The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton #cbr6

Oh my word. I have no idea where to begin with The Luminaries. It is amazingly complex, overwhelming, and a readable mystery all at the same time. I finished this 800 page tome and wondered what the heck I had just experienced. I’m not sure if that is a criticism or a compliment.

Set in Gold Rush era New Zealand of the 1860s, it begins with a young man’s arrival to a small back water town on the south island. Relaxing in a hotel lounge, he happens across a furtive gathering of 12 men from a mix of backgrounds, classes, and races, all reflecting the typical characters drawn by the lure of gold. They proceed to tell him a perplexing and entangled mystery about love, betrayal, lost gold, vengeance, and death.

The difficulty of the story is that they are each telling their version (or piece) of the tale. No one in this novel can tell you exactly what happened; they can only give their snapshots. So the text can move slowly at times. You read a couple hundred pages and realize you haven’t gotten far in comprehending the story. By the time I reached the end I had almost stopped caring … almost.

Another issue I had is that there are many characters and several of the voices get lost (or I just mixed them up). There is the young man (Moody), the 12 men in the lounge all who play a side part, and then the 7 primary characters around whom the story mainly revolves. Some of the 12 are really well defined characters with interesting perspectives, especially Tom Balfour, Moody, and Aubert Gascoigne, but the rest blend together in Victorian man character-ness. The two women, Lydia and Anna, stand out much more, however, which is good because they are strong and interesting characters. Overall, though, it seems like the number of characters is more a technique than a necessity.

And speaking of technique, a review must mention the structure of the book, which Catton bases on astrology. There I mentioned it … because lord knows I didn’t get it. For a concise explanation see Elizabeth Knox’s launch speech. The part that makes sense is that each chapter is half the size of the previous. According to Knox, this leads to momentum in the story. Yeah. Well. So does reading a griping story.

Anyway, fabulous historical and literary fiction and certainly worth the time needed to finish it. The story and characters are engaging even if you don’t know a thing about astrology. I may still think TransAtlantic should have won the Man Booker Prize, but I concede this was a special book of 2013.

Book! the white princess #cbr5

My first negative review of the year was for a Philipa Gregory novel, The Kingmaker’s Daughter (The Cousins’ War #4)Keep in mind that I’m not a Gregory hater, but I fully realize that she is a certain type of historical novelist and there are certainly better writers out there. She can spin a decent yarn and they go by quickly.  This one just goes quickly.

So, The White Princess is the newest in the series. I had to finish out The Cousins’ War series just because I can be a purist. The Cousins War is a fictional retelling of the War of the Roses from the perspective of the primary women–Jacquetta, Margaret Beaufort, Elizabeth Woodville, Anne Neville, and Elizabeth of York–each book dealing with a different woman. Elizabeth of  York who marries Henry VII is the subject of The White Princess. Apparently there will be one more book on Margaret Pole, Elizabeth of York’s sister.

While Elizabeth of York is a much more compelling character than Margaret Beaufort (windbag) and Anne Neville (dull, dull, dull), there are some definite flaws in the telling. For one thing, Elizabeth constantly talks about how she was born to rule and Henry VII wasn’t and yet she seems amazed that a king in a troubled kingdom might want to dispose of some pesky rival heirs to his throne.  Plus she seems amazed to find out that, yes, her mother, Elizabeth Woodville probably did scheme against Henry VII. Even if you could overlook Elizabeth of York’s lack of worldliness, the paltry love story doesn’t hold much interest for them or the reader. I didn’t even feel sorry for Elizabeth and Henry when they finally realize they hate each other. Basically I could see why.

I applaud Gregory’s tenacity in wanting to tell the story from all sides, but some historical figures just don’t make for interesting reading. Elizabeth of York in The Kingmaker’s Daughter was an interesting minor character, especially when she begins her affair with King Richard III. But after she marries Henry VII she turns into a mind-numbing doorpost. She’s just there to help tell the larger story and, oh, to have Henry VIII. That’s it.



Beach read. Maybe. Goes by quickly.

Books! The life of a “Tongue”

I came across The Winter Palace: A Novel of Catherine the Great by Eva Stachniak while 11149173browsing a Goodreads list of new historical fiction. Even though it had some strong praise from the Washington Post and others, the cover was a bit bodice-ripper looking for me and I almost passed it up. But I’m glad I did not.

Stachniak tells the story of the rise of Catherine, who becomes Great, through the eyes of Varvara, a young ward of Empress Elizabeth. Varvara comes to live at court as an orphan and is recruited by the Russian Chancellor to become a “tongue” or a spy. Her job is to be the eyes and ears for Empress Elizabeth in the large and unruly court that surrounds her. When Catherine arrives to become the wife of Grand Duke Peter, and subsequently is used and abused (by everyone), Varvara allies herself with the young (future) Grand Duchess.

Stachniak descriptions of the court are well-written and imaginable. In some historical fiction works, the research seems laid on top of the narrative without the two meshing well. Stachniak interweaves what is obviously a tremendous amount of research with a strong and engaging tale. She does this not only with the chronological history but also the “set” in St. Petersburg. During the story, the palace is undergoing renovations that will make it into the grand Winter Palace. Her narrative makes it easy to imagine their surroundings.

I think the book does not have the correct title though as in many ways it is more about the life of Empress Elizabeth than Catherine. Because it is focused on Catherine’s early years and because it takes a really long time for her to become Empress, at the close of the book I felt I knew more about Elizabeth as a character than I did Catherine. I even know the name of Elizabeth’s cats. This may partly be intentional because the story is told from Varvara’s perspective and Varvara is ultimately burnt by her benefactress. In other words, we only know as much as Varvara does and in the end she doesn’t seem to know enough about Catherine and the power of court intrigue.

If you like historical fiction, this one is a keeper. Intrigue, power, sex, and … cats, lots of cats.

PS: Just noticed that it is listed on Goodreads as Catherine #1. Oh dear, another trilogy …

Books! Everyone is named Thomas

Oh Cannonball, how I have missed you! Usually spring semester is not so busy but usually I am not taking a class while teaching and working full-time. Oh well. Here’s to summer…

The one fun book I read this semester was Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. I bought the book when it first came out and just now got to it as part of my Mount TBR Challenge. It was definitely a highlight of my semester though.

Thomas Cromwell is our guy in this chronicle of the early years of King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn’s love affair. From humble beginnings, he starts his professional life as an assistant to Cardinal Wolsey but after Wolsey’s death he becomes a minister to the King. Along the way he meets Cranmer, Anne and Mary Boleyn, the rest of the Boleyn gang, Thomas More, and a very young Jane Seymour. As it is a planned trilogy, with Bring up the Bodies out now of course, it ends on the cusp of the shift in Henry’s feelings towards Anne and the disgrace of Thomas More.

The book reads beautifully and Cromwell is an extremely sympathetic character. Mantel’s writing has a nice cheekiness to it that often feels self-referential. The quote “Some of these things are true and some of them lies. But they are all good stories” is  a nice commentary both in relation to action in the story but also to the process of telling this particular story.  While she absolutely must take liberty with the characters’ comments and actions to tell this story, she tries to stay true to life as much as possible (very much unlike the tv show The Tudors that took many liberties). In contrasting the two approaches, I prefer this Thomas Cromwell to his small screen counterpart, but I was surprised at how petty and irritable she made Thomas More as he is typically portrayed with more nobility. Honestly, it was quite fun.

The book slows a bit toward the end, but most of it has a nice pace. If you know nothing about the Tudor period at all, it could be potentially difficult to read, especially keeping track of the characters. Nevertheless, it is one of my favorite of the year. Historical fiction at its finest!

Books! Philippa Phones It In #cbr5

In last year’s Cannonball Read I didn’t review books that I didn’t particularly like. I tend not to give up on books (except Twilight) because I obsessively like to finish things, but I couldn’t bring myself to write a few of those reviews.  This year I am going to do a full Cannonball if it kills me, so here is my first negative review for CBR5.

Generally I don’t mind Philipa Gregory’s books. She doesn’t write particularly good historical fiction compared to some other authors, but her books make for nice escapes if you like history. They aren’t horrible bodice rippers and they do have some truth. They also don’t make you weep too much for the state of fiction (unlike Twilight). So, yes, I’ve read a few of her novels. 

The Kingmaker’s Daughter (The Cousins’ War #4) continues a series on the women of the Wars of the Roses. They do not need to be read in order as each book tells the story from one woman’s perspective. Honestly I think it is a really cool idea, but the books are a mixed bag. The White Queen is the best so far. The Lady of the Rivers and The Red Queen were fine, but had issues. This one might frankly be the worst.

Part of the problem might be the lack of source information for the main character, Anne Neville, who marries King Richard III. Gregory’s attempt to fill in the blanks mostly falls flat. She tries to make it exciting by having Anne victim to overbearing parents, including a mother who inexplicably forces Anne to deliver her sister’s baby in a storm on a boat, but I was really bored with most of it. The character isn’t interesting enough to make the slow times around her more engaging.

In addition, Gregory just blasted this novel out without any concern for, well, the reader. There are continuity issues that even I noticed (Anne steps down from a mounting block twice in one paragraph). The narrative is repetitive and grammatically problematic. Every sentence ends in a comma, what do you think of that, this writing style gets annoying, seriously. And did I mention repetitive?

Finally, the series phenomenon is killing me. Between Pure, The Century Trilogy, All Souls Trilogy, and the ongoing Cousins’ War (a fifth is in the works), I have my reading lists locked up for the next few years. The obsessive side of my personality is having a hard time disengaging (except Twilight, nixed that one early on).

While you don’t have to read these books in order, I had to rack my brain to remember what the heck happened with the other women. Part of this is my fault. You know you read too much fiction about a historical time period when they all start to run together. But much of this is the publishing industry’s laziness. They capitalize on a good thing and keep it going whether it should die a quick death or not (die! Twilight!). That’s not Gregory’s fault really, but it is yet another reason I disliked this one.

Anne was dull dull dull and Philippa seemed to phone this one in. Meh, back at ya.

Books! Winter of the World #cbr5

A new year and a new Cannonball Read. Here’s my second go at 52!

Winter of the World by Ken Follett is the second book of the Century Trilogy. I wish I had a review of the first book, but in brief it chronicles the life of four families starting around the turn of the century up to the 1920s. These American, British, Russian, and German families are witnesses to and at times active participants in the world’s major events.

Book two takes us through the World War II and the 1940s with the same families and their offspring. Whereas I felt the first book was rushed in trying to cover so many years (without being over 1,000 pages), Follett seems to slow down a bit through this chronicle. Rather than skipping over several years as in the last book, the war years take several chapters each. The book and the reader benefits from this slower pace.

The difficulty of these books is that you have to suspend disbelief a bit when it comes to the intertwining lives of these characters. It just happens that members of these four families are direct witnesses to Pearl Harbor, the making of the atom bombs in both the US and the USSR, the rise of Hitler, the Battle of Midway, and more.

The biggest criticism of Follett’s writing is that his characters are one-dimensional. Some men are evil, do bad things, and get their comeuppance; some men are good,  beaten up, suffer, but have a good life in the end, scarred but much wiser. The women especially tend to be either saints or tarts. However, his characters are a bit more complex in this book, especially the females, but they still serve mostly to encourage the action on or to serve as witness to events.

Having said that Follett can set a scene well and make it believable. He also knows how to give background information without it seeming stilted. While he will never be my favorite writer, his descriptions of Pearl Harbor and other battles were quite riveting page-turners and despite the length (almost 1,000 pages) I will return for the third book.

And speaking of that third book I’m really curious what he will cover. He calls it the century trilogy so I assumed he would go up to 9/11, but it seems his concern is more with the Cold War. Even so, 1950-1989?! That’s the same period of time covered in the first two books. So, you know where to find me next fall.

Historical fiction at its most magisterial. Don’t be afraid of its length as it has its gripping, page-turning moments. If you have wrist issues, I would get the eBook version. The hardback is quite a brick.

Books! My kind of historical fiction #cbr4

I’ve never read Gore Vidal before. As a cultural figure he always struck me as a long-winded curmudgeon. Before the Thanksgiving break, however, I was wanting something EPIC and Vidal popped into my head. I started with Creation because I wasn’t sure in what order to read the American history books and because it was the smallest paperback of the bunch at the library. Ah, convenience.

To be perfectly honest, this is an amazing book. It is historical fiction as it should be and as I have always wanted to read it. I was in love with the story and language from the moment I started reading. I am being a bit effusive but this is the truth. You should read it.

Set in the fifth century BCE, we follow the adventures of Cyrus Spitama, the grandson of the prophet Zoroaster and a leading figure in the Persian court (during the reigns of Darius, Xerxes, and Artaxerxes). In addition to providing the Persian version of the Greek wars as told by Herodotus, he narrates his travels through India and China where he meets Buddha,  Confucius, and more querying them on the meaning of creation and heaven. Vidal has said that he wanted to write a novel that included Sophocles, Buddha, and Confucius, and he wrote a splendid one.

The only part I found slow was when he firsts visits China, but it picks up when he meets Confucius. I especially loved this part:

Confucius smiled. “I should think so. It has always seemed to me clear that the spirit which animates the human body is bound to return at death to the primal unity from which it came.”

“To be reborn? Or judged?”

Confucius shrugged. “Whatever. But one thing is certain. You cannot rekindle a fire that has burned out. While you burn with life, your seed can make a new human being but when your fire is out, no one can bring you back to life again. The dead, dear friend, are cold ashes. They have no consciousness. But that is no reason not to honor their memory, and ourselves, and our descendants.”

The biggest criticism of Vidal is that he likes to bend history to fit his novels and he does that quite a bit in this book. But honestly he bends to make a much better novel and in the end tells a better story than most historical fiction out there that tries to retain the truth and ends up feeling false. Gore Vidal in death has a new fan.

If you are looking for a well-written, complex story with dialogue that isn’t painful to read, then this is the historical fiction for you. Having some interest in ancient history is a plus but not necessary to enjoy the story.