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Friday, September 28, 2012

Bella Fortuna

Bella Fortuna (#226) by Rosanna Chiofalo was a Goodreads First Reads giveaway for me.  It's a romance partially set in Venice, the most atmospheric of cities and a place of wonderful memories for me.

Valentina DeLuca, the daughter of Sicilian immigrants, is about to fulfill her lifelong dream of marrying the man she loves in Venice.  And she'll be wearing the perfect dress she has designed for the occasion.  Valentina and her two sisters both work in her mother Olivia's shop, the Sposa Rosa, a successful New York wedding gown business featuring customized designer knock-offs.  But it turns out Michael isn't the perfect match Valentina thought he would be.  Determined not to let him destroy all her dreams, Valentina decides to visit Venice on her own.  Although imagining herself there with Michael is bound to cause her pain, she finds that there are unexpected compensations, too.

Although this is an enjoyable enough novel, it took two thirds of the book before Valentina even arrives in Venice, and frankly, the city that is featured on the cover and in the jacket blurbs gets pretty short shrift here with one notable geographic mistake for anyone who has ever been there.  I'm glad I had my Rosetta Stone background in Italian as I was reading, though, because there are a number of exchanges in the book in Italian which the author never bothers to translate, or give clues to the meaning through additional dialogue.  I find that very annoying myself.  And while I'm nitpicking, Valentina has the habit of correcting the English of the male Italian characters she runs into (while they're undressing her with their eyes, of course!), yet the author, who is herself the daughter of Sicilian immigrants brought up in New York City, employs several idioms throughout the book which are not common American usage.  Since when do Americans stand "on line" at the bakery, not "in line"?  Or when was the last time you referred to that passing cargo ship as a freight line cruiser?  I was brought up in a major port city and I've never heard that term.  It was also a bit distracting that halfway through the book Olivia DeLuca's story was inserted into Valentina's story in a seemingly random fashion.  It would have made more sense if her mother's story had been introduced earlier in the narrative.

On the plus side, though, I really did enjoy learning about the "behind the scenes" workings of a busy bridal boutique.  The designs and the materials used are all so far removed from our daily experiences it's nice to live vicariously in this world of fairytale luxury.  And for those who get hungry reading about all the delicious Italian dishes, Ms. Chiofalo includes some recipes in the back.  If you're in the mood for romance, Bella Fortuna may satisfy your romantic sweet tooth.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The Princess and the Pirates - SPQR IX

Decius Caecillia Metellus has just completed his successful and expensive year as aedile in Rome, but he is informed by his family that he cannot stand for praetor, the next step up the career ladder, until he has more military service under his belt.  Decius has no intention of going back to Gaul and serving under Julius Caesar, even if he is married to Caesar's niece.  His family proposes that a little pirate smashing off Cyprus will do the trick instead, and so the plot is set in motion for John Maddox Roberts' latest novel in his SPQR series: The Princess and the Pirates - SPQR IX (#225).

The princess in the plot is a young Cleopatra, who also happens to be a guest of the Roman Governor on Cyprus.  She thinks that Decius' task sounds like a great adventure and wants to come along.  How can Decius refuse a princess when she has a better fleet and more disciplined sailors than he can muster?  With his personal slave Hermes along until his wife can join him, Decius tries to sort out the situation on Cyprus so he can use the element of surprise against the resurgent pirates.  His best weapon is Ariston, an ex-pirate he recruits who takes the Roman coin to avoid future prosecution.  Rumors are flying that the leader of the new band of pirates is a Roman himself.  When the Governor is found murdered in a particularly gruesome fashion to make a point, suspicion falls on a number of people, including a prominent Roman exile and on Cleopatra herself.  Can Decius determine who is behind the pirate raids before he becomes a victim himself?

I enjoy Mr. Roberts' series featuring Decius who is opinionated, impatient and married into the family of the rising star of the Republic, while his own family's influence is on the wane.  Although he basically does the right thing himself, he keeps some questionable company, which is what keeps this SPQR series interesting.  You just never know which ancient Roman will pop up next... 

His Majesty's Dragon

I don't read a lot of fantasy, but His Majesty's Dragon (#224) by Naomi Novik was included on an NPR list a while back, and the idea of the Napoleonic Wars being waged with dragons intrigued me.  What can I tell you?  My husband and I are both now officially Temeraire fans.

Will Laurence has finally reached a comfortable place in his naval career as captain of the HMS Reliant, and is ready at long last to propose to the young lady of his choice and settle into his proper place in society.  But on his voyage home, his ship intercepts a French naval vessel in bad shape.  Its crew is easily overcome, but the captain fights to protect the precious cargo on board: a dragon's egg.  England has few dragons for its defense, so the egg is a valuable prize of war.  It can be turned over to the Aviator Corps as soon as they reach home, to hatch and bond for life with its handler.  But as fate would have it, the egg doesn't wait, and when Temeraire emerges from his shell, he chooses to bond with Will Laurence, not the young officer assigned to him.

For the good of the country, Will Laurence does his duty and remains with Temeraire, turning command of his ship over to his second, and joining the Aviator Corps himself for training along side his dragon.  His career hopes are dashed, as the Aviator Corps is considered a big step down from the Royal Navy, and Aviators don't as a general rule marry.  Training provides many surprises for Will, and he finds himself growing increasingly attached to the intelligent and highly unusual Temeraire.  A dragon expert finally identifies Temeraire's breed as a Chinese Imperial dragon, and the presence of the egg aboard a French ship leads Laurence and his commanders to conclude that the dragon was a gift for Napoleon.  Napoleon is determined to invade England and reclaim his dragon at the same time.  Will Laurence and his fellow Aviators may be the last line of defense for England if the Navy cannot hold the invaders off.

This series really has it all: part Jane Austen, part Horatio Hornblower, part Wizard of Oz, it's a perfectly satisfying blend of all three with Will Laurence doing his duty with honor and humanity, and a  host of interesting and unexpected characters on the ground and in the air, not least of which is the stable of dragons, each with his or her own personality and fighting strengths.

We read this book while on vacation in Portland, Oregon, and looking for the second and third books in this series to fill in the gap at our local library gave us the perfect excuse to explore an amazing store - Powell's Bookshop.  I'm happy to say we were successful in our mission (along with a number of other acquisitions we couldn't leave on the shelves!).  Thanks, Ms. Novik for your fertile imagination that still managed to make dragons feel right for the period.  We'll be eagerly following Temeraire through all his future adventures.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Pirates of the Levant

More adventures of Captain Alatriste and his intrepid young companion Inigo Balboa in Arturo Perez-Reverte's latest: Pirates of the Levant (#223).  I came across this book last week when our local library had a display of non-fiction pirate books, and novels featuring pirates in conjunction with the Pirate Festival going on in town.  This book caught my eye when I recognized Perez-Reverte's name on the cover, and it was a welcome discovery.

I've missed two books in the series, as was evident from the references to shared adventures in the past, but this book concentrates on the time Captain Alatriste and Balboa, who is now old enough to feel himself an equal of his former master, spend as soldiers on a Spanish galley, patrolling the Mediterranean.  There was a time when the Spanish were even more to be feared in the Levant than the Turks or Barbary Coast pirates.  They raided both for the honor of Spain and to line their own pockets - after the King and the government and officers take their shares, of course.  Life was hard on the galleys, so the sailors and soldiers on board lived for the excitement of a raid or battle, or a chance to get up to mischief while in port.  The novel climaxes with a recounting of the naval battle of Cap Nero, in which two Spanish galleys, accompanied by a ship belonging to the Knights of Malta, are trapped by seven Turkish vessels in a duel to the death.

As usual, the book is sprinkled with snippets of Spanish poetry quoted by both Alatriste and Balboa as the narrative meanders along.  There isn't so much a plot as a recounting of what the life of a typical sea bound Spanish soldier was like in the early 16th century, with bows to the principals' past, and hints of what is to come in their futures.  Still fascinating...

Monday, September 10, 2012

The Best Women's Travel Writing - Volume 8

This is one of the rare books that I didn't care to finish.  The Best Women's Travel Writing - Volume 8 (#222) has such a beguiling cover, promising adventures in exotic lands where I know I will never go.  But as I began to read this collection of short stories, I realized that the vast majority of journeys chronicled in this volume were tours of the authors' internal landscapes.  I should have known from the editor Lavinia Spalding's Introduction when she talks about the recurring theme of family in this batch of stories that the geography of the places was incidental.  By the time I read half a dozen stories, I felt like an overwhelmed porter, straining to deal with an unwieldy cargo of emotional baggage. 

There's the story of a woman who runs away from the grief of her daughter's death by traveling to the most remote, inaccessible places - in this short story, it's Tibet.  But my internal critic kept kicking in as I was reading this self indulgent story; what about her other child, Sam?  He's curiously missing from the narrative, although her adopted daughter features in her memories of a night star-gazing on Lake Titicaca three weeks after she joins the family.  Other people have lost children, or spouses or parents and seem to have been able to move on with their lives.  Their losses are no less devastating, but they deal with it with quiet heroism, not the "I'm the only one who's ever lost anyone..." routine.  Also, I wanted to know how on earth she could afford the money or the time to take all the journeys she described over the last few years to Southeast Asia, South America, and so on?  What did I learn about Tibet here?  The sky is blue, and everybody uses yak butter.  Nothing new or revelatory there.

Or how about the graduate student who takes two male Muslim colleagues to experience the wonders of Walden Pond by taking them swimming in a remote cove out of sight or sound of the public beach when she knows that neither of them swim well?  Both of the men flounder only a few feet from shore, both nearly drowning and taking her with them.  My reaction to this story was an exasperated why do you think they have lifeguards, lady?  And she's surprised that this incident led to the breakup of her relationship with one of the men!  He had already told her there was no future for them because he wouldn't flaunt his family's good opinion of him.  She was basically there for him as a bed mate.  Wouldn't you want to find someone who wasn't as likely to cause you grievous bodily harm after this near death experience?  Besides, she managed to spoil many childhood memories of Walden Pond for me. 

To be fair, though, if all the stories in the book were more like Kimberly Lavato's amusing Lost and Liberated or Storming the Castles by Susan Orlean, I would have loved this book.  Ms. Lavato tells of trying to find an artisinal ice cream maker in the French Dordogne when her GPS system can't find the landmarks that are her only directions to her appointment.  When she does finally arrive, the ice cream maker constantly corrects her French and subjects her to a barrage of questions critical of the United States.  How she resolves the impasse, gets her interview and samples some of the most wonderful ice cream ever, make a satisfying story that couldn't be written anywhere else.  Likewise, Ms. Orleans's bold attempt to conquer the Loire Valley and its castles with her husband and six year old son on bikes make an amateur's efforts seem possible and inviting - if you buy enough Bag Balm first!

Bottom line: a couple of gems, but a lot of emotional dross.  Didn't care to spend the time to read just more of the same emotional bombs.  Might be a good selection for Oprah's Book Club, though.  Just my opinion.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Templar Magician

The Middle Ages of P.C. Doherty's The Templar Magician (#221) is a grim place with death lurking behind each rock and tree.  Edmund de Payens is a Templar knight, born and brought up in the Holy Land and kin to Hugh de Payens, one of the Order's founders.  He takes his vows of poverty, chastity and obedience seriously, but all around him, things are changing.  When he and his fellow Templar Peter Mayele are assigned to protect Count Raymond, they are unable to prevent his assassination at the gates of Tripoli.  But who was actually responsible for the murder, and for what reason?

Rumors begin swirling around Jerusalem that witches, warlocks and sorcerers were involved, with the connivance of a mysterious Frankish nobleman, possibly a Templar himself.  The Grand Master assigns de Payens to investigate with the aid of Mayele and the Genoese Parmenio, who is not what he appears to be.  When the culprit is identified as an English Templar, Henry Walkyn, they are ordered to pursue him to England.  With a brutal civil war raging between King Stephen and Empress Mathilda for the English throne, Edmund must tread carefully to carry out the Grand Master's orders if he is to survive.

Dr. Doherty really makes the world of the Crusaders come alive in this book, as well as the period in English history when the chroniclers say "the saints slept".  If feeling grubby after reading about the living conditions back then is the measure of immersing yourself in the atmosphere of a different time and place, then this book, like Doherty's others, fits the bill.  So glad I can read about it, and not have to live there!  The bonus is that it's a good mystery, too, because I did not expect the ending.

Friday, September 7, 2012


SecondWorld (#220), a thriller by Jeremy Robinson does not stop.  Only a few pages into the book his hero,  Lincoln Miller, has already escaped from the undersea research station just off the Florida coast where his superiors at NCIS have sent him for an enforced vacation.  It just wasn't built to survive the impact of a dead blue whale.  When he reaches the surface, the former SEAL is ready to do battle with the polluters who caused the massive fish kill.  But the sky is red, and raining what appears to be blood, and its effect will literally take your breath away...

When Miller reaches Miami in a drifting sailboat, almost everyone is dead, and those who are still alive are bent on killing him and the young burn victim he finds under an oxygen tent in one of Miami's hospitals.  They manage to make it out alive and find themselves in Washington, D.C. where Lincoln learns that Tel Aviv and Tokyo have also been wiped out.  The President appeals for his help and Miller gains an unlucky ally in Elizabeth Adler as they try to determine just who the enemy is, and how to stop them. 

The clue is SecondWorld.  The Nazis at the end of World War II had almost perfected an incredible weapon of destruction.  They needed more time to complete this project, but now they're ready and Miami, Tel Aviv and Tokyo are just demonstrations for what is in store for the rest of the world as they prepare for the rise of the Fourth Reich.  The Nazis have carefully laid their plans for seventy years and infiltrated every level of government, science and business, hiding in plain sight.  Miller and Adler  have only five days to stop them...

Put your internal Fact Checker on hold, and just enjoy the ride.  You might want to zap some popcorn first!

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Bring Up The Bodies

I'm not usually a fan of novels that win literary prizes.  When praise is heaped on by critics it's almost always a sign that for me, the book will be difficult to read, abstract and on some level, unpleasant.  With time so short, I don't need to work hard to be made to feel intellectually stupid.  So it was with a great deal of surprise that I couldn't read Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, the first of her trilogy on Thomas Cromwell and winner of the Man Booker Prize, fast enough.  I couldn't wait until the second volume came out.  I am delighted to say that Bring Up The Bodies (#219) is even better.

Anne Boleyn's power has peaked at the opening of the book.  She hasn't been able to produce the promised male heir, and Henry is already starting to look elsewhere.  Since she and Thomas Cromwell have always been at odds, it doesn't weigh too heavily on his conscience to help the king achieve his goal of a legitimate heir to the throne.  And truth be told, Anne doesn't make it too difficult for him.  There is never any doubt about how this story ends, so the pleasure of reading Bring Up The Bodies is in the nuances, the details of everyday life in the Court's administration, and the tantalising details about Cromwell's own life and his relationships with those around him: those who use him, those who fear him, and those who revere him.

I heard Scott Simon on NPR several years ago when he interviewed Hilary Mantel about this project.  He told her how much he enjoyed reading the book, and how he just couldn't bear to think about Thomas Cromwell's head ending up on a pike at the end because he liked him so much.  Now that's an accomplishment, to humanize someone that history takes for granted as a dyed-in-the-wool villain.  Very few authors succeed at such a daunting task when the evidence seems to weigh so heavily against their subject, but Ms. Mantel has made Cromwell into someone I'd like to have over for dinner so I could pick his busy, busy brain.  I think she's done for Cromwell what Josephine Tey (Daughter of Time) and Sharon Kay Pennman (The Sunne in Splendor) have done for Richard III.  I will hate to see this trilogy end as it must.