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Monday, September 23, 2013

Blood & Beauty

Is it possible to make the Borgias boring?  I was beginning to think so as I read Sarah Dunant's latest novel Blood & Beauty (#333).  I had been so looking forward to reading this book after devouring her previous books set in Renaissance Italy.  Sacred Hearts was so vivid and memorable in its depiction of women's lives in that time period that I was expecting her to similarly illuminate the life of Lucrezia in Blood & Beauty.  For me, it just didn't happen. 

It's a sturdy, well researched and straight-forward telling of the history of the Borgia clan from the time that Rodrigo is elected as that rare thing, a non-Italian pope until Lucrezia's third marriage.  But for me, it was essentially lifeless.  In the first half of this five hundred page novel, the most compellingly portrayed character was Giulia Farnese's hair! (She was the girl married to his nephew as a beard for the Pope's affair with her.)  Things did pick up a bit in the second half of the book, but the focus was really on the male characters, not Lucrezia, as I had hoped.  In fact, in many ways, Lucrezia comes across in this story as a victim.  Bright, but still merely a chess piece in the game her father, the Pope, and her brother, Cesare, were manipulating to enhance their own power and political prestige.

According to Ms. Dunant's notes at the end of this volume, she does plan to continue the family saga in further volumes.  Perhaps Lucrezia will be allowed more time on the stage in future books, but the question is, will I be willing to wade through it to find out, or should I just cut my losses and stick to non-fiction like The Tigress of Forli about Caterina Sforza, a remarkable woman who does play a role in Blood & Beauty?

If you haven't previously read any of Sarah Dunant's books, you can read Blood & Beauty without any expectations.  Then go back and read any of her other books, especially In the Company of a Courtesan, The Birth of Venus, or my personal favorite, Sacred Hearts.  Then you'll understand why I found this book so disappointing.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The English Girl

I have a bone to pick with my husband.  I can't understand why he has never recommended Daniel Silva's books to me before, since he's read every single one of them.  I put The English Girl (#332) on hold way before he thought to do it, so I actually did both of us a favor by getting it first.  Since it was my hold, that meant I read it first.  Reader, I just discovered another treasure trove of must-read novels!

Madeline Hart is the eponymous English girl in this thriller.  She's also the mistress of the British Prime Minister, so when she is kidnapped while on vacation in Corsica, it not only makes the news as a missing British national, it also makes waves in the Party, where the Prime Minister's inner circle of political handlers are trying desperately to make this scandal go away.  Who could handle this thorny problem better and more discretely than Gabriel Allon, accomplished art restorer and assassin working under the auspices of Israeli Intelligence?

There are plenty of plot twists here, and you wonder just whose heads will roll by the end.  There are a number of references to Gabriel's previous missions in The English Girl, but I'm happy to say that Mr. Silva provides enough background to make the story cohesive even if you have not read any of his previous books.  I could enjoy this story on its own, but those hints certainly did whet my appetite to find out more about Gabriel Allon, his Italian wife Chiara, the assassin who is his partner in this book, and his companions at "The Office".

It's always a thrill to find a new source of reading pleasure.  If you've read any Daniel Silva books, you'll know exactly what I'm talking about.  If you haven't, there's no time like the present to find out why he's a perennial best seller!

Thursday, September 12, 2013


I forgot to mention in my last post that there is one more author who can make me laugh out loud: David Rosenfelt.  It's true when I'm reading his Andy Carpenter mysteries, and it certainly was true when I read his latest book Dogtripping (#331).  The difference is that Dogtripping is non-fiction, as you may be able to guess from the subtitle: 25 Rescues, 11 Volunteers, 3 RVs on Our Canine Cross-Country Adventure.  If you've ever been fortunate enough to read any of the Andy Carpenter books yourself, you'll know that a golden retriever rescue dog  named Tara is a major character in all of his books (See my posts of  8/2912, 1/10/12, 12/26/11, 8/6/11, 7/3/11, 5/24/11, & 3/1/11.).  So it should come as no surprise that the majority of the 25 rescue dogs that made the journey with David Rosenfelt and his wife, Debbie Myers, to their new home are either pure golden retrievers or mixes (or were represented as such before rescue!).

Interspersed with the saga of why and how the Rosenfelts and their canine brood made the long journey from southern California to re-settle in rural Maine are anecdotes about how these two acquired their dogs, both those that lived to make the trip with them, and the many who are now gone, but who spent varying lengths of time in the Rosenfelt home being loved and nurtured until it was time to say goodbye.  All of these little tales are affecting in their own way, and I found it was best to keep a tissue on hand either to muffle the sobs, or to mop up the tears from laughing so hard at the dogs' and David's antics.  Plus, there are pictures of their road trip and a photograph of the immortal Tara.

If you're like me, you'll have to restrain yourself from rushing out to the nearest rescue group or animal shelter to adopt a pet of your own after reading this book, but I think that few people would ever have the fortitude and dedication to do what David Rosenfelt and Debbie Myers have done, and are still doing. However, I am proud to say as a native New Englander that Mr. Rosenfelt notes at the end of Dogtripping that the attitude towards animals is very different in New England than it is in California, and that there won't be nearly the call for their rescue services in Maine as there was at their former home.

If you've ever owned a pet, or wanted to, or are simply a David Rosenfelt fan, you'll enjoy spending some quality time with the man behind the novels.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Happy Any Day Now

Judith Raphael isn't having one mid-life crisis: she's having several simultaneously in Toby Devens' new novel Happy Any Day Now (#330).  She's survived a brain aneurysm, she has a job she loves, a handsome lover, and a strong relationship with her Korean mother.  So why is it that everything seems to be changing as she approaches her fiftieth birthday?

It's not all bad, by any means.  Her first love has just resurfaced in her life, ready to rekindle that old flame.  Judith always thought that's what she wanted, but is it really?  There will be consequences to her emotional life either way.  What about the chance to advance her career as a cellist with the Maryland Philharmonic Orchestra?  Can she let go of the paralyzing stage fright that suddenly afflicts her?  And the father who abandoned them when she was only six has suddenly appeared in Baltimore.  Judith wants no part of him, but it's hard when her mother is blossoming in front of her eyes.  With the help of friends and family, Judith will eventually arrive at a satisfactory conclusion.

It's nice to know that these kinds of problems aren't confined to the dewy-skinned teens and twenties out there.  Both Judith and her mother Grace have to make choices which will affect their own happiness.  Career choices in mid-life may have more far-reaching effects as the options begin to narrow in a youth-obsessed culture.

One thing I did find a bit curious, though.  I read through the discussion guide at the end of the book and the first question was "...did Happy Any Day Now make you laugh?  What were the funniest parts for you?"  I find that very few writers can make me laugh, Dave Barry, Tim Dorsey and Jasper fforde being  notable exceptions.  Though I enjoyed reading this book, I think a better question to ask would have been "What part of the story touched your emotions, and how?"  I did feel my eyes tear up in a few spots, especially when Judith plays at the funeral.

If you're an older reader who believes romantic life can last as long as you do, you'll appreciate this new addition to "fully mature chick lit".

Saturday, September 7, 2013

The Spirit Room

Being a medium isn't easy.  For the Benton sisters in 1850s Geneva, New York, the hardest thing to deal with is the consequences they face from their abusive father for themselves or their siblings if they refuse to cooperate in the daily seances and table rapping.  Clara and Isabelle Benton's story is told in Marschel Paul's mesmerizing new novel The Spirit Room (#329).

Spiritualism, hydrotherapy, physical and emotional abuse, prostitution, and rational dress all play a role in this book in a fascinating look at a time and place in the United States just prior to the Civil War.  Although the tone of the book is mostly dark, both Clara and Isabelle are strong enough to survive and ultimately thrive, and the ending promises the hope of better days to come.

I guess the one place I felt cheated in this book was at the very end, though.  Izzie has settled into a useful and productive life using her gifts at her husband's Water Cure Institute, youngest sister Euphora has been rescued and lives with her, Clara's twin Billy has found a new life as a sailor in the Pacific and Mr. Benton is finally gone for good.  We know where their stories end at that point.  But then Clara comes to visit Izzie  bringing with her her friend Hannah.  She has made the choice that worked for her, but now she is much changed and Izzie fears she may not be long for this world.  What happened to Clara???  After spending all this time with her, I really wanted to know!  And that's the mark of a good story, when the author can make you care about the characters.  Definitely worth the time to read.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The Woman Upstairs

Before I finished the first page of The Woman Upstairs (#328) by Claire Messud, I knew that I didn't want to spend any more time with the angry, profanity-spewing narrator of this book, but since it is our book club's choice for September, I soldiered on.  It wasn't until the very last  few pages that I finally found out just what made Nora Eldridge so furious.  Can't say I blame her, but the payoff wasn't worth the time invested to me.

An unmarried elementary school teacher in her late thirties develops strong crushes on all three members of a family when the boy, Reza, is enrolled in her third grade class in Cambridge.  His father Skandar is a visiting professor at Harvard, and his mother Sirena is an emerging artist.  Nora herself put aside a career in art because she couldn't support herself at it, but she sees Sirena Shahid as the instrument  of her transformation into the artist she always knew she could be when Sirena proposes that they share studio space.  Skandar, the husband, provides intellectual stimulation as well as a brief fling for Nora. It isn't until later that the relationships that Nora treasured and presumed were requited are revealed  for what they truly are in a shocking revelation.

Not that this book is badly written; it's not.  I didn't like it because it is so negative, on oh, so many levels.  I expect it will be a good discussion for our group, but I so wish I had that time back to read something else that wasn't quite so "me" centered.  I also disliked the stereotypes that Messud invokes and perpetuates in her book, "The Woman Upstairs" being the principal one. 

Finally, a very personal peeve.  Ms. Messud seems to have climbed the ladder that comes with every Cambridge dwelling, be it ever so humble, to allow their inhabitants to look down upon their neighbors in Somerville and sneer.  Ah, effete snobbery!   Somerville in her narrative is a place of abandoned buildings, garbage strewn alleyways and live chicken (!!!) shops on one of its main thoroughfares as though the same conditions don't exist equally in Cambridge.  She implies that Davis Square, that haven for foodies, is in Cambridge; it's not.  It's in Somerville.  The producers on the weekly NPR World Music program would be surprised to have their Somerville studio placed in such a dangerous neighborhood.  Enough said.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland's History-Making Race Around the World

Jules Verne really started something with his novel Around the World in Eighty Days, published in 1873.  The last half of the nineteenth century was a time of great technological advancement, and by 1888, brash investigative reporter Nellie Bly pitched the idea of beating Phileas Fogg's fictional time around the world to her boss at New York's The World newspaper.   He turned her down then, but promised that if they did ever decide to sponsor a reporter on this story, it would be Nellie.  It only took a year before pressure to be first with the story forced John Cockerill's hand and the race was on.  Not to be outdone, The Cosmopolitan, a New York-based magazine, sent their own reporter, Elizabeth Bisland, on her own race around the world in the opposite direction.  Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland's History-Making Race Around the World (#327) by Matthew Goodman tells the fascinating, but mostly forgotten story of these two women and their whirlwind race around the globe. 

I loved this book.  It's jam packed full of all kinds of odd bits and pieces of information about the places, personalities and politics that drove this great race.  Matthew Goodman alternates the story between Nellie's and Elizabeth's background and the legs if the race by dates to show just where in the world they are at roughly the same time, and their reactions to what they see and experience along the way.  And yes, you could look up the bare facts before you start reading, but Mr. Goodman does such a masterful job with the suspense of who will be first to return to New York City, you can feel the anxiety on the part of both ladies to achieve the victory. 

Nellie Bly, of course, does return first, which is why you may find her name familiar.  With her incredible trip, she became easily the most famous woman in America, drawing crowds on the final leg of her train trip across the United States which exceeded even those of Presidential trains.   If you're like me, though, you've probably never heard of Elizabeth Bisland, which is a shame.  The contrast in personalities and attitudes between these two women is enormous.  Although Nellie was already well-known for her daring exposes for The World, including a proposal to sail to England so she could return in steerage and report on the conditions endured by the immigrants coming to America, not once during her 72 day trip did she ever venture into steerage, or investigate the harsh and perilous conditions in the ships' boiler rooms as many other passengers routinely did.  She seems to have left her bump of curiosity at home, as nothing and no one she met on her travels could even come close to what she could find on the shores of America, and she did not hesitate to make her views known to all and sundry.  She particularly loathed the British, even though almost her entire trip was through ports and territories controlled by the British.  (I have met people like that on my own travels abroad, and it can be trying to  spend any time with them!)  Elizabeth, on the other hand, moved in more literary and artistic circles and was well known in her own way for her essays and book reviews.  She was summoned to her publisher's office on the morning of November 14, 1889, and found herself reluctantly on a west-bound train that very same night committed to circling the globe, the same day that Nellie Bly had departed.  She was charmed by what she saw, especially in the Far East, and embraced the chance to experience new things as she could.  How I envy her her first view of Mount Fuji in Japan as her ship steamed towards Yokohama.  She never in later life lost her love of the Orient, and returned there several times.  She also was an Anglophile and received an invitation to spend the next Season in England with Lady Broom, whom she had met and befriended in Ceylon, which she accepted.  Who was the real winner of this race?  I think that's debatable.

There are also a number of photographs and maps included in the text which help you to visualize what it must have been like for a woman alone to brave such a trip in winter.  The chapter notes (there are no footnotes) are also a wealth of little tidbits.  It's like mining for gold back there!

If you like travel; if you like American history; if you are interested in women's progress towards career equality; if you like gossip or just a cracking good story, Eighty Days has it all.  I can't recommend it highly enough!