Friday, June 3, 2016

May Reads

I can admit to a couple of obsessions. I read Jane Austen novels every other year or so, because I love them that much. (I even named my daughter after the heroines of two Austen novels.) At the age of seven, I also was totally obsessed with Cleopatra VII. I checked out the Lenora Hornblow biography, pictured on the left and a book called Great Queens of History from the local library so often, the librarian rationed my time.

Because I was dealing with and worrying about an upcoming surgery, I decided to revisit my favorite topics instead of embarking on something new. Probably not the best decision, as I was somewhat disappointed.

Kleopatra  - Karen Essex

Synopsis: High drama and ancient history combine in this novel of the early life of Egypt's infamous queen, at once a beautiful seductress, brilliant politician, and the most powerful ruler of her time.

My take: Right off the bat, the synopsis is only about half-correct. It IS about Cleopatra's early life before any of those myths and truisms that we think  we know occur. However, the book ends before she meets Caesar, which is when the seductress and brilliant politician story moves to front and center.  This novel does a good job of recreating the spirit of the decaying Ptolemaic dynasty that might have spurred a young girl's resolve, but the research is a little shoddy. If what replaces the research had been a bit more compelling, I might not have minded as much.

The novel does a good job of delineating the Cleopatra that we mostly don't know. The one who studies foreign languages and goes into exile with a father so foolish that her love for him had to be genuine. What it doesn't do a particularly good job of is making you care much about her. Kleopatra is a cardboard character whose childhood is no more compelling than most people's, except for being royal and having servants and a lesbian sister, because you know we needed someone to compare Kleopatra to later. Kleopatra would have served better as the first part of the next novel, Pharaoh, where we see the full character arc, instead of a stand-alone in a duology.

Pharaoh - Volume II of Kleopatra - Karen Essex

Synopsis: Following on from 'Kleopatra', the glittering epic of Egypt's queen continues as she allies herself with Anthony and begins a love story that immortalizes her as one of history's greatest political players and most tragic heroines.

My take: Much better than Kleopatra, but still not great. Pharaoh opens with a startling scene of Cleopatra recruiting whores to shore up Marc Antony's sagging manhood after Actium. The novel jumps back and forth between the events of Cleopatra's life, starting with meeting Caesar and ending with her death. Obviously, this part of her life has more natural dramatic interest, so the pace of the novel picks up.  Essex does some interesting work with Cleopatra and her self-confidence, but the character remains somewhat wooden. Possibly the best part of the novel is the final 5% as Cleopatra weighs her options when it becomes clear she has lost everything.

Overall, I can't recommend these books. If you want excitement and to meet the real Cleopatra, you're better off reading Stacy Schiff's Cleopatra: A Life, which has all the excitement these two novels are missing. The writing is also better.

The Butterfly Garden - Dot Hutchison

Synopsis: Near an isolated mansion lies a beautiful garden.

In this garden grow luscious flowers, shady trees…and a collection of precious “butterflies”—young women who have been kidnapped and intricately tattooed to resemble their namesakes. Overseeing it all is the Gardener, a brutal, twisted man obsessed with capturing and preserving his lovely specimens.

Synopsis: I read this as my Kindle First selection for May.

My take: Shades of The Collector! I couldn't put The Butterfly Gardendown.  The narrative was compelling; the protagonist was fulfilling-ly complex; and the plot was well done. If you like psychological thrillers, check this one out.

Note: Some people might find the whole concept a little hard to take, but if the synopsis doesn't warn them off, then they can't complain they weren't warned.

Jane - April Lindner

Synopsis: Forced to drop out of an esteemed East Coast college after the sudden death of her parents, Jane Moore takes a nanny job at Thornfield Park, the estate of Nico Rathburn, a world-famous rock star on the brink of a huge comeback. Practical and independent, Jane reluctantly becomes entranced by her magnetic and brooding employer and finds herself in the midst of a forbidden romance.

My take:  Clearly part of my rewrite/reread the classics months. This was a fun read. While it stuck to the Jane Eyre story, it managed to be more than just a simple retelling. The plot turns and twists were believable for this day and age and not simply a regurgitation of the original novel. Good for a weekend on the patio or the beach.

The Austen Project pairs six bestselling contemporary authors with Jane Austen’s six complete works. It has its own Facebook page. As a self-proclaimed Jane-ite,  I decided to give it a whirl. After all I did like Clueless, the Movie, and Pride Prejudice and Zombies. That being said, let me paraphrase Mr. Darcy:
"In vain have I struggled. It will not do. My feelings will not be repressed. You must allow me to tell you how utterly reprehensible I found two of these books."
Emma: A Modern Retelling - Alexander Mccall Smith

Synopsis: The best-selling author of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series deftly escorts Jane Austen’s beloved, meddlesome heroine into the twenty-first century in this delightfully inventive retelling.

My take: Awful. Just awful.

This is the third entry in the Austen Project.  Smith fails.

The book is neither delightful nor inventive, and it comes nowhere close to deft. The prose is plodding with a lot of explanations rather than character development. Worse, Smith transforms one of literature's most charmingly misdirected matchmaking busybodies into a mean-spirited millennial twit. The other characters don't fare any better. Or as Mr. Knightly might say, "Badly done, Alexander, badly done."

If you want a real revamping of Emma, watch Clueless.

Sense and Sensibility - Joanna Trollope

Synopsis: From Joanna Trollope, one of the most insightful chroniclers of family life writing fiction today, comes a contemporary retelling of Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen’s classic novel of love, money, and two very different sisters. . .

With her sparkling wit, Joanna Trollope casts a clever, satirical eye on the tales of Elinor and Marianne Dashwood.

My take: Sparkling it ain't. Imagine this: you're trapped on a bus. An airhead blathers a synopsis of the original novel while dropping a few contemporary references now and again in a pathetic attempt to make it relevant.  Slashing my wrists with plastic spoon would have been a merciful ending, but it went on way longer than that. To be honest, I tried to forget this book about two minutes after finishing it. My advice: don't bother.

Eligible: A modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice –  Curtis Sittenfeld

Synopsis: Wonderfully tender and hilariously funny, Eligible tackles gender, class, courtship, and family as Curtis Sittenfeld reaffirms herself as one of the most dazzling authors writing today.

This version of the Bennet family—and Mr. Darcy—is one that you have and haven’t met before: Liz is a magazine writer in her late thirties who, like her yoga instructor older sister, Jane, lives in New York City. When their father has a health scare, they return to their childhood home in Cincinnati to help—and discover that the sprawling Tudor they grew up in is crumbling and the family is in disarray.

My take:  Not gonna lie: I loved this book. I was already a fan of Curtis Sittenfeld after reading Prep and American Wife. Eligible makes me want to read more of her novels. Sittenfeld didn't make one mistake in her rendering of this classic.

Unlike the other two novels, Sittenfeld captured the essence of Jane Austen and then made it relevant to the the twenty-first century. It was like eating a fresh croissant instead of a stale loaf of bread. Although in general, you know how the various couples must end up together, it's an interesting journey with some real surprises to get you there. Read this book!

If you are going to read one Jane Austen knock-off this year, Eligible is the one. You won't regret it.