Readers of historical novels frequently complain about the large cast of characters that are typical of these novels, and how hard it is to remember everyone’s name. Yet Sharon Kay Penman manages to make her characters memorable. She does it with a masterful use of point of view. In Here Be Dragons, her fictionalized biography of Llewelyn the Great (c.1173-1240), Ms Penman allows the reader to spend a summer’s day with ten-year-old Llewelyn in Chapter One (it is July, 1183). We do not meet the second protagonist, John, Count of Mortain (1167-1216) until Chapter Three, and then it is through the terrified eyes of a teenaged serving wench who has just been told she has to spend the night with him. In Chapter Seven we meet the third protagonist, five-year-old Joanna, who is living in modest circumstances with her mother in Yorkshire. Ms. Penman deftly weaves the strands of her narrative together so that we gradually learn that Joanna is the bastard daughter of the Count of Mortain. Upon Mortain’s accession to the throne of England in 1199, as King John, Joanna’s status rises. In 1206, at the age of fourteen, she is married off to Prince Llewelyn, the ten-year-old boy we met in Chapter One, now a seasoned fighter aged thirty-three. Ms. Penman uses these plot strands to explore the complex, torturous relationship between King John of England and Prince Llewelyn of Wales. Five stars. A bookclub recommendation.
Monthly Archives: November 2012
TOLSTOY LIED by Rachel Kadish: A witty dish about departmental politics that is too slow at the beginning
I can see why a friend of mine raves about Rachel Kadish. TOLSTOY LIED turns out to be a funny, smart and pitch-perfect rendition of office politics in an English Department in an un-named University in New York City. But even as I enjoyed reading this wry account of love and academia for a thirty-something not-yet-tenured English professor, there were a couple of problems that I feel are worth mention.
The novel hit a bump for me just after the beautifully written and funny beginning, which introduces us to Tracy Farber, the thirty-three-year-old and happily-single English-professor protagonist. Ms. Kadish then does a graceful segue from Tracy’s interior monolog into academic reality when a student knocks on her door. But shortly after that the novel loses tension as her best pal Jeff appears, and engages her in a sophomoric dialogue about ties. We meet the longest-running denizens of this department (nicknamed ‘Grub’ and ‘Paleozoic’ by Tracy and Jeff), in a long passage which sounds like an unmotivated rant against Old White Men. Personally, as a woman, I feel a great deal of sympathy for Tracy’s predicament. But I couldn’t see what the point of it was. Even worse, it slowed the novel down to a crawl just when it was important to keep the pacing going to draw the reader in. It was almost like reading an information dump in an historical novel. The problem could have been solved by having this section cut into pieces and slipped into the novel so that the reader could have received the information needed while keeping the pacing tight.
My other complaint is that it takes too long to meet the antagonist, all of forty-six pages according to my Kindle edition. This perhaps wouldn’t have been such a problem, except that the novel didn’t come to life until the entrance of Joanne Miller. That makes the pacing too slow between pages 14 and 46, too long for many readers. But once Joanne appears, Ms. Kadish’s writing is masterly, and I have to say I am glad I stuck through those thirty-two pages of relatively uninteresting stuff. Because from then on, TOLSTOY LIED is a dishy ride, and includes a delicious twist at the end. Four stars.
I found myself in that situation recently and that’s how I discovered Evernote.
It is a clipping service, a convenient way of storing all those things-you-mean-to-read-but-don’t-have-time-right-now. Just clip what you want, and store in a folder.
It’s FREE, and you can download your copy here.
SMUGGLED is an historical novel set in Eastern Europe between 1943 and 1991. Eva Farkes is a young Jewish girl caught in Hungary, when her parents decide to hide her in a flour sack and send her over the boarder to relatives in Rumania. Once there, she acquires a new identity, Anca Balaj, and is forced to forget her parents. She is only five years old.
I have read other books from this depressing era, and found it hard to keep going. But somehow, author Christina Shea made me keep my nose to the page as I followed Anca grow up, engage in unhappy love affairs, lose a child and all the other painful things that life flings at us. This is especially true if one was unfortunate enough to be living in Communist Eastern Europe. Anca gradually sees her adopted country Rumania grow poorer and poorer, until one day, the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu is deposed and executed. Anca loses no time in packing up her few belongings and heading back to Hungary, where she becomes Eva Farkes once more.
The rest of the story I will leave for you to discover. Suffice it to say that Ms. Shea has written a compelling narrative that is so compelling because almost everything is filtered through the viewpoint of this woman who never loses hope, and whose stoic courage keeps you turning the pages. Five stars.
THE GARDEN OF PERSEPHONE is a novel by Cesar J. Rotondi published in 1982. It is also a sad disappointment, a book I threw down after only a few pages. The problems? There is no conflict, it is replete with tells and the characters make speeches to one another. Here is an example:
Julien rolled his eyes in exasperation. “Now you’re happy copying books.”
Edward looked at him loftily. “Our illuminations are considered as elegant as any produced anywhere.”
“That’s just what I mean. Oh, let’s change the subject. Tell me about Cuthbert.”
What a pity to have such a boring exchange hiding behind such a ravishing title. I threw the book down at this point. One star.
Just wanted to let you know I sent the manuscript of An Unsuitable Suitor off to four agents, and have given them until the end of December to reply. If I don’t hear anything, I’ll be self-publishing it early next year.
Meantime, I’ve rolled out another version of Thwarted Queen, this time the whole version in paperback for $18.99.
I’ll be taking Cecylee on a blog tour early next year in a ongoing effort to promote this novel.
Lastly, I have devised a reader’s guide to Thwarted Queen, which I’ve put right at the back of my paperback editions. For those of you who are interested, I’ve also posted this guide on my website, Spun Stories.
Have a fabulous week!
Published originally in 1795, and re-published on June 5 2011 by Ulan Press, Agnes Musgrave’s CICELY or THE ROSE OF RABY is a fictionalized biography of the life and times of Lady Cecylee Neville (1415-1495).
It is very much a period piece with swooning ladies who gasp at what life brings them. I don’t think I am being unkind by saying that this is the “heaving bosom” version of Cecylee’s life. If you enjoy 18th century novels, and are interested in how someone from the 18th century understood Cecylee’s life, this is for you. Otherwise, not so much. Three stars.
I just wanted to mention that THWARTED QUEEN is now available in its entirety as a paperback, so if you have been holding back on getting your copy, hesitate no more!
If you prefer NOT to read a 495-page novel, then you may buy the THWARTED QUEEN series as a set of 3 paperbacks or 4 e-books. If you have a Kindle or the Kindle app on your iPad or the Nook, you can also get the whole of THWARTED QUEEN in its entirety as an e-book.
THWARTED QUEEN is a B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree and a finalist for both the Next Generation Indie Book Awards and the Global E-book Awards. A perfect gift for a friend or loved one who is dying to read a saga about the Yorks, Nevilles, and Lancasters, and how their family feud began the Wars of the Roses.
WALK THROUGH DARKNESS is a chilling account of slavery in the ante-bellum south. William is a slave who is about to become a father. His woman, Dover, is taken away by her white mistress. But William cannot take life without her, or their child, and so he decides to follow her north. What follows is an incredible tale of courage and determination, mixed in with greed, cruelty and sordidness. Through it all, William never falters, and I loved the plot twist at the end of the novel.
If you are interested in what it felt like to be a slave, you should read this book. David Anthony Durham writes in a way that engages your senses, and makes you see the multiple viewpoints on both sides of the color divide. I highly recommend this novel. Five stars.