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Search tags: MbDHistoricalFiction
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review 2018-04-16 08:45
The Essex Serpent
The Essex Serpent - Sarah Perry

What an odd book.  I liked it, but I'm struggling to say why.  I suspect I've just been fed literary fiction disguised as something more palatable and mainstream, wrapped in an irresistible cover.

 

The two most overwhelming impressions I took away from the book are poetry and allegory.  Poetry in the form of the prose in the opening pages of the story, where it's so heavy with lyrical verse as to be cloying, and again in the opening pages of each section, where it's dialled down but still more melody than verse.  Allegory, because the story feels like the author's way of working out the balance between faith and empiricism, if not for the reader, then perhaps as an exercise for herself.

 

On a literal level, the story is, as I said, odd.  The reader is held at such a remove from the characters, it's hard to feel any emotional investment in any of them.  I liked Cora and Will and Stella, but the rest?  I'm afraid I really don't understand the point of Luke's part, and for me, Perry utterly failed to convince me that Frankie was anything more or less than a selfish and spoiled boy.  Martha, too, struck me as nothing more than a narcissist, caring more about her duty than the people she is fighting for.  For me, the most convincing character of the lot was the pan-handler, Taylor.

 

Still, it's a beautiful, richly told story, if one is willing to experience it as the distance the author holds it.  Looked at too closely, it's flawed, but hold it back far enough to fuzz the edges and it's gorgeous.

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review 2018-01-25 04:06
The Pursuit of Love
The Pursuit of Love - Nancy Mitford

My first Nancy Mitford read was Love in a Cold Climate and while I could recognise the talent in the writing, and enjoy the humor, I failed to see anything significant or profound in the story.  That means this, my only other Mitford book, languished on the TBR for years.  I finally picked it up a couple of days ago.  It is a significantly better book, in my opinion.

 

Told in third person by a narrator that is the niece/cousin of the Radlett family, it chronicles the life of one of the Radlett daughters, second-oldest of 7 (I think), Linda.  Linda is a delicate natured, highly emotional child who loves animals, in a family that is hilariously savage, headed by a father that is the very stereotype of landed gentry.  As a teen she becomes highly romantic and impatient for her Grand True Love.  Most importantly to her future, she is undereducated and naive, but kind, charming and pleasant.

 

Of the two books, this one is the most realistic; Linda is just as likely a character today as she was almost 100 years ago.  I didn't read reviews of it before beginning it, but when searching for a synopsis I glanced over several that read of the tragic undercurrent of this book.  On the face of it, I see why people claim this, but really, I can't see it.  Linda herself would not see her life as tragic, and I"m not at all sure Fanny (the narrator) sees it either.  Linda's life was not blameless, but Linda herself never thought it was, and undereducated or not, she owned her mistakes and would repeat them all given a choice, in the end.  I admired her for that.

 

I could talk forever about this book, but I'll just wrap up with a note about the introduction to my edition, written by Hugo Vickers.  In it he states that it is widely believed that this book is largely autobiographical, with Fanny, the narrator, being Mitford.  I know nothing about Nancy Mitford save what he himself wrote in a quick biographical sketch, but based on this, I don't see it; she appears  to have lived much more of Linda's life than the solid, quiet life of Fanny.  Perhaps Mitford, as Fanny, was playing the omniscient observer of her own history, adding the ending she'd have preferred, over the one she ultimately got.  I suppose that's what Vickers meant, but if it was, he didn't make that clear.

 

By far my favorite of the two books, this is engaging writing, amusing reading, and offers readers a depth of insight that will stay with them without weighing them down.

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review 2018-01-19 07:44
Pomfret Towers
Pomfret Towers - Angela Thirkell

This is the 3rd Angela Thirkell I've read so far (and finished - I DNF'd one last year), and it is, by far, the most biting, painfully hilarious of the lot yet.  I say painfully because all those moments you wish would happen in books, when the evil/nasty/rude character is at work, happen in this book.  But I almost dnf'd this one too, because it doesn't start off well at all.

 

At the opening, it appears that the narrative (3rd person omniscient, btw) is going to focus primarily on Alice Barton, a character so Mary Sue that the Mary Sue trope should have been named Alice Barton.  She is ridiculous; frankly, she's barely functioning.  As I write this, it occurs to me that in current times, she might have been thought to be agoraphobic; she isn't, she's just terrified of everything beyond belief.  

 

Fortunately the biting humor was making me laugh or giggle too often, so I kept on and discovered the story rapidly becomes an ensemble, and even though Alice continues to get more page time than the rest, her growing confidence makes her a tiny bit more bearable.  Tiny bit.  Fair warning, by the end of the book she's still pretty ridiculous. 

 

But along the way, Thirkell does something interesting with Alice; something very unexpected from what I know of her Barsetshire books.  She uses Alice's character to sniff around the edges of masochism and emotional abuse.  Just the edges, mind you; events that would seem inconsequential or pathetic on their own start to add up to a disturbing pattern, and Thirkell writes a scene or two where her friends discuss her pattern of behaviour quite frankly.  This doesn't go anywhere, of course; this book's destiny was to be a frivolous, entertainment, so of course everything works out in the end.  But given the time it takes place (~1930), I found it to be an unexpected and interesting thread and raised the story's merit in my estimation.

 

The end was a tad trite, and could only be expected, but my rating stands because, man, this book was funny.

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review 2017-11-14 09:45
A Burnable Book
A Burnable Book - Bruce Holsinger

This book was both everything I love and everything I loathe about historical fiction. 

 

Everything I love includes characters pulled straight out of history: Chaucer, Gower, Richard the II, Hawkswood, and plots that involve books and codes and secret symbols.  

 

Everything I loathe is, ironically, everything that makes this a more or less accurate work of historical fiction.  Told from different points of view throughout the book, two of the perspectives are those of prostitutes and there's no sugar coating the language or the profession.  It's raw and graphic and just not what I enjoy reading no matter the setting or the time period.  There are also POVs from mercenaries and the acts they threaten to carry out and ultimately do carry out are disgustingly graphic and inhumane.  Verisimilitude can go too far for my tastes and does so here.

 

But, by far, the things I loved kept me glued to this book, even when the things I loathed would have me DNF it.  It was so well written, I wanted to know what was going to happen to John Gower, and Simon, and Millicent.  And of course, I wanted to know more about the Burnable Book.

 

So, if your tastes are more tolerant than mine, I highly recommend this book.  I'm not at all sorry I read it - it was a great story, I couldn't put down - even when it offended my delicate sensibilities.

 ;-)

 

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review 2017-08-21 03:58
The Foundling
The Foundling - Georgette Heyer

I don't really know what to say about this book.  The writing is superb; really just near perfect.  The dialog is crafted so well it just trips off the tongue, even though it's a speech pattern that's hardly common today.

 

And I genuinely liked Lord Sale and his cousin Gideon (him best of all, I think); I even didn't mind the pompous uncle and Tom was moderately amusing.  I should give Heyer a fourth star just for that story about the two donkeys, a horse and a cow.  But as for the rest... 

 

Lord Sale's staff were insufferable.  Heyer meant them to be, of course; that's a big point of the plot from the beginning, but she did her job so well it was tedious to endure the reading of it.

 

Liversedge was probably brilliant and towards the end even I thought the situation was hilarious, but the first half of the book his character was just smarmy.

 

But the character I save most of my ire for is Belinda.  It was coincidence that I was reading this book the same time I was reading Grey Mask by Patricia Wentworth, but it was also perhaps karma having a go at me:  I claimed nobody could be as stupid as Margot in Grey Mask and so the fates brought Belinda into my reading life.  Belinda makes Margot look like a genius; Belinda makes air look literate.  Belinda, in short, should have been institutionalised.  Nobody – nobody – could be that vacuous and still show signs of life.

 

If this book failed at all it was with Heyer's decision to make Belinda too stupid to be believed.  I could not be sympathetic to her story at any point because she was not even believable as an automaton.  And because she played such a huge part in the middle of the book, the story dragged dangerously midway through and at one point, I just didn't want to finish it.  Fortunately, the POV shifted to Gideon, and the story picked up pace considerably.  The last half of the book was great, in fact: even though Belinda got to let her stupid shine to the very end, there was a lot less of her and the story focused on the characters that were interesting - the sentient ones.

 

The moral of this story:  stupid people can ruin even the best story.

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