Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Distant Hours by Kate Morton

In case you can't tell, Kate Morton is one of my new favorite authors, and her new novel The Distant Hours does not disappoint. Alternating between the nineties and World War II-era England, the novel tells the story of Edie, a thirtysomething editor at a small publishing house who's never felt as though she fit into her family. She's just broken up with her long-term boyfriend and can't seem to find a way to tell her parents what's happened, so she ignores it. As she's grappling with this, a lost letter to her mother comes to light, which provokes a violent reaction in her normally unflappable mother's composure, and Edie resolves to find out more. Her quest takes her to the Kentish countryside, where an ancient stone castle called Milderhurst shelters three spinster sisters, the last scions of a pedigreed family, and who also sheltered Edie's mother as a schoolgirl evacuee during the Blitz. Mum won't agree to discuss the matter, so Edie is left on her own to find out why her mother never speaks of her evacuation--what happened to make her try to shut out the past? Edie quickly finds herself caught up in a tale of love, loss, and sorrow as she gets closer to uncovering the answers she seeks.

Morton's style is noticeably different in The Distant Hours, though she has demonstrated a gift for writing in disparate voices for her various narrators in both The House at Riverton and The Forgotten Garden. Here, however, Edie's voice is rambling and at times distractingly distracted from the point at hand. At first I found it off-putting, but I quickly came to see that Edie's mind really worked that way, and I became more engrossed. Morton kept me guessing until the end with certain questions and their answers--which did not disappoint.

However, I would have liked some more closure or development for Edie on the romance front. The break-up with her boyfriend and her inability to tell her parents for months is presented as a big issue that never gets resolved. A possible romance is hinted at but not explored. Also, a novel within the novel plays a pivotal role, but the text itself only gets a small reveal. I would have very much liked to see more of that meta text.

All in all, a solid read. Better than The Forgotten Garden? I would have to say no. But excellent nonetheless.

The Dead of Winter by Rennie Airth

I'm pretty sure I've mentioned this before, but World War II is one of my favorite time periods to read about, partly due to the fact that both my grandfathers served in WWII--my mum's dad as a bomber pilot in Europe and my dad's dad as a sailor in the Pacific. It fascinates me. I also love mysteries, and The Dead of Winter brings together both in an extremely satisfying way.

It's winter 1944 and the year is winding down toward Christmas; though the Blitz ended years earlier, London still enforces blackouts at night and the rubble-filled shells of once happy homes still crouch all over the city. A volunteer blackout watchman bumps into a young woman--presumably foreign, due to her accent--hurrying along her way with an air of unease about her. After the watchman returns from a break in a pub from the frigid night, he stumbles across the girl again. Literally. She's been killed, but none of her possessions have been taken. Scotland Yard, at first inclined to dismiss it as a random murder, begins to investigate more closely when the girl's employer, a former policeman retired to the country, steps in to lend a hand and discovers links to jewelry thefts and assassinations on the Continent and at home.

Airth possesses that rare gift of being able to lead the reader along by the nose, guiding both the characters and the audience to what seems the perfect conclusion, only to reveal a particularly important tidbit that turns everything one thought on its head. Numerous twists left me thoroughly engaged in the novel and eager for more!

Highly recommended to fans of whodunits and history buffs alike.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott

Having already been introduced to Scott's novels in college, namely The Antiquary, I was a bit hesitant to begin Ivanhoe, expecting more of the same--overblown prose, historical inaccuracies, and a vague sense of self-indulgent pomposity. Ivanhoe certainly doesn't disappoint in that regard, but these same traits are actually a blessing to the narrative: the prose gives grandeur to the royal characters and the chivalric heroes, the historical inaccuracies demonstrate the pervasive and mutating nature of myths and legendary characters, and the pomposity fits right into the milieu of Norman England, a world of tournaments and dramatic favor-throwing.

The tale is relatively straightforward: Norman nobles and Saxon peasants (for the most part) coexist uneasily in England, without even the benefit of a crowned sovereign given that Richard the Lionhearted is being held prisoner by Leopold of Austria and Young John is gunning for the throne. A huge tournament held in the north-central part of the country, used as a smokescreen by John and his cronies to distract from their attempts to get John crowned, attracts a huge melting pot of characters, including a frighteningly passionate Templar, a Jewish moneylender and his astonishingly beautiful daughter, a Saxon thane and his ward, a descendant of Alfred the Great, and even Robin Hood (though sadly, no Sheriff of Nottingham). As one group manipulates another for their own gain, be it monetary or amorous, true natures are revealed and the question of loyalty to one's identity and heritage, one's country, and one's leaders are examined in great detail.

Over all, a thought-provoking and enjoyable read. Definitely one of Scott's most approachable novels.

Silk by Alessandro Baricco

Novels don't always fare well in translation. Take the Harry Potter books, for example. For whatever reason, Gallimard decided to let its translator paraphrase big sections of the stories for no reason whatsoever and vice versa. Question mark? Silk is an Italian novel that in my opinion must have lost a LOT in translation based on the advance praise on the back cover, lauding its hypnotic language and enthralling story.

Not so much for me.

The hypnotic quality of the prose came close to putting me to sleep, to be honest. Baricco evidently repeated verbatim different sections of his narrative when similar events reoccurred, including the main character's repeated journeys to Japan to procure silkworm eggs (hence the title). At first it was a charming representation of how compartmentalized and routine his life is, but then it got boring quickly.

The plot also left me cold. Herve Joncour, silkworm buyer in mid-nineteenth-century southern France, must find a new supply of eggs since the Mediterranean producers have all got the same problem: an incurable disease that kills the worms and produces substandard silk or none at all. Pushed by his partners, Joncour embarks on a long trip to Japan to purchase the eggs, where he deals with a feudal Japanese lord who has a European woman as one of his friends with benefits (the exact nature of their relationship is never divulged). Joncour becomes obsessed with her in his quiet way, drifting away from his wife and clouding his own thoughts.

The rather bitter ending does nothing to redeem the short novel, but instead prompts the reader to be grateful his or her life is not quite so bleak. Thank goodness. I'd pass this one over.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Angelology by Danielle Trussoni

Imagine, if you will, that the story in Genesis of children born to fallen angels and human women was true: after one passing reference in the Bible, these "giants," called Nephilim, disappeared from view. Or did they? Danielle Trussoni's Angelology explores the nefarious influence the Nephilim have had on history since the Flood, killing and oppressing with wanton and inhuman cruelty. To combat their hold on human civilization, scholars have obsessively studied the Nephilim, forming angelological societies dedicated to freeing humanity from Nephilistic control. At the center of this struggle is the Lyre of Orpheus, which originally belonged to Michael the Archangel, and which was given to the fallen angels in their prison beneath the Rhodopes Mountains in the Balkans. This celestial instrument has the power to manipulate matter, and in the hands of the Nephilim, it could cause unimaginable destruction. It's up to one young woman, a nun in a convent in upstate New York and heir to a long heritage of angelological families, to piece together the puzzle of the lyre's whereabouts and prevent the Nephilim from realizing their own devices.

I was very intrigued by the premise of the novel, and found myself quickly engrossed. The style and the narrative structure, making much use of flashbacks and epistolary features, are quite reminiscent of Elizabeth Kostova's novels, particularly The Historian. Ultimately, however, the climax of the novel feels rushed and the reader isn't given sufficient detail to clearly follow the final events. Points of view switch with abandon and there are no markers to guide the reader through the pivotal last pages of the story. That being said, if you prefer your books with nebulous finales and like to imagine for yourself the ultimate outcome, this book may be a good candidate for your list. Trussoni's world is fully realized and features compelling characters--for the most part.

Friday, October 22, 2010

The Fall of Rome by Michael Curtis Ford

You all know by now that I love historical fiction, but the majority of the books I read from that genre follow fictional people whose lives intersect with famous luminaries and events. The Fall of Rome dramatizes exactly what the title purports--the last legs of the Western Roman Empire in the late fifth century AD, told from the perspectives of two Hunnish men, Odoacer and his brother Onulf, sons of a general and confidant of Attila the Hun. Their lives become intertwined with that of Orestes, a Germanic aide to Attila with a Roman wife, who first betrays the Huns by stealing Attila's grave goods and then proceeds to ladder-climb his way to the top of the Roman chain of command, swapping allegiances as he pleases and managing to come out on the best side of events regardless of what happens. Odoacer and Onulf vow revenge on Orestes, and though they go their separate ways to deal with their choice, fate brings them back together and into repeated contact with their sworn enemy.

I've always had a fascination for ancient Rome, so it was thrilling to read about its fall through the eyes of its final conquerors (Odoacer became king of Italy after killing Orestes and deposing Orestes' teenage son, the last emperor of Western Rome, Romulus Augustus). Historical skirmishes and campaigns are told with careful attention to detail and accuracy, painting a vivid picture of life in the Empire as it crumbled to pieces. That being said, the level of detail may be off-putting to some readers. I found myself skimming through certain passages of conflict because they didn't hold my attention--though I'm willing to bet they would play out great on screen.

Highly recommended for Rome enthusiasts and history buffs!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Last Ember by Daniel Levin

I've already confessed to a weakness for Dan Brownian novels, so the latest one I've read shouldn't come as a surprise choice to anyone--and the subject matter of choice is of particular interest to me. The Last Ember features a young American lawyer named Jonathan Marcus, a former classics student, now a corporate lawyer, summoned mysteriously to Rome in order to testify in an antiquities case regarding broken pieces of the Forma Urbis, a stone map of ancient Rome. His opposite number, Dr. Emili Travia, former girlfriend of Jonathan, quickly becomes involved in the mysterious reason for his visit, a millennia-old cover-up regarding the true fate of the Menorah of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, long believed to have been brought back to Rome by Titus and then lost to history. Jonathan and Emili must struggle against corrupt police, nefarious artifact destruction around the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, and even Jonathan's past in order to uncover the truth and preserve the past, using Flavius Josephus's writings to bring light to the mystery.

Levin, a Harvard-educated man, writes well and constructs a great narrative with compelling characters who are actually three-dimensional, unlike some of his counterparts in the Dan Brownian world. The novel appears to be meticulously researched, full of classical quotations and fascinating information, and while obviously a work of fiction gains a great sense of reality from the details woven into the story.

Highly recommended for fans of history as well as lovers of Dan Brown!