The Year the Swans Came*

42323212The Year the Swans Came: Where historical fiction and fantasy collide by Barbara Spencer

Cathy read it as an: ARC

Source: Helen Hollick at Discovering Diamonds

Length: 384 pp

Publisher: Troubador

Year: 2018

The Year the Swans Came is tale of love and mystery that revolves around Margrit “Maidy” Bader and Ruth Endelbaum, their families, and the friends the two girls meet while attending college. The story takes place after the end of an unnamed war, in a village whose townsfolk are slowly trying to get back to normal after the departure of the occupied forces. When Maidy is young, she is devastated when her older brother, Pieter, unexpectedly leaves home. Years later, Pieter reappears around Maidy’s 16th birthday. With Pieter’s return comes the trials and tribulations of love and the deepening mystery of where he was and why he left home in the first place. Even more puzzling is Pieter’s connections to the mysterious Van Vliet, Zande, Jaan, and others who seemed to be a part of a small bevy of select young men.

Spencer masterfully uses detailed descriptions to bring this story to life. I easily came to respect and admire Maidy, her humble courage and her natural strength, even though she seemed to see herself as lesser than her best friend, Ruth.  Opposite Maidy’s character is Ruth, who is the girl that has it all, from money, to beauty, and to what both girls feel is the admiration of everyone she comes to meet, especially the young men at the college. Spencer also does an excellent job of weaving historical details throughout the narrative that give it a strong sense of past. Even though it is not clear as to when or where the actual story took place, the intricate details throughout the novel build wonder and curiosity as to the time period and setting.

As I followed the lives of the two girls and the connections between their families and their friends, the magical realism was not easily realized throughout the first part of the story.  Even though Spencer integrated small hints of fantasy as she thickened the plot of the love triangles and deep friendships, the tale felt more like a love tragedy with small hints of mystery. It was not until the last few chapters that the magical realism was realized. I was able to reflect back through the story to recognize how the legend of the swans was the foundation for Spencer’s story and how the subtle hits dropped throughout Maidy’s and Ruth’s journeys were a part of the magic that helped the story to unfold.

The Year the Swans Came is a tragic story for anyone who wants to become captivated by the lives of two girls who are literally polar opposites of each other.  It is a story of one girl’s love of herself and her physical world, and the story of another girl’s unconditional love for the people in her life. It is a story of passion and a story of anguish. Spencer has done a wonderful job subtly showing how magical realism is a real part of the mythologies of a culture.  

*This is a guest post by Cathy Smith.

Not Your Angel: Feminism and Social Commentary in The Hollow of Fear

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Author photo by Jennifer Sparks of Sparks Studio

Sherry Thomas is no stranger to defying social expectations. Her Lady Sherlock series (starting with A Study In Scarlet Women (The Lady Sherlock Series Book 1)) tackles many of these expectations head on, to the delight of her readers. From gender-flipping and gender fluidity to body positivity, Thomas takes the best of the Sherlock tradition and pushes its boundaries. The newest book in Thomas’s Lady Sherlock series, The Hollow of Fear (The Lady Sherlock Series), challenges assumptions more than ever, couching some important and relevant discussion about modern social issues in the guise of a fun Victorian mystery.

One of the most interesting aspects of Thomas’s novels is the interplay of gender identity and expected Victorian gender roles. From the start, Thomas’s Sherlock is a woman who takes on a man’s role in solving crimes, a gender-flipped version of the traditional Sherlock. Thomas explains that she decided to make her Sherlock a woman because it was “the only thing left to do.” Citing Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series as an inspiration, Thomas says that was “the first story in the Sherlock Holmes pastiche that made me want to write an adaptation of my own…” Then along came the BBC’s Sherlock, set in the 21st century, and CBS’s Elementary with its female Watson. After that, Thomas explains, making Sherlock a woman seemed the logical thing to do. Not only does this set the stage for the rest of the series, but it cracks the illusion of the sweet-tempered, sheltered Angel in the House the upper class Victorian woman was expected to be. In so many ways, this mirrors modern society, especially politics, where women are still often expected to hold traditional roles and be likeable peacemakers

Thomas takes the issue of gender several steps further in The Hollow of Fear. Whereas the previous books in the series simply had Charlotte Holmes acting in a man’s role by solving mysteries – she pretends to be her “brother’s” interpreter, who clients are not permitted to see since, of course, there is no brother – in The Hollow of Fear, Charlotte actively flips genders by dressing as a man so that she may travel to the site of a crime. More than that, her friend, Lord Ingram, knows what she is doing and helps her carry out the ruse, treating her as he would any other man despite his qualms about it. There is so much to unpack in this new dynamic, which upends those traditional gender roles and expectations in wonderful ways. The Victorian ideal of the Angel in the House is discarded utterly, both by Charlotte Holmes herself and, by extension, Thomas as her creator. In a time when women were largely expected to be under the care of a man, whether father, brother, or husband, Charlotte bucks expectations by carving out a niche all of her own, on her own, without a man to guide her. She further highlights her own abilities and disregard for social mores when she dresses as a man to carry out her self-designed duties. Doing so was shocking to Lord Ingram, and even somewhat to Mrs Watson, who helped her become Sherlock, but it helps highlight how the institutions of society would keep women subservient to men. These social establishments are still in effect today in many ways, from the hyper-feminine and unrealistic measurements portrayed in films and TV to the way that the majority of emotional labor falls to women.

An element that is closely woven with gender, particularly those who identify as female, is the issue of body image and relationship to food. Charlotte Holmes is not shy about the pleasure she takes in sweets, and makes reference several times to the “maximum tolerable chins” she can have. Some may view this as Charlotte’s use of food as her apparent drug of choice in lieu of Sherlock’s cocaine, as Conan Doyle’s character uses in the traditional tales. However, Thomas explains that, whereas Sherlock took cocaine recreationally when he was bored, he had the disposable income to do so since he is likely from the lower aristocracy or upper gentry. “Charlotte Holmes is in a different situation,” Thomas says. “She does depend on her work to pay the bills and doesn’t have the luxury of whiling away her hours on drugs. So for solace she turns to food, especially sweet thing.” And since she still wants to fit into her clothes and can’t afford to buy new ones, she uses her “maximum tolerable chins” as a gauge to tell when she can have another slice of cake or when she needs to stop. This system may sound very familiar to a lot of women today, using the waistband of our jeans to tell us when we need to start counting calories. More importantly, though, is Charlotte’s views of her body. While she did at one point attempt to fit into the ideal Victorian model of womanhood by being a slim and dainty figure, she recognized that it did not suit her in a variety of ways. When she left her parents’ home, she resumed her preferred habits with regard to food, and she does not feel ashamed of being a bit heavier than the so-called ideal for women of her time. In this as well, Thomas has created a role model of body positivity for women who might be feeling guilty over that second (or third!) slice of cake they just ate.

The real gem with this narrative is the way it highlights women’s intelligence. Charlotte forces Ingram to go along with her ruse, so he treats her as he would treat any other man of his acquaintance. To his consternation, she more than holds her own, blending into the male sphere easily and comfortably, shattering the illusion that women are fragile creatures who need to be tended and cared for. While this may not be the catalyst for a women’s movement within the novels, it does promote awareness that women have a life and interests beyond the men in their lives, something of a novelty to Ingram and even to other women in the book. It further provides a sharp lens through which to view modern feminism, for these topics are still relevant to women in the 21st century as well as the 19th. Even after 200 years of women’s rights activism, that it still comes as a surprise to some that women are intelligent beings with interests outside their homes, marriages, and children is both maddening and discouraging. Thomas’s method in using her characters and their approach to gender to highlight these points creates the perfect way to open a discussion about women and our role in an ever-changing society. We’ve come from the Angels in the House to the Hellions on the [U.S. Capitol] Hill. With characters like Charlotte Holmes and authors like Sherry Thomas, historical fiction remains a vibrant and relevant medium for discussing social change and the issues arising from it.

*Originally published on the Historical Novel Society site.

The Long Road to Empathy: The Tragedy of Oedipal Love in The Story of Kullervo and The Kalevala

In 1911, J.R.R. Tolkien read The Kalevala, collected by Elias Lonnrot and translated by W.F. Kirby. Tolkien later crafted his own variant, condensing the plot and emphasizing the grimness of the narrative. Throughout both versions of Kullervo’s story, there is a sense of inevitability and doom which is highlighted in several scenes. A pivotal scene is Kullervo’s rape of his sister, which Tolkien made darker by enhancing details leading up to it, highlighting the narrative’s sense of inevitability, and ultimately creating a character who is more empathetic.

Examining the different rape scenes and events leading up to them is a multifaceted task. A striking difference in Tolkien’s version is that Kullvero and his sister were raised together. They were twins and “dear to one another from their first hours…” (Tolkien 7). This bond is absent in The Kalevala. Tolkien also gives the sister a name. In literature, names imbue power, agency, and identity. The fact that Wanona has a name at all, and that it means “weeping,” strongly foreshadows a future tragedy. While naming Wanona allowed her a voice, Tolkien later emphasizes Kullervo’s inevitable encounter with her, thus negating her ability to choose for herself. Tolkien was drawn to the bleakness of the story and may have given her a name to underscore the tale’s relentless sense of doom.

A further element relating to the later rape is the curse of Ilmarinen’s wife. In The Kalevala, Ilmarinen’s wife curses Kullervo with death out of revenge. She begs the god Ukko to use his best crossbow, take a bolt of copper, and “Shoot it quickly through the arm-pits,/ Shoot it that it split the shoulders./ Thus let Kalervo’s son perish,/ Shoot thou dead this wicked creature…” (Runo 33, lines 263-276). Ilmarinen’s wife is angry, afraid, and asks the gods to kill Kullervo for murdering her. There is no sense of prophecy in her words, but her formal tone suggests that her curse catalyzes Kullervo’s fated death. Although vague enough to allow for the possibility of fate or events of chance causing his death, later events support the argument that her curse was successful, rendering foreshadowing irrelevant.

In Kullervo, the curse foreshadows a coming tragedy. Tolkien writes,

Woe thou Sari Kampa’s offspring

Thou has trod the ways of thralldom

And the trackless waste of exile

But thy end shall be more awful

…a fate of woe [and] horror

Worse than anguish in Anuntu.

Men … shall shudder when they hear them

Thy fate and end of terror. (31-32)

Immediately obvious is the phrase “thy end shall be more awful,” which provides the prophesying that The Kalevala lacks. Kullervo has been a slave and an exile but his death will be worse than these things. Moreover, the idea that fate plays a role is highlighted by the repeated use of the term. The wife implies that Kullervo is destined for a bad death, though it is unclear whether her words are the catalyst to this or merely foreshadow it.

Both narratives feature the Blue Lady of the Forest. In The Kalevala, the Lady does not warn Kullervo away from entering the forest. On the contrary, she steers him directly toward it. “Through the forest must thou journey,/ By the river thou must travel,/ …/ Till you reach a wooded mountain,/ Then march on beneath the mountain,/ …/ By the riverside go further,/ Till three waterfalls rush foaming,/ When thou comest to a headland…  (Runo 34, lines 143-154). Her instructions do not appear prophetic, but since Kullervo meets his sister in the very forest the Lady directs him to, it raises the possibility that she sends him there intentionally. Failing to build anticipation, The Kalevala moves the story forward without detail. Tolkien gives ample attention to the woods and the Lady’s instructions, building tension. She says:

Thou must follow the river’s path and … thou wilt find a wooded mountain. Fare not towards it lest ill find thee. March on under the shadow often bending to the left when thou comest to another river and when thou hast followed its banks soon thou wilt strike a fair spot and a great glade and over a great leap a triple waterfall foaming. … continue pushing up the river toward its source: and the ground will slope against thee and the wood darken … stumble across bleak waste and then soon wilt thou see the blue of woods of Untamo rising afar off: and mayhap these thou hast not yet quite forgotten. (Tolkien 35)

Unlike Kirby, Tolkien creates a deeply shadowed forest, fostering a sense of foreboding. His Lady also warns specifically not to go to the wooded mountain because some unnamed tragedy will occur there. In the most interesting departure from The Kalevala, Tolkien’s Kullervo willfully disobeys the Lady’s instructions and goes into the forest where, of course, he meets his sister. The final comment from the Lady becomes relevant at this point, for in telling Kullervo that maybe he hasn’t quite forgotten the blue woods of Untamo, she is implying that he is back in the woods of his childhood where he and Wanona played. Being in once-familiar surroundings could make him remember Wanona when he sees her. That he remembers neither the woods nor his sister, thus missing a chance to avoid the tragedy, is a masterful way Tolkien emphasizes its bleakness.

The narrative culminates with the rape of Wanona. In Kirby’s translation, Kullervo encounters three maidens, all of whom reject him, and drags the third one into his sledge. She resists, but Kullervo shows her the riches he has in his coffers and she changes her mind: “…To a bride the money changed her,/ … Then he sported with the maiden,/ Wearied out the tin-adorned one…” (Runo 35, lines 169-186). Kirby’s translation overwrites the wife’s initial refusal and replaces consent with materialism. This is a very misogynistic approach, for she appears indifferent that she will be raped as long as he is rich. She is merely a nameless object with no identity, her agency illusory, who has no objections until she realizes that Kullervo is her brother. There is also no mention of the curse of Ilmanen’s wife, and Kullervo met the maidens by chance (Runo 35, line 133), implying that fate is irrelevant and the curse has no bearing.

Tolkien’s Kullervo, while grimmer, brings far more detail and emotional depth to the tale. Rather than having three separate maidens reject Kullervo, the same maiden rejects him thrice. She’s uninterested in his wealth, unlike her Kalevala counterpart. Kullervo loses his temper and takes her not into his sledge but away into “the depths of the woods” (Tolkien 36), the forbidden place. Not only does Kullervo fail to avoid the tragedy here, he fulfills it. Tolkien writes, “Yet was she fair and he loving with her, and the curse of the wife of Ilmarinen upon them both, so that not long did she resist him and they abode together in the wild…” (37). Professor Verlyn Flieger suggests that Tolkien means for this to be a seduction rather than a rape (Flieger). She interprets this passage such that they reach an accord and share a legitimate relationship. However, she does not account for the fact that Wanona is “…adread and sped like a wild thing through the woods…” (36). This is mortal terror, not accord. Women often have to choose survival through acquiescence; however, acquiescence should not be confused for consent. Additionally, Tolkien writes that “the curse of the wife of Ilmarinen [was] upon them both” (37), indicating that the wife’s curse includes Wanona, linking her fate irrevocably to his.

The defining difference between the two texts lies not in the disparity in length, emphasis on darkness, or even the rape itself. It is Kullervo’s reaction and how he acts afterward. Kullervo responds with horror in The Kalevala, saying he had outraged his mother’s child, presumably referring to his sister; however, he could actually be talking about himself considering that he makes self-centered references to the difficulties in his life ten times in that same stanza (Runo 35, lines 271-286). Tolkien’s Kullervo tries and fails to stop Wanona from throwing herself into the river. He hears her “last wail” (38), a haunting image juxtaposed against the beauty of the setting. Kullervo sits beside the waterfall for several hours “as a lump of rock” (39). Tolkien paints a picture of a deeply grieving man who only later understands Wanona’s final words. Tolkien writes, “… foreboding gnawed at his heart for something in the maiden’s last speech …and her bitter ending wakened old knowledge in his heart …he felt he would burst for grief and sorrow and heavy fear. Then red anger came to him…” (39). At this point, Kullervo goes into a rage, far too late to prevent the tragedy the Lady had warned him about. Tolkien’s Kullervo is now a much more believable figure than Kirby’s. His emotions are complex: he is grief-stricken, he loves Wanona as a woman, yet he feels terrible guilt about loving her and her death. In both versions, Kullervo is an unsympathetic figure up to this point. Tolkien’s Kullervo, though, learns to grieve for others and have empathy. It is only then that he can find “the death he sought for” (40).

Although all events lead to Kullervo’s suicide, Tolkien’s emphasis on the rape and the relentless pain in the story build a character who is far more realistic than the one in The Kalevala. Kirby’s translation describes a historically rich narrative but it is lacking in emotional depth. Tolkien’s Kullervo, though frequently repugnant, is ultimately more believable because of the various emphases Tolkien makes. Focusing more on the inevitability of Kullervo’s tragedy, as well as crafting a situation which he could have avoided at multiple points, allows Tolkien to refine the character, explore the concept of fate, and deeply examine how details of a story can influence narrative.

 

References

Flieger, Verlyn. “Tolkien’s Kullervo.” Tolkien and Tradition class lecture archives, Signum University, http://signum.coursearchives.s3.amazonaws.com/LITC5301_Tolkien-and-Tradition/LITC5301_Session08.mp4

The Kalevala, the Land of Heroes. Compiled by Elias Lonnrot, translated by W.F. Kirby, Project Gutenberg, 2010.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Story of Kullervo. Edited by Verlyn Flieger, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016.

Little Fires Everywhere

34273236Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

I read it as a: hardback

Source: my own collection

Length: 338 pp

Publisher: Penguin Press

Year: 2017

Shaker Heights is a planned community near Cleveland, OH. All the houses are perfectly maintained, the yards perfectly manicured, the house colors all within code. The people who live there all follow the rules and look after each other and never have to worry about locking their doors. Everything and everyone has a plan and no one really deviates from it. Elena Richardson is a product of Shaker, born and bred, and she takes the place of rules, law, and order in her life very seriously. Mia Warren, Elena’s new tenant, flies in the face of everything Shaker, and Elena herself, stands for, living an itinerant and carefree life with her teenage daughter, Pearl. When family friends of the Richardsons find themselves in the middle of a contentious, racially charged adoption, secrets come out on all sides and have shattering consequences for everyone.

I loved this book so much. It was quiet and subversive and just about perfect. There are a lot of people worthy of sympathy: Mia is a free spirit and keeps moving to stoke her creative spirit. Pearl has never been able to make friends because they move every few months, so her refuge is in books and her own intelligence. Izzy, the youngest of the Richardson brood, is overlooked or criticized at every turn and struggles to find her voice through a series of increasingly irrational acts. These three were my favorite characters. I loathed Elena Richardson, even though she was a sympathetic figure in her own way as well. She was really the one who set in motion the whole devastating series of events, even though at first it appears to be Mia who did so.

There was just so much to unpack in this novel. It was subtle in its subversion, which is often the best kind. You are reading along and come across a scene and a few pages later you go, “Wait, what?” and have to go back to something. It hits you later and makes you think. Those are the best books. For me, this made me think about the various ways motherhood played a role in this narrative. I couldn’t stand Elena Richardson, but I wonder if she was a better mother than Mia Warren. Mia clearly loved Pearl with all her heart and would never make her feel inadequate or picked on and wouldn’t criticize everything she does the way Elena does Izzy. Elena treats Izzy differently than her other three children, constantly picking on her, being annoyed by her, criticizing her for every little thing. NOT OK. However, once we learn why she does that, it doesn’t make it ok but it does make it understandable. It makes me wonder how it might have changed Elena’s relationship with Izzy if she had told her why. Mia, on the other hand, has moved Pearl every few months. Pearl has no friends until they move to Shaker Heights, where they initially plan to stay forever. Mia might seem to love Pearl more fiercely and in a manner that I, at least, can relate to more easily, but she also may not have done the best thing for Pearl by moving her so much because she isn’t very good at making friends, doesn’t really know how to be a normal teenager. Mia kept a lot of important things from Pearl but, unlike Elena, she does tell her eventually. I wonder how it will affect their relationship, too.

Motherhood intersects with race when it comes to Bebe, the McCulloughs, and May Ling/Mirabelle. This was such a heartbreaking part of the story. On the one hand, I generally tend to believe that most people deserve second chances. Bebe had tried to do the right thing by her baby, May Ling, and when she couldn’t, she took her to a place she felt would be safe and where she could get her back when she was able to get on her feet again. The fact that she didn’t know at all about any resources available to help her wasn’t her fault. She didn’t speak English well at the time and she didn’t know what to ask or who to go to. When the McCulloughs tried to adopt the baby, renaming her Mirabelle, they highlighted the institutional racism they were inundated with. They had no idea about Asian culture or how to teach their adopted daughter about it. They made casual, cringe-worthy remarks about how she already likes rice and panda bears. Ugh. They didn’t even consider keeping her birth name and didn’t think it was wrong to change it until Izzy challenged them about it. They felt they were more suited to raise May Ling than Bebe because they’re rich and the wife will be a stay at home mother; the unsaid message is that it’s also because they’re white. The excuse they used in court is that Bebe left the baby at a fire department, terminating her parental rights, whereas they have been trying for years to have children to no avail, so clearly they want kids. At some point, May Ling becomes an object rather than a person, even if she is still a baby, and it seems like the McCulloughs just want a baby, any one will do. To me, that point is proven later when they end up trying to adopt another baby even after May Ling is gone. If I was so attached to a child (and I am, I am a mother myself), I don’t think I could bear to try to have another one if anything took that child away from me. It would feel like replacing the child with a new one.

Throughout the story, we wonder who should be a mother? What makes a mother? Can we choose our mothers? Can we have more than one mother? What makes a good mother or an unfit mother? Ng never answers the questions she raises about mothers and motherhood, and I like that ambiguity. She lets her readers think about them and come to their own conclusions about them. I’ve changed my own mind a bunch of times just since the beginning of this review…

The Splendor before the Dark

51ademwwk4l-_sx327_bo1204203200_The Splendor Before the Dark by Margaret George

I read it as an: advanced reading copy

Source: Edelweiss

Length: 592 pp

Publisher: Berkley

Year: 2018

This book picked up right where the previous book in Margaret George’s Nero series (duology would be a better term) left off. Jumping right into the thick of things, Nero has just learned about the fire sweeping through Rome. He rushes back, determined to do anything he can to stop it. He was in the middle of the efforts to stop the Great Fire, though later he would fall victim to rumors that he started the fire himself to make room for his Golden House, or, infamously, that he was fiddling about the fall of Troy as Rome burned.

Nero’s troubles didn’t end with the last smoke of the fire. He had to deal with fossilized senators from old families who were scandalized that he wanted to do things in new ways. Hey, kind of like the fossilized old farts in the senate today! How much things remain the same… Nero wanted to introduce arts and theatre and culture to Rome, and Rome, especially the patrician Romans, wanted nothing to do with it.

He also had to deal with numerous revolts, uprisings, and betrayals during his reign. Nero changed from an idealistic young boy to a somewhat paranoid man because of the betrayals he had suffered in his short life. He thought that betrayal, when it inevitably came, would come from within his family or possibly the senate, but he never saw it coming from the provinces or his Praetorian Guard. And certainly not from some of those he trusted most.

I really loved this book, at least as much as the first Nero book Ms George wrote. Here, we truly get to see Nero as he most likely really was – a sensitive, thoughtful man who wanted to make sweeping changes to a centuries-old system and instead got destroyed in the politics of it. He was first and foremost an artist and musician, loving nothing more than to write and perform poetry and music. I took years and years of Latin from high school through grad school; I’ve read Tacitus and his comments about Nero. I never thought they seemed very realistic. The outstanding research that went into this book and its predecessor really highlights how misunderstood Nero has become to history. He wasn’t insane, cruel, or in love with persecuting Christians. He was flawed, yes, maybe a bit childish and naive for the ruler of the known world. Likely he was a bit narcissistic, or at least he came across that way somewhat, but not in a malignant way *coughtrumpcough* nor in an entirely self-centered way, if that makes sense. His narcissism, such as it was, seemed to be derived purely from being a child of luxury and privilege and not knowing anything else. Sometimes while reading this, I felt a little embarrassed for him, as I think I was meant to, because, like others in the room with Nero, I wanted to tell him to stop, or ask him, “Don’t you know you can’t do that/say that here to these people?” He was so idealistic that he was really clueless about a lot of things, and it made him a target in a variety of ways.

As with all her other books, Margaret George has some absolutely lovely prose in this one as well. When speaking of the gods and religion, Nero has many things to say that were intriguing and well crafted. When one senator accused him of being an atheist, Nero replied that, in practical terms, he is because

“since we cannot know [the gods’] thoughts, it is best to admit that and proceed in the dark, unlike ignorant people who think they know and make stupid interpretations.”

Later, regarding the Christians who he ordered executed for their alleged role in the fire, Nero said,

“In some ways they are to be envied…. Having something so precious that it overrides all else in your life, even your life itself.”

As an atheist myself, I don’t feel this way about religion, but I do understand the sentiment. I hold many things in higher regard than my own life. Nero felt this way about his art, and came to realize he felt that way about Rome itself.

Combining thoughts on religion with philosophy, another of Nero’s favorite pastimes, is a terrific scene that comes just after he competes in his first chariot race. Nero’s wife Poppaea berates him for racing, an act that a charioteer (i.e., a slave) would do, not a patrician, and she was afraid for him for many reasons. She told him he was acting like a child:

“You are no longer a child. Or are you? You behave like one.”

“If I behave like one, it is because deep inside the child is still there.” …

“Childhood is a phase of life, to be put aside as one grows up.”

“No, it should be cherished, because it is the truest part of ourselves, the part that came into being first. …It is when we are our childhood selves that we are closest to the gods.”

This one reminded me to cherish my daughter’s childhood and to get more in touch with my own inner child. When Nero is on stage or talking about the arts, his true love, is when his real personality comes through. Nero and an actor are discussing the destruction of many of the theatres in the fire and how to rebuild so that plays can be put on again. Nero says,

“Yes, people need that. Especially after such sorrow. It helps them to know that life goes on.”

“Oddly enough, tragedies are a remedy for that. They put our own sorrows in context, the context of being human. Suffering is woven into all existence.”

“Oh my,” [says Nero,] “perhaps you are in the wrong profession, and belong with the philosophers.”

“Actors bring philosophy to people in a form they can understand,” [the actor] said.

I love this exchange so hard because it encompasses so much of what the humanities as a whole stand for. If you’ve known me for any length of time at all, you will have been subject to one of my epic soapbox rants about the vital role the humanities play in modern society and how it is stupid and short-sighted to cut such programs from schools. The humanities teach us literally the human experience, how people experience the world around them. We may have all kinds of cool technology now, but someone had to think it up in the first place, and think about how it impacts human life and experience. Just…don’t get me started. But I loved this scene for a lot of reasons.

Overall, I think this was just about a perfect novel. I just loved the deep research that clearly went into it, and the discovery of a man who is so different than how he is often portrayed in history. I think Margaret George has uncovered a more realistic version of Nero than anyone else and I adore the way she handles him and the multitude of myths and scandals that surround him.

 

12 Rules for Life

412z30w2n-l-_sx330_bo1204203200_12 Rules for Life by Jordan B. Peterson

I read it as a: hardback

Source: my own collection

Length: 448 pp

Publisher: Random House

Year:  2018

Jordan Peterson is a clinical psychologist, and this book is his formula for things to do, or not to do, to be a successful human being. He covers, as you may suspect, 12 basic rules, ranging from things such as stand up straight to make your kids act like civilized humans to tell the truth. Generally, it is a fairly standard sort of rule book. 

This is quite long, so I’ll put the rest behind a cut.Read More »

Watch “Patrick Stewart Gets Emotional Announcing Return To Captain Picard Role – 8-4-18” on YouTube

This made me so happy, I cried. TNG was such a big part of my life and there were times when seeing a new episode was the only thing I had to look forward to each week. The characters were not characters, they were real people. Maybe that makes me a geek, or a loser, but I don’t care. I love Star Trek, and I love these people, and I can’t express how happy I am that Patrick Stewart is going to reprise his role as Jean-Luc Picard.

The Pawns of Sion

51bvfgsfb0lThe Pawns of Sion by Scott Rezer

I read it as a: galley

Source: Helen HollickDiscovering Diamonds

Length: 445 pp

Publisher: Amazon Digital Services

Year: 2018

The Pawns of Sion is the sequel to Rezer’s first novel in this trilogy, The Leper King. This novel takes place following the death of Baldwin IV “the Leper,” King of Jerusalem. After Baldwin’s death, his young nephew, Baldwin V, the child of his sister Sibylla, reigned as king for a brief time as co-king with his uncle, and then on his own for just over a year until his own death. Sibylla and her half-sister, Isabella, are pawns in the games their men play to see who will be crowned next, for they are each next in line with legitimate claims to the throne. Throughout the political machinations of the Angevins and Lusignans, a young squire to Balian d’Ibelin learns that he is actually the illegitimate son of another lord, one of the main players in the political scheming taking place in Jerusalem. He also discovers that the woman tending to his dying mother is Mary Magdalene in disguise and that she is trying to find the Cup of Christ in order to prevent the Order of Sion, a shadowy demonic order, from destroying her and the Holy Land.

I had mixed feelings about this book. The writing is exciting, the characters are multidimensional and lifelike, the historical detail is accurate, and there is a lot of exciting action and adventure to keep anyone engaged. There is a  great deal to like. However, I had missed the first book of the series, so I was totally lost about the Order of Sion, which drew away from some of my enjoyment of it, through no real fault of the author. I do feel a little reminder or recap would serve well, though, just a short prologue or something, since otherwise I think this could be a good standalone novel. Also, the magic – yes, it is integral to the story, but it wasn’t really necessary, was it? It would have been a great story without magic and Mary Mag walking around, wouldn’t it? But it was still a fun read and I can cheerfully recommend it to readers who enjoy a bit of fantasy mixed with their history.

Catch-Up Round: Megge of Bury Down; The Death Beat

megge-of-bury-down-rebecca-kightlinger-130x200Megge of Bury Down by Rebecca Kightlinger

I read it as an: ARC

Source: HNS

Length: 252 pp

Publisher: Zumaya Arcane

Year: 2018

In Kightlinger’s debut novel, Megge is a woman of Bury Down, a small village in the medieval Cornish countryside. To an outside observer, her life may seem ordinary enough. She lives with her mother, aunt, cousin, and great aunts, working as healers and tending their sheep. However, she is actually the latest in a long line of hedgewitches. When it is Megge’s turn to learn the secrets of her mother’s magical book on her sixth birthday, it calls her a murderer. Terrified, Megge refuses to have anything to do with her family’s traditions. Instead, she learns the trades of weaver and herder. However, when a horrific event takes place, Megge is forced to follow tradition and fight to keep the book out of the hands of wicked people.

There are many things to enjoy in this novel. The main characters all have depth and complexity, though a bit more character development is warranted since the novel covered many years. The descriptions of medieval life were adequate, but better-fleshed-out detail would have added to the atmosphere. The recurring theme “What people can’t see, they fear; what they fear, they hurt” was woven skillfully throughout the narrative. The plot, unfortunately, was quite slow-moving. While this is not a problem in itself, it is when nothing really advances the storyline. A lot of back story doled out piecemeal made for a somewhat choppy read.

Another quibble I had was the age range of the book. Megge is six when we meet her, and 13 by the end. Based on the characters’ ages, I’d say this is suitable for middle grade readers but given the violent content and slow pacing, the book is for adults (and is marketed as such). However, many adult readers may struggle to identify with such a young protagonist. The novel was enjoyable enough, but ultimately, I wanted to like it more than I actually did.

the-death-beat-fiona-veitch-smith-131x200The Death Beat by Fiona Veitch Smith

I read it as an: ARC

Source: HNS

Length: 336 pp

Publisher: Lion Fiction

Year: 2018

In this third installment of the Poppy Denby Investigates series, our titular heroine, burgeoning reporter Poppy Denby begins the novel enraged with her editor, Rollo Rolandson. He made a bet – and lost – that an editor from the NYT could increase the ad revenues of Rollo’s London-based The Daily Globe newspaper within three months. If he does, the new editor can buy 60% of the shares of the paper, effectively forcing Rollo out of the position of managing editor. During the three months the interim editor is trying to improve The Globe (and surely none of Rollo’s staff would sabotage his efforts…), Rollo leaves London as part of the terms of his lost bet; he takes Poppy along with him because since she’s been at the paper, ad revenues have gone way up and he doesn’t want her making money for the temporary editor. While they are in New York, they stumble upon a puzzle they have to solve involving human trafficking, forced prostitution, and immigration. Somehow linked is the murder of a New York socialite in his penthouse. Poppy and Rollo can’t let it go until they figure it out and get the inside scoop ahead of their competition in the cutthroat game of investigative reporting.

As with the previous two novels in the series, this was taut and entertaining. I liked Poppy’s development from the earlier books as well. She’s always been somewhat torn between the way she was raised as the daughter of a Methodist minister and her own desires as a career-minded young woman in the 1920s. Her inner conflict felt more pronounced to me in this book. Poppy had enlightened standards for how women should be treated that deviated quite a bit from her very traditional, conservative upbringing, which at times causes her stress. It fit in well with the blossoming awareness people were gaining about the conditions of immigrants or people forced to work in sweatshops or forced into prostitution. While it was fun to see 1920s New York, I confess I missed London. In any case, it was an exciting, well written story and a good addition to the series. Recommended.