Tag Archives: Reviews

Arthur and George

Written by Julian Barnes

Published by Knopf

400 pages

Review by Shirley Corwin Easer

 

We are all familiar with the tales of Sherlock Holmes, the greatest fictional detective ever created. Yet the man who created him, Arthur Conan Doyle, was in many ways himself more fascinating and eccentric than his character. Who was Arthur Conan Doyle? How did he come to write Sherlock Holmes? What was his interest in spiritualism? And what role did he play in the case concerning George Edalji, a British-born son of a Parsi father and a Scottish mother? Through elegant narration told from both Doyle’s and Edalji’s point of view, Julian Barnes crafts a novel that shows how these two very different men become intertwined in each other’s lives.

Barnes uses perfectly tempered parallel narration to reveal Arthur and George as they grow from young boys into successful men. Arthur becomes a doctor who cannot deny his love of romantic adventure and becomes, with his creation of Sherlock Holmes, one of the most famous authors in Britain. George is a friendless outsider who must overcome severely limited eyesight and prejudice because of his dark skin to become a solicitor. George becomes the victim of a cruel scheme where he is accused of sending threatening messages to his own family and mutilating farm animals and he is convicted without evidence and sentenced to prison. Upon hearing of the miscarriage of justice, Arthur takes up the cause of George Edalji by advocating on George’s behalf, and, in Holmesian fashion, he sets out to solve the mystery. This is the story of the outsider, George Edalji, and the ultimate insider, Arthur Conan Doyle, a gentleman’s gentleman, and how they will affect each other ever after.

Barnes has crafted a novel based on believable characters (just because one’s novel is based on fact doesn’t mean the characters are believable) and tightly woven narrative threads that keep stringing the reader along. There are many ironies in this story. For example, society has labeled George Edalji an outcast because of his father’s Parsi heritage, yet George’s father is a stern vicar in the Church of England and George himself believes in Britain’s laws more strongly than anyone; George himself is more British than anyone. Arthur Conan Doyle, the epitome of success, struggles internally with guilt after his wife dies because he loves another woman. The themes of love and honor also tie into this tale.

Fans of Julian Barnes will rejoice in this novel. If you have not read Barnes before then you are in for a rare treat. A master of storytelling, Barnes’ prose reads with the rhythm of a metronome—precise and perfect and altogether priceless.

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Shirley Corwin Easer is a professor and author from Boston, Massachusetts. She has had many stories, articles, and reviews published in journals seen internationally. She is currently writing her second historical novel.

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Beatrice’s Spell

Written by Belinda Jack

237 pages

Published by Other Press

Review by Martina S. Jones

 

Beatrice’s Spell is not an historical novel; in fact, it is not even a work of fiction, but I was fascinated by its premise. Beatrice’s Spell is a non-fiction book by Belinda Jack that wants to illuminate readers about the story of Beatrice Cenci, a 16 year-old girl who is executed under Papal decree in the year 1599 for the murder of her father. It is said that Beatrice’s father was brutal and cruel and raped his daughter, and it was a desire for revenge that brought beautiful young Beatrice to kill him. Beatrice, her mother, and her brother all suffered torture and execution in that brutally violent way that only the Romans could conjure, and thus began her leap into the imagination of history. Artists and authors through the centuries have been fascinated by Beatrice’s story, and Belinda Jack’s aim is to enlighten readers about how Beatrice Cenci has influenced some of the greatest minds in history.

Jack begins her story with Beatrice’s story—her execution, the trial, and the circumstances that brought her to want to kill her father. This part of the book is fascinating as we go in-depth into the world of Papal-driven Rome, a patriarchal world where man is lord and women property. I was not familiar with the story of Beatrice Cenci prior to reading this book, and I found myself amazed and deeply affected by her trials and tortures. As I was reading these first chapters I understood why Beatrice has influenced so many artists and thinkers. Who would not be touched by her story?

When Jack begins to examine those great minds that have been influenced by Beatrice the book loses power. Jack describes Beatrice’s effect on such eminent names as Shelley, Melville, Hawthorne, Harriet Hosmer, Antonin Artaud, even briefly Charles Dickens when he comments on the portrait of Beatrice he saw in Rome, and those moments are fascinating insight into how the story of a sad, abused girl has resonated through the centuries. But Jack spends too much time giving biographical information about the authors themselves and I found that distracting and unnecessary. I was not reading this book for biographical information about Shelley or Hawthorne—I was reading for information about Beatrice and her influence on art and literature.

For an introduction to the story of Beatrice Cenci and an introduction to the great minds she influenced, this book is a good starting place, though you will need to go elsewhere for more in-depth analysis. This book did pique my interest in the story of Beatrice Cenci, and perhaps that was all it set out to do.

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Martina S. Jones is a Ph.D. candidate in literature at UCLA. She has had articles and stories published in journals seen internationally, and she is currently working on her first historical novel set during 19th century New England.

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Abraham, the Dreamer

Written by Rolf Gompertz

260 pages

Published by iUniverse

Review by Carolyn Howard-Johnson

 

Anyone who has ever been bothered—morally or ethically—by some of the events in the Bible may want to read Abraham, the Dreamer. Rolf Gompertz manages to examine the questions we have all felt when reading the story of Abraham and the near sacrifice of his son, Isaac.

Gompertz uses time-honored midrash—the telling or retelling of a legend—to achieve that end. He has examined the story of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, and their sons, Isaac and Ishmael, as it is told in the Bible. Then he has studied interpretations by Biblical philosophers, psychologists and other experts, and so given the ancient story new life, new meaning without losing any of its authentic qualities.

As Gompertz examines the possible motivations for the actions of the characters, the Biblical tale comes to life for even a casual reader looking for a good read. After all, as Gompertz says, his “primary concern is to shed light on the human condition.”

This biblical novel offers an intriguing, unconventional, and daring interpretation of the life of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar, the “First Family” of Jews, Christians and Muslims. The biblical text tells us little about Sarah, but Gompertz’s version boldly suggests that Abraham’s wife is a high priestess serving Inanna, the Sumerian goddess of War and Love. Sarah, who has become pregnant when her religious order forbids that, orders the child killed. Abraham revolts against this practice and, in that moment, hears the call of a new, singular, unseen God who tells him to go forth to a new and different land. Ironically, he is also told that he will become the father of a multitude.

Later, Sara feels alienated from her husband—spiritually, emotionally, and physically. In desperation, she offers Abraham her handmaid, Hagar. It is her hope that they could have the child that had been denied to her. When she does so, she is unaware of the attraction that has already developed between her husband and the lovely young girl who is part of their household. It is a matter of Biblical record that Hagar gives birth to Ishmael. When the jealous Sarah gives birth unexpectedly to Isaac, she breaks up the idyllic relationship between Abraham and Hagar, driving Abraham’s “other love” and her son, Ishmael, away forever.

Abraham has his difficulties trying to understand the will of his new God. In his despair over losing Hagar, he falls back on pagan sacrificial practices, and he proceeds to sacrifice Isaac, believing that this is what his new God has asked of him.

Ultimately, Abraham, the Dreamer asks the difficult question: How can we ever know the will of God with certainty? In the final showdown between Abraham and Sarah, the author offers a surprising and startling answer to this question.

It should be noted that this Jewish author uses explicit language in his effort to meld the meanings of spiritual and physical love and how those relate to one’s life of worship. I appreciated that, and though it was explicit, I never found it offensive.

I also found that reading about these people in the context of a love triangle made me look at many Biblical stories in a different light. The time, the place, the culture, and the evolution of religion all influence the thoughts and actions of people, then, now and forever. We ought not forget that.

For Bible scholars the bibliography alone will be worth the price of the book.


Carolyn Howard-Johnson is the author of This is the Place, an award-winning novel about a young journalist who writes her way through repression into redemption. For a free first chapter, send an e-mail. For a free Cooking by the Book, or to learn more about Carolyn Howard-Johnson, visit her online. She is also the author of “Harkening: A Collection of Stories Remembered.”

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Ahab’s Wife

Written by Sena Jeter Naslund

668 pages

Published by Perennial Press

Review by Martina S. Jones

 

I had Ahab’s Wife on my shelf for some time. I picked it up months ago and read about 100 pages but it didn’t enthrall me. My book club had picked it at the suggestion of a member who couldn’t stop raving about it and so I dutifully went to Barnes and Noble and bought myself a copy. I liked the premise, that this was the story of Captain Ahab’s wife who was mentioned so briefly in Melville’s classic Moby Dick. I like that women are now reappropriating great moments in time, whether those moments be literary, biblical, or historical, and showing that women were present then and important. I began reading Ahab’s Wife, but honestly I wasn’t enraptured. Aside from a great opening line, “Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last,” I found Naslund’s prose wordy and her premises odd, and then my doctor scheduled knee surgery for me during the week when my book club met so I had a good excuse to put the book away. About a month ago I was wandering the house looking for something to read when I saw Ahab’s Wife still sitting on my shelf so I decided to give it another chance.

Upon a second reading and moving past the first 100 pages I found that the novel had more promise than I originally granted it. Naslund’s prose took on more of a 19th century feel with its vivid descriptions and intricate sentences. This novel wants to be seen on an epic scale and desires to include every detail. Though Una Spenser is Captain Ahab’s wife, Naslund begs us repeatedly to understand that she is so much more. Naslund has stretched far to create a multi-dimensional character who is intelligent and adventurous and ahead of her time in terms of her actions and beliefs.

There are still some elements of the novel that stretch thin for me. Naslund’s story of how Una meets Captain Ahab seems contrived. As often as I remind myself that this is a novel, a made-up story of pretend, I cannot convince myself that Una would have ever been able to successfully disguise herself as a boy and go to sea on a whaler. Yes, this is how she ultimately meets and marries Ahab. The details of how Una conducted herself on the ship seem a little odd as well. Margaret Fuller and Nathaniel Hawthorne both make appearances in Una’s world, which seem out of place when compared to the pace and flow of the rest of the story. And Una’s philosophical meanderings grow tiresome after awhile.

As I’ve talked to others who have read this novel, some absolutely adore it and can dismiss the oddities with a suspension of disbelief that is required when reading fiction. I enjoyed the book for what it was, an interesting “what if” about a character briefly mentioned in one of the finest novels ever written.

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Martina S. Jones is a Ph.D. candidate in literature at UCLA. She has had articles and stories published in journals seen internationally, and she is currently working on her first historical novel set during 19th century New England.

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A Penny Always Has Two Sides

Written by Steffie Steinke

306 pages

Published by Inkwater Press

Review by Brenda M. Marsh

 

The subtitle of this book is “A Memoir of Growing Up in Wartime Germany,” and that is what makes Steinke’s book fascinating. Though she had a difficult upbringing with her mother, Steinke became close with her foster mother, Frau Pech, and that unconditional love guided her through her life. Born in 1936, a time of great change in Germany, Steinke witnessed many wartime atrocities, primarily at the hands of the Russian occupiers. This is a part of the World War II story that is not often shared. Another part of the story that Steinke shares, having witnessed it first hand, is the violence taken out on innocent German civilians as revenge for the actions of the Nazis. It is a good thing that Steinke decided to tell her story. The more people who bear witness to such acts, the more we can ensure they will not happen again.

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Brenda M. Marsh lives in San Francisco, California where she is working on publishing her first short story collection. She lives with her husband, son, and three dogs.

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Play These Games

Written by Heather Swain

Published by Perigee

236 pages

Review by Paula Day

Remember the days when kids used to play games? Run around outside and play tag or hide and seek? I love technology as much as the next person, but it’s a little sad sometimes seeing kids as young as three or four more interested in their electronic gadgets than actual people.

Never fear. Heather Swain, a former third grade teacher and mother of two, has found 101 activities for kids using simple items found around the house. From bean bags to treasure boxes, from cup ball to Go Fish, these activities are a great way for parents and kids to spend quality time together. If it’s a rainy day, or if you just want to get your kids away from their video games for a while, you’ll enjoy skimming through this book to find something fun to do together. I’m hanging onto this book because I know the activities inside will come in handy.

Obviously, the audience for this book is very specific. Parents with younger children will find Play These Games $14 well spent. But if you’re an aunt or an uncle of young children, or even grandparents or babysitters, you’ll want to get your hands on a copy of this book for all of the hours of entertainment and enjoyment it will provide.

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Paula Day is the Review Editor of The Copperfield Review and the Managing Editor of Copperfield Press. She lives in Los Angeles, California.

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The Hunger Angel

Written by Herta Muller

Published by Metropolitan Books

304 pages

Review by Paula Day

I am embarrassed to say that I had not read anything from Nobel laureate Herta Muller before receiving this book to review. Now that I am familiar with her poetic, haunted style, I will be seeking more of her work.

In The Hunger Angel, Muller’s first novel since winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2009, we met Leo, a young Romanian poet shipped to a Soviet labor camp in 1945. He works for five years in the camp, and he cannot escape the constant heavy labor and the constant hunger that aches him to distraction. Through Leo’s poetic eyes, even a bag of cement becomes the stuff of poetry. Because of his hunger, his life in the camp takes on a hallucinatory quality that adds a haunting sense to the already difficult life Leo is forced to lead. Through this story, we watch the desensitization of a human being, because this is what happens when people are forced to live in such a traumatic way.

Muller is a descriptive writer, and this translation is especially well done. There isn’t the hard, choppy language we see in other translations. This is smooth and poetic and real. I’m always thrilled to read historical fiction that enlightens me about periods in time I wasn’t familiar with, and The Hunger Angel has done that. I was not at all familiar with the Soviet labor camps. It is always important that we remember these times so we can learn from them.

I am very happy to now be introduced to Herta Muller’s poetic prose. I’m looking forward to future work from her.

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Paula Day is the Review Editor for The Copperfield Review and the Managing Editor of Copperfield Press. She lives in Los Angeles, California.

 

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Empress of the Seven Hills

Written by Kate Quinn

Published by Berkeley

510 pages

Review by Tracey Skeine

Here is yet another historical novel set in Ancient Rome, but Kate Quinn’s Empress of the Seven Hills stands in a class all its own. I was already a fan of Quinn’s from her previous two Rome centered novels, Daughters of Rome and Mistress of Rome, and while this new novel doesn’t focus on the same characters as her previous book, I found it equally captivating. Her research on Ancient Rome is meticulous, and what I appreciated as someone writing a book about that era myself is that where she was honest about where she changed the history. I understand that sometimes writers have to fudge the facts to make their stories work, but I like that Quinn didn’t try to hide it. Sabina is a very modern heroine, craving adventure, and she was brought to life through Quinn’s unique writing voice. This is what historical fiction should be, a sweeping, epic plot, historical details, believable characters, and sprightly dialogue. I will be looking for Quinn’s next novel.

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Tracey Skeine is graduating with her degree in English Literature in June 2012. She is currently working on her first novel set in Caesar’s Rome.

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Strategos

Written by Gordon Doherty

420 pages

 

Synopsis:

When the falcon has flown, the mountain lion will charge from the east, and all Byzantium will quake. Only one man can save the empire . . . the Haga!

1046 AD. The Byzantine Empire teeters on full-blown war with the Seljuk Sultanate. In the borderlands of Eastern Anatolia, a land riven with bloodshed and doubt, young Apion’s life is shattered in one swift and brutal Seljuk night raid. Only the benevolence of Mansur, a Seljuk farmer, offers him a second chance of happiness.

Yet a hunger for revenge burns in Apion’s soul, and he is drawn down a dark path that leads him right into the heart of a conflict that will echo through the ages.

Review:

I’ve been reading a lot about the Roman Empire lately since I’m writing my own historical novel about Caesar’s Rome. Both writers and readers seem to have a renewed interest in that fascinating era. I know I have. One of the things I most appreciated about Strategos is its focus on the Eastern Roman Empire when most books I’ve been reading focus on the west. Though they were both part of the Roman Empire, the two halves had very different personalities. Doherty has a knack for writing realistic, exciting battle scenes, and the well-woven plot kept me turning pages. I can’t think of anything more I could want from an historical novel. I’ve since discovered that Doherty has written other books, which I’ll be looking for. I would recommend this book for anyone with an interest in the Byzantine Empire, well-written battle scenes, and engrossing historical fiction.

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Tracey Skeine is graduating with her degree in English Literature in June 2012. She is currently working on her first novel set in Caesar’s Rome.

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Innocence and Gold Dust

Written by Frances Webb

Published by Eloquent Books

469 pages

Review by Tracey Skeine

 

Synopsis:

After Eutropius’ mother dies while giving birth to him, the newborn is raised by a shepherd and his wife. The shepherd castrates the baby to increase his worth and sells him into slavery, where Eutropius eventually becomes part of a young woman’s dowry. He develops a close relationship with his new mistress, Sophie, until he is caught pandering and is released from service without financial support.

Eutropius’ struggle with his lack of social and sexual power translates into lust for political power and wealth. He is determined to overcome his outcast status and concocts devious schemes (switching brides on the Emperor and kidnapping a bishop) to reach a powerful position in society. However, as he works his way up, public outrage over such a high standing for a eunuch threatens to knock him back down again. With physical violence and verbal insults raging against him, is it possible for him to keep everything he has earned?

Review:

I’m reading a lot of books about Ancient Rome since I’m writing my own novel set during that time. I find Innocence and Gold Dust to have historically accurate details and the story gives the mood of the era. I was fascinated by Eutropius and his outcast status because of his being castrated and sold into slavery. I think Webb has a keen sense for human nature because though Eutropius cannot fulfill any physical desire, he becomes consumed with a desire for power. He becomes devious in his pursuits, and this novel contains all of the violence one would expect from a story centered around the Roman Empire. Through his perseverence, Eutropius becomes the power behind an emperor, and we see the extravagance as well as the carelessness. Even at over 400 pages, I found this book to be a quick read because I was so engrossed in Eutropius’ story. Highly recommended.

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Tracey Skeine is graduating with her degree in English Literature in June 2012. She is currently working on her first novel set in Caesar’s Rome.

 

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