Day 753: Blood & Beauty

Cover for Blood & BeautyBest Book of the Week!
Blood & Beauty is a historical novel about the Borgia family that shows meticulous research, examining in light of modern findings the legends that have surrounded the family for centuries. It also powerfully evokes the period.

The novel begins with the election of Rodrigo Borgia as Pope Alexander VI. He is clever and ruthless but sentimental about his four illegitimate children. Although historically there is some debate about the birth order of the oldest two sons, Dunant firmly places Cesare as the oldest, followed by Juan, Lucrezia, and Jofrè.

Although the pope loves his children, especially Juan and Lucrezia, their value is largely in the alliances he can make through their marriages. Cesare’s value, on the other hand, is to back up his father on the religious front. He begins as a cardinal, although he is unsuited to his religious profession and eventually throws it off to become a commander of armies.

Juan’s marriage is first, but the novel is mostly concerned with the relationship among Pope Alexander, Cesare, and Lucrezia. It is much more complex than and different from what you may have heard. It is Lucrezia’s misfortune to be married into families that become enemies of the Borgias because of shifting alliances. This is particularly true of her second marriage to Alfonso of Aragon, whom she loves.

Dunant remarks in the afterward that the Borgias have not deserved their evil reputation. Certainly they were rapacious and ruthless—and more interested in the good of the Borgias than anything else—but so too were most of the great families of Italy at that time. In this novel, alliances are made and discarded at will by most of the great families.

This novel is historical fiction at its best. None of the characters are invented or romanticized, and we become immersed in the world of Renaissance Italy.

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Day 670: The Jewels of Paradise

Cover for The Jewels of ParadiseI have read a few of Donna Leon’s Commisario Brunetti mysteries and liked them well enough. I was intrigued, though, to find The Jewels of Paradise, a recent one-off or perhaps the start of a new series by Leon.

Caterina Pelligrini is an Italian musicologist who has been working as an assistant professor for a university in Manchester. With a doctorate specializing in Baroque opera, she has found employment opportunities hard to come by. She also has not foreseen how much she would miss her home. So, when she hears of an opportunity for a research position in Venice that is to last a few months with the possibility of being extended, she jumps at it.

The position is an unusual one, though, for she knows only that she has been hired to go through some trunks containing recently discovered papers belonging to an unnamed composer. Hired by an impeccable lawyer, Dottor Andrea Moretti, Caterina is employed by two thugs, Scapinella and Stievani. They hope she will find papers showing that one of them has a better claim to the trunks than the other, for they have family legends that this man, a supposedly  rich relative, died with a fortune of jewels.

Caterina is to conduct her research at a foundation that is almost bare of resources. There she finds that the papers belong to Agostino Steffani, a once famous Baroque composer of operas who gave up his career to become a church diplomat. As Caterina investigates, she finds he may have been implicated in the Königsmarck Affair, in which the lover of the wife of the future King George I of England disappeared and was believed to have been murdered.

A faint air of menace haunts the entire project, as Caterina is followed and finds someone has been reading her email. Soon she learns that the position, for which she has moved from England, is only to last a month.

I really enjoyed this tale of mystery in the realm of academic research, although I thought that the physical setting of Venice got short shrift. Still, I find I am drawn to this kind of novel and hope to see more of them from Leon.

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Day 656: The Mysteries of Udolpho

Cover for The Mysteries of UdolphoI valiantly strove to finish The Mysteries of Udolpho, but with about 80% of it read (frustratingly hard to tell with a collection on Kindle), I just couldn’t take it anymore. Although the book is a classic gothic novel, it is extremely long and slow moving, and my mild curiosity about the secrets of the castle could not overcome my feeling that the novel was never-ending.

Radcliffe was known for writing novels that were more realistic than those that had come before in the gothic genre. That is, the events, however unlikely, might actually happen. Heroines are kidnapped, not squashed to death by a giant foot.

Emily St. Aubert’s troubles begin with her father’s death, but not before the two of them take a leisurely several-hundred-page trip through Provence. There she and her father meet the handsome Valancourt, alas only a younger son.

After her father dies, Emily finds she is left destitute except for her estate and goes to live with her fashionable and shallow aunt Madame Cheron. Madame Cheron eventually marries an Italian lout, Count Montoni. Once Emily and her aunt are in his power, he expends all his energy first in trying to force Emily to marry one of his dupes and then in trying to get both women to hand over all their property in France.

About halfway through the nearly 800-page book, Montoni takes them to his castle, Udolpho, in the Italian alps. Here I was expecting things to heat up, and they do a little, with a disappearing previous owner, secret passageways, unnamed but horrible sights, and odd lights on the battlements. On the other hand, Emily spends most of her time looking at the scenery—described in excruciating detail and admired while she is in peril of her life—and painting watercolors. Oh, also writing poems at the drop of a hat that we get to read.

To modern audiences, Emily seems a bit insipid, but her role is to demonstrate the feminine virtues under duress. So, instead of investigating where the secret passage from her bedroom goes or looking at the contents of the heavy chest or trying to escape, she faints and runs away. She does, however, do what she thinks is right most of the time.

So far, although the most famous, The Mysteries of Udolpho is not my favorite of the “horrid mysteries” mentioned in Northanger Abbey that I reported I was reading in a collection. (This novel wasn’t mentioned but is included in the Horrid Novels collection for completeness.)

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Day 620: Literary Wives! The Shoemaker’s Wife

Cover for The Shoemaker's WifeToday is another meeting of Literary Wives, where a group of bloggers get together and review a book about being a wife. If you have read this month’s book and would like to participate, leave comments on any of our blogs. Be sure to read the reviews and comments of the other wives!

One thing I can say about The Shoemaker’s Wife. It provoked discussion in our household. After reading the novel’s first two paragraphs to my husband, I asked, “Does this qualify as purple prose?” and he answered, “It’s at least very mauve.” In any case, the novel is packed with labored metaphors, some of which leave us readers with very odd mental images—for example, a comparison of the Alps to silver daggers.

The novel is based on the story of Trigiani’s grandparents, a couple who met as teenagers in the Italian Alps and then were separated by circumstances for years. I haven’t read any of Trigiani’s other books, but along with many other writers these days, she doesn’t seem to understand in this novel that making things happen to her characters doesn’t automatically make readers care what happens to them. Her characters have traits, but they don’t have any emotional depth, so we don’t care about them.

A specific example of this comes early in the book, when the girl Enza’s little sister dies. Abstractly, the death of a child is sad, but since we barely know Enza and we just met Stella a few paragraphs before she died, we don’t feel much about it. If we had a sense of the child or the older sister, we would care more.

I was unable to finish this book, so I can’t answer the usual Literary Wives questions about it. Realizing I was not enjoying it at all, I decided to read a quarter of it and if I still felt like I was wasting my time, to stop. It is a very long book, so I read about 120 pages, and Ciro and Enza had just met by then, with Ciro banished to America immediately after. When I quit reading, Ciro was on the ship to New York. So, no answers to questions about how wives are depicted in this book, not even about the main character’s mothers. Ciro’s mother abandons her sons at a convent at the beginning of the book because she can’t support them and is never seen again, and Enza’s mother is a vaguely drawn figure who simply works hard.

All novels aren’t character driven, but for me there has to be something that makes a novel interesting besides the plot. Sometimes it’s the voice of a compelling character, sometimes a puzzle, sometimes a fascination with the subject or world view being described, but it has to be something.

Literary Wives logoWhile I’m writing this, I’m thinking of examples, about how Agatha Christie could create a distinct character in a few sentences, not a nuanced one, but a distinct one nevertheless. I’m thinking how in The Secret Garden we immediately recognize Mary as an unlikable child, but we can see how the fear of waking to find everyone gone from her home in India has made her more demanding, and we sympathize. I’m thinking of how hard I cried when Beth died in Little Women. And I’m thinking how fascinated I was by 18th century Japan in The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet.

Read along with us in February, when we will be reading and commenting on The Last Wife of Henry VIII by Caroly Erickson.

Day 495: Just One Evil Act

Cover for Just One Evil ActI can chart my changing attitude toward Elizabeth George’s Inspector Lynley mystery/thrillers simply by how I treat the new books. I used to get them as soon as they were available and read them immediately. This one I had for a couple of months before reading it. They are still page turners, don’t misunderstand me, but George has put her characters, and fans, through a lot.

George is not a proponent of the idea of keeping her characters’ private lives out of her mystery novels—very much the opposite. At first their absorbing lives made these novels stand out. But by now she has put Lynley through a brother accused of murder, a fiancée marrying his best friend, a seemingly hopeless romance, a murdered wife, and an ill-judged affair with his alcoholic boss. Heretofore, Sergeant Barbara Havers, although sometimes rebellious and unruly, has been a rock of good judgment, often better at finding the criminal than Lynley is. So, now it’s her turn to go off the deep end.

At the end of the previous novel, Believing the Lie, Barbara’s neighbor Taymullah Azhar had his sweet young daughter Hadiyyah kidnapped by the girl’s mother Angelina, who returned to Azhar pretending a reconciliation in order to get an opportunity to take the child. The situation is complicated because the parents never married and Azhar’s name is not on Hadiyyah’s birth certification, so for now he has no legal right to her (although, if that is so, since Angelina abandoned them, British law must be really weird). In addition, he has no idea where they have gone.

The Met can’t apparently help him, so Barbara takes Azhar to a private investigator, Dwayne Doughty, and they hire him to find Angelina and Hadiyyah. Eventually, though, Doughty reports back that there is no trace of the two to be found.

The tables turn quickly, though, when Angelina returns with her lover Lorenzo Mura, claiming that Hadiyyah has been kidnapped from them, so Azhar must have taken her. When it appears that Azhar is just as alarmed as Angelina and that he has an alibi for the time of the kidnapping, they all return to Lucca, Italy, where Angelina and Mura have been living. Inspector Lynley is assigned to go along as liaison between the parents and the Italian police. Isabelle Ardery, the boss, refuses to let Barbara come along.

Barbara absolutely refuses to believe that Azhar has had anything to do with the kidnapping. She has already given information to a tabloid journalist to create enough furor in Britain about the kidnapping for someone to be assigned to the case, and that liaison with Mitchell Corsico is not only a breach of trust but a major source of drama—and irritation—for the rest of the novel. The novel ends with Corsico assuming Barbara is in his debt. I certainly hope George doesn’t plan to pursue that subplot, because I found it to be too far over the top, with the journalist demanding more disclosures about every 15 minutes (an exaggeration, admittedly) and always when Barbara urgently needs to be doing something else.

Unfortunately for Barbara, as she breaks all the rules set by her new boss, John Stewart, to investigate the case from her end, it begins to look as though Azhar did indeed plan the kidnapping and execute it with the help of some of Doughty’s contacts in Italy. We readers actually know where Hadiyyah is, although we don’t know the identity of her kidnapper. But we also soon learn that her kidnapper has died, leaving Lynley and the excellent Italian detective Salvatore Lo Bianco to figure out who he was and where he put the child. Lo Bianco’s efforts are hindered by the actions of his incompetent boss.

In the midst of all this, Angelina dies, and it becomes obvious that she was murdered. Soon, it looks as though Azhar could be implicated in that, too.

My problem with this novel is Barbara’s behavior, as she goes overboard to protect Azhar. First, there are the leaks to Corsico which, after the first one, seem totally unnecessary. Then she begins concealing and attempting to alter evidence. I won’t go on. Even worse is how this trouble is wrapped up at the end of the novel, either by a cheat or a completely unlikely act on the part of Ardery.

You can tell I had a mixed reaction to this novel. On the one hand, it is extremely gripping. On the other hand, especially if you have been following the series and care about Barbara, you occasionally want to throw the book across the room. For the last four or five books, I’ve been wondering whether to quit the series, but I always end up picking up the next one.

Finally, I was upset by how the novel ends for Azhar and Hadiyyah, who for a large part of the series have been two of the most likable characters.

Day 441: The Talented Mr. Ripley

Cover for The Talented Mr. RipleyThe first Ripley novel, The Talented Mr. Ripley, is a re-read for me after I recently bought a set of three Ripley novels. If you are familiar with Tom Ripley only through the terrific movie starring Matt Damon, prepare to find the original Ripley a lot less likeable.

We first meet young Tom Ripley just eking out an existence in New York, but he is already engaged in a con—inept because he can’t even collect the proceeds of his mail fraud. Nevertheless, when a middle-aged man seems to be tailing him one night, he is afraid it is the police.

The man turns out to be a wealthy businessman named Herbert Greenleaf. He has been trying to get his son Dickie to come home from Italy and take up his responsibilities, but Dickie has shown no interest in returning. Apparently, some of Mr. Greenleaf’s friends have misunderstood the depth of Tom’s friendship with Dickie, whom he has only met once or twice, and have recommended he send Tom to Italy to try to convince Dickie to come home. Tom sees in this project a free trip to Europe, getting out of New York at a very good time, but he also intends to do his best for Mr. Greenleaf.

Tom is a man with a troubled past and a will to succeed with the right people. Except for his fastidiousness, he seems almost a blank slate, so eager to please that he constantly lies about himself, his work, his education. He wants to be liked but finds people shying away from him after awhile. He is a talented mimic. Tellingly, he only feels guilty when he tells the truth about himself.

Tom travels out to the small seaside village of Mongibello to find Dickie, who does not remember him. In an attempt to ingratiate himself, Tom confesses why he is there and how much Dickie’s father is paying him. Dickie is amused by this and invites him to stay, encouraging Tom to spend the money from Dickie’s father on the two of them even though Dickie has plenty of his own money.

Tom becomes enamored—it is unclear whether of Dickie or Dickie’s lifestyle—for Dickie is free to go wherever he wants, and his only serious endeavor is to try to paint, which he does badly. Dickie’s close friend Marge Sherwood poses a problem to their friendship, though. She is immediately jealous and suspicious of Tom, telling Dickie he is probably gay. Since Tom’s sadistic aunt, who raised him, used to taunt him with being a sissy, Tom has sought to deny this, even to himself.

None of these characters is particularly likable. Dickie is a spoiled rich kid who uses Tom but believes himself used, who thinks only of himself, and strings Marge along so he’ll have some company in the long winter months. Marge, although seen only through Tom’s eyes, is clinging and jealous. Tom is, of course, Tom, whom we only begin to understand slowly.

The situation is ripe for disaster, and Tom eventually commits a much more serious crime than mail fraud. This event happens only a third of the way through the book, and the fascination of the novel is in watching how Tom Ripley hides his crime, how he manages to profit by it, and what he is forced to do to avoid suspicion. He is surprised to find within himself an ability to coldly and analytically carry through his crimes with little notice—actually commit them almost without planning—although he is somewhat bumbling when it comes to the cover-up.

But Ripley learns, and we watch with fascination as he slowly develops his inner sociopath. This is an absolutely spellbinding novel by an author who was depicted in a recent biography as a sociopath herself. Another goal for my personal reading—pick up that biography!

Day 399: Beautiful Ruins

Cover for Beautiful RuinsAt times I wasn’t sure how much I liked this novel, whether it wasn’t going to wrap its many threads into too neat a package. It does wrap things up, but ultimately in a satisfying way.

The novel begins in 1962, when Pasquale Tursi is a young man. He dreams of turning his very small Italian seaside village into a tourist attraction, so he is futilely trying to create a beach on a small strip of waterfront when a boat pulls in. It is carrying Dee Moray, an American actress who has been working on the troubled set of the movie Cleopatra. She has fallen ill and has come to Porto Vergogna to wait for her lover at Pasquale’s hotel, the Hotel Adequate View. Pasquale is immediately smitten.

In present-day Los Angeles, Claire Silver is contemplating leaving what she thought was her dream job, as chief development assistant for the legendary film producer Michael Deane. Claire’s vision for the job had been that she would help develop many exciting projects, but unfortunately for her, Deane hadn’t produced a hit in years until Hookbook, a TV “reality” show, like Facebook for dating. Since then, she has spent her time listening to pitches for sleazy reality programs.

This day might be her last Wild Pitch Wednesday, when anyone who can get an appointment can pitch her an idea. If she takes the new job she’s been offered, she’ll return to film archiving–for the Church of Scientology.

Shane Wheeler is on his way from Portland, Oregon, to present an idea at Wild Pitch Wednesday. A failed novelist, he has decided to trying pitching an idea for a movie about the Donner Party. On the way into the building, he encounters Pasquale, who has come all the way from Italy to try to find Dee Moray. Pasquale’s only lead is an ancient business card he got from Michael Deane, who was an assistant on the movie at the time, taking care of problems such as those posed by the scandalous affair between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Shane, Claire, and Michael Deane soon find themselves involved in helping Pasquale find Dee.

These are only a few of the characters we encounter as the story moves backwards and forwards in time, moves from person to person in point of view, and takes us from rural Italy to Rome to the inner circles of Hollywood to the Fringe Festival of Edinburgh to an amateur theatre performance in Idaho. On the way we are entertained by wry observations on the Hollywood film business and the music business, and the straight narrative style is carried forward by partial movie scripts, acts from plays, pitches, pseudo-pitches, a chapter from a novel, and some brief notes.

At times knowing, at times amusing, at times sweet, Beautiful Ruins is an engaging postmodern love story and commentary on the entertainment industry.

Day 396: Back to Bologna

Cover for Back to BolognaThe Aurelio Zen series begins as fairly traditional mysteries featuring the bemused Italian detective. Gradually, they become more and more comic. In Back to Bologna, Dibdin presents us with more of a spoof than a mystery novel.

Zen is not feeling his normal self. He is just recovering from a stomach operation, and he is also coping with troubles with his girlfriend, Gemma. She is leaving for Bologna to meet her son when Zen is also recalled to duty and sent to Bologna to solve the murder of a football team owner.

The victim is Lorenzo Curti, a millionaire entrepreneur who was found dead in his Audi, stabbed by a Parmesan cheese knife. Zen actually has little desire to investigate. His main reason for coming to Bologna is to keep an eye on Gemma.

A ridiculous situation is created by a celebrity cook-off between local semiotics professor Edgardo Ugo and the singing TV chef Romano Rinaldi, or Lo Chef. Ugo has suggested in a newspaper article that Lo Chef can’t cook, which has sparked a rivalry and this competition. Gemma gets tickets to the cook-off, and Zen ends up being arrested after Ugo is shot in the wake of the comic event.

Dibdin presents us with a large cast of characters, including a rich student of Ugo’s who is an “ultra” football fan, the student’s illegal immigrant girlfriend “Princess Flavia of Ruritania,” and the worst private detective imaginable. Despite the large number of characters, the solution is not at all difficult to guess. 

Zen does very little detecting as we watch a series of incredible mishaps result in the murderer being delivered right at Zen’s feet. Although I found this novel mildly amusing, my interest in this series has been winding down, and I think this is a good place to stop.

Day 384: Vendetta

Cover for VendettaAurelio Zen is faced with a seemingly insoluble mystery in Vendetta, and the hapless detective falls into the solution, this time literally. Some government ministry officials assign him to the murder of an eccentric billionaire, Oscar Burolo, whose corrupt dealings have made many Italian politicians wealthy. The chief suspect is a friend of one of the politicians. They want Zen to find a murderer–just about anyone except the suspect will do–and if he has to frame someone, that’s fine, too.

The problem is that Burolo was killed on his seemingly impregnable estate in Sardinia, where every room is monitored by video. Burolo’s death is plainly visible on the cameras, but not his murderer.

Before Zen leaves for Sardinia, though, some odd things happen. He thinks someone may have been following him, and someone has been in his house. A criminal he put away has just been released from jail, and a magistrate has been slain, but he sees no connection between these two incidents. It takes awhile, but Zen figures out that someone is stalking him. His growing relationship with his coworker Tania is also complicated by his being forced to go out of town.

On the scene of the crime, Zen finds an odd care-taking couple and learns that the chief suspect was probably not the murderer. Everyone that was on the scene was killed with a shotgun, and no one else appears to have been in that part of the house. Yet, the estate’s safeguards make it next to impossible for someone to have sneaked in from the outside, it appears.

In his bumbling way, Zen remains incorruptible while managing to stumble into a solution of the crime that makes everyone happy. Dibdin’s mysteries always cynically expose corruption in the Italian government. Zen is a somewhat befuddled detective, nattily dressed, and Dibdin takes great pleasure in occasionally covering his impeccable detective with muck. Vendetta is no exception. Zen’s romances and his difficult relationship with his nearly senile mother are important components of the series, which is occasionally funny and furnishes a clever puzzle to work out.

Day 368: Dead Lagoon

Cover for Dead LagoonDead Lagoon is the most atmospheric of the Aurelio Zen mysteries I have read. In the novel, Zen returns to his home town of Venice, ostensibly to look into the “haunting” of the Contessa Zulian, his mother’s old employer, who is convinced that costumed “swamp dwellers” are invading her home. The contessa has long ago been deemed batty because of a tale she has been telling for years about a missing daughter. Although Zen has hitherto been incorruptible, he is actually there to work on the case of a missing wealthy American businessman, being paid under the table by the businessman’s family.

As Zen wanders or boats through the misty winter setting of Venice, visiting places he knew in his youth, he keeps stumbling over “ghosts,” some from his own past, and some actual dead bodies. A fisherman who spotted a ghost on the Isle of the Dead is drowned, then a crooked cop, head of the Venice drug squad, is found smothered in a sewer. In the search for the ghost on the cemetery island, an unexplained skeleton is found.

Zen’s investigation leads to a string of discoveries, of dishonest police, drug smuggling, and ambitious local politicians. His biggest discovery, though, is about his own family, including that nothing is what he thought it was.

I think what makes this Aurelio Zen book stand out is its depiction of Venice. The plot itself is rather disjointed and difficult to explain. Zen is able to solve both cases, but some readers have expressed frustration about the conclusion.