Already, before the plot even thickened, I was close to putting the book down. I don’t like femme fatale plots, and it was clear this was going to be one. Collins does not even attempt to fool us that this is going to come out well, because Basil says at the beginning that he is writing the manuscript while living alone and in disgrace.

But here is where I might be judging the book based on modern ethos. What occurs between Margaret and Basil gives me the creeps. He follows her home from the bus and bribes her servant to tell him when she is going out. He ambushes her on her walk. Then after one conversation, he arranges the marriage with her father. If you’re thinking that marriages at that time were all arranged, it is clear by Mr. Sherwin’s reaction that this was a very unusual situation. That he leaps to take advantage only shows his greed. Basically, I had a hard time not thinking of Basil as a stalker, when I believe we’re supposed to be impressed by his virtue in offering marriage rather than something else. A stalker and an idiot.

Then Mr. Mannion returns and things get a little more interesting. Mr. Mannion is Mr. Sherwin’s confidential secretary, who has been doing business for him in France. Mr. Mannion is described as a handsome man with a wooden face. He seems to be a person originally from a higher class. It is clear to the reader that something is going on among Mannion, Margaret, and Mrs. Sherwin that Basil doesn’t notice.

The novel becomes darker and more complicated than I anticipated. Does this save it? Well, it kept me reading, but no, not really. Collins hasn’t yet figured out how to structure a narrative. He includes pages of fretting that are supposed to make us sympathize with Basil but instead are annoying. For example, after the main action ends in the wilds of Cornwall, he includes several letters. This technique allows him a bit of a cliffhanger (in more ways than one) while also leaving room to tie up loose ends. But the last three or four pages are almost entirely unnecessary, and they seem to go on and on.

My conclusion? Read some Wilkie Collins but not this one.

Related Posts

Sleep, Pale Sister

Christowell, a Dartmoor Tale

Passages in the Life of Mrs. Margaret Maitland, of Sunnyside

Day 970: The Four Swans

Cover for The Four SwansThe sixth book in the Poldark series finds George Warleggan unable to dismiss the allegations that Aunt Agatha made about his son Valentine’s parentage before she died. He has been treating the baby Valentine with some distance and has been having Elizabeth followed. But he finds no evidence in support of his suspicions.

Ross Poldark has been offered a seat in Parliament, but he refuses to run, thinking that such a job will not suit his disposition. He is not happy to learn, however, that George Warleggan gets the position instead.

Demelza hears of a meeting between Ross and Elizabeth Warleggan, so she fears that Ross may be seeing Elizabeth again. When a young naval officer that Ross rescued from prison in France is attracted to her, Demelza is in the mood to pay him more heed than she ordinarily would be.

The economy is shaky during the wars with France. At first, the French seem to be foundering, but then everyone begins hearing of the victories of a new general, Bonaparte. Ross becomes impatient of having no more role to play than as leader of a group of Volunteers.

With the latest two novels, the scope is branching out to include more characters. This novel goes into the fate of Elizabeth’s cousin, Morwenna, who George Warleggan forced into an unhappy marriage when she fell in love with Demelza’s brother, Drake Carne. Morwenna’s repellent husband, Reverend Osborne Whitworth, has used the excuse of Morwenna’s illness after the birth of her child to molest her younger sister Rowella, who is the children’s nursemaid. We also hear more about the difficulties of the Carne brothers.

After six books, this series has not palled. From a mildly interesting start, it gets more and more compelling as it goes on. I have already bought the other six novels in the series.

Related Posts

The Black Moon

Warleggan

Jeremy Poldark