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review 2017-11-20 13:14
16 Tasks of the Festive Season: Square 2 - Guy Fawkes Night: Headless Chicken Parade Part 1: Giordano Bruno
Heresy (Giordano Bruno #1) - S.J. Parris

 

Giordano Bruno (1548 – February 17, 1600) was an eminent Italian philosopher, mathematician, poet, and cosmological scientist, whose theories extended the then-novel Copernican model. Bruno proposed that the stars were just distant suns surrounded by their own exoplanets and raised the possibility that these planets could even foster life of their own; and he insisted that the universe is in fact infinite and could have no celestial body at its "center". -- Raised in Naples as a Dominican friar from age 13 onwards, his interest in the writings of Copernicus and Desiderius Erasmus attracted the attention of the Holy Inquisition before he had even turned 30, and rather than become a martyr for the sake of his philosophical and scientific beliefs then and there, he fled from his monastery and from Italy and, having made a name for himself as a scholar in France and attained the patronage of French King Henri III himself, he eventually turned up in Britain in 1583, where he was introduced to Francis Walsingham and agreed to become a spy in Walsingham's network. The Inquisition did eventually catch up with him in 1593, however, and he was tried for heresy and burned at the stake in Rome's Campo de' Fiori in 1600.

 

While you will be able to glean the above biographical facts (up to 1583) from the beginning of S.J. Parris's Heresy and the book actually has an engaging beginning, it all goes rapidly downhill (or it did for me, anyway) from the moment when the first of several murders occurs. -- Parris's book uses details from Bruno's actual stay in England, in sending him to Oxford for a philosophical debate with the then-Rector of Lincoln College, John Underhill (who indeed opposed Bruno's views). The rest of the story is fictitious, however, and I sincerely hope the personality of this book's Giordano Bruno has nothing whatsoever in common with that of the real-life philosopher and scientist, because if it had, it would be nothing short of a miracle how he ever managed to evade the Inquisition and find his way all the way to France and, later, England.

 

As for "Bruno the sleuth," leaving aside that initially there isn't even a good reason for him to involve himself in the investigation into the dead man's murder

(even the discovery that the man was a clandestine Catholic, and that his death may thus fall into the purview of Bruno's mission as a spy, follows his death; there is nothing to make Bruno suspect as much while the man is still alive),

(spoiler show)

the murder and its immediate aftermath are described in such a fashion that anybody who has read Arthur Conan Doyle's

Silver Blaze

(spoiler show)

can't fail to notice one fact pointing very damningly in one particular direction right from the start -- and surely the real-life Giordano Bruno's intellect would have been on par with that of Sherlock Holmes in every respect? And it certainly doesn't get any better by the fact that the one person who thus draws, if not the fictional Bruno's attention, then at least that of this book's reader to themselves in a very conspicious manner, with the same act also eliminates a witness in a manner identical to that used by Ellis Peters in

the fourth Chronicle of Brother Cadfael, St. Peter's Fair

(spoiler show)

... and that in connection with a second murder, a few days later, Parris employs precisely the same slight of hand already used by Agatha Christie in

Murder at the Vicarage.

(spoiler show)

 

So, I found myself looking in one particular direction from page 95 onwards, and though it turned out that I had the dynamics between two of the persons involved the wrong way around, I never wavered in my belief that the solution lay that way -- which makes a 474-page book a mighty slog to finish, particularly if the book's alleged super-sleuth is running around like a headless chicken, missing just about ever vital clue that doesn't actually explode in his face, and standing by passively and helplessly and / or letting himself be tricked, manhandled and otherwise be manipulated in a way I'd possibly have expected from a rookie investigator, but not from a distinguished intellectual like the real life Giordano Bruno, who after all had, himself, demonstrated considerable cunning in evading the persecution of the Holy Inquisition and make his way, undetected, all the way from southern Italy to France and England.

 

There is one final twist that I didn't see coming exactly this way around (although I should have, and just possibly might if I'd still cared enough to engage with the book at that point), and I'll also have to give Parris credit for an engaging beginning and for her knowledge of the period -- even though I wondered several times how her version of Giordano Bruno, who had never before been to Oxford in his life, could have the city's layout down so pat within a day at most that the book reads as if Parris had had a map of 16th century Oxford sitting next to her manuscript virtually all the time.

 

Final note to those who don't care for first person present tense narration: There is an excerpt of the series's second book (Prophecy) included at the end of my edition, and while I didn't actually read it, I've seen enough of it to be able to recognize that it's written in that particular narrative voice. (Heresy is not -- it's in first person past tense.)

 

I read this book for Square 2 of the 16 Tasks of the Festive Season - Guy Fawkes Night: Any book about the English monarchy (any genre), political treason, political thrillers, or where fire is a major theme, or fire is on the cover.

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review 2017-11-20 07:17
The Chosen
The Chosen - Chaim Potok

I seem to have inadvertently found myself on a theological reading streak.  Like The Alchemist, this book was recommended to me by a friend (although more enthusiastically), and also like The Alchemist, I picked it up for reasons that ended up having nothing to do with the book.  I thought The Chosen was about baseball.

 

It's not about baseball.

 

What it is about, at its core, is exactly the same thing The Alchemist is about (which almost defies coincidence):  the power of silence, listening to your heart/soul, and following your own true path.  But while The Alchemist uses parable, allegory and fantastic storytelling to get its message across, The Chosen tells the same message using an opposite style, set in WWII New York, and using first person-past tense POV.  This is the story of two boys brought together by a softball game; one is a Hasidic Jew and one is Conservative (I think–it's never explicitly stated whether he's Conservative or Reform).  Although they live only 5 blocks apart, they inhabit completely different worlds within the same religious faith, and have very different relationships with their respective fathers.

 

I can't do justice to this book in my review, but it works for me so much better than The Alchemist did; while I could appreciate the beauty of the writing and the story Coelho created, Potok's creation had the profound effect on me that I think the author was aiming for.  The Chosen is going to be one of those that stay with me permanently.

 

Book themes for Hanukkah: Any book whose main character is Jewish, any story about the Jewish people

 

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review 2017-11-18 12:35
The IT Girls
The It Girls - Karen Harper
Sisters, Lucy and Elinor Sutherland grew up on the sleepy island of Jersey.  They were insatiably curious and had large ambitions; ambitions far bigger than the island.  Upon meeting the notorious Lillie Langtry one day in their youth, the sisters decide that they will one day become much more.  Through time, hard work and dedication, the two women eventually do realize their dreams. Lucy transforms into Lady Lucille Duff-Gordon fashion designer and entrepreneur extraordinaire.  Elinor becomes Elinor Glyn, scandalous romance writer whose books went onto the big screen.  Both Lucy and Elinor became the 'It' girls of their day; however, while both women excelled in their career goals, their dream came at a price in other areas of their life.

Elinor and Lucy quickly pulled me into their world of daring, creativity and determination.  I was amazed at what these two women accomplished in their lives, especially for women living in the early 1900's.  The story follows Lucy and Elinor from their youth through later life bouncing back and forth between the two women.  The writing showed the 'it' factor of each woman without laying it out.  Lucy had amazing grit while opening up her own fashion enterprise and ingenuity enough to make change in the fashion world.  Even though I knew of Lucille Duff-Gordon, mainly through her voyage on the Titanic, I never knew of her impacts on the fashion world and how they are carried through to the present.  Lucille was the first to use live models and do runway presentations,  she also led the way to get women out of corsets and into more natural silhouettes.  I did not know much about Elinor Glyn, but it seemed that her style of romance writing had an impact on many people.  It also seemed that she made an impact on Hollywood romance as well!  While the sister's careers and social standings skyrocketed, I was surprised to see that their personal and family lives took a toll.  Both women struggled in marriage and didn't seem to have strong relationships with their children, often living in separate countries.  This imbalance, to me, was a strong commentary on the lives of women at the time, showing that even successful, strong women had to choose either career or family.  Overall, a wonderful portrait of two strong, important women in history.  

This book was provided for free in return for an honest review. 

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review 2017-11-15 16:33
The Outcasts of Time by Ian Mortimer
The Outcasts of Time - Ian Mortimer

This novel is beautiful in its prose, fascinating in its historical detail, and emotive in its themes on humanity and the passing of time. I was first drawn in by the promise that renowned historian Ian Mortimer would be taking readers on an adventure through time. Finding that this book does that while also making thought provoking statements on the human condition, I was helpless to put it down once I started it.

The story of John of Wrayment and his brother begins in 1348 during a devastating outbreak of the plague. One would think that any time might be preferable as an escape from the fate of man during that time, but such does not prove the case through John's eyes. He sees the plague as 'a second Flood. God is clearing the land. Not with water but with pestilence.' Yet, he is even more horrified by what he discovers when he accepts a supernatural offer to live his remaining six days on earth, each 99 years further into the future than the last.

The brothers explore Exeter and its surrounding area through the ages, the cathedral where John has sculpted those he loves into the faces of angels and disciples, serving at their centering point regardless of the century. John at first finds comfort in finding the face of his wife there, but his fear and anxiety is enhanced as the statues that seemed so permanent crumble and wear away the further he gets from his own time. Out of all the changes he sees, this seems to impact him the most. The loss of his own work and what was supposed to be eternal memorial of his family.

When we think about traveling into the future, I think we expect to see progress and increased happiness. Certainly, we would think that one leaving the time of the plague would see that, but that is not what John notices. He is confused by what we would call advances. 'We worked long days and had straightforward pleasures. But now, so many things are easier - yet what does the world do? It revels in causing suffering and killing.' John is horrified at the loss of faith that he observes. 'We were far more united and accepting of God's will. In this new century, people are all divided and unsatisfied, hoping that God will smile on them personally.' 

John wishes only to do good in order to please God, but the further he gets from his own time, the more he realizes that is no longer a key goal of the people. He is also frustrated by his inability to perform a heroic deed in any era. Due to his bedraggled state and lack of possessions, he finds himself at the mercy of others rather than able to help them. 'If Christ were living in this day and age, would He not have ended up in a workhouse?'

'Every day is composed of . . . of an unpredictable horror - no, of a horrific unpredictability.'

It seems that time travel is not all it is cracked up to be.

Each day/century brings John closer to his death and he grows eager for it. Though he is disappointed in his failure to do a great deed for God, he cannot tolerate what he witnesses occurring in the world. 'Men are starting to direct things that rightly only God should control.....Men've strived to compete and outdo one another, as if nothing is the will of God and everything is the will of man.' Instead of being impressed by progress, John sees only disintegration of faith and character.

Thankfully, there are a few bright spots included in John's six day journey. He meets at least one kind person in each time, and it is these small comforts that enable him to move forward.

I was eager to discover what would happen to John once his time was up, but I will not reveal it here. I will only say that the ending was satisfying and reiterated the message that John had already taught us, 'What is important is what does not change - that mothers and wives are so happy when they hear that their sons and husbands are alive that they run around the house yelling for joy; that men do their duty in the face of great danger not purely for themselves but for all their community.'

An amazing read - my favorite of this year.

The man who has no knowledge of the past has no wisdom.

I received this book through NetGalley. Opinions are my own.

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review 2017-11-14 21:18
The Library of Light and Shadow
The Library of Light and Shadow: A Novel - M. J. Rose

[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley.]

When I requested this novel, I hadn’t realised it was the third instalment in a series; however, it turned out you can read it even without having read the previous ones, since the narrator does summarise well enough what her family is about, and that’s what you mostly need to know as far as background is concerned.

I liked the premise—Delphine’s gift and how it can turn out badly, the family with witchcraft gifts... I also liked how most characters felt like they had a life of their own: they definitely weren’t just plot devices, but had relationships, past experiences (sometimes together, sometimes not), and generally breathed and lived.

A lot of descriptions, too, were vivid, and allowed me to picture the places and scenes quite clearly. I’m definitely not sure about all of the fine details, though (avenue Franklin D. Roosevelt in Paris in 1920... uhm, it was avenue Victor-Emmanuel III, but even without knowing that it doesn’t make sense), so I advise not getting into that with a historian’s mind. Unless those were corrected in the final copy, that is. Anyway, the prose does have its charm, and whether New York, Paris or Southern France in the mid-twentied, it conjures the needed images easily.

I had more trouble with the pacing. For a good half, Delphine doesn’t do that much, to be honest, apart from being depressed because of her gift (which she probably wouldn’t have been if she hadn’t been such a doormat to her brother) and remembering her love story. I don’t know about the format it was told in (a diary), background info was needed here, yet on the other hand, it felt disjointed from the story. Moreover, while in terms of relationships the characters had a life, indeed, their actions and decisions were at times... silly. I could guess the turns and twists, and seriously, Delphine, that vision you had, that made you run away to the other side of the world... it was so obviously opened to many interpretations that it being a misunderstanding was a given here.

The story picked up after the characters arrived at the castle, but at that point I wasn’t ‘in’ it anymore.

Still, I may try the first book, because the parents’ story could be interesting (there’s a duel and a bargain with the spirit of a dead witch, apparently?).

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