Review: The Sunne in Splendour

Sunne in Splendour, TheSharon Kay Penman, The Sunne in Splendour

When most people think of Richard III, they picture a hunchbacked villain who was obsessed with being king and who murdered the princes in the Tower as a result. But in this novel, the last Plantagenet king is portrayed in a very different light: Richard (or Dickon, as most characters call him) is noble and loyal to a fault, and these good traits are ultimately what cause his downfall. The novel begins with Dickon’s childhood, when his father, the Duke of York, is killed in the war against the Lancastrian Henry VI. Dickon’s oldest brother Edward subsequently takes his father’s place in leading the Yorkist faction against Henry; eventually, he is crowned as Edward IV, and Dickon becomes one of his most trusted advisers and most skilled battle commanders. But as Edward obtains more and more power, Dickon becomes disillusioned with his brother’s morally questionable choices, and the struggle of brother against brother mirrors the broader conflict between York and Lancaster.

As always, in this book Sharon Kay Penman manages to bring the Middle Ages to life. I always enjoy her vivid descriptions of daily life during this period, as well as her depictions of medieval religion, warfare, and politics. This book in particular is a fascinating political study, showing that the cutthroat nature of modern politics is rooted in a long tradition. I also like the fact that this novel approaches Richard III from a countercultural perspective. While I don’t know enough about the subject to judge whether Penman’s interpretation is justified, it makes sense to me that Henry Tudor (who acceded to the throne after Richard’s death) would want to do everything in his power to discredit his predecessor. It’s always important to remember that history is written by the victors! All in all, I heartily recommend this book to anyone who is interested in Richard III, the War of the Roses, or the Middle Ages in general.

Review: The Spanish Bride

Spanish Bride, TheGeorgette Heyer, The Spanish Bride

Brigade-Major Harry Smith is a Rifleman in Wellington’s army, fighting Napoleon’s forces in Spain and Portugal. He participates in the Siege of Badajos, a long and drawn-out battle that results in plunder, rape, and violence when the allied British and Portuguese soldiers finally conquer the town. As Harry tries to maintain order and discipline, he is approached by two Spanish women who are seeking protection from the carnage within the city. As soon as he lays eyes on the younger of the women, Juana, he falls instantly in love with her, and she with him. Against the advice of Harry’s comrades, they marry immediately, and Juana accompanies her husband throughout the rest of the Peninsular campaign. As she “follows the drum” and experiences life as a soldier, she demonstrates the courage and fiery temperament that make her a perfect match for Harry. Together, the Smiths witness history as they eventually see Napoleon’s final defeat at Waterloo.

I am a huge fan of Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances, but I found that I had to approach this book with entirely different expectations. Although the novel features two young, passionate lovers, it is much more about military history than it is about romance. Harry and Juana Smith were actual historical figures, and Heyer got most of her information from Harry’s journals, as well as from other comtemporary accounts including Wellington’s own dispatches. As a result, there is a lot of great historical detail in the book, but not a lot of plot or character development. While Harry and Juana are very vivid characters, their journey is not the focus of the book. I think the trick to enjoying The Spanish Bride is viewing it as a work of military history with a few romantic touches. If you approach it that way, you’ll find it very readable and entertaining. But if you go into it expecting a tale of romance and suspense with the Napoleonic Wars as a backdrop, you’ll find it extremely dull! So overall, I’d recommend this book if you’re interested in the time period, but you have to adjust your expectations.

Review: A Grave in Gaza

Grave in Gaza, AMatt Beynon Rees, A Grave in Gaza

Omar Yussef, a middle-aged teacher at a school in Bethlehem, is accompanying his boss Magnus Wallender on an inspection of the UN schools in Gaza, along with James Cree, another UN official. Almost as soon as they cross the border, however, they are confronted with injustice and violence: a professor who exposed corruption at his university has just been arrested and will likely be killed, unless Omar can prevent it from happening. Meanwhile, a lieutenant in a Palestinian military group has just been killed, and the presumed culprit is part of an arms-smuggling organization called the Saladin Brigade. But when Omar speaks to the alleged murderer, he begins to wonder whether the man is actually guilty. As Omar and his colleagues investigate these issues, they realize that the two crimes might be connected. At the same time, they are drawn deeper and deeper into a rivalry between military leaders who are fighting for control of Gaza; as a result, their own lives may be in danger.

As with The Collaborator of Bethlehem, the strength of this book is its depiction of life in contemporary Palestine. Rees uses his journalistic background to portray the conflicts, corruption, and political turmoil of this region in an extremely vivid way. At the same time, he illustrates the lives of ordinary Palestinians with great sympathy, showing how they try to do their best in very difficult circumstances. Read as a mystery novel, the story isn’t particularly compelling; although Omar Yussef does solve the lieutenant’s murder, that investigation is secondary to his discovery of how the various crimes and acts of violence are linked together. I liked learning a little more about Omar Yussef’s past in this installment of the series, as well as seeing more of his friendship with the Bethlehem police chief. There are also a few new characters that I’ll be interested to follow in future books. Overall, this is a book and series I’d highly recommend for its setting, and I will probably seek out the third Omar Yussef mystery at some point.

Review: Dreamers of the Day

Dreamers of the DayMary Doria Russell, Dreamers of the Day

This novel, set in the early 20th century, is narrated by Agnes Shanklin, a schoolteacher who has spent her entire life caring for her domineering mother. But when the influenza pandemic of 1918 carries off most of her family, including Mumma, Agnes finds herself unexpectedly inheriting a substantial sum of money. Though she is grieved by the multiple deaths in her family, she is also finally free from Mumma’s influence. Impulsively, she decides to see the world and books a trip to Egypt. There she meets several prominent British officers and diplomats, who are in Cairo to come to an agreement on Middle Eastern policy. Agnes is drawn into their social circle and mingles with the likes of Winston Churchill and Thomas Edward Lawrence, now famously known as “Lawrence of Arabia.” She also meets a German called Karl Weilbacher, who is handsome, kind, and attentive, but may not be all that he seems. Ultimately, the people Agnes meets and events she witnesses in Egypt will have a profound effect on the rest of her life.

After finally reading and loving Doc, I was eager to try another book by Mary Doria Russell. This one was very readable, and the insights into the Cairo Conference of 1921 were fascinating. It’s a historical event that still has obvious ramifications for our world today, covering issues such as a Jewish homeland in Palestine, the territorial boundaries of new nations like Iraq, and the amount of influence Western countries should continue to have in the Middle East. I enjoyed Russell’s depictions of real historical figures in this book, particularly Churchill, wo made me laugh even at his most exasperating. I didn’t like this novel nearly as much as Doc, however, mostly because I found it too preachy. Agnes is an extremely opinionated character, and due to a strange framing device in the novel, she narrates from a quasi-omniscient perspective. Because of this, she judges the events of her time from a 21st-century point of view, which I find very irritating in historical novels. And since Western involvement in the Middle East is still a very complex and controversial issue, I didn’t appreciate Agnes’ more simplistic perspective. But even though this aspect of the book rubbed me the wrong way, I think it’s still worth a read for people interested in the time period or in the creation of the modern Middle East.

Review: Devil’s Brood

Devil's BroodSharon Kay Penman, Devil’s Brood

Henry II, with the help of his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, has created one of the vastest empires known to Europe, and the time has come to parcel it out among his sons. As the oldest, Hal will succeed his father as king of England and will also rule over the French duchies of Normandy and Anjou. Richard, Eleanor’s favorite son, will inherit her lands as Duke of Aquitaine. Geoffrey will become Duke of Brittany through marriage to a prominent heiress. But even though all three boys have grown up, Henry still holds onto the reins of power, convinced that none of them are truly ready to rule in their own right. His sons’ lack of independence soon breeds resentment, and Henry is shocked by its consequence: with the help of their mother, they openly rebel against him. This novel is the story of the conflict between Henry and his sons, between Henry and Eleanor, and between the boys themselves, as their struggle for power leads to almost constant warfare throughout Europe.

I’ve been enjoying Penman’s Plantagenet series, and I think this is my favorite installment so far. It’s hard to believe that the major events in this novel actually happened…there’s just so much drama! I also found the portrayal of Henry and Eleanor’s (adult) sons to be fascinating. Geoffrey was my favorite, which will probably surprise any fans of “The Lion in Winter”; but based on Penman’s depiction, I think he would have made the best king. Sure, he was self-serving and manipulative, but so was everyone else in the book! At least he had a good strategic mind with an ability to make long-term plans, and he managed to win over the Breton nobles so that he could rule Brittany competently. The overarching conflict between Henry and his sons was both sad and frustrating. It seemed to come down to a total lack of communication skills and an inability to see the other side’s point of view. (Hmm, sounds familiar….) I’m glad I finally read this book, and I look forward to reading Lionheart in the future.

Review: The Collaborator of Bethlehem

The Collaborator of BethlehemMatt Beynon Rees, The Collaborator of Bethlehem

Omar Yussef, a teacher at the Dehaisha refugee camp in Bethlehem, is a fussy, polite, middle-aged man with a combover. He’s the last person anyone would ever expect to make trouble, especially in the politically charged atmosphere of Bethlehem, where one wrong step (literally or figuratively) could place him and his family in lethal danger. But when a prominent Palestinian freedom fighter (or terrorist, depending on whom you ask) is shot just outside his own home, Omar can’t help getting involved — especially when his friend George Saba, a Christian and therefore a convenient scapegoat, is arrested for the killing. Omar knows that George is innocent and even finds evidence proving that he could not have committed the crime. But Omar’s friend the police chief is unwilling to investigate the matter further, since clearing George’s name would anger the militant Palestinians who champion the dead man as a martyr. So Omar resolves to investigate on his own; but the more he digs into the events surrounding the murder, the more he risks his own life.

I don’t know if I can say I liked this book…it’s very dark and very serious, and “liking” doesn’t seem like an appropriate response to it. But I’m extremely glad I read this novel, because it introduced me to a setting and a conflict that I honestly know very little about. The book does a wonderful job of depicting everyday life in Bethlehem, where the threat of violence is omnipresent and where the voices of extremism are much louder than the voices of moderation and peace. I really appreciated that the book does not paint either Israelis or Palestinians as the “bad guys,” but rather focuses on the struggles of individual people to do the right thing (or not) in a terrible situation. This novel is technically a murder mystery, but I found the detective work to be the least interesting part of the story. The urgency of the plot comes not from the hunt for the killer, but from Omar’s race against time to save his friend George. Overall, I found this book a fascinating read and will probably seek out more mysteries featuring Omar Yussef.

Review: The Winter of Her Discontent

The Winter of Her DiscontentRosie Winter and her best pal Jayne are struggling actresses trying to make it in New York City in the middle of World War II. But between the recent murder of Paulette, a fellow actress who lived in their boardinghouse, and their mobster friend Al’s confession that he did the deed, Rosie and Jayne aren’t exactly focused on chasing their dreams of fame. Rosie is convinced that Al’s innocent, so she gets herself cast in the show that Paulette was starring in before she died. She soon learns that the show seems plagued by bad luck: dancers slip and injure themselves, actresses are hit by cars, and even Rosie’s nemesis Ruby suddenly falls ill. As Rosie investigates Paulette’s murder and tries to find out what’s behind all the “accidents,” she eventually discovers a lot more than she bargained for — all while trying to survive rationing, blackouts, and not knowing whether her ex-boyfriend Jack is dead or alive.

I really liked the first book in this series, The War Against Miss Winter, so I immediately set out to acquire the rest of them! This is book 2, and it largely met my expectations, though I don’t think it’s quite as good as book 1. I enjoy Rosie’s blunt voice, which is littered with 1940s slang, and I think that both she and her best friend Jayne are very interesting characters. The mystery aspect of this book is definitely secondary to the character development and the WWII setting, but I thought it was rather clever. I also liked the showbiz setting of much of the novel, but obviously that won’t be appealing to everyone. At this point, I’m curious to see what’s next for Rosie, especially in her romantic relationships. She’s still carrying a torch for Jack and trying to find out where he is, but it’s a little hard for me to be invested since Jack hasn’t been “on page” yet. I’m also intrigued to follow her career, since it seems she’s bound for the South Pacific with the USO in book 3. I’m looking forward to continuing with Rosie’s adventures!

Review: The Passing Bells

The Passing BellsPhillip Rock, The Passing Bells

In the summer of 1914, the aristocratic Grevilles of Abingdon Pryory are relatively carefree, except for the usual problems of their class: son and heir Charles is in love with an unsuitable woman, daughter Alexandra is about to begin her first London Season, and brash American cousin Martin Rilke is visiting from Chicago. So when a duke in faraway Austria is assassinated by a Serbian revolutionary, neither the Grevilles nor their friends believe that the event will have any effect on them. Yet as the conflict escalates into a full-scale war, the Grevilles’ lives are changed forever as Charles joins the army and Alexandra volunteers as a nurse. This novel follows several characters, from Lord Greville down to housemaid Ivy Thaxton, as they experience the shock and horror of World War I.

“Downton Abbey” fan that I am, I couldn’t resist this historical novel about WWI. I was very impressed by the way historical information was embedded into the narrative; while there are a few infodumps, they’re largely unobtrusive. For example, the American cousin is a newspaper man trying to do a story about the war, but his fellow journalists have to explain the background of the European conflict to him. I also liked that the book follows a variety of characters with different perspectives on the war. The young people are enthusiastic and overflowing with patriotism at first, but most of them are quickly disillusioned. Senior military officers berate the stupidity that lost so many lives needlessly at the Somme. The women experience the pain of losing their loved ones, but they also find new and useful work that gives their lives a new direction. All that said, I never became fully gripped by the story; because the novel is so focused on the war, it somewhat neglects character development and relationships. Overall, this is a solid historical fiction novel, and I’d recommend it to fans of the period, but I didn’t love it.

Review: Blackout / All Clear

Blackout by Connie WillisConnie Willis, Blackout and All Clear

In the year 2060, time travel is not only possible, but it’s the preferred method of historical research. Instead of digging through old records to get a sense of a particular time period, why not just go there in person and see for yourself? Mike, Polly, and Eileen are three such historians who have all been assigned to World War II. Mike is going to Dover, where he’ll pose as a journalist and interview the heroes of the evacuation of Dunkirk. Polly will be a London shopgirl in the midst of the Blitz, and Eileen will be observing evacuees in the English countryside. Soon after they arrive at their assignments, however, things begin to go wrong. Minor discrepancies in the historical record start showing up — which ought to be impossible, because everyone knows that historians can’t affect the outcome of events. Then all three of their “drops” (the portals through which they can return to their own time) mysteriously close, leaving them stranded in World War II. As Mike, Polly, and Eileen try every possible method of reopening the drops, they’re forced to conclude that they might be trapped in the wrong time forever.

All Clear by Connie WillisAlthough Blackout and All Clear were published in two volumes, they’re really just one novel, so I’m reviewing them together. My overall feeling about this book is one of awe. This was obviously a labor of love for Connie Willis, and it is truly epic in scope. The time period is meticulously researched, and I really felt like I was there in World War II, seeing how ordinary people reacted to the war and especially to the Blitz. That said, the book is extremely long (over 1,000 pages if you count both volumes), and it probably could have been trimmed substantially. Additionally, there were several confusing plot threads that jumped between different characters and different time periods. These were all resolved by the end of the book, but it made the reading experience a bit difficult at times. On the other hand, there were so many little diversions that I loved — the allusions to Shakespeare and Agatha Christie, for example, as well as the segment where every character was named after someone in The Importance of Being Earnest. So I have mixed feelings about this novel, but overall I have a lot of respect for what Willis accomplished here. Definitely recommended for people interested in  WWII!

Review: The Girl Who Played Go

Shan Sa, The Girl Who Played Go (trans. Adriana Hunter)

This novel is set in a place and time that I have very little knowledge of, Manchuria in the 1930s. The two narrators are a Chinese schoolgirl whose passion for the game of go makes her unique and a Japanese soldier who has come to China with Japan’s invading army. The soldier muses on the nature of war and his victorious country’s relationship with the conquered Chinese. The girl, on the other hand, is more concerned with her widening romantic experience and the problems of daily life. But when the two characters meet over a game of go, the consequences will be far-reaching and devastating for them both.

What I liked most about this book is that it opened a window for me into another culture and way of life. I mistakenly thought the book would be more about Japan’s military movements in World War II, but instead it deals with an earlier conflict that I knew nothing about. But while the setting was unique, the problems the soldier faces in this book are universal: What is courage? What are the possible justifications, if any, for waging war? What are the circumstances under which a soldier can or should disobey orders? I found the soldier a more compelling character overall than the Chinese girl. She’s very shallow and frivolous for much of the novel, and while she does eventually change, it happened too late for me to care much about her. I also didn’t feel the emotional impact of the ending the way I think I was supposed to. Overall, I enjoyed this novel, but I wouldn’t race to pick up another book by this author.