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review 2019-03-20 03:41
The Spy of Venice (Brandreth)
The Spy of Venice: A William Shakespeare Novel - Benet Brandreth

I enjoyed, but at the same time was slightly disappointed in this volume by the son of Gyles Brandreth. The latter has given me many pleasurable hours with his Oscar Wilde mystery stories, where he reimagines a literary great as a solver of mysteries. Benet Brandreth has taken advantage of that big gap in Shakespeare's known biography to set up the beginning of a series of adventure stories - not mysteries, but more action-oriented - featuring Will on a fictional but historically possible trip to Venice; presumably this volume's sidekicks, Nick Oldcastle (who was the real-life inspiration for Falstaff) and Heminges, fellow-actor and eventual publisher of the First Folio, will also continue to play a part in sequels.

The chief delight of the novel is the interweaving of an endless succession of Shakespearian references. The more Shakespeare you have lurking in your brain, the more smiles of recognition will break out across your face as yet another familiar phrase or situation surfaces in an unfamiliar context. The story itself is also not bad: there's nothing wrong with Brandreth's imagination and he clearly knows enough about the 1590s (English and Italian) to navigate from spies in the Bearpit to vengeful Italian femmes fatales, with many minor characters biting the dust along the way.  It's a decent romp in an interesting historical setting (for me, the story picked up considerably once  it moved to Italy).

For me at least, there was one constant irritant in the style. All too frequently, we'd read a perfectly good declarative sentence. Which was unnecessarily broken and followed by a sentence fragment. I don't mind this device when it's occasionally used for emphasis or to characterize a speaker, but when it appears every other page in the general narrative, it's just a nasty (and unskilful) little tic, and I wish there had been an editorial foot put down on it. Comparisons are odorous, as Dogberry says, but the language of Benet's Dad in the Wilde series is pretty much irreproachable.

Will is still in Venice at the end of this novel, no doubt with much still to observe about Jews on the Rialto amongst other things. If I see the second in this series, I'll likely give it a shot, but with lowered expectations. It's still a worthy entry in that remarkably voluminous sub-genre, stories featuring Shakespeare as a fictional character.

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review 2019-03-19 19:52
The Sisters Brothers (deWitt)
The Sisters Brothers - Patrick deWitt

As usual, I'm second-guessing myself when I find myself disliking a book that has received awards, critical praise and a movie deal. But unfortunately I just could not enjoy this book.

 

There's an easy explanation for this: it was only after I was well into the novel, and started reading reviews in my perplexity, that I realized that everyone who manifestly enjoyed it claimed it was hilariously funny. I didn't find it so. There's a certain mild and steady amusement in the contrast, well maintained throughout the book, between the mannered, Victorian prose of the first-person narrator and the vicious, violent events he narrates (he and his brother, surname Sisters, are hired killers in gold-rush California), but it's not by any means hilarious, and it does not for me overcome the equally constant level of mild nausea at the violence. I rarely abandon a book, but I should have stopped with the description in the first few pages of the death of horses in a fire. In some ways, the human deaths (macabre though some of them were - think acid baths) were less upsetting than that.

 

I'm not planning to see the film, but I think it likely works if the story is treated as slapstick. The convention of slapstick is that you simply remove for yourself any obligation for empathy - the characters are obviously not real, so pain is not real, and you can laugh. Possibly those who enjoyed this book treated it in the same way, and it may be a failing in me as a reader that I was unable to do likewise. What inhibited me, to a large extent, was that there was clearly an attempt to make some sort of empathy happen for the narrator, who is the less brutal of two brothers, and who gives us a backstory to explain the psychopathy of his family. So, for me, between that and the horses (I don't think I've ever seen any film where the terrified, painful death of animals was slapstick and funny), I just couldn't get into the right frame of mind.

 

Possibly, also, I was spoiled for the historical setting by the fact that I just read an extremely rich evocation of the same period and place by Isabel Allende ("Daughter of Fortune"). In comparison, deWitt's use of the same basic facts about San Francisco and area in '49 seemed bald and uninterested.

 

That said, one thing saved this review from being a single star, and that is the control of and delight in the nineteenth-century language. DeWitt managed to create a unique voice here - whether he has others, or whether this is his default, other readers will have to tell me, because unfortunately I'm not likely to pursue the rest of his oeuvre.

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review 2019-03-19 19:29
Midnight at the Tuscany Hotel
Midnight at the Tuscany Hotel - James Markert

Vitto Gandy has returned home from World War II, his mind ravaged by the events that have taken place overseas, things he did and did not do.  Vitto returns home to a child who does not remember him and a wife who has been raising a toddler and taking care of Vitto's father, Robert who has been having memory issues- what doctors now call Alzheimer's.  When Robert goes missing one night, Vitto knows that there is only one place that he would go- the Tuscany Hotel that Robert and his wife Magdalena built years ago on the California Coast as a creative retreat for artists and scientists.  When Vitto and his family find Robert, he is miraculously cured.  Claiming that the water from the fountain at the hotel has aided his recovery, Robert has invited others with memory issues and re-opened the hotel.  Along with the inexplicable claims of the fountain, stories of Vitto's mother, Magdalena have resurfaced.  An anomaly, herself, Magdalena was born with memory issues.    The water at the Tuscany Hotel flows freely as more and more people show up for its medicinal properties.  However, when the other side of the water's powers are uncovered, the guests will have to decide whether or not to take the good with the bad. 

A mesmerizing, magical and mythological testament to the powers of memory.  James Markert artfully weaves together the very real issues of post-traumatic stress disorder and Alzheimer's with the magic of miracles and the Greek mythology of Mnemosyne, the goddess of memory.  From the beginning, where Magdalena is introduced at an orphanage on a stormy night, I felt invested in her story.  Magdalena's character was not present for most of the story, but it was her spirit that kept the rest of the characters motivated.  The Tuscany Hotel was created for artists and creators and the writing mirrored that in the descriptions of fresco's, colors, landscapes as well as the minutiae of everyday living. The power of the fountain intrigued me as well as the stories of the people that were helped.  Vitto's healing was fascinating to watch as he resisted the pull of the water and looked within himself to recuperate.  As Robert and Vitto were able to heal, they slowly teased apart Magdalena's past and the story behind the the fountain.  Filled with more tantalizing stories that the one's she often told of the Greek gods and goddesses, Magdalena's written memories aided to unlock more than the past.  Emotional and unique, Midnight at the Tuscany Hotel delivers a powerful story of love and memory. 

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

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review 2019-03-19 19:09
Daughter of Fortune (Allende)
Daughter of Fortune - Isabel Allende

By coincidence, this was one of several works I've read in the past year set (or set partially) in the California gold rush of 1849. I'd say this is by the far the most successful. The others, by the way, are The Sisters Brothers, and the novelized version of Lola Montez' life.

 

The title character, Eliza Sommers, grows up in early 19th century Chile, but in a very specialized sub-culture (as you can tell by her name) - the British colony of Valparaiso. Eliza is a abandoned doorstep orphan and so her identity from the very beginning is shrouded in storytelling. The novel, in its largest terms, is the continuing story of her discovery of that identity, and her increasing control over that narrative.

 

In the early chapters about her girlhood and adolescence, Eliza is presented with two contrasting mother figures: indigenous Mama Fresia, housekeeper and nursemaid, overwhelmingly practical but superstitious and a keeper of secrets; and spinster Englishwoman Rose, who has conventional ideas about women and marriage as tightly bound as her corsets, but (or perhaps therefore) keeps a secret or two of her own.

 

Matchmaking efforts for the growing Eliza go awry, as do the efforts of a couple of unsuccessful suitors for Rose, and each chapter is crammed with fascinating historical detail, well-integrated, about that period and place. Eliza has a quick dream of adolescent love, which finds its expression upon a pile of unused curtains in an unused room, and then her first love, who is a political idealist, leaves her behind.

 

Eliza pursues him to California on a fairly horrible journey as a stowaway (Valparaiso is a port city, as of course is San Francisco), but what we might fear would turn out to be a rather conventional romance reunion turns instead into a series of fascinating adventures in fruitless pursuit of an outlaw who may be him,in the wholly lawless place that is gold rush California. As her adventures unfold, we also learn a great deal about the past and present of a companion who becomes increasingly important, a Chinese doctor named Tao Chi'en.

 

In the last paragraph of the novel, Eliza, having been permitted to view the remains of the notorious outlaw, turns to Tao Chi'en and says simply, "I am free." For what happens in between (including a two-page appearance by Lola Montez, expertly rendered), I strongly urge anybody who likes historical novels, or novels with psychological insight, or both, to read and savour this book. It really is very very good.

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review 2019-03-18 20:18
Josephine Baker's Last Dance
Josephine Baker's Last Dance - Sherry Jones

Josephine Baker is well know for her dancing and singing and wild routines. However, her childhood growing up in Missouri, how she began in show business and her activism during World War II is less known. Josephine's rise to fame was anything but smooth as she endured poverty, racism, and sexual abuse. Through her own fortitude and determination Josephine carved a place out for herself in the entertainment industry and the world.


As a dancer, Josephine Baker is someone I have learned about and idolized. Through this biographical story we are carried through the lesser known ups and downs of Josephine's exciting and controversial life. The opening scene absolutely dazzled me as we are thrown into Josephine's preparations for what would be her last performance. This is a perfect introduction to the person who is a true force of nature and a true performer. This introduction gave just enough hints into Josephine's life to keep me wondering about her life. The elegant writing conveyed the highs and lows of the journey through Josephine's life and the emotions that went alongside of it. I was constantly amazed at how Josephine pulled herself up again and again and continued to add good to the world after all that she went through. Josephine Baker's Last Dance is a whirlwind of an inspirational story of a remarkable woman.


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

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