Sunday, June 24, 2012

I AM THE CHOSEN KING by Helen Hollick ✰✰✰✰

In this her middle book of the 1066 Trilogy, Helen Hollick picks up where she left off at the end of The Forever Queen.  Emma of Normandy is aging and watches in growing sadness as her ineffectual son, who will become known to history as Edward the Confessor, flies in the face of everything she and her second husband Cnut worked so hard to build for England.
This book is not about Emma; it deals somewhat with the reign of Edward, but even he is not the author’s primary protagonist.  The focus shifts to Emma’s and Cnut’s most trusted friend, Godwine, Earl of Wessex, and his family, particularly his son Harold.  Their family, like Emma’s, is pulled right from the history books, and their story is the stuff of legend-believe me when I say it makes for some great reading in the hands of a good story-teller.
The plot is multi-veined, and with 1066 in the trilogy title, it is probably rather obvious that at some point in time William of Normandy is bound to show up.  Now would be the time.  One of the things that I very much appreciate about Helen Hollick is that she develops her characters from childhood, allowing the reader to see exactly how and why these historical figures evolve into the thinkers and enacters that they become.  Her treatment of William is no different, and I was utterly captivated by his history-I disliked him thoroughly, but I must say he is one of the more fascinating historical personages I have ever read about.
There is very little that I can say about the plot without giving away everything, so I am simply going to say that the story shifts back and forth between England with her dying king (Edward) and rumbles as to who his successor is going to be, and Normandy, where William is consolidating his position as duke and shedding his vassalage to France.  The 1066 invasion does happen at the end of this book.  The events that occurred in England after the death of Edward were startling, and it is truly amazing just how close England came to 1066 being a year nobody would have remembered.  I will drop one tantalizing hint and say that it was a treason of the most despicable kind-one act by one person who of all people should have been loyal.  
As usual Helen Hollick puts in just enough period detail to give the reader a wonderful sense of “being there” in the Middle Ages with her characters.  You can visualize their environments and clothing, smell and taste their food, etc.  This book also delves into the practice of hand-fast wives, an accepted form of marriage in a time when a man might fall in love with a woman who was not of his social standing.  These marriages were seen as valid and the children were not bastards; however, if the man had to marry for political reasons, say in the case of a nobleman, to marry for an alliance, his hand-fast wife could later be set aside, although this usually just meant living in a separate house.  If he never had a son by his “Church blessed” marriage (hand-fast marriages were a pagan ceremony) then his hand-fast son could inherit.
Like the first book, Ms. Hollick closes this one out with a very lengthy author’s note detailing all of the twists and turns between fact and fiction in her tale.  Of all the historical fiction writers that I read, she is absolutely the best at the end of book author’s note, and I always appreciate her efforts to set the record straight.
Readers often complain about the middle books in planned trilogies, but this one is definitely as strong as the first.  Harold and the rest of Godwine’s clan are a riveting group of characters, and William of Normandy, while a despicable man in my estimation, sure makes for good reading.  I definitely recommend this one to all who enjoyed the first book.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

THE PERFECT STORM by Sebastian Junger ✰✰✰✰

In October 1991, a rare meteorological event occurred in which more than one major storm converged simultaneously on the area off the coast of Nova Scotia, resulting in a storm the likes of which those born to the sea had never seen the likes of, a “perfect storm”.  Author Sebastian Junger focuses his tale on the crew of the swordfish boat Andrea Gail, which disappeared in the storm, telling through them the story of the lives of Gloucester, Massachusetts fishermen past and present, and interweaving lessons in meteorology, maritime history, and rescue operations.
I had thought that the book was going to be only about the crew of the Andrea Gail, so I was a little surprised when I realized that a good deal of the book is comprised of the stories of other people caught up in the maelstrom of the storm and about meteorology.  Personally, I found the story of the ditching and rescue of the para rescue jumpers who’s helicopter went down to be perhaps the most compelling of the whole book, so I was happy that the story went beyond that of just the Andrea Gail.  There were a few places where I felt that explanations of weather phenomenon slowed the forward momentum of the narrative, but for the most part the information was compellingly written and added to the reader’s understanding of the gravity of the situation.
At a short 227 pages, this is a fast read, of which the last seventy-five pages really flies.  Like most good narrative nonfiction, it is peopled with with characters you come to care about, grieve for, and Junger does an excellent job wrapping up everyone’s stories in the last few pages.  The only reason that I did not give this book five stars was because I felt that some of the scientific passages became a little weighty and interrupted the pacing of the book.  All in all, a great read.


This humorous take on the life of Jesus, subtitled “The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal”, is certainly stepping out from my usual reading fare, but I was in the mood for an audio on the lighter side and this one was getting a lot of buzz, so I decided to see what the fuss was all about.
As a reviewer, one of the things that I try to do is write with my audience in mind, and knowing that many of my readers are Christians, I am going to target this review towards those readers in particular, given the nature of this particular book, but the book actually might appeal more to other readers, so the rest of you might not want to tune out.
Based upon the author’s premise that Jesus spent those lost years of his young adulthood, about which we know nothing, seeking out the three wise men who visited him at his birth, believing that they are meant to teach him how to be the messiah, Lamb takes the reader on a journey through the East as we follow Jesus, known as Joshua, and Biff, as they study with each of the wise men in turn, learning the teachings of Confucius and Buddha, and yoga in India.  Author Christopher Moore toes an odd line with this book.  He takes a subject which clearly appeals to a Christian audience, but then throws in a narrator, Biff, who sees it as his job to experience all of the seedier side of life on behalf of his best friend, the Messiah of the world, who clearly must be above such things.
For the most part, Jesus Christ is treated with respect and I was not offended as a Christian, but I would be the first to recognize that there might certainly be people of faith who would find this book offensive.  More than religious reasons, I think that the element that would bother people the most would be the strong language; there is a large segment of the Christian audience who can appreciate the humor of this book, slightly irreverent though it might be, and, I was disappointed that the author chose to use this type of language in a book with this subject matter because I felt that it was incongruent and narrowed his audience.  There is also a lot of sexual innuendo in the book.  While the sex is not graphic, it is a recurrent theme, and frankly, at times got a little bit overdone, to the point that around disk eight (of twelve) I considered quitting listening.  I persevered for two reasons-first, I rarely give up on a book, and second, I was very curious to see how the end of Christ’s life was handled in this strangest of books.
Surprisingly, the mission of the Messiah and his crucifixion were handled in a very sensitive fashion, and there were many touching moments in the final three disks.  There was far less humor, and the author really toned down the less savory elements in the final chapters of the book, which was as it should be.  I was actually glad that I hung in there to listen to the end of the book, but it was not enough to bring up my rating from three to four stars, as the things that I mentioned above simply weighed the middle of the book down too much for my liking.
In the odd way of these things, this audio is likely to be a contender for my number one spot of the year.  It is absolutely five star.  While I did not always enjoy the story (mostly because it was outside my comfort zone), there was nothing about the audio that I could fault; characters had distinct voices and personalities, timing made the humor shine through (this audio is just plain laugh-out-loud funny in many, many places, and I loved it), and gravity entered the tale when it was supposed to.  If this is a book which appeals to you, I highly recommend the audio-it is outstanding.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

BEL CANTO by Ann Patchett ✰✰✰✰✰

This is an outstanding novel that wraps itself around its theme of opera in such a lovely, natural way.  Ann Patchett was inspired to write her novel by the Lima Crisis, when the Japanese embassy in Lima, Peru was overtaken by terrorists in 1996-97.  The idea to intersperse opera into the plot line of her novel occurred to her because she felt that the whole situation of the hostage crisis was like an opera plot.
The novel involves one setting, the mansion home of the vice president of an unnamed South American country where a birthday party is being hosted for a Japanese industrialist.  During the party, just after the headline entertainment, the world famous opera soprano, Roxane Coss, has sung, terrorists take over the mansion, hoping to kidnap the country’s president, only to discover that he was not in attendance. 
There are fifty-eight people in the mansion for the entire length of the crisis, thirty-nine hostages and nineteen terrorists, but the reader gets to know only a handful of each group well.  In addition, there is one outsider, a Red Cross worker who works as the liaison between the terrorists and the government, who comes and goes freely.  Ms. Patchett does an excellent job of juggling her cast (because one does begin to feel as if one is living in the middle of an opera here) of disparate characters from a wide range of nationalities.  Russians maintain gruff slavic mannerisms with brooding storied souls.  Japanese are gracious and reserved.  Even cooking dinner for fifty-eight couldn’t break the effusive stride of the fine-dining loving French ambassador.  Characterizations were tight and consistent, and that was impressive.  One character was pivotal, that of Gen Watanabe, the translator for the Japanese industrialist for whom the party was thrown.  Gen has a unique talent for languages, and his polyglot status makes him indispensable not only to the terrorists in their efforts to communicate with their group of multinational prisoners, but among the captives themselves as they settle in to life together.  I loved his character and the touching ways his gifts enabled him to interact with the others throughout the book.
Opera plays more than one role in the plot.  It is the initiator of the whole event in that it is what brings them all to the party, and then it becomes the balm that soothes their souls as they exist from day to day.  On a larger scale, the whole plot of the book shares the structure of an opera, and you can not, if you are familiar with how opera plots play out, and if you read into the foreshadowing written into the novel itself, help but know on some level how this novel is going to end.
My own relationship with the music within the novel was very personal, as I, like Roxane Coss, was an opera singer, and I too was a lyric soprano.  On one hand it was a lot of fun, as in many places I heard the marvelous scores of the world’s grandest composers swelling through my head as I read.  But on the other, it was a little irritating, because things that the average reader might not even notice really bothered me.  For instance, a couple of pieces that the author had Roxane sing are not lyric pieces; one was for a dramatic soprano, sung only in the advanced years of their career, as it is very taxing on the voice, and the other was for a coloratura soprano-a lyric soprano might be able to do one or the other, but not both.  The other element bothered me even more.  Roxane went two weeks without singing at all, supposedly because she lacked an accompanist.  She couldn’t even sing a scale without one.  What a load of hooey!  For one thing, I have never met a single professional singer who would go more than a day or two, unless they were sick, in which they didn’t vocalize, and no singer even needs a piano (which Roxane had) for that.  With a piano, every singer can at least peck out one-handed their starting pitches for their exercises.  Secondly, pretty much every singer can muddle their way through their parts and even some measure of the accompaniment of an opera score, so I found the whole drama regarding an accompanist overwrought, although I did love Mr. Kato’s character.  Let me make it clear: opera singers come up through university and conservatory systems and have to pass piano proficiency exams.  Admittedly, many of us play quite abysmally, and we love and are grateful for the talents of our wonderful accompanists, who spend so many hours behind the scenes and never get any credit, but the real Roxane Coss’ of the world can play their own exercises when necessity demands.  Ultimately, I had to let the little things, which I knew the average reader wouldn’t even catch, go, and just read the book.  Unless you are very familiar with opera repertoire, I don’t think that you would catch these things, and Roxane probably just comes across as a typical prima donna.
Overall, as a novel, I loved this book.  The opening section is one of the most captivatingly, alluringly written of any novel I have ever read and the ending took me completely by surprise.  It would make a fantastic book club read, because there is definitely a depth to the characters, and their relationships with each other and their captors (you could definitely use the term Stockholm Syndrome), which would make for excellent discussion.  If your book club enjoys getting into deeper analysis, there is also a good deal of symbolism in the book.  There were truly beautiful relationships in this novel-complex, multi-layered-of the sort that develop only under very intense conditions.  The plot certainly reflects that of many an opera, and indeed, the Chicago Lyric announced in February (click to link to announcement) that it has commissioned an opera based on the novel, which will premier during its 2015-16 season, by Peruvian composer Jimmy Lopez, with Libretto by Nilo Cruz; Sir Andrew Davis will conduct and Roxane Coss will be sung by Danielle de Niese.  Author Ann Patchett said she never had any desire to ever see this book made into a movie, but she always felt that it would make a wonderful opera.  It will be interesting to see!  The Lyric is a fantastic company, and the legendary soprano Renee Fleming is at the helm of the project, so I would say that Ms. Patchett’s book is in very good hands.

Friday, June 1, 2012

ABDICATION by Juliet Nicholson ✰✰✰ 1/2

I was drawn to this novel, which tells the story of Wallis Simpson and Edward VIII, albeit as secondary characters, after watching the movie, The King’s Speech, which I loved.  This is a debut novel for the author, Juliet Nicholson, but she is a well known and respected writer of nonfiction and has written on this time period.  In the interest of full disclosure, I freely admit that my knowledge of this subject is absolutely minimal, so I was relying completely upon Ms. Nicholson’s background with her subject.
There are two primary characters in the novel, Evangeline, a childhood friend of Wallis Simpson, invited to visit, but staying with her godmother, Lady Joan Blunt, and May, the Blunt’s young female chauffeuse (that is the female term for chauffeur) and secretary to Sir Philip Blunt, who is a member of Parliament and legal advisor to Edward VIII.  Through these two characters we watch the relationship of Wallis Simpson and Edward grow and become a scandal that rocks the monarchy and nation.  In addition we are introduced to a rather large host of characters, among them May’s Jewish relations and the Blunt’s Fascist housekeeper.  I enjoyed the variety of characters in the novel, but for the most part I found them very one dimensional, flat-no one grew as a person; several of the characters were whiney and unlikeable, or felt rather clichéd, such as the Jewish mother-in-law.
There was a fair amount of action in the novel, from political unrest involving Fascist marches and speeches, to paparazzi following the King and Wallis, to the legal wrangling of whether or not abdication would be necessary.  Relationships also play a big part, but not always in the way that the reader might expect.  I felt that the author did a good job keeping the pace of the novel moving forward, and this was a fast read.  We all know how the story ends, but she made getting there an interesting tale.
I have not read a good deal about the story of Wallis Simpson and Edward VIII, but I would imagine that most authors take one of two roads, telling the tale either as one of a great romance-a man who loved a woman so completely that he gave up a throne for her, or as a tale of betrayal of a people-how could a king put one woman above his subjects.  Juliet Nicholson very definitely takes a stand on one side of that fence, but I write spoiler-free reviews, so if you want to know, you must read the book!  
My only complaint with the book was that the characters were a little wooden, stereotypical at times, and that a couple where whiney to the point of getting on my nerves.  The historical aspects were quite well done.  Overall, it was a very solid debut novel, and I will certainly look forward to Ms. Nicholson’s sophomore effort.  If you are a fan of all things Wallis and Edward, or like me, you simply want to learn more, I recommend this one.