Not What it Should (or Could) Be

Review #8

Book: The Emperor’s Conspiracy by Michelle Diener

Audience: G-U

Genre: Fiction

Rating: bookbook

I usually have good luck with the nonfiction titles I choose to read. Likely because they are of a topic that interests me, even if something falls flat in the delivery. Fiction, however, is always a crap shoot. Last week the odds were on my side and I ended up with a pearl. This week, the odds went against me and all I have is a lump of wet sand.

Charlotte Raven begins life as the illegitimate offspring of a prostitute’s daughter, spends a part of her childhood as  a chimney sweep living on the streets, and ends up a lady—thanks to an actual lady who took pity on the young girl and made Charlotte her ward. Charlotte keeps in touch with the crime lord she befriended during her street days, and eventually her past and present collide in the midst of a government investigation into gold bullion smuggled out of England.

Yeah.

Oh, and she meets and falls for Edward Durnham, brother of friend, who just happens to be in the employ of the Crown, trying to determine who is involved in the gold smuggling.

Yeah, right.

Where to start? The premise is absurd, the language anachronistic, and the characters flat and unlikeable. The conspiracy of title doesn’t figure into the plot until a good half-way through the story. The reliance on coincidence is great, and the resolution incomplete and unsatisfactory. Yet with all that, my biggest objection is to the author’s disrespect for the genre.

I tend to be an historical fiction kind of girl. As such, I believe that a writer needs to realistically represent the time in history about which she is writing. Historical fiction demands that the author conduct research in order to accurately portray the time period. I can’t find too much evidence that Miss Diener did that. Characters speak with modern speech patterns and vocabulary. The society characters are more familiar with each other than was common during the Napoleonic wars. Yes, perhaps the conspiracy to steal British gold did exist, but it seems that Miss Diener took that event and set it in an England of an indescribable time and let her characters speak and behave without regard to conventions of the actual time period. That just does not sit well with me.

So why, then, does this book get a 2 rating rather than a 1? Sadly, for what it is not rather than what it is. Edward Durnham could have easily been a prototype for Jane Eyre’s Edward Rochester (dark, brooding, melancholic, and thug-like), but he is not. This book could have easily been a trashy romance (raspy, moaning voices; domineering hero and virginal heroine; suggestive language and innuendo), but it is not. So for restraining herself from turning a bad historical romance to an even worse historical romance novel, Miss Diener merits herself a 2-book rating.

High Society

Review #7

Book: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

Audience: G-U

Genre: Fiction

Rating: bookbookbookbookbook

A colleague, knowing my love of books and history, lent me this book to read. I’ve had little success with recommendations from others, so I approached this novel with some initial trepidation. That vanished within the first five pages.

Juliet Ashton, on a tour promoting her first book (a collection of her newspaper columns printed during the war) corresponds with her publisher and his sister, both very dear friends. Upon her return to London, she finds a letter from a gentleman called Dawsey Adams living on Guernsey—turns out he bought a book by Charles Lamb she donated some time before, and he wants her help in finding a London bookseller so he can acquire more of Lamb’s work. Juliet and Dawsey begin a correspondence that introduces her to the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, a group of Dawsey’s friends formed in desperation to evade punishment during the German occupation of the island. Juliet’s correspondence soon includes the entire society as she learns what life was like for them under German rule and wonders (with the rest of the society) what fate will befall the founder and key member of the society, Elizabeth McKenna, whom the Germans set to prison on the continent.

Juliet is charmed by and eventually falls in love with the society, as did I. They are an eclectic group of people; some prosperous, some educated, some creative, some eccentric. They are united by their love of books and reading (a love not all shared at the beginning), their struggles with isolation and deprivation under the repressive German occupation, and their intense admiration of and loyalty to their captured founder and her daughter.

I tend to have a love/hate relationship with epistolary novels—I love the style, but the letter-writers often recall events and entire conversations with far too much clarity and detail for reality. Not so here. The letters are relatively brief and read like actual correspondence. How refreshing.

I will admit there were few surprises in the actual plot. I had strong suspicions (which proved correct) about the destinations of multiple subplots, but the journeys to those destinations were anything but predictable. However, for a character-driven reader, such as myself, this book was a feast of fat leavings. I identified strongly with Juliet and enjoyed every member of the society, their detractors, and the other ancillary people in her life—even the ones I didn’t like.

So thank you, LK, for the loan of this book. I truly enjoyed my time spent with the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and only wish that I could become a member.

Hail to the Chief

Review #6

Book: 1776 by David McCullough

Audience: G-U

Genre: Nonfiction

Rating: bookbookbookbook

Much acclaimed American historian David McCullough has this time set his sights on what he seems to consider the most important year of the American Revolution, and not for the obvious reason. In fact, McCullough touches only briefly on the events in Philadelphia that summer. This book, instead, concentrates on the military exploits, particularly those involving the American commander-in-chief, General George Washington.

In extremely readable prose, especially coming from such a detail-oriented historian, McCullough chronicles Washington’s triumphs and failures, exposing his strengths and weaknesses, his brilliance and his errors in judgment. McCullough provides extensive information on Washington’s own background as well as on the backgrounds of his enemies (Cornwallis and the brothers Howe) and confidantes (Generals Knox and Greene). Using an incredible number of primary sources, McCullough paints what has to be an accurate picture of the strategies that went into each campaign, the battle scenes, and the resulting gains and losses.

My only caveat for this book is what comes across as strong author bias. It seems clear to me that McCullough is a devoted admirer of George Washington. Takes one to know one, I suppose, since I have long greatly esteemed the man myself. And while, as mentioned before, McCullough takes pains to include Washington’s shortcomings as well as his talents, they almost read as red herrings—things McCullough included to show the reader that he is not biased toward Washington.

All histories have a slant; the author’s point of view, if you will. This should come across only in what the author chooses to include or omit in the work. Historical works should present the facts discovered and allow the reader to draw her own conclusions. A great history does this by depicting multiple and opposing aspects, perceptions, and events while taking the high road in bestowing personal judgments. In adding his personal opinion of General Washington, McCullough takes 1776 from a great history to merely a good one.

Oh Jane, Where Art Thou?

Review #5

Book: Jane Austen’s England by Roy and Leslie Adkins

Audience: G-U

Genre: Nonfiction

Rating: book

 

Can you believe it? Me, giving something with the name Jane Austen in it only a one-book rating? Me, who reads Austen novels in an endless loop? Me, who is planning a second trip to England for a new Jane Austen pilgrimage? Me, a lifetime member of the Jane Austen Society?

Yes, me. For precicely all the reasons above.

I admit it—I was hoodwinked. I saw Jane Austen in the title, read the blurb, and thought that this was a book I must have. I bought it and would love my money back.

I believed that I was buying a book about what England was like during Jane Austen’s lifetime. And indeed, that part turned out to be true. Silly me, though, because I also expected that when describing what England was like the authors would naturally quote from Miss Austen’s books or her voluminous personal correspondence. Not so much.

Yes, there are references from Miss Austen’s novels and letters, but the authors relied far more on the writings of Miss Austen’s contemporaries such as Nelly Weeton, John Byng, and the reverends James Woodforde and William Holland—none of which even knew Miss Austen. Who the heck are they, anyway? The book itself paints a vivid portrait of life in Georgian England, is organized well, extensively researched, and easy to read. But information as to how Jane Austen and her works themselves fit into this English portrait is scant. A better title for this book might simply have been Everything You Wanted (and Perhaps Didn’t Want) to Know about England: 1775-1817.

I learned more about Miss Austen and her England from Deirdre LeFaye’s Jane Austen: The World of her Novels and Dr. Joan Klingel Ray’s Jane Austen for Dummies. Guess I was the dummy this time.

Cookies Still Crumble

Review #4

Book: Like Pickle Juice on a Cookie by Julie Sternberg

Audience: C

Genre: Realistic Fiction

Rating:bookbookbook

In August, Eleanor experiences something as bad as pickle juice on a cookie—her beloved babysitter Bibi must leave in order to take care of her sick father in Florida. For the rest of her summer vacation, Eleanor must deal with sadness, anger, and loneliness, as well as the unexpected happiness of meeting and making new friends, just in time for the new school year.  Sternberg’s short novel, told in free verse, is best suited for beginning chapter book readers. While capturing Eleanor’s emotions well, there’s nothing here that hasn’t been done before.