Historical Fiction: The Glassblower of Murano, by Marina Fiorato

The Glassblower of Murano

My rating:  3 of 5 stars

Historical fiction meets contemporary romance in this tale of two glassblowers. Leonora Manin, an artist with some skill in glassblowing, has been reading about her ancestor, the illustrious Venetian glassmaker Corradino Manin (fictional). Now reeling from her recent divorce, she decides to make a new start in Venice, which is also the city of her own birth. Leonora fortuitously lands a job and a new love interest during her very first week as a native Venetian. Author Marina Fiorato spins out her debut novel by juxtaposing, in alternating chapters, the lives of 18th century Corradino and 21st century Leonora. By far the most effective of the two story lines is that of Corradino, who, during the downfall of his wealthy merchant family, is taken in by the master of one of Murano’s best glassworks. He grows to become one of the greatest glass artists of all time, and while this sounds wonderful to modern readers, the Republic closely guarded those artists with an eye to preventing them from selling secret formulas and techniques to other countries. But to save his illegitimate daughter, Corradino is reluctantly drawn into a plot to do just that, by traveling to Paris to create the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. Leonora will learn that she is the direct descendant of that girl.

Leonora’s story is far less compelling, and, because it relies so heavily upon coincidence, less than satisfying. In these sections, Ms. Fiorato resorts to extravagant description, perhaps to dress up a somewhat prosaic plot, in which she is fired when a columnist accuses Corradino of treason. The love match between Leonora and Alessandro Bardolino, descendant of another of Venice’s patrician lines, looks like “someone who stepped out of a painting”, quite literally. So for that matter does Leonora; in her case, it’s the famous Primavera. It takes a while to get started, but things do heat up a bit, and avid romance readers are likely to enjoy their tale more than I did.

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It’s a Mystery: The Secret History, by Donna Tartt

 

The Secret History
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Richard Papen is chronically depressed, a loser in his own eyes. Penniless, he leaves his native California and his dismissive parents for Hampden College in New Hampshire, where he hopes to reinvent himself. Still very much a fish out of water, his knowledge of the language of ancient Greece eventually comes to the attention of the school’s elite, a group of five wealthy students who study all things Greek under the tutelage of distinguished scholar Julian Delgado. To Richard’s astonishment and delight, he’s invited into this exclusive coterie. Soon, as a result of the mythology and philosophy in which the students become immersed, one of the group will die at the hands of his fellows. This is the secret. As narrator, Richard’s job is to guide readers along on the journey that leads to murder and its inevitable tragic aftermath. This is the history.

The Secret History owes much to such classic forerunners as Crime and Punishment, Brideshead Revisited, and Lord of the Flies, as well as the body of Greek Mythology. To the credit of its author, however, this mystery cum coming of age tale is no mere derivative.

This is an accomplished first novel. Yes, it has its problems. The plot, though certainly compelling, is not complex enough to warrant nearly 600 pages, and it drags in places toward the middle. Readers who expect to “like” the characters will probably not like The Secret History; while they each possess a level of intellectual brilliance, morally they are bankrupt. Self-appointed elitists, the totality of their self absorption will ruin them all. Except for Richard, whose self-contempt paralyzes him to the point that he watches their actions as though watching a game or a movie. But Ms. Tartt is spot on in her portrayal of the 1980’s texture of life at a small town college during a snowy winter, well enough to invoke some nostalgia for my own college days. While revealing the secret in the prologue saps the story of suspense, knowing what will happen evokes a strong sense of dread that grows as the plot plays out, rather like watching a snake from a distance when you know it might strike. Rather like we do whenever any heinous act splashes itself across our television screens.

Fascinating work by a talented writer. Can’t believe I didn’t read it earlier.

It’s a Mystery: W is for Wasted, by Sue Grafton

W is for Wasted (Kinsey Millhone #23)

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

 

W is for Wasted is the 23rd in the Kinsey Millhone series. Twenty third! While most series and their characters grow stale after a while, that’s far from the case with Kinsey. To say Sue Grafton has honed her craft is an understatement. Among her many awards are the Grand Master Award from Mystery Writers of America, and Bouchercon’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Over the years, I’ve read and enjoyed novels A through V, but W is her masterpiece.

Kinsey’s now 38, still unattached, still living the simple life with few encumbrances. And it’s still the 80’s in her home town of Santa Teresa, CA. As the book opens, she’s asked to identify a dead homeless man who carried her name and number in his pocket, but she’s never met him before. Since she’s between cases, Kinsey’s always active curiosity spurs her to find out what she can about the man. She also learns of the death of a sleazy PI whom she did know but didn’t like or trust. Too much free time can be a dangerous thing when you’re K.M.

Author Grafton incorporates the usual stock characters, whom her readers have come fondly to know well, and adds some interesting new ones, especially Ed the cat, some heretofore unknown cousins, and a trio of homeless people who lead her on quite an adventure. This is an intricate plot written on several levels with several disparate threads, and it’s a joy to observe how deftly Grafton is able to consolidate them by book’s end. It’s impossible to decide whether plotting or characterization, dialogue or description, is her outstanding forte, she’s so good at them all. If you like mysteries and haven’t yet had the pleasure of meeting Kinsey Millhone, treat yourself to W is for Wasted. It’s not necessary, though it is fun, to read this series in order. Sue Grafton’s Grand Master and Lifetime Achievement Awards, and all the others she’s been presented over the years, are richly deserved.

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Intriguing Nonfiction: The Hermit in the Garden, by Gordon Campbell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Sometimes it really is true that fact is stranger than fiction. You know those little men in the pointy hats that we generally refer to as garden gnomes? They now have a history. You know those classical little “folly” buildings that dot the stately English garden landscape? Well, it turns out that some of these were not strictly decorative.  Gordon Campbell, a Professor of Renaissance Studies at the University of Leicester, has published The Hermit in the Garden: From Imperial Rome to Ornamental Gnome , the first book to describe the phenomenon of the ornamental hermit in Georgian England.

Professor Campbell believes that during the Reformation, the ancient custom of religious persons, sometimes called hermits,  choosing to shut themselves away from the world for constant prayer and meditation came to an end with the dissolution of the great religious houses.   During the 18th century, it became fashionable among the educated and the elite to be “melancholy”, devoting time to the admiration of nature and the study of philosophy. Gradually, some began constructing small rustic cottages, to use as retreats for deep thinking, or, in many cases, to impress visitors with their erudition. It wasn’t long before the wealthy began to  hire men to live in their garden “hermitage”, pretending to be a reclusive but romantic part of the landscape. Although this book is a serious and impressive work of research, Professor Campbell injects threads of humor where appropriate, as when he describes the difficulties inherent in finding men willing to don rough robes, go barefooted, allow their hair, beards, and nails to grow, and, perhaps hardest of all, remain silent, for a period of seven years.

Much of the book is a survey of historic and modern “hermitages” in England, Scotland, France, and parts of Europe, many of which are illustrated. There are numerous extant sites that can still be visited, though they’re no longer inhabited; health regulations prohibit! It ends with some speculation about how the ornamental garden hermit morphed slowly into the ornamental garden gnome, helped along by Disney’s Grumpy, Sleepy, et al.

It’s probably safe to say that there is no  more extensive compilation of information on this topic than The Hermit in the Garden. It’s a valuable addition to the field of garden history, and has much to say, or imply, about Western Civ.

Now I must search out the perfect gnome for my own garden.

It’s a Mystery: Sacrifice, by S. J. Bolton

SacrificeSacrifice by S.J. Bolton

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The British Isles are replete with folklore, and in the remoteness of the Shetland Islands, natives still tell tales about the Trows, little grey men who fear iron, love silver, and reside in the rolling hillsides. For their race to continue, the Trows must mate with human females. S. J. Bolton, whose given name is Sharon, builds her debut mystery around these legends to great effect.

Tora Hamilton is an OB/Gyn who relocates with her husband, who was born there, to the Shetlands. She enjoys her job at the local hospital, but finds island life rather isolating, especially when her husband’s off on one of his frequent business trips. It’s never been easy for Tora to make friends, and she still hasn’t achieved her dream of motherhood. She gets the shock of her life when she unearths the corpse of a woman in the peaty pasture where she rides her horses. With horror, she discovers that the woman, definitely not a prehistoric bog body, has a hole in her chest where her heart used to be. Equally disturbing, there are strange runes carved upon the victim’s back. When the autopsy reveals that the woman had given birth shortly before death, Tora is driven to find out what happened to her.

And so the story unfolds. The initial creepiness grows exponentially, as Tora refuses to take the advice of locals to leave well enough alone. It isn’t long before some grisly threats are made, which only serve to strengthen her resolve. Soon she finds herself in a deeply frightening “who do you trust” situation, until one of the policewomen on the case, equally suspicious, befriends her. Ms. Bolton makes effective use of the ambience of the Shetlands, embellishing the natural setting with a mysterious, private maternity hospital, some uncanny personal encounters, a pair of sinister in-laws, and the ever changing sea. All of which lead right up to an edge- of- your- seat, jaw clenching culmination and resolution.

It’s always been difficult for me to accept the suicidal choices that thriller characters make, and the motives attributed to the killers in this book never make total sense either. But Ms. Bolton has been compared as an author to no less than P.D. James, and after reading and experiencing Sacrifice, that seems fair to me.

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Historical Fiction: Written in My Own Heart’s Blood, by Diana Gabaldon

my ranking: 3 of 5 stars

Outlander, the novel which introduced the world to romantic hero Jamie Fraser, was published nearly 25 years ago. I wonder if Diana Gabaldon even dreamed of the kind of success that her very first effort would spawn. I, like millions of other smitten readers, was instantly mesmerized by the story, which blends historical fiction with large doses of sci-fi and explicit love scenes. As the saga developed, it held me in thrall until book 4, The Drums of Autumn, when Jamie and Clair leave the British Isles to settle  in  the American colonies. Somehow, the romance and ambience of Scottish history and  Highland folklore failed to migrate when they did.  And as the Fraser family grew, so did the disorganization of the plots. By the time The Fiery Cross was published, I’d given up. But recently, when the opportunity for a free download of Written in My Own Heart’s Blood  (2013) dropped into my lap, I decided to give it a go.

That said, I’ve enjoyed parts of IMOHB very much. The only problem is that I found other parts so annoying that those are the ones that stick in my mind. There are problems with historical accuracy (few colonists had church weddings) , and too-heavy reliance on wild coincidence (someone tells General Washington what a great guy Jamie is and instantly makes him a General) . During a battle in New Jersey, all of the main characters encounter each other in the smoke and mayhem, and each experiences a miraculous escape from death under the worst possible circumstances. Jamie stumbles onto the scene of Claire’s field hospital just in time to witness her take a bullet. I find the time travel sequences fascinating because I think they are well thought out, but all this crazy adventure stuff has gone too far and for too many pages.  If I could make one of those Scottish noises here, I would!

Now that Outlander has become a mini-series, the popularity of all the books has soared once more, and promises to stretch well into the future. I admire and congratulate Ms. Gabaldon and marvel at the phenomenon she’s created, and I’m happy for all the readers who have loved each and every entry through the years. It’s rare to find a writer who has the skill to transport the reader to another place and time, and she has it in spades. Jamie and Claire rank high on my list of unforgettable characters, my all time favorite characters, and I  thank her for that as well.

Gothic Fiction: Bellman & Black, by Diane Setterfield

Years ago, offering career advice, my aunt Jean said you couldn’t go wrong providing food or funeral services, since we all need to eat and all have to die. Though I did not follow her words of wisdom, they came drifting back to me while reading Bellman & Black, Diane Setterfield’s second novel. This author is well known for her much praised The Thirteenth Tale, which I agree was spell binding, and many reviewers complain that this new book is nothing like the first. It is different for sure, but such an intricate and beautifully written novel deserves to be judged upon its own merits.

B&B chronicles the life of William Bellman, the disinherited  grandson of a wealthy English textile manufacturer. The novel opens with a vignette from his childhood, when, showing off for his buddies, Will thoughtlessly kills a rook with his slingshot. The boys examine the bird and are mesmerized by the subtle colors that shimmer within the blackness of its plumage, while the other rooks, generally so raucous, observe them in silence. A sense of guilt causes Will a troubled night. Because of this incident, however, he will grow up with a fine sense of color in all of its variations, and will serve him well when his uncle invites him to join the family business. Will rises to manager and then mill owner, marries and has several children, and life is good, until a series of deaths decimate his friends and destroy his family. Distraught and depressed, he decides to kill himself too, but is stopped by the presence of a mysterious stranger dressed entirely in black, who, in a very few words, inspires Will to start a new business, the production and sale of all things funeral related.

Bellman and Black, running only to 300 and some pages, is a great big chocolate trifle of a novel. Even the title has multiple layers of meaning. Even the rooks interject their own voices. The reader follows the wide parabola of Will’s life with a sense of helplessness, as the once sociable young man becomes an obsessive, ascetic workaholic, riddled with guilt and descending into a sort of living death. And while the trope of death is always present, the book is filled with metaphors that slip seamlessly and quietly into the narrative, most of them deriving, once you think about it, from that fateful introductory vignette. B&B’s ending, which some find tragic, is actually quite apt and beautiful, peaceful in its own way.

B&B owes allegiance to such authors as Dickens, Poe, and Charlotte Bronte, but it is definitely Ms. Setterfield’s own impressive creation. Read it thoughtfully, and you’ll never regard birds of the crow persuasion in the same light again.