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Wednesday, March 4, 2015

BRINGING ROMAN HISTORY ALIVE






The simplest way to review Kate Quinn's WOMAN OF THE ETERNAL CITY is to say that it is marvelous. But it is more than that. It is an engrossing, beautifully crafted story that includes romance, geopolitics and the question of ethno-religious identity. The deftly handled plot encompasses a shift in Rome's imperialistic policy,  efforts to impose Roman values and ideals on conquered nations and to define the borders of territories annexed in war. These,  as Quinn's impeccable research shows, are Roman Emperor Hadrian's documented contributions to history. But it is the imagined details of his relationship with his wife Sabina and  his lover Antinous,  as well  her relationship with the warrior Vercingetorix (Vix) that grab and hold  the reader's attention .

Vix is a conflicted man who struggles to reconcile his Jewish identity--technically, he  is a Jew though his enslaved mother has been cut off from normative Judaism--and his allegiance to Rome.  He also struggles to reconcile his work as  a tribune in the Praetorian Guard and his love for Mirah, the  religious Jewish woman whom he married and who gave him two daughters. Additionally, he strives to contain his emotional attachment to his former lover, Sabina, a woman whose great intelligence, beauty and kindness make a brilliant contrast to the darkness of Hadrian's violent moods.

Enter Vix's adopted son, Antinous, who is supremely handsome and gentle. He and Hadrian meet and what follows is a heartbreaking love story told enormous sensitivity and grace. The first heart to break is Vix's. His  dislike of Hadrian is  as strong as his loyalty to fray  destroy his ties with his son.  Next heart to crack it is Mirah's. Her  narrow view of  good love  is shaped by religious prejudice. As for Antinous, life becomes a series of  painful encounters with hypocritical Romans who pattern their  view of homosexuality on that of the Greeks--it is OK if one of the partners is a young boy.

There are, in this story,  two young boys  and a remarkable young girl whose reaction to Antinous have great  significance for the empire--Marcus Aurelius, his remarkable  cousin Annia Galeria Faustina the Younger and their sworn enemy. Gneus Pedanius Fuscus Salinator, whose lust for power and Annia' virginity might have earned the cognomen of Salivator. How the  love of the first two and the hatred of the third change the shape of  history is a tale that  will captivate students of philosophy, feminists, and admirers of a well written romance.
 Romances in this novels are as complex, as they are in real life.  Vix and Mirah's meets with a formidable obstacle when they move to Judea where her uncle, Simon Bar Kochba leads the resistance against Rome. Much has been written about Hadrian's response to Jewish aspirations. I will leave it to you to discover the choice Vix made in this fight between Roman imperialism and Jthe Jews' ardent desire to free Judea. The Bar Kochba war against Roman invaders lasted three years at the end of which approximately 580, 000 Jews lay dead and Judea was left in ruins. Countless Jewish survivors were enslaved and the very name of the  Jewish homeland was replaced by that of   Syria Palestina. Quinn's novel reminds us of how history repeats itself; Although it it is set in 128nB.C.E.. the history of imperialistic nations,  the ways in which humans love or hate each other have changed very little,  It is to her credit that there is no sense of deja vu in a tale as old Christianity itself. Bar Kochba,  Hadrian, Sabina, Titus, Marcus Aurelius,  Roman legionnaires. the defeated and the victors emerge from page with such clarity they might be one's next door neighbor.. This is a book I am glad to have read. I would hesitate to recommend it to the most fastidious reader.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

AETHElRED THE ILL -ADVISED RIDES AGAIN



 Do you like Vikings? Do you want  to increase your Anglo-Saxon vocabulary by fifty words, thereabouts? Do these chilly nights make you long for  a thrilling romp through the  byways  of  really Olde England? Do wish to time travel to  shires where aethelings hunker down in burhs to await the arrival of the dreaded Norsemen?If you answer  yes to any of these questions,  Patricia Bracewell's THE PRICE OF BLOOD, the sequel to  SHADOW ON THE CROWN,  is the novel  for you.


This new novel centers of the relationship between King Aethereld of England and  Emma of Normandy whom he married in 1002.   As such, it is a bittersweet romance and a treat for readers who do not mind being served up historical personages who left behind so little data they must needs be recreated from a a piece of bone and a hank of hair.  


Readers who prefer fiction based on documented historical facts will do well to focus on Aethereld, commonly known as the Unready--according to experts in the Anglo-Saxon  language, unræd actually means ill advised.  He is better documented than his wife.  Bracewell does a superb job of turning the  dry facts of his life into  vibrant text. She leads her audience into  a time when Danish marauders-- the ISIS of the  twelfth Century--subject an already  ravaged England that  to a scorched earth  strategy. They burn, rape, pillage  then ask for  higher and  higher tribute. Aethreld's reaction to these events is less than intelligent. He finds it wise to create  wider fissures in the body politic,  as he  orders the assassination of  formers allies, severely limits his sons' participation in government and rejects  Emma's   counsel.  Meanwhile, his Danish opponent, Sweyn the Forkbeard, plots greater  mayhem.

Throughout the story, Bracewell's  sweet and gentle  Emma tries, tries, and tries again to reason with her husband though, frankly, she would just as soon dally with his son Athelston.  At the same, her  foil, Elgiva, concubine of Sweyn the Forkbeard's son  Cnut, has dangerous plans for England's royal house. Leave your garth, buy the book, fasten your headrail and prepare for a wild ride aboard a longship.A glimmer of the high Middle Ages is yet to shine, but I doubt you will be disappointed.

Monday, February 16, 2015

AETHELRED AND EMMA--UNREADY OR NOT


A review of Patricia Bracewell's THE PRICE OF BLOOD. will be published in the last week of February 2015. Click here for a review of Bracewell's previous novel, A SHADOW ON THE CROWN

 A review Kate Quinn's LADY OF THE ETERNAL CITY will follow. Click here for a review of Quinn's THE SERPENT AND THE PEARL

NEW TITLE IN DANIEL SILVA'S GABRIEL ALON SERIES

Photo from Fine Arts America

Daniel Silva announced, recently, that the title of his his new Gabriel Alon crime novel is THE ENGLISH  SPY.Will Alon get a desk job? As for the Memunha, Daniel says that he is Immortal. Richtexts is glad to hear that.

JASON GOODWIN'S YASHIM COOKBOOK



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JASON GOODWIN'S YASHIM COOKBOOK

Monday, August 18, 2014

A LITTLE LESS OO, A LITTLE MORE LALA, PLEASE










I wanted to like Renee Swindle's A PINCH OF OOOLALA. I wanted to say at very page, as I am doing with the novel I am currently reading, “Beautiful.” Despite the title, which hints of cancan and fin-de-siecle hoopla, this is a story of love and loss in which flippancy is very much out of place. Billed as a satisfying tale of love, friendship and family, it does include all these ingredients, along with a bakery called Scratch where Abbey Lincoln Ross, visually stunning wedding cakes.” This sounded promising and most readers hope that a new book will live up to the promise of its blurbs. This one does not.
I found as disappointing a cake that outlived its shelf life. Mind you, with every new novel I read, I want to praise its author. Unfortunately, I find it impossible in this case.
That does not mean that A PINCH OF OO LALA will not be a commercial success. There have been writers I found mediocre and who went on to sell movie rights for their work to the likes of Julie Robertson. I am well aware that every reader has a different definition of competent writing. Movie makers probably think less about the music of the words than they do about the music of the cash register.

Well, then, A PINCH OOLALAH might yet make cash registers play symphonies all over the country. It is hip, it is very much in the spirit of the age, it has a main character whose career seems to be more more rewarding than her love life. I confess that I know very little about the universality of Abbey's plight. I do not think about target groups and demographics as publishers must. I tend to focus on the way the story is told. My problem with Abbey is that she never really comes to life on the page. I know that she is owns a bakery, that comes from a an unusual family, that she has very good friends and I I know that she loves jazz. In fact, she uses her deep understanding of jazz as a yardstick to measure the potential compatibility of a prospective lover. Well and good. As someone who experienced betrayal and pain, she is very cautious about opening her heart to a man. She yearns to be part of a couple, to have children, to continue to honor her own values. No doubt there is universality in all that. But does it read well? I do not think so. I am not sure whether the essential truth of this novel is that you cannot have your cake and eat. I know this much about this story--its ingredients simply refuse to blend.