Friday, August 10, 2018

Lord of Formosa: A Novel by Joyce Bergvelt

Lord of Formosa: A Novel. Joyce Bergvelt. Camphor Press, Ltd. April 2018. 480 pp. ISBN#: 9781788691390.

In 1624 the island of Formosa belongs to the Dutch as a valuable fortress and trading post.  The mainland, China, is fraught with tension and war as the Manchus battle the Ming dynasty and are slowly but certainly winning.  Ming supporters are fleeing south and actually leaving for Formosa and other islands in the vicinity.  Meanwhile Koxinga is the son of a powerful Ming Admiral who is willing to fight the Manchus to the bitter end.  However, that is not the way history is to unfold.

Koxinga hears a prophecy when he is very young that he will be the Lord of Formosa but also that he will have to pay an immense price for that glorious role.  That fuels his evolution as a thinker, soldier, and trader, roles that are fostered by his father’s illustrious training and respected role throughout China.  Meanwhile, the Dutch are in charge of Formosa but their strength is slowly being drained by the divisions in their own leadership.  Many are good at trade but their poor treatment of the Chinese and distrust of fellow Dutch leaders will prove to be their undoing.  When one makes that statement in a sentence, it may strike the reader as benign.  But the reality is far from benign; literally thousands of deaths will follow as the Dutch send leader after leader to Formosa while Koxinga is planning a massive sea and land battle.  The incremental victory of the Chinese on the island is fascinating reading. 

Koxinga, during these protracted developments, is suffering from what was probably syphilis.  He attempts to get a Dutch physician to heal him but that doesn’t work out so well.  Instead, his volatile temper is increasing to the point where his own supporters are afraid to be around him.  His behavior in the finale of this novel is ruthlessly brutal.  The Dutch men and women will lose numerous leaders and family members, but history is replete with such losses.  Koxinga is honored to this day as an incomparable leader who made Formosa the successful and safe place it was and remains to the present.

For those who love Chinese history, Lord of Formosa is a powerful read and one which this reviewer highly recommends!

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

So Much Life Left Over: A Novel by Louis de Bernieres

So Much Life Left Over: A Novel. Louis de Bernieres. Knopf Doubleday. August 2018. 288 pp. ISBN#:  9781524747886.

Daniel Pitt longs for the glory days when he was a Flying Ace in WWII.  The camaraderie of his fellow pilots and avoidance of petty squabbles because of the daily reality that some will live and others will die every time they take to the air in battle.  Now, the war is over and he is married to Rosie, a former wartime nurse.  They live in Ceylon, which Daniel loves and Rosie hates.  They have two children whom Daniel adores.  Rosie is continuously demanding they return to live in England and Daniel is heartbroken, as his love for the natives and their culture, especially one woman in particular, have to be sacrificed for his wife’s sanity. 

Meanwhile, Daniel commiserates with his buddy Hugh and is totally oblivious to why his brother Archie is very troubled beyond his obvious PTSD from the war.  Other characters like their gardener, Oily Wragge, are cheery blokes who save this story from excessive heaviness.  The story evolves as everyone eventually has to grow up and realize that past dreams are gone, if one chooses, and decisions must be made of how to make a meaningful future.  Both Daniel and Rosie give the character insight into what they believe, don’t believe, and what they are constantly speculating about; that is what a devastating war does to people, even the British with their “stiff upper lip.”

Louis de Bernieres is a superb writer who gives the reader characters we want to meet and get to know more and more.  The plot is simple but the complexity of character portrayal makes this a sequel one can enjoy as a stand alone novel.  Rather than stereotype these British characters and their thoughts about colonization, religion, etc., we instead have several narrative voices who when combined produce an outstanding work of historical fiction!

Highly recommended reading! Now this reviewer wants to read the first novel in this series and looks forward to the next one!

Becoming Belle by Nuala O'Connor

Becoming Belle. Nuala O’Connor. Penguin Publishing Group. August 2018. 384 pp. ISBN#: 9780735214408.

Isabel Belton is the daughter of a military family, living in a small Hampshire garrison town.  Her father adores her, and her mother abuses her.  It’s 1887 and women’s roles are set in stone but that doesn’t stop Isabel.  At the age of 19, off she goes to London, dreaming of becoming a star and of course she does just that.  She’s quickly hired as she’s beautiful and a talented dancer.  She insists her sister Flor join her and they become the talk of the stage world as the Belton Sisters.  They do their performances but then become the talk of the nighttime “Bohemian” world where drinking, dancing and partying are the norm.  The latter seems their real love!

However, things go too far, and Isabel becomes the defendant in a lawsuit and that Victorian world has its way as the males who will judge her impose in public their traditional, double-faced mores. Later, Belle herself will face that same justice or injustice, depending on your point of view, and eventually escapes by marrying. She’s now the Countess of Clan Carty and able to do as she will without condemnation.  Some reference is made to her gay men friends but never goes into any substance on the issue, nothing beyond how that relationship serves to cover her less innocent deeds.

What saves this novel from being a stereotypical tale is Belle’s friendship with Wertheimer and Belle’s closeness to her sister Flo.  Belle’s trial is a tad interesting as well.   Given the time in which this story takes place, it reads like it took place many, many years later when Belle’s rise to fame and fortune were not questioned.  I wanted to get to know Belle better but that never happens.  One also wonders what happened to her connection to the rest of her family, other than a rather innocuous comment from her mother during her trial.  It’s only at the end when Belle is carrying a child that she can call Garbally Court “home,” leaving Flo somewhat at loose ends.

Becoming Belle is a nice story, a good summer read about the willingness to pay the price of attaining the top of one’s dreams!

Our House by Louise Candlish

Our House. Louise Candlish. Penguin Publishing Group. August 2018. 416 pp. ISBN#: 9780451489111.

Fiona and Bram have been living a “charmed life” up to now in contemporary England.  They own a gorgeous home in the “posh” section of London, slightly above their means but nothing to worry about.  Now, Fiona and Bram decide to separate; they will each live in their home during the week and the other one will stay in a rented apartment.  It takes some adjustment but they handle it with the best possible equanimity, mainly by just forging ahead and never getting around to talking about it all.  Then one day Fiona arrives home to discover it’s not her home anymore.  First, she thinks it’s a terrible joke but then there is intense shock, made much worse that Bram cannot be reached by phone or by any of his peers/friends. 

The premise behind this mysterious mystery is not one most readers will easily relate to but suffice to say that Bram’s very poor in choosing options.  What also might be amusing to some but comes across as somewhat incredible is that both start seeing other men and women but these experiences are low-key and hardly satisfying beyond the first infatuation flush.  The story is told from two narrative viewpoints.

The story behind their forced separation is tragic, to say the least.  One wonders how one would have handled a similar situation.  Of course, there are always evil characters quick to appear and make the most out of the incredible opportunity. 

Our House is listed as a thriller per the unending tension behind Bram who is constantly being afraid he will be arrested and therefore contemplating suicide and being threatened by the many involved in the plot against him.  That gets old because it is repeated so often and starts to seem like “Cry, Wolf.”

The other problem with this storyline is that the characters are somewhat stereotypical, remaining undeveloped and truly unchanging in spite of the disasters happening around and to them.

This is a nice summer read that some will enjoy as a unique mystery with a little bit of suspect romance in between the conflict. 

Four Funerals and Maybe a Wedding: Her Royal Spyness #12 by Rhys Bowen

Four Funerals and Maybe a Wedding: Her Royal Spyness #12 by Rhys Bowen. Penguin Publishing Group. Copyright August 2018.; pb. 304 pp.; ISBN: 9780425283523.

Lady Georgiana Rannoch is soon to marry her love Darcy.  Georgie is a cousin to the Queen but has agreed to forfeit her royalty in marrying a commoner, which she doesn’t mind one whit. 

Weddings are in the air it seems!  Her mother is going to marry a German (not so wise in pre-WWII climate of 1935), her grandfather is planning on marrying his neighbor and Darcy’s father is planning on marrying a princess of England.  Now she’s going to stay at the home of her mother’s ex-husband.  Wedding plans are getting complex since Queen Mary wishes to attend and wants many royal persons there as well.  That will all come together but what Georgie finds in Sir Hubert Anstruther’s country home is far from normal and is quite mysterious!

The home is covered in dust but worse is the butler, maid, and cook with nasty attitudes.  They refuse to take Georgie’s requests or even orders unless Sir Hubert Anstruther approves them.  It also seems the help has been “cooking the books,” helping themselves to a mite extra for their loyal service (or lack of is more like it).

No spoilers – suffice to say that a resident madwoman, someone turning on the gas taps in Georgie’s room, etc. and then a dead body pose significant risks to Georgie and her Mum, Grandad and maid/cook Queenie.  One knows the mystery will be solved but it’s the process of discovering the crooks/would-be killers and killers that’s done in a light-hearted, fun manner. 

Darcy is occasionally present so the romance side is just a snippet here and there.  Of course, although no one specifies what Darcy does for a living, it’s clear he’s a spy or something distinctly related to that profession.

Enjoy Four Funerals and a Wedding, a highly enjoyable royal mystery!

(Advanced Reader copy provided courtesy of Penguin Publishing Group in exchange for an honest review.)