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 1067: The Boston Girl

Cover for The Boston GirlI keep trying Anita Diamant, hoping to encounter something as good as The Red Tent. So far, however, I have not read anything by her that comes close.

The Boston Girl is about the life of Addie Baum, the child of Jewish immigrants, from her young womanhood in 1915 until she is an old woman in 1985. It is written in the first person, as if Addie is speaking to her granddaughter.

This narrative styles is probably the biggest weakness of the novel. It is not a traditional narrative but one person’s side of a conversation. Although Addie does all the talking, occasionally she addresses her granddaughter directly, and that has a false, jarring effect.

In addition, although the narrative does tell a story, it is broken up more like a series of anecdotes. This style removes most of the tension from the novel, and there is no sense of a narrative arc. There is no climax.

The story deals mostly with Addie’s thirst for knowledge and her desire to accomplish more in her life than working in a factory. She also strives to earn a word of approval from her mother. She could have been an interesting and compelling character, but none of the characters in this novel feel fully formed.

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Day 1059: In the Name of the Family

Cover for In the Name of the FamilyJust a short note about my Walter Scott Prize project. The committee has announced its short list for 2017, and I have updated my page accordingly, along with the links to Helen’s reviews at She Reads Novels. (I have read one of them but haven’t yet posted my review.) Do check it out if you are interested in historical fiction. So far, I have found most of the books on the short list to be excellent reading.

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In the Name of the Family is the follow-up to Sarah Dunant’s Blood & Beauty, about the Borgia family. It picks up in 1502, with Lucrezia’s marriage to Alfonso d’Este, the son of the Duke of Urbino. This marriage is political. Her beloved second husband was murdered by her brother Cesare, because an alliance with his family was no longer expedient.

Like the previous novel, In the Name of the Family is mainly concerned with Lucrezia and Cesare. This novel also brings in Niccolò Machiavelli as a secondary character in his role as envoy from Florence. This role for Machiavelli is familiar to me from Michael Ennis’s The Malice of Fortune, although that novel was a mystery. Machiavelli was famously inspired to write The Prince by his fascination with Cesare Borgia.

One of Dunant’s aims in writing these novels was to redeem the characters of the Borgias, particularly Lucrezia. Of course, the Borgia men were ruthless and greedy, but it seems that all the other powerful families in Italy at the time were the same. Lucrezia apparently was an intelligent and charming young woman who won over most of the people she met, even the hostile court of Urbino.

Cesare begins as a brilliant strategist but begins to deteriorate mentally from syphilis.

link to NetgalleyI gave high marks to Blood & Beauty, but In the Name of the Family seemed to drag a little for me. I am not sure why. It could be because I read it in ebook form, and I have a much more difficult time concentrating on electronic books. However, that has not stopped me enjoying other novels in ebook form. Certainly, Lucrezia’s part of the story was not as important, and that was what I was most interested in. Also, I’m not sure how effective it was to occasionally introduce Machiavelli’s viewpoint.

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Day 1057: Conspirata

Cover for ConspirataConspirata is the second of Robert Harris’s Cicero novels, published originally as Lustrum, and is on my list of books for the Walter Scott prize. This series has been unexpectedly compelling for me. I had previously read Colleen McCullough’s series about Julius Caesar, and this series is such a contrast to it.

The novel begins at the start of Cicero’s four-year term as consul and ends shortly after it. During this time, Cicero is continually at odds with his enemies, who wish to dismantle the Republic. The most powerful of these enemies are the billionaire Crassus and Julius Caesar.

Although the intrigues in this novel are all political, that doesn’t make them any less thrilling. Harris depicts some of the most important figures in Roman history as men almost deranged by a need for power. We have strong sympathy for Cicero as he navigates the difficulties of Roman political life, forced into unpleasant choices but always trying to work for the good of Rome. This is a great series.

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Day 1056: The Owl Killers

Cover for The Owl KillersIn the 1321 village of Ulewic, England, a group of women have settled into a beguinage, a community of women who are committed to a life of celibacy and service but not one sanctified by the church. Some of them are from Belgium, and they are led by Servant Martha.

The village is experiencing dark days and some of the villagers are returning to a pre-Christian cult called the Owl Killers. When the beguinage takes in a leper and then the daughter of a lord, who has been raped, the villagers and the Owl Killers begin to turn against them.

Although this novel is atmospherically dark and seems well researched, I had a hard time sticking with it. This problem may have more to do with the fact that we were moving cross-country while I was reading it than with the book itself. But I frankly found few of the characters sympathetic. The village priest is so terrified that the truth of his affair with a man will come out that he is led into dastardly acts. Servant Martha seems completely blind to what is going on with some of the members of the beguinage. Beatrice is jealous and bitter. Osmana is sympathetic but one-dimensional.

I may try another Maitland novel at a better time. The novel blends a bit of the supernatural with a fairly straight historical narrative, which combination is interesting.

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Day 1053: The Loving Cup

Cover for The Loving CupI continue to feel less satisfied with the Poldark series as it comes to the end. The only reason I have kept reading at this point is because I have read 10 of the 12 books. Also, I would like to see what happens to Ross and Demelza.

Unfortunately, I am less interested in their children, and the last two books have been mostly about their oldest two. Neither Jeremy nor Clowance seems well defined to me, and both of them have poor judgment.

Early in this novel, Clowance, whose only good judgment of late has been to break off with Stephen Carrington, reconciles with him. They marry shortly after, and Stephen looks to be getting himself into George Warleggan’s clutches financially.

Jeremy is regretting the unlawful act he committed with Stephen and his friend Paul. It is 1813, and there is still war on the continent, so Jeremy has decided to enlist to get away, especially from thoughts of his unsuccessful pursuit of Cubey.

While Ross is away serving his last term in Parliament, Demelza makes a discovery that causes her to have doubts about Jeremy. She begins wondering if she and Ross have done a good job of raising their children.

I will read this series to the end in the hopes that Clowance and Jeremy will get some sense. Unfortunately, only the older characters who have been with the series from the beginning seem to have much depth.

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Day 1051: The Bookman’s Tale

Cover for The Bookman's TaleIt was difficult for me to decide how much I liked The Bookman’s Tale. Parts of it were very interesting and just up my alley, while other parts of it struck me as unnecessary.

Peter Byerly is a young seller of antiquarian books. His beloved wife Amanda died unexpectedly, and since then, he has been taken over by grief. He has moved from the States to the cottage in the Cottswolds that they bought just before she died, because their previous home held too many memories.

Peter finally becomes interested in something when he finds a watercolor of a woman who looks like Amanda in a book in an antiquarian book shop. In trying to track down more information about the artist and his subject, he gets onto the track of a document that could be the holy grail for antiquarians—something that proves Shakespeare wrote his own plays. This document is in the form of the Pandosto, a play written by Robert Greene that formed the basis for Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. This play seems to have Shakespeare’s annotations in it. Later, there is a murder.

Periodically, we go back in time to trace the course of this document. We know there was a real Pandosto, because we see that a man lends it to Shakespeare with some trick in mind.

We also periodically look back to Peter and Amanda’s romance. Peter trains as a book restorer, so we learn something about this field, which I found fascinating. However, although I was interested in Peter and Amanda’s relationship at first, after a while I started to wonder why we were getting so much detail about it, since it didn’t have that much to do with the rest of the book.

So, a mixed review on this one. It has a good mystery about two feuding families and a lot of interesting detail about books, but the romantic storyline slows it down after a while.

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