Archive for July, 2010

Alison Weir’s Historical Novels

Monday, July 26th, 2010


I came to Alison Weir’s historical fictions after enjoying a number of her very readable non-fiction histories. The first time I came across one of her fictional books (with the seemingly mandatory cover image of a woman in period dress with her face partially obscured — what is up with that?) I was a touch amused.

I imagined Weir being at least a little put out that Philippa Gregory was selling circles around Weir’s carefully researched non-fiction works. So, why shouldn’t Weir translate her vast historical knowledge into books that would reach people who might never pick up an actual history — and sell a lot more copies in the process.

I say good for her. And good for us as well.

Enjoyable to read as well as informative, Weir’s fictions shine a light on women of history who are too often overlooked. I’ve read two of her novels now (along with about six of her histories) and look forward to reading more.

Captive Queen: A Novel of Eleanor Aquitane couldn’t be more different from Innocent Traitor: A Novel of Lady Jane Grey. But then those two women couldn’t be more unalike, either.


Lady Jane was a child pawn whose only value to her family was as a possible path to the English crown, a move that put Jane in mortal danger as a mere teen. Eleanor, on the other hand. was a ruler in her own right, who proceeded to marry two kings, produce two future kings, and exhibit so much moxie her husbands sometimes despaired of her.

Weir does justice to them both. Her Lady Jane novel depicts royal childhood in a way that may shock contemporary readers. In effect, children were treated as miniature adults, held to high standards, and beaten when they fell short. Please, don’t let that put you off — the character of Lady Jane is truly fascinating and you’ll be impressed by how she deals with what life has given her.

Eleanor, on the other hand, is quite the manipulator herself. And a hot, lusty lady as well. Dissatisfied with the attentions of her husband, the French king, she plots an annulment so she can wed the ambitious man who plans to become the king of England. Considering we’re talking about the 11th century here, that’s pretty bold.

I appreciate that Weir’s novelistic style gives room for these two polar opposites to breathe and become “real.” But even more, I value knowing that for Weir, decades of research and dedication to facts came before her foray into fiction. Okay, Gregory has studied history, too, but she hasn’t written any.

To me, that makes a world of difference.

For more about Alison Weir, her novels, and her histories, click here.

The Imperfectionists

Thursday, July 22nd, 2010


By Tom Rachman

The Short Take:

What a delight this was! Rachman uses tiny slices from his characters’ lives to reveal everything about them in this highly readable and thoroughly enjoyable book. Every character has some involvement with an international, English-language newspaper headquartered in Rome. Set in the modern day, small overlaps and an interspersed newspaper history draw everything together.

Why?

By telling the story of a declining newspaper through individual — and highly personal — stories, Rachman achieves something far more fascinating and engaging than a straight narrative. While each of his vignettes keeps a tight focus, they deliver deep insights into the subject’s personality. You also get a feel for the newspaper’s personality as well: Between each “story” are short sections that trace its history.

I will warn you that you might find the very first story depressing. Not to worry! That is not the tone of the book (okay, maybe young newspaper journalists will find the whole thing depressing). Every story evokes different emotions. One had a surprise end that knocked my socks off. Another left me misty-eyed with happiness.

I am so glad I bought this book.

A Little Plot:

Well, this is difficult. The personal stories pretty much stand on their own, though a minor player in one story may later have a tale of his/her own. The interspersed newspaper history helps you understand the relationships between the different characters as well as their relationship with the newspaper.

This book is more about understanding the characters — what drives them, worries them, etc. — than it is any particular plot. Each story obeys all the plot rules in and of itself. Putting them all together like this just makes the whole experience more rewarding.

For more about Tom Rachman has his debut novel, click here.

In the Shadow of Gotham

Monday, July 19th, 2010


By Stephanie Pintoff

The Short Take:

Fans of Caleb Carr should enjoy this mystery, which has quite a bit in common, as far as setting and mystery-solving techniques, with Carr’s The Alienist. That’s a pretty good recommendation right there to me.

Why?

If you like those detective shows where they create criminal profiles, you should enjoy this mystery. However, since this book is set about 100 years ago in New York City, the science of getting into a criminal’s brain isn’t as advanced. Plus, the police are not very receptive to going there in the first place.

The plot clips along at a good pace, with some welcome twists to keep you going. In addition to the main mystery surrounding the brutal murder of a young woman, there are some veiled hints at other mysteries in the past lives of the main characters. Since Pintoff already has a second book out with at least some of the main characters, I anticipate back stories will be revealed over time.

And, I will be reading her next book.

A Little Plot:

A woman is stabbed and beaten to death while visiting friends in rural New York. It seems a totally random murder until Detective Simon Zeile receives a enigmatic note from criminologist Alistair Sinclair, who claims to know who the murderer is.

Zeile rushes to see Sinclair in New York City, but has his doubts about Sinclair’s profiling methods and his conclusions, however  — like any good cop — he pursues all leads. Those leads take him to a number of the seamier dives and dens of iniquity  in turn-of-the-century NYC. Danger lurks for both members of the crime solving team as well as potential witnesses. And, in the midst of everything, Zeile uncovers a very disturbing truth about Sinclair himself.

For more about Stefanie Pintoff and books, click here.

The Loving Vampires of Christopher Moore

Tuesday, July 13th, 2010


Christopher Moore’s novels tend to be funny, outrageous, and in general a delight to read. Strangely enough, while everyone else seems to be piling on the vampire (and zombie) band wagon, he seems to be abandoning it. While that’s a shame in some respects, he has created such a delightful little trilogy with his three books about blood suckers I wanted to spread the word.

Moore started his vampire series in 1995 with Blood Sucking Fiends. This comic love story positively bounces with quirkiness and good spirits. Boy meets red-headed vampire and, of course, love ensues. And, of course, there are obstacles to that love —  beyond the expected day vs. night shift problem. And wait till you meet the Animals — actually the stoner night stockers at a local grocery. It’s pure fun all the way.


You Suck continues the story of the young lovers. Moore waited 13 years before writing this equal (guess he saw the time was ripe for more vampire antics). I can’t tell you much without revealing too much of the first book, but wait till you meet vampire minion Abby Normal. Ha! Much of the book is “good vampires” against the “bad.” And, with any page turn, you may find yourself amazed at some new oddity Moore’s imagination creates.









The third, and I suspect final (because it ends so completely), installment is the recently released Bite Me. Not only are all the outrageous characters of the first two books still around for your entertainment, there’s also Chet — the giant shaved vampire cat who now leads a growing band of vampire kitties. Then the vampire clean-up crew comes to town and the action really starts.

Keep in mind, these are not your typical vampire stories, full of nastiness, angst, and fear. Moore’s books are filled with frolic, fun, and fearlessness in the face of impossible odds. And, as each book’s subtitle reads, they are all “a love story.”

There’s also one related story, which includes plenty of weirdness, including possibly the birth of a baby Death, as well as many of the same supporting characters: A Dirty Job. Read ’em all and have fun!

Want to know more about Christopher Moore and his other works (including the amazing Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Friend)? Click here.

Not Untrue & Not Unkind

Monday, July 5th, 2010

By Ed O’Loughlin

The Short Take:

This is a novel, a work of fiction, but I felt like I got a realistic picture of the reckless lives of war correspondents — both on and off the job. This fascinating book had some delectable descriptions, but whenever bullets started to rain, it read with steely-eyed reporter detachment. Good thing, too. Otherwise the horror and futility of the wars in Africa would be too much to bear.

Why?

Of course I’ve never met a war correspondent. The closest I’ve come is reading old P. J. O’Rourke articles inRolling Stone. O’Loughlin actually reported from Africa and the genuineness of this work shines on every page.

There are a number of things that intrigued me about this book: The way the reporters could face horrific situations with an amazing degree of detachment, yet obviously were not truly immune. The way they cooperated, even though they were competitors. The insanity of the African wars they covered. The tragedies this war forced on everyday African families.

And then there was O’Loughlin’s use of language. Just a passing mention of “pencils of smoke rising from smokestacks” sent me into a reverie about the joys of creative use of descriptive language. O’Loughlin draws beautiful pictures. Thankfully, when it comes to actual warfare, the language is much more terse. O’Loughlin gives his readers the same emotional distance his reporters must maintain to do their jobs. That’s pretty clever in my book.

Please note that I seldom read any book having to do with war. I’m glad I made an exception here.

A Little Plot:

Owen Simmons works at the Irish newspaper he once left to be a foreign correspondent in Africa. When a disliked colleague dies, Simmons finds in his possession a picture of Simmons and his fellow reporters. The book then recreates Simmon’s African past for us, interspersed with the events happening in Simmons current life.

You’ll be glad to know the book contains love interests and brave women as well as hard-drinking, careless men. I found myself mentally casting the roles as I read along. That’s always a good sign.

For more about Ed O’Loughlin and his book (though not much more, to be honest) click here.

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