Saturday, August 31, 2013

Review: The Assassination of the Archduke: Sarajevo 1914 and the Romance That Changed the World by Sue Woolmans

Received ebook ARC from publisher via NetGalley.
Release date: September 3, 2013

I have to admit, I did not know much about World War I or it’s causes. For starters, I don’t have much interest in military history and the First World War is often eclipsed by the infamous Second. To me, WWI was just an event that took place between the Victorian area and the Depression. I did not have any living relatives who fought in WWI like I do with WWII. While I had some vague knowledge of it involving the three ruling cousins of Britain, Germany, and Russia, as well as the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, I didn’t know much more beyond that. I knew more about the Scottish band named after him than I did of Franz Ferdinand himself.

This book appealed to me because its goal was to examine Franz Ferdinand’s personal life rather than focusing entirely on the politics; without the human side of history, a book will struggle to hold my attention. Beautifully written and easy to follow even if you’re somewhat new to the subject matter, this book accomplished its goal effortlessly. From what I could gather, the author’s sympathetic approach is new and unique and earned it the exclusive approval of many descendants of Franz Ferdinand. Although it paints Sophie as something of a saint, never putting a foot wrong and retaining her tact and dignity in the face of harsh and unfair disrespect and elitism, it is honest about Franz’s shortcomings, mainly that he lacked charm and had a temper only Sophie could calm. Both were attentive and loving parents, raising children who, just like Sophie, had better manners and more class than those of higher rank who constantly sought to remind them of their place.

The politics leading up to the war certainly weren’t left out and strongly addressed in the latter half of the book but the human touch of this really brought this tragic family’s story to life.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Review: The Passing Bells (Greville Family #1) by Philip Rock

This is the original Downton Abbey. In fact, I’d be very surprised if the creator of Downton, Julian Fellows, hasn’t read this and taken some inspiration from it. The time period and setting, particularly in the first third before the war begins, is precisely like Downton and there are notable parallels among some of the large cast of characters, both upstairs and down.

Much like the Earl of Grantham, Anthony Greville, Earl of Stanmore, is expectedly traditional and struggled to adapt to the changing ways of the world. We soon learn his wife, just like Cora Crawley, is a wealthy American, and that their marriage was a love match. Unlike Robert Crawley though, Anthony doesn’t have to worry about who will inherit his title and home since he has more than one son and a spirited daughter.

Downstairs, we learn that the stiff valet, who could be Mr. Carson’s twin, doesn’t approve of the young, new chauffeur who is perhaps a mix of Downton’s two Toms (Thomas Barrow and Tom Branson). In fact, most of the staff bristle at the chauffeur’s boastful nature, except the new, wide-eyed and bushy-tailed maid who is much like Daisy.

What sets it apart from Downton is that the Greville’s story deals much more with War World I, taking us to the trenches and hospitals on the war front. Downton is strictly about the ongoings at Downton, Passing Bells is more of a WWI novel. It’s really about how the war effects and changes the lives of the many people connected by this great house. Additionally, one thing Abington Pryory is missing is their own Violet Crawley and therefore much of the humor she brings to the TV show is also absent. On the other hand, Passing Bells has a valuable addition in the form of an American cousin who spends time on the front lines as a journalist, giving us an American perspective of the war too.

Still, it will certainly appeal to Downton fans and I highly recommend it to anyone suffering from Downton withdraw during the off season.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Review: The Iron King (The Accursed Kings #1) by Maurice Druon

A novel of Philip the Fair of France and the scandalous and violence of his court, first book in The Accursed Kings series about the Capets.

“If you like A Song of Ice and Fire, you will love The Accursed Kings” - George R.R. Martin.

You can imagine my excitement. A Foreward written by one of my favorite authors explaining how this series was one of his inspirations for possibly my favorite series ever.

I don’t know if it’s because this is a translation or if it’s because it was written nearly 60 years ago, or perhaps both, but I found the writing style and dialogue very stiff. The narrative even reads more like a history book at times - very matter-of-fact. I think this was an even bigger let down because of the hype around it, not only revered by readers but recommended by George R.R. Martin. Most of the criticism seems to be from GRRM fans who, like me, picked it up on the back of his recommendation, but it’s important to note that it’s the plot content, not the writing style, which is “Game of Thrones-like”. Don’t expect this to have Martin’s narrative. However, I also read a lot of historical fiction about royalty so this should have been right up my alley even if Martin had never spoken a word about it so it’s not just the comparison to ASOIAF which is causing this to be a disappointment.

I did see some of the influence it may have had on Martin's series though, mostly in the characters, so that is saying something. Isabella reminded me a little of Cersei sometimes, though not nearly as evil. But if I had to recommend something similar to ASOIAF, I'd probably go with any of Bernard Cornwell's medieval based novels/series. Though his cast of characters is not as extensive, his portrayal of the medieval world is very similar, as is his sense of humor. Apparently the two authors are good friends as well.

There is a great story here, if you’re willing to get passed the methodical style of the narrative and dialogue. Those who are used to Jean Plaidy’s writing style, for example, might get on board with this easily (evidence that it has something to do with being written in the 1950s) - and I have been able to enjoy Plaidy’s work so I feel a little hypocritical given this a lower rating. But after my anticipation was so high, this was a greater let down.

I would have liked to see what a more modern translator could do with this, since I’m pretty sure it’s just been reissued as it was at the time of the last release and not re-translated.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Review: Hild by Nicola Griffith

Received ARC from publisher via NetGalley.
Release date: November 12, 2013

A novel of the early life of Hilda of Whitby, Christian saint, founding abbess of the monastery of Whitby, and niece of King Edwin of Northumbria.

What attracted me to this novel was the fact that it’s written about a rather obscure time period. I love novels that introduce me to a lesser known part of history and make it feel more familiar to me. And when I open a book set in Anglo-Saxon England, I want it to feel distinctly different from the more stereotypical idea we have of the medieval world, which is usually of the high to late middle ages. It should reflect that this is pre-Norman Conquest.

Griffith did not let me down in this regard. Her narrative and historical knowledge made the period feel completely different from our own, to the point where she may have actually gone a little too far and so I had really mixed feelings about this book. Griffith does not spend a lot of time overtly explaining who’s who or what’s what - a lot of the history has to be worked out by the reader as the story progresses. Equally, there are a lot of Anglo-Saxon words that many readers may not be familiar with and though sometimes the context gives you a vague idea of what it means, if you want to know more, you’ll have to check the glossary or google it. On one hand, I can appreciate this because often, an obvious explanation can feel too much like an anachronistic narrative. However, taking this too far can make it too difficult to read and sometimes I felt like I was spending more time googling Old English words than reading the book (because the glossary was difficult to access in the ebook ARC - additionally, not every Old English word is included in the glossary!). I especially found it unnecessary when the word has a known modern equivalent - such as the use of “├Žlf” when “elf”, “fairy” or “nymph” could have just as easily been used. When the author was describing an Anglo-Saxon concept that does not have a modern name, it’s more understandable - but using Old English words when it’s completely unnecessary just came across as the author showing off or trying too hard to prove herself by throwing in so many words most readers won’t know.

Scene descriptions were very detailed which many people will love but for me, that made it drag a bit at times. Yes, a certain amount of scene setting and world building is necessary but there is such thing as too much of a good thing. I can enjoy a slow paced novel but this just dragged in too many places.

The characters and their interactions were the best part of this novel for me but it just got bogged down by these other things.

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