Sunday, February 26, 2012

Book Thoughts - Portrait of an Unknown Woman by Vanora Bennett

Portrait of an Unknown Woman by Vanora Bennett
published 2008
445 pages

Synopsis from publisher:

The year is 1527. The great portraitist Hans Holbein, who has fled the reformation in Europe, is making his first trip to England under commission to Sir Thomas More. In the course of six years, Holbein will become a close friend to the More family and paint two nearly identical family portraits. But closer examination of the paintings reveals that the second holds several mysteries...

Set against the turmoil, intrigue and, tragedy of Henry VIII's court, Portrait of an Unknown Woman vividly evokes sixteenth-century England on the verge of enormous change. As the Protestant Reformation sweeps across Europe to lap at England's shores, relations between her king and the Catholic Church begin to plummet-driven by Henry VIII's insatiable need for a male heir and the urgings of his cunning mistress Anne Boleyn-and heresy begins to take hold. As tensions rise, Henry VIII turns to his most trusted servant and defender of Catholic orthodoxy, Sir Thomas More to keep peace in England, but soon the entire More family find their own lives at risk.

At the center of Portrait of an Unknown Woman is Meg Gigg's, Sir Thomas More's twenty-three year old adopted daughter. Intelligent, headstrong, and tender-hearted, Meg has been schooled in the healing arts. And though she is devoted to her family, events conspire that will cause Meg to question everything she thought she knew-including the desires of her own heart. As the danger to More and his family increases, two men will vie for Meg's affections: John Clement, her former tutor and More's prote ge who shares Meg's passion for medicine, but whose true identity will become unclear, and the great Holbein, who's artistic vision will forever alter her understanding of the world.

My thoughts:

Okay, I KNOW that someone in the blogosphere has raved about this author - I KNOW IT. Of course, now I can't figure out who that person was to thank them. Whoever you are out there, who swore that Vanora Bennett would blow my socks off - thank you! You were so right!

I love historical fiction. I've loved it for years. I particularly love the Tudors. There's just something about them that I can't get enough of. I read through every Jean Plaidy novel that my hometown library carried, probably 3 times, moved on to Phillipa Gregory, even dove into Alison Weir. I even waded through Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, which has to be the least exciting novel about the period ever. So when I saw Portrait... in the bookstore, and put together the author and the subject matter, I was sold.

Reading this novel makes me feel like I've graduated somehow - I don't deny that I have read nearly every Phillipa Gregory novel from cover to cover, even though I know they are pretty light on the "historical" part of the fiction. But this novel felt like moving from the fluff to the real thing - this was thoughtful and intelligent and emotional without going over the top like Gregory tends to do. It's hard to go wrong with such fascinating characters as the Mores, and Bennett does justice to this remarkable family. Meg Giggs is a delightful heroine, and while she is fully a woman of her time, Bennett gives her enough strength of mind and will that she doesn't seem backwards.

One of the things I was most impressed with was Bennett's ability to give insights into a character's thoughts or actions that actually made me reconsider my ideas about the situation. I've always found Thomas More to be one of the most enigmatic men in history - he began as such a forward thinker, and yet in his last years he was clearly a torturer and fanatic. In telling his story, Bennett was able to allow her readers a glimpse into the thought process that allowed him to make those decisions, and for the first time I began to understand what might have driven him to take the drastic actions he did. She made me understand the characters in ways I hadn't thought I could, and it was an exciting reading experience.

"But I also knew, deep down, that even if I'd stopped going to mass myself - the sonorous sounds of Latin and the solemnity of plainsong that I'd grown up loving now seemed tinged with cruelty - I'd never truly find my own God here. I couldn't believe in the ragings of Luther any more than in the fury of my father. Part of me knew that what I really wanted from those cellar meetings was just to be inspired by the willingness of so many fishwives and market women and tanners and weavers to endanger their lives for a taste of the truth. I wanted to believe that their passionate act of rebellion against what they believed to be the age-old lies of the church was the same as the rebellion I was mounting against the lies I'd discovered in my life; but I knew in my heart they were different." (Meg Giggs, p. 262)

I enjoyed this novel so much. The only tiny, little thing that bugged me was that it seemed like the ending wrapped up just a bit too quickly - after so much time with this family, a couple of extra chapters to give them closure would have been nice. But it was such a small quibble in such a great work. I can't wait to read more by Bennett - if you are a historical fiction fan, you need to read this, too!

Finished: 2/25/12
Source: my shelves
MPAA rating: PG-13 for adult situations
My rating: 8/10

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Book Thoughts - Gods and Fathers by James LePore

Gods and Fathers by James LePore
published 2/12

Synopsis from publisher:

Matt DeMarco is an accomplished Manhattan attorney with more than his share of emotional baggage. His marriage ended disastrously, his ex-wife has pulled their son away from him, and her remarriage to a hugely successful Arab businessman has created complications for Matt on multiple levels. However, his life shifts from troubled to imperiled when two cops – men he's known for a long time – come into his home and arrest his son as the prime suspect in the murder of the boy's girlfriend.

Suddenly, the enmity between Matt and his only child is no longer relevant. Matt must do everything he can to clear his son, who he fully believes is innocent. Doing so will require him to quit his job and make enemies of former friends – and it will throw him up against forces he barely knew existed and can only begin to comprehend how to battle.

My thoughts:

I read LePore's first novel back in 2009 (A World I Never Made) and enjoyed it, so I was looking forward to checking back in with this author. I was expecting this novel to be a quick, exciting read, and was not disappointed. As before, LePore writes about events that feel as though they could be happening at this exact moment - current political and global events give the storyline a feeling of authenticity that makes some of the more unbelievable moments ring true. The man knows how to write a good thriller, and I definitely enjoyed it.

My problem with the novel was that I really, really disliked the main character. I get that he is an ex-marine = tough, no nonsense, etc. etc. But I found it more and more difficult through the arc of the novel to find myself feeling any sort of sympathy for him. All of the bad situations of his life seemed to be solely of his own creation, and their was nothing in his attitudes or actions that ever made me root for things to go well for him. I really couldn't figure out why the strong, impressive female character LePore created would even consider having a relationship with him. The uber-macho male lead is what keeps me from reading a lot of books in this genre, and I remember now why they bug me so much.

If, however, this is a genre you generally enjoy I would definitely give this author a try. Even though I had a major problem with the main character, I found the bones of the novel intriguing enough to keep reading, and I did in general enjoy it. I would certainly read another of LePore's novels. Recommended for fans of the genre.

Finished: 2/3/12
Source: review copy from publisher via NetGalley - thank you!
MPAA rating: R for language, violence, adult situations
My rating: 6/10

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Book Thoughts - Firelight by Kristen Callihan

Firelight by Kristen Callihan
published 2/1/2012

Synopsis from publisher:

London, 1881
Once the flames are ignited . . .

Miranda Ellis is a woman tormented. Plagued since birth by a strange and powerful gift, she has spent her entire life struggling to control her exceptional abilities. Yet one innocent but irreversible mistake has left her family's fortune decimated and forced her to wed London's most nefarious nobleman.

They will burn for eternity . . . Lord Benjamin Archer is no ordinary man. Doomed to hide his disfigured face behind masks, Archer knows it's selfish to take Miranda as his bride. Yet he can't help being drawn to the flame-haired beauty whose touch sparks a passion he hasn't felt in a lifetime. When Archer is accused of a series of gruesome murders, he gives in to the beastly nature he has fought so hard to hide from the world. But the curse that haunts him cannot be denied. Now, to save his soul, Miranda will enter a world of dark magic and darker intrigue. For only she can see the man hiding behind the mask.

My thoughts:

After reading something as intellectually and emotionally stimulating as In This House of Brede, I knew my next choice would have to be something almost completely different in tone and style. I often find I need to take a bit of a "mental break" after reading something that has challenged me - am I the only one? If I don't, the next book I read inevitably suffers for it, so I've learned to pick something that will be quick and easy, and hopefully very entertaining.

Paranormal romance is not a genre I read widely, so I won't claim to be an expert. I don't have a list of authors I can compare Callihan to, and I don't know if this story has been told to death or if it is a fresh, new idea. I just know it was a lot of fun. There was enough "Beauty and the Beast" for me to feel as though the story had a bit of familiarity to it, but Callihan created her own unique characters and events so that it wasn't just a straight re-telling. Miranda had plenty of spunk and spice, and the romance between Miranda and Archer actually felt like it proceeded in a somewhat plausible manner. 

This is certainly the first novel in a proposed series, and if the next books are as much fun as this one, I might have to consider becoming a paranormal romance reader. I know this won't be for everyone, but I took a step outside my comfort zone and found myself richly rewarded. It almost felt like a palate cleanser, and I'm glad I took a chance on this one!

Finished: 1/31/12
Source: review copy from publisher via Netgalley - thank you!
MPAA rating: MA - I mean, come on, it's a bodice-ripper. What do you really expect?
My rating: 7/10

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Pip and Tad's Playlist - Patience

My kids already have very eclectic musical taste - we listen to music a lot, and they have very definite opinions about what they like and what they can do without. I have a feeling this won't be the only thing they have opinions on......

When my siblings and I were growing up, we had a wonderful collection of records that we loved to listen to - Music Machine, Bullfrogs and Butterflies, Nathaniel the Grublet, Sir Oliver's Song - a few years ago, my sister found them on CD and gave them to me. Now I play them for my kids - I don't think they appreciate them as much as WE did quite yet, but they sure do enjoy bopping around to the fun songs!