Day 1098: Bella Poldark

Cover for Bella PoldarkI’ve finally finished the last of 12 books in the Poldark series with Bella Poldark. I enjoyed the first six books very much but was only mildly interested in the others and finally only continued because I wanted to finish the series.

This novel is not exactly what you might expect of the last of a series. It resolves some of the continuing subplots but not others. I was surprised to find it introducing some new characters while hardly mentioning some who featured strongly in the other books.

Set in 1818, Bella Poldark is principally concerned with the romances of the two Poldark daughters, Clowance and Bella. Clowance is now a widow, but she has two suitors, Captain Philip Prideaux, a former soldier, and Lord Edward Fitzmaurice, who has been in love with Clowance since she was a girl. But Clowance feels still half in love with Stephen and half hates him because of his lies.

Bella has been courted by Christopher Havergal for years, and he helps her find a voice teacher in London and begin her career as a singer. But a French empresario, Maurice Valéry, offers her a part in an opera in Rouen and himself.

Valentine Warleggan’s affairs are also a concern of the novel. They become entangled with another subplot, a murder mystery. Someone has been killing young women in the area. When Valentine’s latest mistress is a victim and he is questioned about it, his wife, Selina, has had enough and leaves with their son, George. Valentine at first leads a life of dissipation, but when he realizes that his putative father, George Warleggan, is interesting himself in his son, he decides he cannot leave young George to be raised by old George, as he was.

In all, although this novel was more interesting than some of the others, I felt sometimes as if Graham was trying to juggle too many balls. I am happy to have finished this series even though I only found the later books moderately interesting. So, I am happy in more ways than one.

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Day 1094: The Girls

Cover for The GirlsBest Book of the Week!
Sometimes a novel is imaginative in its approach or subject matter, but The Girls is an imaginative act of empathy. For Emma Cline has drawn a convincing portrait, in her main character Evie Boyd, of the kind of girl who could be attracted to a cult, inspired by the Manson Family.

In the summer of 1969, 14-year-old Evie is insecure and dying to fit in somewhere. Her parents are newly divorced, and she blames her mother for failing to hold her philandering father’s attention. She has just been abandoned by her childhood friend, Connie, as teenage girls will do.

She spots Suzanne at the park. She and her friends are different, dirty and sort of feral, but free. When Evie gets picked up by Suzanne and her friends after her bike breaks down, she goes with them to the ranch.

The ranch is centered around Russell, an older man whom his followers consider a genius. He uses various techniques to manipulate the girls surrounding him, and he befriends famous people in hopes of using them to become famous himself. He organizes the activities at the ranch around some half-baked philosophy.

Evie can actually see through some of this, but she willfully blinds herself to what is wrong at the ranch through a love for Suzanne. When things at home get worse, she ends up with only one place to go.

The novel is brilliantly written, and I was completely enthralled by the description of Evie’s journey. I found the story believable and watched in dread as Evie got pulled ever deeper into the dangerous group.

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Day 1087: Stormbird

Cover for StormbirdBased on the recommendation of Helen of She Reads Novels, I decided to try Conn Iggulden’s series Wars of the Roses. This period of British history has always been fascinating to me, yet confusing, and I have read several nonfiction books about it, as well as a few stand-alone novels about major players in the wars.

When I picked up what I thought was the first book in the series, Margaret of Anjou, I realized it was the second. So, I had to hurriedly get a copy of Stormbird. This accident assures that I will be reading at least the first two of the series.

The novel begins in 1437. King Henry VI, who is clearly not the warrior his father was, has been ceaselessly praying for an end to the Hundred Years War with France. He commands his spymaster, Derry Brewer, to find a way to a truce.

The agreement made with France is that Henry will marry Margaret of Anjou in exchange for the lands of Anjou and Maine, which Henry’s father won back from the French. At no time does Henry give thought to the countless English families who will be displaced in these two provinces.

The point of view moves from person to person throughout the novel, but no one character is central to the story. Some of these characters are the young Margaret of Anjou; Derry Brewer; the loyal William de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk; Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York; Thomas Woodchurch, a former longbowman who is displaced from his farm by the truce and decides to fight; and Jack Cade, a resentful renegade who leads a band of Kentish men against London. Most of these characters were actual historical people, with the exception of Derry Brewer.  At first, I thought this constant shift in point of view would become annoying, but I finally realized it allowed me to get to know those characters better.

Iggulden admits to compressing time, making a period of almost 20 years seem like months. I think he could have just as easily indicated some passing of time, because it is occasionally jarring to think only a few months have passed, only to be brought up short by remarks, for example, that the king and queen have been married for years without issue.

Although most of the books I’ve read agree that toward the end of the wars, anyway, the Yorkists had the better claim to the throne, in this preamble to the wars, the Duke of York is definitely the villain. Although he is in charge of Normandy at the time of the truce, he does nothing to protect the fleeing English from the French armies and actively works to blame his inaction on Suffolk, who does the best he can when he takes over York’s position. I notice that the novel is dedicated to a descendant of John of Gaunt, whose immediate descendants made up the Lancastrian side of the conflict.

Overall, I found the novel quick moving and suspenseful, with interesting characters. I’ll be happy to read the second book in this series.

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Day 1085: House of Names

Cover for House of NamesColm Toíbín has written some unusual novels, and such is House of Names. It is basically the Oresteia, and we can’t expect happy endings from the Ancient Greeks.

The novel begins with Clytemnestra. On his way to the Trojan War, Clytemnestra’s husband, Agamemnon, summons her and her daughter, Iphigenia, telling her that Iphigenia is to marry Achilles. But Agamemnon is lying. Iphigenia is to be sacrificed for the cause of favorable winds that will get the soldiers across the sea to Troy.

Clytemnestra despises Agamemnon for the deception and his readiness to sacrifice their daughter. She vows to murder Agamemnon when he returns from the war. To take command of the kingdom, she allies with Aegisthus, the enemy whom Agamemnon has kept captive for years. But Clytemnestra finds that she is not in charge after all.

link to NetgalleyOrestes is a boy when Iphigenia was sacrificed, but he sees what happens to her from afar. Returning home, he is imprisoned with the country’s other boys in Clytemnestra’s attempt to intimidate the villagers. But Orestes has been taken prisoner by Aegisthus. Clytemnestra did not intend him to go with the other boys.

And then there is Electra.

Beautifully written like all of Toíbín’s work, this novel is an interesting interpretation of an old legend, based on the plays by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripedes. It is eerie and harrowing.

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Day 1084: Dictator

Cover for DictatorDictator is the final volume in Robert Harris’s trilogy about the great Roman statesman, Cicero. This trilogy has truly been spell-binding.

The novel begins in dark times for Cicero, when he and his family are hounded out of Rome by Julius Caesar, his greatest enemy. Cicero was made to look ridiculous in Colleen McCullough’s series about Caesar, but Harris sees him differently, as a man staunchly in support of the dying Republic. On the other hand, McCullough pictured Caesar much more sympathetically, while Harris shows him as a man run mad with the desire for power.

For me, this novel flagged just a little bit in the middle, while momentous events in Rome are described from afar. I think my reaction is partly because I thought I knew what happened to Cicero and was dreading it. But I actually didn’t know my Roman history that well, so I was a little bit off. In any case, the novel picks right up as soon as Cicero rejoins the action.

Robert Harris is rapidly becoming one of my favorite historical novelists. He writes a good, tight political thriller based on true events. I am already looking for his most recent novel.

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Day 1080: Moonglow

Cover for MoonglowMichael Chabon’s newest novel is supposedly inspired by his grandfather’s stories before he died. But I don’t think we’re supposed to take that literally, if only because he also says the novel was inspired by the stories of his mother’s uncle. In any case, it is a wandering, fascinating story of a complex life.

Grandfather’s stories begin with that of his arrest, when he was fired from his job to provide a place for Alger Hiss, newly out of jail, and attacked the corporation’s vice president. He was left with a hospitalized mentally ill wife and their teenage daughter. But the story wanders back and forth in time from his grandfather’s childhood in Philadelphia, his experiences searching for German scientists at the end of World War II, his work in the space industry. And always, there is his interest in the moon and space travel.

As always, Chabon manages to tackle some weighty topics while entertaining us like crazy. In this novel, he tackles German atrocities during the war and the stain they put on our own space program. Still, Grandfather’s life reads very much like an adventure story.

I really enjoyed this novel, much more so than I did Telegraph Avenue. Sometimes I enjoy Chabon more than other times, but I always find the journey interesting.

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Day 1078: How to Be Both

Cover for How to Be BothI thought How to Be Both was only a bit experimental until I read that the book, which is divided into two related stories, appears in some editions with one story first and in the other editions with the other first. I can see that switching the order of the stories would change the novel quite a bit.

In the version I read, a Renaissance artist watches a boy who is really a girl look at one of the artist’s paintings hundreds of years after the artist has died. The artist follows the girl through a few incidents in her life. As the painter follows her, we learn about the painter’s own life.

I am purposefully not using a pronoun to refer to the artist, because we learn fairly early that the painter is a woman passing as a man to receive art instruction and be able to work as an artist. Only a few people know he is a woman, and he comes down through posterity as a man.

In the second story, a teenage girl named George is grieving the death of her mother. As she copes with her feelings, she remembers conversations between them. Shortly before her death, her mother took George and her brother Henry to Italy just so she could see the work of the painter from the first story.

This novel is about the role of art in our lives, but it is also about finding ourselves and about the relationships between mother and daughter. George’s mother tries to challenge George by presenting her with provocative ideas. Some of these ideas are difficult to grapple with.

Although during the first pages I didn’t think I was going to like this novel, I found both of the stories and the connection between them deeply interesting. This novel is another surprising shortlister (surprising for me, that is) for the Booker Prize that I probably would not otherwise have read. I’m glad I did.

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