Monday, September 30, 2013

The Last of the Wine

Title: The Last of the Wine
Author: Mary Renault
Genre: Historical Fiction
Published: 1956
Rating: 8/10

Review: Chad suggested that we read The Last of the Wine as a group read. He learned of the book from Jo Walton's Among Others. After I finished reading the novel, I went back and took a look at what the protagonist in Among Others says about the book and honestly there's very little beyond the mentioning of Plato. So while I am completely mystified as to why this book stood out next to the million books mentioned in Among Others, I am really glad it did since I definitely enjoyed it.

There's a huge contrast to The Game of Kings, which I just finished reading. On one hand, the author manages to convey the feel of Ancient Greece perfectly well without using any sort of convoluted language and gets deep into the psyche of her characters who are the focus of the story. On the other hand, the contents of the plot are extremely linear and simple compared to The Game of Kings. It's funny how these two books are so similar at a glance -- they both have a fictional protagonist surrounded by historical figures, war, relationships, intrigue -- and yet, the two books couldn't be any more different in writing style, plotting, and the message they convey.

The Last of the Wine is written in the form of a memoir by a well-born Athenian named Alexias. He tells of his birth and boyhood, his friendship with Socrates, Plato, and Xenophon, his relationships familial and sexual, and finally his fight against the oligarchs, Spartans, and others. The outcomes of many such stories could be easily predicted by someone who has studied the Peloponnesian War, but I am not one of these folks, so there was a sense of suspense for what will happen.

One difference from The Game of Kings is the way the history was presented; I didn't feel overwhelmed by facts and figures and factions. I have actually managed to get a feel for what happened in the conflict between Athens and Sparta and a general feel for the politics of the time. I still had to flip back sometimes to remember who was who at times, but it was definitely much more manageable a book.

I was really interested in the portrayal of the famous Greek philosophers such as Socrates and Plato and I liked the way Renault imbued them with a sense of humanity despite the fact that Socrates seemed to be impossibly insightful all the time. It kindled my interest enough to spend a few hours on the Wikipedia today reading about the facts of these historical figures and it was surprising how much of this knowledge I already got from the novel.

Another unusual detail in The Last of the Wine is the focus on homosexual relationships between men. The book postulates that relationships between men were commonplace and encouraged and even codified by the Greek society. I don't know how historically accurate this portrayal is, but the relationship between Alexias and Lysis feels natural and genuine. This doesn't prevent them from having sex with women and marrying and the way the two are combined is internally consistent. Women get treated pretty much like property, rather than partners in the book, and the men lovers are the actual confidants.

All in all, I enjoyed The Last of the Wine despite the fact that the story didn't have a strong plot. The characters and the surroundings more than made up for it and I even checked whether there was a sequel to the story, but alas.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Game of Kings

Title: The Game of Kings
Author: Dorothy Dunnett
Series: The Lymond Chronicles, book 1
Genre: Historical Fiction
Published: 1961
Rating: 7/10

Review: I picked up The Game of Kings expecting it to be a quick and entertaining read. However the book both disappointed and exceeded my expectations. I haven't read something I have felt this conflicted about for a long time.

At first I found this book to be a really slow going. There are historical battles, skirmishes, and maneuvers going on throughout the book that I really didn't care much about and the number of characters and their politics make the book pretty confusing. Worst of all is probably the language in which the book is written is imitating an old-English style and at times I just had to guess what the author is trying to say. Oh, and not to forget countless French, Spanish, and Latin quotations throughout. Here's an example of a passage early in the book:
"Softly, softly! Remember your superior upbringing, and your Caxton. How gentlemen shall be known from Churls. Don't be a Churl, Marigold. Full of sloth in his wars, full of boast in his manhood, full of cowardice to his enemy, full of lechery to his body, full of drinking and drunkenness. Revoking his own challenge; slaying his prisoner with his own hands; riding from his sovereign's banner in the field; telling his sovereign false tales..."
This is the style in which the main character, Lymond talks throughout the book and while comprehensible, it's often not the easiest dialogue to understand.

Nevertheless, despite all the issues I had with the novel from very early on there was something to the story that really hooked me in and urged me to continue reading. The chapters are chess-themed and represent various intrigues in the novel. And I have to admit to the book being intricately plotted. Things come together in some very interesting ways towards the end of the novel and I really liked all the twists and turns the book ended up taking.

The second half of the book went much faster than the first. I guess I got used to the writing style and finally started to tell who's who in the book and started enjoying some of the characters a whole lot more than I did at the beginning. I don't think I picked up much in terms of history beyond the fact that Scotts and English fought a whole lot in 1540s, but that wasn't my main objective anyways. The story ended up being worth reading and I would probably recommend this novel to anyone who likes a good intrigue and is willing to put up with the thorny writing style.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

How the Light Gets In

Title: How the Light Gets In
Author: Louise Penny
Series: Inspector Gamache, book 9
Genre: Mystery
Published: 2013
Rating: 8/10

Review: I bought the hardcover copy of this book at Louise Penny's recent library visit to my neighborhood. My copy says, "To Maria, Welcome back to Three Pines". I may have criticized the ending of the previous book while she was signing my book, but I was still certainly looking forward to finding out what was going to happen to Gamache and Beauvoir.

The story is set back in Three Pines once more. In fact, during her talk, the author mentioned that she's planning to continue staging her series in Three Pines every other book in order to make sure that Three Pines doesn't turn into Cabot Cove. In this book, Gamache investigates a murder of a woman who was famous for being born a quint -- one sister out of five sharing a birthday -- born naturally before IVF was invented.

However, the murder of a quint is probably the least significant part of the novel because the story arch of conspiracies and treacheries started in the previous books finally comes to a resolution. We get to find out who leaked the warehouse attack video and more about Francoeur's political dealings as well as his latest plot.

It's a comparatively action-packed book and one I enjoyed more than several preceding offerings. It's a very satisfying ending and one I really enjoyed. There were a few things that bothered me in the book -- some of the events came together a little too smoothly, but overall it was a pretty gripping plot. I am still not convinced about the Beauvoir's relationship to Gamache in this series, but I am willing to suspend my disbelief at the premise and enjoy the rest all the same. Especially with all the favorite folks from Three Pines back in the game.

I also really liked Louise Penny's explanation for the title of this book. Apparently it comes from a verse of Leonard Cohen's lyrics:
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That's how the light gets in.
The imagery fits really well with the contents of the book and I am totally looking forward to the next book in the series.

P.S. On a completely unrelated note I saw How the Light Gets In on NPR's hardcover fiction list with a completely incorrect plot summary. How do these people manage that? Ruth does not disappear in this book... sigh. 

Sunday, September 1, 2013

July and August Recap

Even though I've left school quite a few years ago, it's hard to not associate September with the start of the school year. I sort of miss the trips for school supplies and the anticipation of new classes. When I was in elementary school, they used to give us lists of books to read through the summer. Now I just wish that I would have three months off to laze around and read books and have someone cook for me. Despite not getting the summer vacation, I did do quite a bit reading this summer and I am happy with all the reading I have done. There were lots of enjoyable books in the past two months.
  1. The Algebraist by Iain Banks
  2. The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neal Gaiman
  3. Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg
  4. Graceling by Kristin Cashore
  5. Blackout by Connie Willis
  6. All Clear by Connie Willis
  7. The Human Division by John Scalzi
  8. Boy Nobody by Allen Zadoff
  9. Divergent by Veronica Roth
  10. Insurgent by Veronica Roth
I enjoyed Connie Willis' books very much. This has been my year for lots of WWII lit and Willis has really brought the period into color for me. I also really enjoyed watching The Bletchley Circle which is a short series following four women who were code-breakers during WWII and reunite again after the war to find a serial killer on the loose.

I also got to meet Louise Penny this month whose mystery series I've been devouring all year. I went to her talk and book signing and found myself the youngest person in the room by a 30 year margin. She signed her latest novel, How the Light Gets In, for me and I actually asked her about the unsatisfying relationship conflict in the previous book, A Beautiful Mystery. She defended her character choices, and though I wasn't necessarily convinced, I am looking forward to the latest book to see where she takes it next.