Day 1069: The Twisted Sword

Cover for The Twisted SwordA short side note before starting my review for today. The shortlist for the 2017 Man Booker prize was recently announced. You can see the shortlist on my Man Booker Prize Project page. I am getting behind on that project, having read hardly any of the books for the most recent years. I have one excuse besides too many books, too little time, and that is that some of them have been hard to locate.

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It was a nice change to have most of this penultimate novel of the Poldark Saga be more about Ross and Demelza than their children. It is 1815, more than 30 years since the start of the series. At the beginning of the novel, Ross is summoned to London.

The Napoleonic Wars have been a backdrop to most of the series and come to the fore in this one. Although Napoleon is exiled to Elba, the British government is getting conflicting reports about the loyalty of the French army toward the Bourbon government. England is depending upon the stability of France, so the Prime Minister wants Ross to travel with his family to Paris as an independent observer and make visits to various army regiments.

Ross and Demelza take their two youngest children and ask Dwight and Caroline to join them later. The family enjoys Paris despite Demelza’s fears about her social skills and lack of French. Ross finds that one of the sore points in the French army is the return of the aristocrats, who demand their old positions from men who have been fighting for years. Of course, no one knows that Napoleon is shortly due to escape from Elba.

I enjoyed this novel, with its focus on well-known characters, more than I have the last two or three. I think this enjoyment is mostly because I don’t find the Poldark’s children very interesting, and they certainly don’t make good decisions. We spend time with some of them, though, particularly Clowance and her husband Stephen, as Stephen finds that George Warleggan’s help isn’t what it appears to be.

All in all, I am happy to be nearly finished with this series. It started out very good, but now I am just determined to finish it.

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Day 1008: An Officer and a Spy

Cover for An Officer and a SpyAn Officer and a Spy is about the Dreyfus Affair. Of course, we know how the Dreyfus affair turned out, but in writing about it, Robert Harris has managed to infuse the story with suspense. He accomplishes this by concentrating not on what happens to Dreyfus himself but on the man who exposed the sham.

At the beginning of the novel, Georges Picquart is only peripherally involved in the Dreyfus affair, but the generals in charge see him as helpful and he is rewarded by being put in charge of the Statistical Section, the army’s intelligence department. Picquart does not want the post, but he soon finds he is good at his job.

His staff seems distrustful of him, while he believes that some of their methods are sloppy. He receives intelligence that indicates that there is still a traitor in the French army, and it is not long before he figures out that the army has found Dreyfus guilty for crimes committed by a Major Esterhazy.

When Picquart notifies his superiors of what he believes is a mistake, his investigation is shut down. Soon, he is sent on a mission out of the country and begins to believe that his own staff is working to discredit him. It becomes clear to him that Dreyfus was actually framed for Esterhazy’s crimes in a climate of antisemitism.

Soon, Picquart is striving to save his own career and reputation. But he also refuses to give up on his campaign to right a wrong.

This novel is deeply involving and at times truly exciting. I have not read Harris before, but picked this up because of my project to read finalists for the Walter Scott prize and since I have read it, have read most of Harris’s Cicero trilogy. This novel is a masterful historical novel that is full of suspense.

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Day 1004: Half-Blood Blues

Cover for Half-Blood BluesIn 1939 Paris after the German occupation, Sid Griffiths and the members of the Hot Time Swinger’s American Band have just finished cutting a record when Hiero Falk, German but black, is picked up by the Gestapo and never seen again. In 1992, Falk, now considered a jazz legend on the basis of that one recording of the “Half-Blood Blues,” is being honored with the opening of a documentary in Berlin. Sid quit playing years ago, but Chip Jones, another member of the band, talks him into attending.

Chip has been Sid’s frenemy since childhood. He’s a great musician, but he’s also a liar. When he and Sid get up at the opening to talk about Hiero, Chip blindsides Sid with terrible lies about him and Hiero to the audience. The problem is, Sid did do something shameful to Hiero, just not what Chip accuses him of.

After the presentation, Chip talks the reluctant Sid into traveling to Poland. He has found out Hiero is alive and has even corresponded with him. As the two travel by bus into Poland, Sid thinks back to the events of 1939.

This novel is written in African-American vernacular that sounds fairly modern, even for the part from World War II. It takes a little getting used to, although I am not sure if it is accurate for the time. Certainly, the novel effective re-creates the feeling of the time and place, and the precarious existence of these young musicians.

This novel was on both my Walter Scott Prize and Man Booker Prize lists. It was another book that I may not have chosen on my own but that I enjoyed reading.

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Day 994: The Lovers of Yvonne

Cover for Lovers of YvonneThe Sieur Gaston de Luynes is a soldier of fortune whose fortunes haven’t worked out so well at the beginning of The Lovers of Yvonne. Almost destitute, he was lucky enough to be hired by Cardinal Mazarin to teach his nephew Andrea de Mancini arms. But in the first chapter of the novel, the Cardinal fires Luynes after Andrea becomes drunk, blaming Luynes for his nephew’s behavior.

More dangerously, Andrea, who is a very young man, has been challenged to a duel. The Cardinal orders Luynes to make sure the duel doesn’t occur. The only way Luynes can see to honorably do that is to injure the other combatant, Eugène de Canaples, first. So, he duly insults Canaples and then handily beats him in a duel, making sure to wound him.

However, this fight attracts a mob, which chases Luynes with the object of hurting him. He is only able to escape by jumping into the carriage of a woman passing by. He falls madly in love with this woman, who unfortunately is Yvonne Canaples, the sister of his victim.

If this weren’t bad enough, the Cardinal informs him that he has arranged a marriage between Yvonne and Andrea. He tells him he will see him hanged if he finds him anywhere near Choisy, where the de Canaples live. But Luynes likes Andrea, so when invited to go along with him, he does. It’s a good thing, too, because several other suitors are on the way there, most notably the Marquis de St. Auban.

This novel is Sabatini’s first, and it is full of intrigue, sword fights, and kidnappings. Sabatini had only lived in England ten years before writing it, but the English is impeccable, his sixth language. Although Sabatini was himself disappointed in this novel, it is entertaining.

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Day 967: The Danish Girl

Cover for The Danish GirlThe Danish Girl is another example of how untrustworthy book blurbs are for conveying the sense and feel of a novel. The blurb talks about “the glitz and glamour of 1920’s Copenhagen, Paris, and Dresden.” Yes, there is a bit of going about to bistros in Paris, but this novel is not about glitz and glamour. It is mostly about the tender relationship between two people, Greta and her husband Einar, who becomes the first man to undergo a sex change operation. Ebershoff lightly based this fictional book on the lives of Lili Elbe and Gerda Wegener, both artists, but he says the details of their lives are wholly invented.

It is Greta who realizes something first. She is a portrait painter with a deadline. When an opera singer can’t make her sitting, Greta asks Einar to put on a stocking so she can use his leg as a model. Later, she has him put on a dress. Einar is a delicate man who is not self-aware. From the time he begins dressing up as Lily, he becomes more and more abstracted from his painting and his former life. Greta sees him drifting vaguely away from Einar, becoming Lily.

I wondered if Ebershoff’s description of Lily’s state of mind really reflected how a transexual person would feel, as Lily seems barely able to remember anything about Einar and vice versa. It almost seemed more like a description of a person with multiple personalities. But I don’t know much about this subject.

This is not a novel of action or plot. It is more about the states of mind of the people involved. It is sympathetic and touching. I didn’t think it would be my subject matter, but I found it affecting.

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Day 958: Merivel: A Man of His Time

Cover for MerivelIt wasn’t until I started reading Merivel for my Walter Scott prize project that I realized it was a sequel to Rose Tremain’s better-known novel Restoration. I hadn’t read Restoration in 20 years, but I decided not to reread it first. I only remembered that it was about a doctor who got caught up in the debaucheries of the court of Charles II.

Merivel is a picaresque novel, like its predecessor. In its bawdy exuberance, it reminds me a bit of Tom Jones or Tristam Shandy. It begins in 1683, when Robert Merivel is living alone on his estate, an older man suffering from melancholy. His young daughter Margaret spends much of her time with the neighbors, who have four daughters. He is lonely and feels his life has had little purpose. He discovers his original manuscript (presumably the text of Restoration), which he refers to as the Wedge, but he doesn’t have the energy to read it.

On a whim, he decides that since Margaret is going on a trip with her friends to Cornwall, he will journey to the court of Louis XIV in Versailles and offer his services as a physician. To do this, he gets a letter of introduction from Charles II.

It is difficult to describe the plot of this novel. It doesn’t have a central concern except the feeling of its hero of having accomplished nothing. Merivel has many adventures, including falling in love with a woman he meets at Versailles and dueling with her husband, but they are all related in a semi-comic, mocking manner. Merivel, who seems ready to fall into every folly, is a sort of hapless anti-hero who hasn’t grown up much from the first novel.

Behind the scenes, we see that England is faltering. The poor are getting poorer as the court indulges itself. Merivel, who remains aware of the plight of others, can’t help observing that Charles II seems to feel no responsibility for this. Although this novel is not one of my favorites on the Walter Scott Prize short list, it certainly seems to reflect the time period in which it is set.

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Day 944: Checkmate

Cover for CheckmateBest Book of the Week!
I thought I finished reviewing Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles series ages ago, so it was with some surprise that I discovered I never reviewed the last book. Here it is!

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In this last book of the Lymond Chronicles, Francis Crawford of Lymond has returned from Russia to France. Although I have concentrated in my previous reviews on the swashbuckling and intrigue of the novels, I have not mentioned the shadows that haunt Lymond, particularly the question of his parentage. This question was brought forward in an earlier book by the appearance of the mysterious Marthé, who looks exactly like him. These shadows have put him under tremendous pressure in the last couple of novels, culminating in horrendous migraines and even temporary blindness.

Another problem is his marriage to Philippa Somerville in a previous novel. He married her to save her reputation when they were travelling together, but both of them have since found that they are in love with the other. However, he considers his reputation and lineage to be too besmirched to keep her as his wife, so he has not told her of his feelings, and they have been trying to get an annulment. Their marriage has been in name only.

In any case, Lymond is now fighting the English for France in the Hapsburg-Valois war, a position he has taken on to hurry along his annulment from Philippa. As the wife of a Scottish nobleman, Philippa has been ordered to attend Mary Queen of Scots in France as Mary prepares for her marriage to the French Dauphin.

In trying to help Lymond find out the truth about his past, Philippa places herself in horrible danger and subsequently has a breakdown. Lymond leaves his post to care for her, and they discover their feelings for each other. But the result of her trauma is that Philippa feels unable to be more intimate with him, so Lymond eventually asks leave to go back to battle and preferably his own death.

It is much more difficult to review this final book without giving away spoilers. Suffice it to say that Lymond’s questions about the Dame of Doubtance prophecies and his own heritage are answered, there is plenty of action, and a satisfying conclusion. All the tangled knots that appeared in the previous books are untied. In any case, if you’ve been reading the series, you are already hooked, and will be unhappy, like me, to see the series end.

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