Monday, April 30, 2012

The Swan Thieves, by Elizabeth Kostova

I have a really contentious relationship with Elizabeth Kostova’s books.  I read The Historian at the start of my winter semester in fourth year, and anyone who recognizes what that timing means knows that picking up a 600 page book at that time of year is a really stupid idea, but I had wanted to read it (I judged a book by it’s cover, I’ll admit), and I got it as a Christmas gift.  All I can say is that it seemed like a good idea at the time.  Two weeks later, I was ready to put that book through my shrink-wrapped window; I went on an uncharacteristic rant to anyone who would listen (and some who wouldn’t) about how ridiculous the ending had been, during which I willfully spoiled the plot to keep others from reading it.  I promise not to do that here (again), but know that I desperately want to.

About a year after that, Kostova’s second book, The Swan Thieves came out.  I was torn.  I hated the way Kostova ended The Historian, but up until the last 20 pages or so, found it an enjoyable and dynamic read.  Was it worth taking a risk and buying her second work?  I decided that it was, so picked up The Swan Thieves, and promptly left it to gather dust on my shelf for over a year.  Inspired by having read and enjoyed The Book of Negroes, another book that hung around for a while on my shelves, I decided now was the time to read The Swan Thieves to see what, if any trouble, I would be getting myself into.  

This book left me with several impressions that I wanted to share.  The first is that Kostova is a master of writing a slow-burning story.  As in The Historian, the plot is always moving forward, but often times only by inches.  Because Kostova is such an engaging writing, however, you only notice that delay in progress at the end of natural passages in the book.  And, once again, it is only until the last 20 pages that the plot is fully revealed.

Kostova’s characters are engaging, but run of the mill.  There is no one that stands out and made me go “Please, write another book about this one.”  Marlow, the main character, is charming and likeable, but we don’t learn enough about him to make you want to spend more time with him.  Robert Oliver, the main protagonist, is always at the periphery of the tale.  This is an interesting dynamic; the whole book is about Marlow trying to piece together Oliver’s decent into madness – he talks about Oliver to all the secondary characters, most of his internal thoughts that he shares with the reader is about Oliver, and he spends a great deal of time with Oliver.  But, in reality, Robert Oliver only says four or five sentences to Marlow throughout the entire the work.  And yet, seeing as how the entire plot revolves around him, it’s an incredibly odd dynamic.  However, Kostova handles it well.

It seems to me that most things happen in threes (one and two), and The Swan Thieves contributed to that pattern.  I should have known going into it that this would be a book about art (especially given that the impetus for the plot is Robert’s attempt to slash a paining in Washington’s National Gallery), but I was still pleasantly surprised by how much art is represented in this work.  Kostova holds a MFA, and it is clear that she is good at what she does – there are multiple descriptions of famous and not-so-famous paintings in this work, as well as the creative process.  It’s an interesting look at the professional world of art, and it was written with an insider’s perspective.

Final verdict?  Menh.  Read it if you have the time, or if you like Kostova’s work, but it’s not a barn-burner.  I don’t think I’ll be picking up anymore of the author’s works – I don’t find them engaging enough to justify the time it takes to get through them.  The Swan Thieves was nowhere near as offensive to my sensibilities as The Historian was (and, for the love of God, don’t waste your time with that one), but it wasn’t good enough to justify a re-read or a stellar recommendation.  This work fell flat for me, so I find I can’t recommend you read it, but as it wasn’t horrible, I won’t recommend you don’t.  

The Book of Negroes, by Lawrence Hill

Uncomfortably-racist fun-fact for the Day Number 1:  The Encyclopedia Britannica had this to say about the ‘Negro Race’ in 1881:

“[The African race occupied] the lowest position of the evolutionary scale, thus affording the best material for the comparative study of the highest anthropoids and the human species… [these anthropoid features include, among others] “the abnormal length of the arm, which in the erect position sometimes reaches the knee pan… [the] weight of brain, as indicating cranial capacity, is 35 ounces (highest gorilla 20, average European 45), a short flat snub nose, thick protruding lips, exceedingly thick cranium, short, black hair, eccentrically elliptical or almost flat in sections, and distinctly wooly, [and] thick epidermis.”  (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1884, p. 316)

Uncomfortably-racist fun-fact for the Day Number 2:  The Encyclopedia Britannica had this to say about the ‘Negro Race’ in 1941:

“Negro, the American: A New Race… Many characteristics, such as susceptibility to tuberculosis, syphilis, and other diseases, lack of initiative and responsibility, which were once thought to be typical of the Negro, are now credited by the best students to the conditions of his environment… The Negro is typically expressive; he sings and plays and dances and handles language with abandon and an artistry which hardly can be attributed alone to circumstances in which he has commonly lived…  In commerce Negroes have as yet made little headway.”  (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1941, v. 16, p. 194)

The 1941 edition also runs on for seven pages with all sorts of uncomfortably-racist fun facts about “Negro Music,” “Negro Art,” “Negro Drama,” and “Harlem.”  Granted, the 1941 edition is clearly trying NOT to be racist, but it is a product of its time.

I was reminded of these definitions (that I found during a 4th year History seminar on the cultural ‘other’) while reading Lawrence Hill’s The Book of Negroes.  This book has been sitting on my shelf for years, and it was just recently that I picked it up for the first time.  It is an amazing read.

Telling the life story of Aminata Diallo, Hill takes the reader from a small African village where Aminata grew up, to the slave factory that exported her to the American colonies, to her life as a slave and later as a free woman, and finally to her contribution to the Abolitionist movement in England in the 1830s.  It sounds like a lot, and it is, but many of those points were common experiences to the early black-population in North America.

There are two interesting dynamics that are worth mentioning about reading this book; the first is that I didn’t feel alienated during the reading.  That’s going to take some explaining, so don’t get all upset with me just yet.  Here’s my rational for that statement: I’m white; I’m the product of two of North America’s colonial empires; and I am rarely sympathetic to the cries of the 99% (not because I’m heartless, but because I work too damned hard to have the energy to care about their cause).  I had expected this story of slavery to make me a little uncomfortable, but Hill’s tale is far from being about pointing fingers – it’s clear that he intends it to be a (fictionalized) account of an ‘ordinary’ life.  

Not once did I feel that the race-card was played in this work, but the message of equality was clear, for which Hill should be commended.  In our modern world, where race is still a contributing factor to a lot of our interactions with one another, I often find myself on shaky ground – not because I’m racist, but because I’m so far from it that I treat everyone equally and often lack the sensitivity required to deal with touchy, racially charged situations.  Past experience is teaching me to be more cautious and weary of potential situations where I may come across as less than sensitive to race-issues that I am, so going into Hill’s work, I was worried that I would experience some hyper-sensitivity that would ruin the reading of it for me.  But this was far from the case.  Rather, I think I was able to relate to Animata as a woman and a human being.  Her race was the impetus for the story, but not the focus of it.

The second point is a word about collaborators.  History is full of collaborators, and they are usually the villains in the final versions of the stories we historians tell.  Hill’s work made me think that this dynamic deserves a re-examining.  As Animata demonstrates, it is so easy to fall into assisting your captures without any intention or malice; and sometimes, it is an easy role to adopt because it makes your life bearable.  Is it ideal?  No.  Is it always right?  Of course not.  But there are times when no other options present themselves and during which a human being has to make the best decision for their own life.  Animata’s story sees her in the collaborator’s role once or twice, but never does she have a crisis of self-doubt over it – she’s fighting to stay alive in a wholly hostile environment, and she succeeds.  While the term ‘collaborator’ applies to Animata, remember that history is written by the victors – Animata is the one telling this tale, so clearly her involvement with her captures contributed to her personal victory.  

Final verdict?  This is a great book, and I understand all the acclaim it got.  Lawrence Hill is a historian first and a novelist second, and The Book of Negroes is demonstrative of this.  His history is amazingly rich without making you feel like you’re sitting in a lecture hall, and he has created characters who ride the tides of this history with an honest sincerity that is touching on many levels.  I highly recommend that you take the time to read this book.  

Saturday, April 21, 2012

J.K. Rowling's The Casual Vacancy

I wouldn’t be much of a book blogger if I didn’t acknowledge this week’s big news, and that is (of course) J. K. Rowling’s next book.  The Casual Vacancy is Rowling’s upcoming foray into adult-literature.  (Though I’d argue that HP gets real grown-up, real fast after the second book.)

I can’t decide if I’m excited about this one.  Rowling’s Harry Potter books had three things going for it: great characters, great writing, and a unique angle (the magic, duh – think about it, since LOTR, what author had such a successful series in that genre?).  The one thing I’m not sure of is if that unique angle is what made the characters and writing so engaging – I don’t think so, but I can’t be sure…

Am I going to read The Casual Vacancy?  Of course.  This is going to be a major piece of literary zeitgeist.  And, let’s be honest with ourselves, everyone is going to want to see how Rowling follows up on HP.  In essence, she could drop a giant turd on those pages, and laugh all the way to the bank because everyone is going to buy a copy.  Do I think she’s going to do that?  No – she’s clearly a dedicated writer and author (there is a difference between the two).  But she could.  And, as I’ve ranted to multiple people on multiple occasions, this broad is one of the wiliest people in the publishing industry.

Like the rest of the reading world, I’ll be keeping an eye on this one, and let you know what I think when I get to it.  

UPDATE!  See my post on the cover-art here!
UPDATE TO MY UPDATE!  See my author review on Rowling here!

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The Devil Wears Prada, by Lauren Weisberger

*** I think we’ve all seen and/or read The Devil Wears Prada at this point, so spoiler alerts really shouldn’t be necessary.  But just in case, consider yourselves warned.***

My first professional job turned out to be a nightmare.  I was in my early 20s, I was fresh out of University, and I was so excited to have found employment (which is hard for a historian with a BA) that was in my field (which is almost unheard of for a historian with a BA).  It quickly became a nightmare experience; I went from being a confident, excited, and happy person to someone who had to force herself out of bed each day, who dreaded going to the office, and who need to rely on anti-depressants to get both of those tasks done.  I wanted so badly to please my bosses that I started work at 6:30, took on as much responsibility as I could, and stayed later than I should have almost every day.  In that time, management was un-pleaseable; simply put, they played favorites, and because they valued personality over skills (and I never rubbed on well with the head-haunch-o), I never fell into that category.  In the end, the only skill that management had (which, turned out to be turning people off) led to the implosion of the company.  I got laid off, and I was miserable.  I cried, I felt betrayed, and I resented all the long hours that I gave to them that turned out to be useless – I was the first one they laid off (literally, the first one), and I hadn’t been expecting it (since during the preceding two works I was working 16 hour days to meet a deadline that was unmeet-able, but that my manager promised to a client), so I was caught out in the cold.  It wasn’t until I started at the job I currently have that I realized what I had allowed to happen: I had been in an abusive relationship.  The company had convinced me I was less than my worth, left me crippled with self-doubt, and made me question what I could have done better to have stayed.  

All of this is to tell you about my personal reaction to the book The Devil Wears Prada, by Lauren Weisberger.  I first read it a couple of years before I started at the job described above, and I remember having the impression that it was hilarious, and complete unreasonable to believe that someone would subject themselves to the kind of work environment the main character, Andy Sachs, did.  Last week, I was craving some literary ‘junk-food’ and decided to re-read The Devil Wears Prada for the heck of it, without even think about what six years (and one failed career) might lend to the experience.

Re-reading The Devil Wears Prada quickly became an uncomfortable experience for me.  I recognized myself in the young woman who, despite being loaded beyond reason with crap from her boss, keeps going into the office; keeps trying to please; keeps trying to rationalize the soul-crushing effect of it all away.  It wasn’t the light literary romp I remembered – it was more like re-experiencing my own personal Vietnam.  Clearly, Weisberger was writing from experience – there is no way she isn’t a survivor of a workplace like the one described at Runway Magazine (in fact, the rumor is that it’s a fictionalized auto-biography of her year with Anna Wintour of Vogue).

Those who read this book without a similar experience in their personal history might not find it believable, or give Weisberger the props she deserves.  This book, while being literary ‘junk-food’ is on point.  Weisberger deserves credit if for no other reason that her ability to connect so personally with one of her readers.  

This wouldn’t be much of a book review if I didn’t speak a little bit about the book, specifically.  The characters are well written and likable (though, in their own unique ways); the plot is a little shaky here and there (but the tone behind it is spot-on); but the writing style becomes predictable (with flashes back to explain the present, and the present become a touch repetitive in terms of plot advancement).  All in all, a good read, and something wholly different from the flick; I can’t say which is better though, because they are so fundamentally different.  Finally verdict?  I’d recommend this one as a beach-read; good, but it doesn’t require a lot of dedication to keep up with.  

So, I guess this review was less about the book, and more about the exit interview that my old employer never gave me the courtesy of having.  I’m sure they have a completely different perspective of how things went down (after all, they were masters of not accepting responsibility for anything), but I’m the one with the blog, and with the kick-ass job that I got without any references from them.  I’m slowing coming out of the shell-shock of the abusive relationship I was in for almost four years, but it’s proving difficult (but the situation is helped by co-workers who recognize my abilities and respect me for them).  The Devil Wears Prada was an unexpected reminder this week of what my life was, and how much better off I am now.  

Sunday, April 15, 2012

New Category - Re-Reads

I’ve decided to add a new category to my blog – and that’s “Re-Reads.”  You’ll find it above, next to the Fiction, Non-Fiction, Challenges etc.  I’ve tried in the past not to write about books I’ve already read, but I’ve given up on that non-official rule.

Be warned, I might not be that careful about not revealing plot points in books that fall into this category.  I’ll try to remember to put spoiler alters up front, but read my reviews at your own risk!  

Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontё

(*** This is a book that I’ve read several times in the past, and so I’ve referenced plot points to make some observations – I’ve done my best NOT to give away the big plot points though.  However, take this as a spoiler alert if you haven’t yet read this book and want to in the future. ***)
I first read Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontё when I was in my early teens.  When asked what my favorite book is, more often than not, I’ll name this one (it really depends on which I re-read last – Jane Eyre, or Alice in Wonderland).  I’ve re-read it several times since that first time, and with each pass I come at it with a little more world experience, a slightly different perspective, and an altered appreciation for the story and the characters.  In my last re-read, I found some observations that I wanted to share.
First, a word about the plot.  This is a story of (who else) Jane Eyre – the quintessential nobody/everybody.  Jane was orphaned at a young age, and brought up in her aunt’s home.  It was a rocky childhood.  At 10 years old, Jane’s aunt sent her away to boarding school (a fairly common occurrence in early Victorian England), where she stayed on six years as a student, and two as a teacher.  Realizing her life was stagnating, Jane sought a governess position, quickly found one, and left for Thornfield Hall.  At Thronfield, Jane experiences for the first time a sense of home and comfort.  She falls in love with Mr. Rochester, owner of Thornfiled, and agrees to marry him – but those plans are ruined.  Jane leaves Thornfield, spends time discovering more about herself and what she wants, until she feels compelled to find Mr. Rochester and settle their unfinished business.
Up until the events at Thornfield, I feel completely comfortable describing the plot – but things really get charming and engaging at that point, and I hate ruining it for anyone, even with ‘spoiler alerts.’  I had one of the biggest surprises ruined for me while I was reading JE for the first time, so I hate to do the same to anyone else.  But, I will tell you, that even though I’ve read this book multiple times now, there are three points that still have the power to make me cry, and two points that make me physically start in surprise.  Brontё is just that good.
I have one major complaint about the plot, and that’s a complaint that I have about a lot of books written in this era, and that’s the use of convenient coincidences in plot development.  In leaving Mr. Rochester, Jane sets out on her own, only to come across people to whom she unknowingly has a connection.  It’s great for the plot, but it’s horrible for the reader – in all the places in England she could have ended up, she lands on the right door-step?  Come on.  There is a moment when this occurrence takes the reader out of the story and has them focuses on the improbability of it all, but I’ve always shrugged my shoulders at this, and powered through to the end of the book.  
Keep in mind when you’re reading this book that it was written by a spinster in early Victorian England (specifically the 1840s).  I point out that fact because there are passages that are super heavy on religion and morality.  These factors play an enormous role in Jane’s life choices, but even before the point where Jane falls back on the rules of her faith (because, as she notes, those rules are for times of crisis, no matter how much you may want to go against them), there are long-winded ruminations on the role of religion and faith in life.  Bear with those passages and get past them – the other stuff is stunning.
Some of the most romantic passages are those between Jane and Rochester.  But if you step beyond the romance, they are inherently flawed.  It was a common complaint of literary critics of the age that interactions between female and male characters written by women authors were inherently flawed; there is not enough masculinity in these scenes to be believable.  In re-reading Jane Eyre this time, I had to agree with that sentiment; while the scenes are touching and heart-rending, it was clearly written by a woman, as it’s hard to believe that Mr. Rochester (as described elsewhere in the book) would be in-tune enough with his emotions to say some of the things he said.  In some ways, it takes you out of the passages, but in others it’s touching and forgivable.  And it makes me cry. 
The charm of Jane Eyre (the character, not the book), is that she is at once the original plain-Jane, and the most forceful person/character you’ve ever met.  Coming from truly humble beginnings, Jane not only finds a place for herself in the world, but she carves it out and makes it uniquely hers.  It’s an interesting and powerful dynamic that is incredibly endearing.
The charm of Jane Eyre (the book, not the character), is that is evolves with the reader.  I’ve now read it a half-dozen times at various stages of my life, and I keep pulling new insight from it.  As it is the story of a woman from aged 10 to 30, there are lots of parallels that the reader can draw.  While there are some serious pacing issues with the book (in relation to the religion of the age), I strongly recommend that you power through and read it in its unabridged format.
Final verdict?  Read Jane Eyre – it might not become a staple in your life like it is in mine, but it is an incredibly charming read that I hope you enjoy as much as I do. 

Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Gods of Gotham, by Lyndsay Faye

The only way that I can describe The Gods of Gotham is ‘delicate,’ which is odd, considering it is about violence and sex.  But there it is.  The Gods of Gotham tells the tale of Timothy Wilde, newly unemployed bartender in need of work.  Tim’s brother makes arrangements for him to have a place on the newly created New York police force, and the tale is off to the races.  Tim’s skills are a bartender (that is to say his compassion and ability to observe without drawing attention) come in handy in his new role, and he finds himself enjoying it.  Until he makes two gruesome discoveries in the space of twelve hours… With that, the sheen is off the copper star badge he’s been given, and his compassion kicks in – Tim makes it a mission to get to the bottom of crime that’s stumbled into his lap.

I first discovered the author, Lyndsay Faye, with the work Dust and Shadow, which is a nod to the Sherlockian literary tradition; The Gods of Gotham also fits this tradition.  Timothy Wilde is like an Americanized version of Sherlock Holmes (but less obnoxious).  His skills of observation and ability to read lips gives him the advantage of reading a man or woman and taking their measure from a distance, and this goes a long way to solving the crimes he encounters as a copper star (or copper, or cop in the modern lexicon).  Where Arthur Conan Doyle’s writing style of deduction is in your face, Faye’s is almost insidious and definitely delicate – there is no moment when the reader feels an answer is to easily provided to Wilde, but rather he works for every square inch of ground he takes in solving the crime.

Tim Wilde is an interesting anomaly in terms of literary characters.  He seems to straddle the fence between the Sherlockian mold, and the modern-day detective.  Faye made a brilliant choice to set her tale where these two worlds meet; the nuances she brings out between the pre-professional detective and the modern-day cop were done with a deft hand.  With the plot being reliant on the first major crime following the creation of New York’s professional force, Faye delicately had to ensure that her pendulum didn’t stray too far into the Sherlockian mind set, or too far into the NYPD Blue spectrum.  And yet, oddly enough, The Gods of Gotham does both.  It’s an interesting and intriguing dynamic.

This book benefits immensely from a high-level of historical research and details.  It’s very clear, from almost the first line, that Faye has lived in the world of 1840s New York for quite some time while writing and developing these characters and this plot.  But this is another instance of delicacy – rather than getting a cloying and oppressive lecture on the history of antebellum New York, the immigration phenomenon, and the racial tensions, the reader is introduced to the subjects almost inadvertently.  It’s like Faye has assumed you know as much as she does about the topic and, while she doesn’t condescend to her readers, she still educates them about the setting.  It takes a deft had to do this, and Faye delivers in spades.

The only complaint I have about this book is that it could have used some judicious editing in the first third or so.  There were a lot of observations and a couple of characters that could have been dropped from that section of the book to tighten it up in favour of the development in the second half.  Even with these (minor) missteps, Faye’s sense of delicacy comes through, and we are given an impression of the cadence of the era, in terms of speech, thought, and actions commonly found in the people.  However, when Wilde fully gets on to unraveling the case at hand, the concerns surrounding pacing are lost, and things continue at a great pace.  

Needless to say, Faye is going on my list of authors that I’ll be keeping a weather eye on for upcoming books.  I get the impression that Tim Wilde could very easily become the character that she builds her cannon around, and I hope that’s the tack she intends to take.  Tim is a detective that is at once Sherlock Holmes and Lennie Briscoe, and that could be developed for years to come.  Final verdict?  Go out and read both of Faye’s books, and keep your eyes pealed for those to come; Lyndsay Faye’s is a name I’m sure you’ll be hearing soon enough!

Sacré Bleu, by Christopher Moore

Grade 6 sucked for me.  We had just moved; I was going to a third school in as many years; and my dad was working a lot (thanks, army-brat upbringing!).  The only thing that made 1996 bearable for me (in retrospect) was Mme Lesperance and her love of art.  Once a week, for 2 periods, our Grade 5/6 split class would learn about art in a way that would probably be more common in university – there was equal part theory and practice, and it wasn’t arts and crafts.  Rather, we were learning about the big-name masters and the Impressionists.  With Mme Lesperance’s guidance, we learnt about colour theory, composition, and history in a way that I had almost forgotten until reading Christopher Moore’s new book Sacré Blue.

Sacré Blue has been the eagerly awaited new work by Moore that was (finally!) released this month.  Telling the tale of the Impressionist painters in 1880/90s Paris, Sacré Blue is classing Moore in that it is funny, clever, and horribly well thought out.  The style is quintessentially Moore, but only after the first 100 pages or so.  Not to say that fan wouldn’t be able to point this work out of a line-up quickly, but the first third of the book is lacking what comes in the rest, and that is an in-you-face sarcasm.  I think I might be able to chalk that up to trying to wrap my head around the unique story Moore was constructing, and I’m looking forward to re-reading Sacré Blue with a better understanding of all the warps in the weave.

The plot to this book centres around the colour blue (well, duh).  Moore sprinkles many fun-facts about the place blue has held in Western art for the last dozen centuries or so throughout his tale, but things really pick-up with the death of Vincent van Gogh.  While van Gogh’s death is the starting and end points of the tale, it’s not the middle.  Rather, we follow Lucien Lessard’s quest to paint his love, Juliette, who mysteriously disappeared several years ago, and has just as mysteriously reappeared.  Along with Juliette’s return to Paris is the appearance of the Colorman, an odd little creature who appears to multiple artists around the time of their great creations.  The pay-off to the novel is learning who the Colorman and Juliette really are, the history behind the great Impressionist works, and a resolution to the burning question- whatever did happen to that piece of van Gogh’s ear?

On to characters!  Moore’s main male character, Lucien Lessard, is quintessential Moore; he’s the everyman’s Bata-male, just trying to get some.  And he’s roguishly lovable for it.  Lessard is fictional, but many of the other characters are based in reality, and men like Monet, van Gogh, Pissaro, Degas, Renoir and Manet all come in and out of the tale like good friends during a late night at your favorite cabaret.  But central to these secondary characters if Toulouse-Lautrec, who helps Lessard in his quest for love and answers.  The C-range of characters are another telling skill of Moore’s, and that is his inability to write an un-lovable character, no mater how small the role.  Case in point is Maman Lessard, who is a minor component in plot development, but a major piece of the light-hearted and lovable humour of this work.

A quick word on the book itself.  From cover to cover, there is nothing usual about this work.  On the front is only a half-dust jacket, which is strategically placed (and glued into place) to hide the non-naughty naughty-bits of the lady on the cover.  It looks odd, but it stands out.  Inside is even odder, as it contains full-colour pictures of multiple works of art.  But the oddest use of colour, the one I didn’t fully pick up on until page 2 or 3, was that the text is all blue.  When you first notice it, it’s all you notice – but slowly your eyes adjust and it looks like normal black text, until for some reason your mind snaps-to and you recognize it as being blue for a page or two, until you forget and it once again looks like black text.  Leave it to Moore to add such a layer to an already complex work; it was a cheeky decision, but then, so was writing an entire novel about a colour.

In reading this book, I was infinitely grateful to Mme Lesperance for her passion for art, since it gave me the ability to fully appreciate this book as I would an Impressionist painting; as Mme Lesperance taught, you have to take in the picture as a whole, then get up-close to observe the nuances, then step back and take it in as a whole again.  And that’s what reading a Chris Moore book is like – they all benefit from re-readings because the humour never goes stale.

The only complaint I have about this work is that it took so long to finish and publish, and it took me a day to read.  Moore needs to do his fans a favour and write more!  This work is a wonderful addition to the Moore cannon, and should be read with the same frequency as his other works (which, in my case, is almost yearly).  Do yourself a favour and, if you’ve never read a book by Moore, go out and do so.  And, if you are familiar with Moore, go out and buy this book!  It’s an amazing story, a fun read, and you’re going to want to re-experience it in the future!  

Thursday, April 5, 2012

A Rose for the Crown, by Anne Easter Smith

Okay, so it’s been a long time since I’ve posted.  Almost unforgivably long.  But it’s been a distracted few weeks.  I was leant Doctor Who on DVD (menh..), Mad Men is back and I’ve been catching up with past seasons (swoon!), and the book I was reading was over 600 pages long.  In essence, there were a lot of distractions while I was trying to get through a big brick of a book.  But I finally got done!  My last read was A Rose for the Crown, by Anne Easter Smith.  This book (and two more of hers) has been sitting on my shelf for a couple of years now.  I wanted to get into a sweeping historical, biographical fiction, and this book did it.

A Rose for the Crown tells the story of Katherine from childhood to mid-life.  Katherine was born on a farm in the 15th century, and through a series of coincidences, ends up the mistress to Richard of Gloucester (Edward York’s youngest brother, later king).  The book tells the story of Katherine’s life, specifically her relationships with friends and family and Richard.  

What’s commendable about this work is that it is impeccably researched without being cloyingly so.  As a historian, it’s pretty easy for me to spot when the author is using a primary source as inspiration for text and/or plot development.  Easter Smith’s work avoids this pitfall, while remaining historically rich.  I didn’t notice the dynamic until the end when there is a passing mention of something in a letter written by Richard to Katherine; I was able to point at it and say “that right there is referencing a primary document on the subject.”  

Maybe Easter Smith was able to avoid this common practice because of the subject matter; Richard’s personal life isn’t as well documented as some of the other kings of England.  The historical record shows he had a mistress and illegitimate children, but it doesn’t provide much more information than that.  Easter Smith had a blank canvas that she filled in with a casual and natural use of her knowledge of the historical age.  It is impeccably well done.

As I’ve said numerous times, I’m all about character development.  If an author writes a good, strong character, I’m all over their work.  Easter Smith’s Katherine is likable enough, but not highly engaging.  I think my lack of engagement with her is what took me so long to finish the book.  That being said, Katherine is a pleasure to spend time with, and I found myself comparing her to Philippa Gregory’s female characters, and being relieved with how Easter Smith painted her.  

One last note on characters, and that’s about Richard.  I had a hard time reconciling the gentle, compassionate, and loving character that Easter Smith created in Richard with the historical zeitgeist knowledge that he was the king who sent his nephews to the Tower, from whence they disappeared (and yes, I just used whence in a sentence).  In the end, Easter Smith provides some resolution to this disconnect that, I suppose, works, but I’m not a fan of re-scripting history, so I’m not entirely sure I agree with her plot point choices.  And no, I can’t tell you more without ruining the reveal, so you’ll have to read the book yourself.

All told, I would recommend this book to those who enjoy slow-burning historical fictional biographies.  It’s a treat getting to read a historical fiction about England that isn’t related to Henry VIII.  Looking at Easter Smith’s other books, I get a sense that they each tell a similar tale of another woman connected to the Plantagenet court, and I’m sure I’ll get around to reading them.  There doesn’t seem to be a sequence to them, so I don’t feel pressed to dive into them right away (which is good, since there are a few books that have been released this month by other authors I’ll be picking up today to read this weekend!).  

Final verdict?  A good read for those who enjoy history, and a strong author I’ll be returning to in the future.