Friday, November 9, 2018

The Splendor Before the Dark: A Novel of the Emperor Nero by Margaret George

The Splendor Before the Dark: A Novel of the Emperor Nero. Margaret George. Penguin Publishing Group. Copyright 2018. pb. 592 pp.; ISBN: 9780399584619.

Passion takes precedence over politics, at least initially, in Margaret George’s brilliant follow-up novel to The Confessions of Young Nero.  The story begins with the infamous fire that destroyed almost all of Rome, a fire Nero helps to put out.  He helps dig out victims and console those who lost everything.  However, the rumors then begin that Nero himself set the fires.  He does nothing until he realizes that unless he finds a scapegoat his reign will end.  And so the Christians become the easy targets because their teachings are used as evidence of their guilt. 

Nero after staging the massacre of the Christians for public viewing sets about rebuilding Rome.  He intends to have Rome display glory and stunning, exotic views that will be admired forever!  He attempts to wow his audience with his poetry, his athleticism in the chariot games, his artistic and architectural designs, and all of this (and more) are gorgeously depicted by the author.  The effect on the reader is spellbinding.  Not only is the history of Nero’s world explored but it also envelops the reader into the culture and beauty of the gods and former Roman and Greek emperors.
Then deceit and tragedy enter Nero’s world, beginning with an absolutely huge defection on the part of both Senators and Nero’s own military guard.  The plans for assassination are discovered and the plotters are condemned! But the moral and emotional devastation on Nero is piteous to follow.  His pure intentions to create a beautiful cultured world within Rome are totally misconstrued and that shatters him.  He will never trust again!
The loss of his wife lead him to abandon Rome for a year while he travels to Greece where he will participate in the Olympics of the time.  Finally, Nero’s demise follows the mysterious prophecy that began his adult life.
Words cannot possibly convey the depth of how much is covered in this stunningly beautiful and skilled novel.  Forget what you thought you knew about Nero and enjoy this comprehensive, complex journey into the world of one of the most notable Emperors in Roman history!  Well-written, engaging, well-researched and highly recommended historical fiction!

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

The Winters: A Novel by Lisa Gabriele

The Winters: A Novel. Lisa Gabriele. Penguin Publishing Group. October 16, 2018. 320 pp. ISBN#:  978052559702.

A young woman living and working in the Cayman Island at a boatyard works very hard until she meets an older man.  They boat, eat, drink and eventually fall in love. He offers to take her to his home in America on Long Island, the fancy place he calls home, called Asherley.  He’s a Senator who’s thinking of running for a higher place in government.  In fact, he’s very, very busy and out of the home more than he’s there.  So, this woman meets his daughter, Dani who greatly resents Max’s fiancĂ© because Dani is taking her mother, Rebekah’s place. 

Dani is one nasty piece of work. Sweet one minute, Dani can manipulate her father, her Aunt Louise, and even the new gal who is engaged to her father Max.  Dani runs around with the family chauffeur/helper, takes off when she pleases, runs away as she did to Paris before Max came home.  The fiancĂ©e almost leaves once when she can’t stand what is happening.  But then things seem to be on the mend after they are planning a wedding.

The young woman is trying to learn the ropes about a home where the ghost of Rebekah lurks in every corner.  Now begins the mystery.  No spoilers here!  This is indeed a take on Daphne Du Maurier’s earlier novel, Rebecca.

Secrets abound about Dani’s background, Rebekah’s death, another woman and money, the latter being the root of what eventually results in disaster.  Still Max marries our young heroine, but she also reveals she’s made of tough stuff and is smart enough to figure out when all these clues are slowly revealed in layers.

The first half of the novel is one the reader thinks he or she knows; but one can’t possibly figure out what is to follow.  The rest of the plot proceeds at a ripping, tense and furious pace until a very pleasing end.

This is a highly enjoyable romance/thriller novel that is sure to rivet the attention of every reader.  The background ghosts are within each character, not external. Mistakes made in the past accelerate to a point where they cannot be undone so enthralled is each player with trying to make things better.  Enjoy the romp in contemporary Gothic horror!

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Beautiful Invention: A Novel of Hedy Lamarr by Margaret Porter

Beautiful Invention: A Novel of Hedy Lamarr. Margaret Porter. Gallica Press. October 2018. 378 pp. ISBN#:  9780990742036.

“I enjoy drawing up plans and designing and making things…They don’t realize that Hedy Lamarr is an invention.”  Yes, Hedy Lamarr was a beautiful actress but also an intelligent woman who invented a war weapon that was almost used to defeat the Germans in WWII. 

Born Hedy Kiesler, an Austrian, Jewish woman, she aspired to be a wonderful actress, but the films she chose to act in first was Ecstasy.  Hedy appears naked and fakes an orgasm which equally gained her universal praise and scorn in the earlier years of the 20th Century.

She marries a German munitions dealer who soon becomes her jailor.  She winds up escaping from him after realizing she couldn’t ignore her yearning to become a full-time actress.  Hedy signed a contract with Louis Mayer after much haggling but seems frustrated by not being given films she feels are equal to her acting abilities.  Still, her looks and talents catapult her to fame and stardom status!  Her love life is certainly interesting if not very stable. 

Margaret Porter gives a deft depiction of the lives of actors and actresses who more frequently “use” each other for better scripts or positions in the middle of a turbulent time of history with the rise of Adolph Hitler and the beginning of WWII.  Hedy moves through six marriages and has several children, including one adopted son.  She is also an avid gardener and inventor.  She generously contributes her time for the war by selling bonds and attending clubs to sign autographs and dance with soldiers and sailors on leave.  

She researches science facts to create the torpedo that can attack without being detected.  The work behind this creation is no small feat and highly complex.  Hedy herself is a complex character, always searching for deeper meaning and creation, never satisfied.   Her private and public life parallel the historical and political turmoil of Europe and America – dramatic and life-changing!

Enjoy the scenes where Hedy stuns observers with her appearances in elegant gowns and hats, once an actress, always an actress!  Yet also relish the brilliance of her thinking as she seeks solitude to do research and create a soda machine and later a war weapon to be used against Germany.  Most of all, just revel in the enigmatic and intelligent talent of one of the most famous actresses in the Gilded Age of American Theater!  Highly recommended!

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

A Knife in the Fog: A Mystery Featuring Margaret Harkness and Arthur Conan Doyle by Bradley Harper

A Knife in the Fog: A Mystery Featuring Margaret Harkness and Arthur Conan Doyle. Bradley Harper. Prometheus Books. October 2018. 288 pp. ISBN#:  9781633884861.

Arthur Conan Doyle is a physician who spends his days practicing medicine.  He has also written a novel, A Study in Scarlet which gets the attention of the Prime Minister of England.  So unique are the skills in that novel that Prime Minister William Gladstone asks Sir Doyle to help with solving a series of murders that have been terrorizing London, murders that have the same characteristics.  The victims have had their throats slit but also have had parts of their internal female organs cut open or removed. 

To accomplish this task, Arthur Conan Doyle engages the help of Margaret Harkness, an inquisitive and bright lady who knows “street life” and can guide Doyle to places he would not know.  Also helping is Professor Bell, a renowned surgeon and thinker.  The police “allow” the threesome to join the investigation but initially regard them as an intrusive presence.  The killer knows of the search and is timing his murders to their work, mocking their search and investigation.

The public eventually would come to know this serial killer as “Jack the Ripper” but at this time far little is known about details and even causes for these murders; but eventually the reader will discover the minutiae behind many murders through the wiliness of these three investigators who fear neither man nor beast.

The answers to questions that arise through one’s readings are satisfying, including the more than satisfactory ending.  Stay tuned!  Kudos to the author who has fashioned the investigation of a notorious killer.

The Kennedy Debutante: A Novel by Kerri Maher

The Kennedy Debutante: A Novel. Kerri Maher. Penguin Publishing Group. October 2018. 384 pp. ISBN#: 978451492043.

Kathleen (“Kick”) Kennedy is the vivid debutante of this novel, a story that captures the essence of the Kennedy clan’s powerful presence, but which presents this famous woman as complex, fearless, socially adept, and devout. She’s a woman of her own character, living out her blend of service and compassion for and within the formidable issues of her time.

The novel begins with Kick’s “coming out” party.  Like any normal debutante, Kick loves to party and is only held in check by her mother Rose, a formidable woman who monitors “everything” about every one of her children.  Kick’s father, Joe, is obsessed with his effect and that of his children and we later see how he comes to respect Kick’s presence and then her ideas which might enhance his position as America’s Ambassador to England.  But Kick is definitely her own woman!

Two challenging issues face Kick within this account.  One is falling in love with a member of British aristocracy, Billy Harrington.  He and his family are staunchly Protestant and Kick’s equally strong practice of Catholicism seem initially like an unbreachable impasse and a painful one at that!  Their love will evolve with some wise counsel of friends, family and mentors.

In the midst of this constant partying and pleasurable activities, WWII is looming.  Hitler’s aggressive behavior is threatening the world and that includes England.  Kick’s family is deeply affected.  Kick chooses her own way of donating her time to help in the war effort.  Billy signs up for Royal service, realizing how patriotic he really is and wanting to make a difference, with a later painful cost.  Kick’s father returns to America, his doubt about Hitler making many consider him a failure.  Kick’s brothers, Joe Jr. and Jack, join the Air Force and Navy respectively.  Kick’s mentally and emotionally challenged sister, Rose, undergoes a change that is tragic for her and the entire family.  Other difficult results of the war loom large, making it almost unbearable but which the Kennedys address with amazing strength.

Almost everyone has heard of the Kennedy family.  But Kennedy Debutante… plunges the reader into the everyday, real life of Kick Kennedy and her family in a way that doesn’t hide flaws but acknowledges “service” and “duty” to the world as the sound principles that made a difference to so many – yes, politically, but also personally.  Memorable, engaging biography and history reading!!!

The Carpet Weaver of Usak by Kathryn Gauci

The Carpet Weaver of Usak. Kathryn Gauci. Ebony Publishing. September 2018. 254 pp. ISBN#:  9780648123545.

Aspasia and Saniye, the former Greek Orthodox and the other Turkish, are two friends whose love and care for each other endures the terrible Greek-Turkish conflict between 1914 and 1919. These women live in Anatolia, a place of beauty and joy, where Greek and Turkish families celebrate frequently in the town center or meydan between the towns of Stavrodomi and Pinarbasi.

Usak is the nearby center of the carpet weaving industry.  In the early period of 1914, Greeks and Turks work together to create these masterpieces that one can virtually see in the wonderful descriptions of old classical and new styles of designing and weaving rugs.  Even the methods of creation are described as women work from home and some work from factories in hand-tying the strands that eventually become a completed rug.  During those times of work, some workers have conversations that grow and unite these women stronger by the year.  Husbands, lovers, pregnancies, family lives and death are united to the point that when the wars between Greeks and Turks begin, these women help each other give birth and survive with each other when their spouses are forced to serve for opposing sides.  The carpet weaving industry almost disappears as war becomes more dangerous to all sides!

In the beginning, even in war, soldiers on both sides do their jobs.  Many die and the sorrow is evident everywhere.  But that doesn’t stop some from rescuing those who are in danger of capture.  In 1919 the war becomes worse with the arrival of the Greeks at Smyrna.  In the meydan, the Fountain of the Sun and Moon now becomes the place where punishments, mainly death sentences, carried out. The treasured unity is shattered!

Throughout this novel, many die or suffer from prevailing grief, lack of food, loss of children and spouses, and so much more.  The author does such a good job at describing each scene that the reader is drawn into the entire account by numerous images that make one think and feel.  What stands out, beside the horrors of this war that too few people are aware of, is the ties that bind these two friends and families when distrust prevails.

This is a story that readers will not soon forget, one that celebrates love, laughter, trust and endurance as well as what denies, divides and shatters tradition! Outstanding!!!

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Time's Convert by Deborah Harkness

Time’s Convert. Deborah Harkness. Penguin Publishing Group. September 2018. 448 pp. ISBN#: 9780399564512.

What is it like to be adopted and become a vampire?  What is it like to become a vampire and then be married to another vampire.  In this prequel to the author’s previous All Souls Trilogy about the de Clermont family, we discover the background of Marcus Whitmore and the 23-year-old bride to be, Phoebe Taylor.  She becomes a vampire but like a baby must undergo a 90-day period of change from a human to vampire, with all the physical, mental and spiritual changes accompanying such a huge and formidable transformation.  During that period of time, Marcus has agreed to remain separated from her and endure all the frustrations of that change.  They are well-suited to each other with their independent, fiercely demanding and intemperate desires.  They are also a thorn in the flesh of those around them which provides many amusing and almost catastrophic scenes that elicit a range of erratic emotions in the reader as well as the characters.  “Becoming” is mysterious and exciting as well, to say the least!

Another plot line centers around two twins, Philip and Becca, born to a couple who are vampire and witch respectively.  It turns out that these twins have magical powers parallel to witches which must be softened, monitored and disciplined into permissible behavior so that disaster does not strike, as it almost does several times.  Their parents have a huge adjustment to manage as well as they never expected babies to satisfy their own desires immediately, including one making friends with a familiar, a griffin whom Philip names Apollo. The latter is also in dire need of control and discipline, proven by the humorous and frightening scenes that demonstrate just how deeply bonded Philip and Apollo are!

A third and fascinating subplot shows what it was like to live in the times of the American and French Revolution.  Marcus originally lived in that time in the 1700s.  Growing up with an abusive father and negligent family certainly did not bode well for the future and it was his father Matthew de Clermont who adopted Marcus and made him a vampire.  Learning about the extended family of vampires is awesome by itself. Vying for power and satisfying one’s own desires make for familial scenes that are more like a civil war.

Although this novel is connected to the earlier series, it works just as well as a stand-alone story.  Constant action, conflicts, funny takes, and the solving of some mysteries about the de Clermont history enable the reader to fly through these pages and engage with these endearing yet formidable characters.  Deborah Harkness has clearly done her research and has more than ample talent to craft a richly complex story, with just enough complexity in character depiction to satisfy every reader.

Well-done, again, Deborah Harkness!  Looking forward to more of immediate and extended family evolution and progress!