Saturday, September 15, 2012

THE SECOND EMPRESS by Michelle Moran ✰✰✰

After finishing Michelle Moran’s fantastic novel of the French Revolution, Madame Tussaud, I did something I very rarely do: I immediately put another of her books on hold at the library.  Usually I like to space out an author’s novels, as I get bored with reading similar works close together; but that particular book was such a treat that I could not resist one more of her offerings before I dove back into another busy school year.  To say that I am disappointed in Ms. Moran’s latest release, the story of Marie Louise, the second wife of Napoleon Bonaparte, would be a serious understatement.  It barely made three stars for me.
All of the elements that made Madame Tussaud so powerful are seen only in bare glimpses in this novel-in fact, when they shimmered around the edges of the prose I only felt more frustrated by Moran’s inability to adequately develop them here.  For instance, character development.  To use Napoleon as an example-courtiers were endlessly talking about his personality and actions, as opposed to writing more actual scenes in which he appeared and showing him for what he was.  This book, like her previous novel, uses multiple narrators.  Personally, I would have given Napoleon a voice, in order to flesh out his relationship with Marie Louise more fully and show us their interactions from his perspective.  One narrator, Paul, Pauline Bonaparte’s chamberlain, seemed a very unnecessary voice to me, and I could have done without his viewpoint.  By the time I finished Tussaud I cared about those people, because Moran had woven me into their psyches, but with this book, the writing just felt like tabloid gossip which never drew me into caring about the characters as human beings.

Her handling of the setting left me feeling similarly flat.  Once again she had some wonderful environments to create for her reader, among them the courts of Austria and France and the Isle of Elba.  I never, aside from the fact that the hallways were colder in Schonbrunn Palace, got a distinct differentiation of the setting in one place or the other.  A small amount of detail was given about clothing, but food, music, art, the palaces themselves, the cities, etc., where skated over but never fully developed-all elements which lend richness to the experience that is historical fiction.  The ending was very rushed, and so the reader never gets to know Elba, St. Helena, or Marie Louise’s final home in Parma at all.

This book motivated me to spend about three hours on university sites doing research, and I think what bothers me the most is Michelle Moran’s statement that she drew her research from primary sources, when it is so abundantly clear that the book is full of inaccuracies.  Even my cursory search tells me that.  Yes, it is a novel, but don’t claim it is anything more if you have not researched it to the bottom of the filing cabinet.  I do not mind historical inaccuracies in a novel, but I do mind if there is what appears to be a full disclosure note at the end, and they are not disclosed.  Historical Fiction is after all fiction, and that is fine; if you have written a very loose interpretation, just admit that to your readers.  Tell them that you took your characters from history, but most of the events are of your own invention.  There is nothing wrong with that in a novel, as long as you are up front about it.  I found three very credible university papers on the topic, and they all concurred on the following points, diverging from Ms. Moran’s telling of the story, yet not divulged by her in her author’s note:

Central to this novel is a love story between Marie Louise and Count von Neipperg.  In fact, they never met until after Marie Louise separated from Napoleon.  Interestingly, he was sent by her father to lure her away from France and get her to come home to Austria.  Her father wanted von Neipperg to romance his daughter!  He loathed the French and would do whatever it took to get his daughter away from her husband, for whom she still had some feelings of love and loyalty.  Von Neipperg and Marie Louise did have a wonderful love story, very much as portrayed at the conclusion of the novel, but not before the Bonapartes were married, as Ms. Moran would have her reader’s believe, and Marie Louise certainly wasn’t pining for him during her marriage.

The second inaccuracy is the friendship that Ms. Moran wrote between Marie Louise and Hortense (the daughter of Napoleon’s first wife Josephine).  Why she chose to write in that relationship is beyond me, as it made so little sense, but if she really felt that she wanted it in there it is another thing I feel she should have disclosed in the author’s note, as in reality the two women rarely interacted.  Also, if Michelle Moran wanted someone for the confidante role, history provides a real life woman for her;  my research showed that Marie Louise and the Duchess of Montebello developed what would become a close lifelong friendship during those difficult years of her marriage to Napoleon.  Why not develop that character?

Her final inaccuracy is in her portrayal of Napoleon with regards to his treatment of Marie Louise.  My research shows quite clearly that he was not the complete villain that she paints him to be, and it is an accepted historical fact that he loved Marie Louise and doted on her, and she in turn fell in love with him and had to be convinced by her family to leave him after his final defeat in Russia-something the book does not show at all.

In the final analysis, this book lacks all of the depth that made Madame Tussaud so powerful.  The reader doesn’t get to be transported to the Imperial court, to wear the gowns and feast and experience the drama of life with Napoleon.  And in the end you probably won’t care if you end up on Elba, in Parma, or just about anywhere else, because you never wanted to spend time with any of the characters anyway.  If you have not read one of Michelle Moran’s works, please don’t start with this one.


Sunday, September 2, 2012


Anne Tyler is one of those authors that I have never read and rather shied away from due to the “bestseller”, book-mill feel that she gives me.  This book didn’t do a whole lot to dispel that impression.  What finally got me to pick up one of Anne Tyler’s novels is the rather lame fact that this particular title was written in 2001, which happens to be the year of my Pick-a-Year challenge, and this was available on audio when I needed a new audio book (very poor reasoning, I now realize).  About the best I can say for the experience is challenge met.
There is very little by way of plot; rather the novel focuses on Rebecca, who married a man some years her senior, who died only six years into her marriage, leaving her to raise four daughters and try to keep the family business, an event and catering service run in their aging Baltimore Victorian home, from going under.  The novel is a series of flashbacks and present, filled with Rebecca’s clamorous, often whiny, family.  There is scarcely a likable character among them, aside from Rebecca.

Despite liking Rebecca, I find her character very static.  I also find it difficult to believe that anyone can have such an inept family and so jealous of one another.  Finally, there is a perfectly good man right in front of Rebecca all along, and she never sees him all through the book-the plotting just makes no sense at all to me.

I did enjoy the sections dealing with Rebecca’s event and catering business, as one one my dreams is to run a lodge, so those did a lot to rescue the book for me.  On an unrelated note, the audio is a little confusing at times, because the voices of the women are not always clearly distinguishable from one another.  This is one I could have passed over without any regrets, and I do not think I’ll rush to read another Anne Tyler, as I found the book rather campy and a bit melodramatic.


One of the extra things I do as a homeschooling mother is teach a literature circle for high schoolers.  Last year my group read through an ambitious round of books that included Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice (rough for a group composed largely of young men-we only have one girl!) and Alexandre Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, which every group member read unabridged in all 1200 pages of its glory, and was declared the unanimous favorite of the group at the end of the school year.  This coming year we have Steinbeck and Twain on tap, among others, so when the boys joked about reading all eight books of Artemis Fowl over their summer break, I couldn’t be too hard on them, and even agreed to join in the fun reads.  I listened to the audios and made it through the first three in the series.
In book one, Artemis Fowl, we meet the title character, a rich young Irishman who’s father has disappeared.  The thirteen-year-old Artie is not your average young man.  He is highly intelligent, resourceful, rather crafty and underhanded in his business dealings, which he has been handling since his father’s disappearance, in possession of a fortune, and lucky to have Butler-bodyguard extraordinaire.  Butler, we are told comes from a long line of family members by that name, all trained in the art of personal defense; he has a mind for military strategy, is combat proficient, and absolutely loyal to Artie.  Artie has made an important discovery.  He has discovered the existence of the fairy people and learned how to connect with them, and he believes that they might be the key to helping him rescue his father, who has been missing for a couple of years.  This first book covers the introduction of all the major characters of both worlds, human and fairy.

The second book, The Arctic Incident, covers the actual recovery of Artemis’ father and another operation in fairy territory that Artemis and Butler help with in exchange for the fairies help in rescuing Mr. Fowl.  Of the three books I read this one was the weakest for me.  It moved a bit slower than the other two and just didn’t seem quite as clever in the plotting.

Book three, The Eternity Code, shows that Artie has been up to his old business practices again, but this time utilizing computer technology he has stolen from the fairies.  When the technology is stolen and the human race is put at risk, he has no choice but to admit what he has done and call in the fairies for help.

I highly recommend the audio versions of these books.  Performed by Nathaniel Parker, they are absolutely excellent entertainment for all ages and would make great bedtime stories or road trip entertainment for a family.

It wouldn’t surprise me if I continued on with the audios of this series.  They are a fun break, especially after a depressing work of nonfiction, or when I am not feeling well.  There is great humor in them, and sometimes we can all use a little lightheartedness.  My three star ratings reflect the fact that they are not fine literature and not really aimed at an adult audience.  For youth, these books would no doubt be five star entertainment.

THE PIANO TEACHER by Janice Y.K. Lee ✰✰✰ and 1/2

This book is yet another example of how random grabs off the shelf at the library, or in this case, the available list on Overdrive’s audio system, seldom seem to pan out for me.  Those who follow me on Amazon’s Shelfari know that I have a massive virtual shelf, thoughtfully constructed based on books that have been recommended by readers that know my tastes and also books that I myself have researched and added to my wish list of books to read.  I really should stick to my shelf.
At first glance, the premise seems to have a lot of promise.  A young English woman, Claire, travels with her husband to Hong Kong in the mid-1950s; the narrative is split between her story and one set roughly ten years earlier, when the Japanese occupied Hong Kong during World War II.  Author Janice Lee does a good job evoking the feel of Hong Kong during the occupation, with its hodge-podge of nationalities, resulting in a confusion of alliances for survival, and since most of the characters in the later time frame are the same, she is able to show how their experiences during the war affected how they came to view one another after-something I feel she did quite well.

The novel falls flat for me in two areas.  First, the plot is very transparent; the supposed mystery is what had become of a set of crown jewels of China that was rumored to be in Hong Kong, and which the Japanese wanted.  I read very few mysteries and am not very good at sussing out clues, but it doesn’t take a genius; because of this, much of the plot seems very inane.  In addition, the plot does not flow smoothly; not only does it jump from past to present, but it also backtracks within those timeframes, retelling the story from another character’s viewpoint, which I find redundant.

The characters are also a weak point for me, being in turns unlikeable, inconsistent, flat.  Just when I feel a character is developing, they take a turn into someone else or revert back into someone you think they have forsaken-it is jarring.

In short, the only thing that saves this novel from being a three star read is the setting, which Ms. Lee does a good job painting for the reader, and the audio, which is well narrated by Orlagh Cassidy for Blackstone Audio.  I will call it a take-it or leave-it read.