Saturday, July 27, 2013

Heresy by S. J. Parris

Heresy (Giordano Bruno, #1)Heresy by S.J. Parris
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Heresy is a historical novel that follows a period in the life of Giordano Bruno, an ex-monk who has developed a reputation as a philosopher and gained status through his relationship with King Henri III of France. This book covers a time he spent at Oxford in England. He's been brought to the university to debate with the head of the school, Rector Underhill. But while Bruno is at Oxford a number of brutal murders occur and he is recruited by Underhill to look into the crimes.

The book is interesting because it covers the period in English history after the Church of England separated from the Roman Catholic Church, but does not look at that time through the point of view of the monarchy. Instead it focuses on how the conflict between the two churches affects the students and faculty at Oxford. There's violence, deception, and quite a few compromised values.

The problem with putting historical characters in a fictional environment is that the author has to develop personalities for the characters while remaining true to the real people. In this case, the characters suffer because they lack strong emotions. Everyone in the book, with the exception of Bruno and his well-connected friend, Philip Sydney, seems to be one dimensional and self-serving. This was a time when people believed that choosing the wrong side would be the same as denying God. Yet there was little passion shown in their choices. The rector has a beautiful daughter named Sophia whom everyone wants to protect, but the only romantic relationship is talked about rather than shown and also lacks passion.

The decisions the characters make often seem abrupt and without rationalization. There's a gate keeper who helps Bruno without any explanation as to why he's decided to trust a stranger over the people he knows and works for. And Rector Underhill's decision to ask Bruno to investigate the crimes also seems out of the blue.

Yet, despite the issues I mentioned, I enjoyed the novel. The subject matter is fascinating and the mystery works well. It's a good read for people who enjoy historical fiction.

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Sunday, July 21, 2013

A Clash of Kings by George R. R. Martin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
A Clash of Kings is the second book in the A Song of Ice and Fire series that began with A Game of Thrones. The book has a number of interrelated plots that follow various characters. It takes awhile to get going, but once it does there's plenty of excitement.

I found the story line around Arya (A ten year old tomboy who uses the innocence of her age to her advantage.), Theon (The son of a lord who was kept and raised by another lord and now is trying to prove his loyalty.), and Tyrion (A dwarf who realizes he needs to out-think others for his victories, but also demonstrates great bravery) to be the most interesting. The chapters covering Davos (A former smuggler who now fights for one of the brothers of the dead king.) and Daenerys (The last in the line of the family that once ruled the seven kingdoms, who dreams of winning back that throne for her heirs) also had some great moments. But I was disappointed in the plots covering Jon (A soldier who has sworn to spend his life protecting the seven kingdoms from the evil creatures in the north.), Sansa (The more traditional sister of Arya, who counted on the men in her life and has been disappointed.), and Catelyn (The mother of, among others, the current Lord of the North, Arya, and Sansa and who travels around the kingdoms trying to work for peace while protecting her family.).

These complex stories refer to each other and will probably come together eventually, but they didn't in this book. This is my principle complaint, A Clash of Kings doesn't resolve any plot lines. Instead it adds more. For some readers this is unimportant. But, although some lingering plot lines can draw the readers back, each book in a series should have its own beginning, middle and end. A Clash of Kings doesn't stand well on its own.

The world George R. R. Martin has created is a mixture of dark magical creatures with flawed humans in a setting that could pass for England during the time of King Arthur. His attention to detail is unsurpassed and all his characters have unique, fully developed personalities. I could feel what every character felt and understand all their actions, whether selfish, kind, or a mixture of both.

I've started the HBO series Game of Thrones, but I'm only halfway through the first season. I want to read before I watch, although I do think the series is exciting and faithful to the book.

Although I had some issues with this book and don't believe it is as good as the first book in the series, I'm still rating it with five stars. Because what is great about it far exceeds the few problems.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Ethan Frome is a book I should have read years ago. Since I didn't, I had an opportunity to look at a classic with fresh eyes and I enjoyed it. The Age of Innocence is the only other Edith Wharton book I've read. Both are extremely well written. Ethan Frome was published in 1911.

Ethan Frome is structured as a tale told by a man who has been sent into Starkfield, Massachusetts to supervise work on a “power-house,” but he has been stuck in town longer than he expected due to a carpenters' strike. There's a powerful winter storm in the area and Ethan Frome is recommended as someone who has a horse drawn sleigh and can take the narrator to the home where he's been staying for a small price. When the storm becomes too much for travel, Ethan invites the man to stay overnight at his farm. This is where the narrator learns enough about him to tell his story.

Years earlier, Ethan lived with two women, his wife, Zeena and her younger cousin, Mattie. Mattie had fallen on hard times. Her father had died leaving almost no money for his family. Mattie's mother was not capable of supporting herself and her daughter. She died from the stress, leaving Mattie alone. Zeena took her cousin in because Mattie had nowhere else to go and because Mattie was cheap labor. She cooked and cleaned for room and board. She also took an interest in Ethan.

The novel concentrates on the relationship between Ethan and Mattie, but his relationship with his wife is more important. He's attracted to Mattie because she's young, pretty, and vivacious, but also because Zeena is the opposite. Zeena seems to feel she's been let down by her husband's inability to make more than a substance living and responds to her situation by constantly complaining about her health. While she seems to be reaching for attention from Ethan, her hypochondria and controlling personality push Ethan toward Mattie.

Good novels get into the heads of the characters. Edith Wharton is excellent at letting her readers feel by concentrating on the little things.

He had always been more sensitive than the people about him to the appeal of natural beauty. His unfinished studies had given form to this sensibility and even in his unhappiest moments field and sky spoke to him with a deep and powerful persuasion. But hitherto the emotion had remained in him as a silent ache, veiling with sadness the beauty that evoked it. He did not even know whether any one else in the world felt as he did, or whether he was the sole victim of this mournful privilege. Then he learned that one other spirit had trembled with the same touch of wonder: that at his side, living under his roof and eating his bread, was a creature to whom he could say: “That's Orion down yonder the big fellow to the right is Aldebaran, and the bunch of little ones – like bees swarming – they're the Pleiades...”

Anyone who hasn't read this novel, should give it a try. It's a beautifully written experience.