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Book Review: Leaving Berlin

Leaving BerlinI got a chance at the pre-release ARC of Leaving Berlin by Joseph Kanon as part of my membership at NetGalley. It intrigued me as a throwback to my time living in Berlin–and under Communist “secret informer” eyes even before that–, as well as a complete change of pace from my usual fare of scifi, fantasy, and romance novels. It was everything a political thriller should be: gripping, with small details that made the final reveal make sense.

The writing itself evoked Kafka and that hunted, haunted perspective of someone who has made a choice not to trust anyone. The politics of the U.S. Commie Scare drive the inciting incident, but the story has all the feeling of the titular location. The streets mentioned, the Brandenburger Tor, these were all places I’ve been, and the story felt every bit as surreal as a fantasy, being thrown back to when the walls still showed strafing–even as late as my last visit in the late 90s. But this story was also set in a time when the initial post-war fervor for ideology was at its height:

Alex looked at their bright, attentive faces, Brecht’s cynicism as out of place here as it had been in California, and for the first time felt the hope that warmed the room. Shabby suits and no stockings, but they had survived, waited in hiding or miraculously escaped, for this new chance, the idea the Nazis hadn’t managed to kill.

Politics makes for strange bedfellows, and this story, even with its early, disjointed jumps, captures the underlying reality that pushes questionable decisions. I know there’s a file somewhere in Berlin that documents the years I lived there with my family; my father has seen and read the redacted version. Knowing who the confidential informants were–who were also our friends–makes for another surreal echo for me in this story. As well as the classic German class distinctions and need for philosophical underpinnings and rationalizations. I don’t know how much of that will convey to someone who doesn’t have the personal experiences I do, but I suspect those echos will be as gripping and uncomfortable even for those without my perspective.

For that reason, I would highly recommend this to anyone who likes a “quiet” historical thriller, driven, in the end, just by the love of a father for his son–an echo across generations. It takes some getting used to the literary devices in the early chapters, but the action doesn’t let you go, either, so it’s likely a book for those who read a mystery once for the reveal, and then ten more times for the nuances that got you there. Even more, I strongly recommend this to anyone who thinks they know Communist history in its monolithic path. The details matter, as well as the personal lives and motivations that push forward such a stark ideology, and this story plays that out as clearly as any I’ve read on the subject.

Book Review: In Lucia’s Eyes

In Lucia's EyesThis hardcover caught my eye in a bargain bin a few years back; I enjoy foreign literature, and this had been translated from original Dutch version written by Arthur Japin. It is billed as historical fiction, pieced together on thin fact surrounding the legendary Giacomo Casanova.

According to the cover flap text:

She is a servant girl in an Italian manor house, educated by her lascivious lord, engaged to a young man by the name of Giacomo–and suddenly disfigured by the pox. Fleeing in shame and without warning, piercing the heart of her beloved, Lucia faces a bewildering new world alone. She will move across Europe for sixteen years–from Naples to Venice, Paris, and Amsterdam–working as a housekeeper, a lady’s companion, and finally, as a much-sought-after courtesan. In salons, opera boxes, and boudoirs, her curiosity and intelligence are nurtured by the revolutionary new ideas of the Enlightenment, passionately debated in spheres of society she has never known before. But not until her accidental reunion with Giacomo Casanova–now the tragic figure of infamous legend–will the lessons of her astonishing journey be revealed to her, and with them, her truest self.

The book is written in a very contemplative tone and definitely reflects the veiled perspective Lucia takes on later in her life. However, the distance the reader feels from the characters Lucia describes and interacts with allows for quite a few philosophical discussions, despite her being born into the servant class:

“Shame is one of the basest of urges,” said Zélide. “I place it at the bottom of the ladder of civilized feeling, between revenge and jealousy. It’s a destructive force, fed by fear.” I heard her close by but could not see her. “We carry this pernicious impulse within us as one of nature’s burdens, but we must fight against it. We must!”

With that she appeared, her face suddenly close to mine.

“Why fear what is?” she whispered. I looked her in the eyes. To judge from my discomfort, I don’t believe we had ever been so close.

It’s a fascinating account of a life made extraordinary by the intelligence hidden behind both simple beginnings and a grotesquely disfigured face. Its slow pace combines with its short length to leave you in a somewhat dreamy state, wondering what impact you might wittingly or not have had on the people around you.

It’s also not a book everyone will enjoy. Its antecedents are definitely in some of the Romantic tendencies of Europe in the 1800s as those countries fought to move into the Enlightenment. Lucia’s training itself addresses the tension between the unschooled, artless flourish of emotion and the cold logic of philosophical exploration. That theme carries through the whole book and could turn off anyone not drawn to those debates. But for those who are, the lush setting, ranging from Italy through most of Europe from a female’s perspective, contributes as much as the philosophizing to a lasting and worthwhile impression of the work–and a visceral understanding of the importance of emotion even in the face of so much logic.

Book Review: Shield of Three Lions

Shield of Three LionsI have to admit to being a little overbooked (no pun intended!) these past few weeks. I’ve missed reading for review as I’ve been focused on reading for editing–both my own and freelance assignments. So I’m back to digging in my shelves for old favorites that deserve yet another bit of publicity. For this installment, I offer Shield of Three Lions, by Pamela Kaufman.

My mom gave me this book as a hard-cover first edition for my birthday back in 1983. It is looking a little dog-eared these days, but back then this was one of my first introductions to historical fiction–to say nothing of being an adult-sized hard-cover with its own dust jacket. (I had previously been all about the Scholastic paperbacks and whatever library books struck my fancy, so caring for a dust jacket that wasn’t either permanently attached to its book or otherwise wrapped for posterity was a new experience.) I wasn’t entirely sure what to make of it (I had barely graduated from Nancy Drew and the Bobbsey Twins at that point), but willingly dove in. And was transported. From the flyleaf:

Shield of Three Lions is breathtaking and exciting–a panoramic tapestry of a novel set in the Middle Ages that weaves the sights, the sounds, the smells and the pageantry of a magical age with the story of Alix, an extraordinary young heroine. Bawdy, earthy and full of fascinating detail, Shield of Three Lions heralds a new talent who has a spectacular ability to entertain readers royally.

Nubile Alix is as appealing a heroine as ever graced the pages of a novel. Resourceful, inventive and irrepressibly inquisitive, the violently orphaned Alix disguises herself as a boy to seek an audience with King Richard the Lionhearted so that she may regain her plundered estate.

I don’t know if it was because I was barely out of 6th grade and this was my first truly adult book (including a very adult scene at the end of it), or if it was because I was approximately the same age as the heroine who traipses from the edge of Scotland through France, Italy, and Jerusalem, but this book has always held a special spot in my heart. I feel like I learned as much about the Crusades from the vivid descriptions Kaufman offers as I did about women’s issues and war, rape, pillage, and plunder. There really wasn’t anything that was glossed over, including the dread arrival of Alix’s first menstrual cycle deep in enemy territory.

To get that far, though, the reader is first introduced to the strange Scot who agrees to stand in as Alix’s brother and make sure she, disguised as a he even before Enoch first meets her, and his even stranger rites and beliefs:

“From this day forward, Enoch Angus Boggs and me be blud brothers. And I recognize that brotherhood and loyalty to the clan be the most sacred tie in the whole wide world. By bogle and houlets sent by Nick, by gannets from witches in the west, by the soul in my body, by the ghosts of my parents, by the Holy God and His Son, I swear that Enoch be my brother and I’ll ne’er deceive him by word or by deed on pain of death. Amen.”

Still choking, I gasped out the words.

“Wait, there’s more. We shall e’er be together unto death and–list to this well–we shall ne’er hinder each other in love. But we will help each other advance, and in our case that means land. Sae let’s hear namore of yer land or my land: it’s our land. And let’s hear namore of the demon Scots since one drop of Scottish blood makes ye as Scottish as me. We be brothers in all things. Now let me tell ye exactly quhat my plan be, fer I’ve had the long day to work out details.”

He then proposed a most astonishing course. He would keep to his original plan of going to Paris to study law, only now I, too, would go to study with him, leaving my wolf with Jasper Peterfee. Together we would explore every legal means of recovering “our land” at the same time that we learned King Henry’s whereabouts and made arrangements to meet with him. Once the land was ours, by whichever means came first, we would hurry back to claim it, share and share alike. …

I thought of the terrible events of the day. The very worst was drinking Scottish blood, for while I knew the vow of brotherhood didn’t hold since I wasn’t a boy and could be no one’s brother, I wasn’t sure that I wasn’t a Scot. A fate worse than death.

The range of details, large and small, that Kaufman wove into this book kept me enraptured as a 12-year-old and has enticed me to re-read the book every few years since then. I’ve since learned that there is a second and third installment to this story, and despite my normal inclination to read everything a well-loved author has produced, I have to admit some trepidation about how she could possibly have ever topped a story that includes everything from the Sack of Acre to references to Robin Hood and his band. The strange concept that Scots, another English-speaking group on the same island as the English would be so culturally different and Alix persist in supporting her early indoctrination against them until very nearly the end of the book, was actually one of my first literary introductions to the concepts of discrimination and prejudice. And the idea that an author could explore topics that could cause shouting matches among adults really fired me up.

So I’m happy to recommend this oldie but goodie one more time, publicly. For anyone who likes historical fiction placed firmly in the midst of historical fact, with a dash of romance and a whole lot of adventure… This one’s for you.

Book Review: The Twelfth Transforming

The Twelfth TransformingI read this book the first time in the late 80s, and have read it many times since then as well as loaned my copy to friends. This book is a compelling presentation of of ancient Egypt and fueled my fascination with that epoch to a great degree.

From the Amazon description:

Part of a popular line of historical thrillers set in Egypt, this second volume in Gedge’s bestselling series reconstructs the court of Akhenaten, one of ancient Egypt’s most controversial and colorful rulers, whose reign lead to the near-collapse of his empire some 2,500 years ago.

As someone who, at the time, didn’t know a great deal of the specifics of that era, but had been through any number of museum exhibits sharing elements of Egyptian archeology, the story sucked me in from the very beginning with its evocative language and intricate plotting. I had seen the bust of Nefertiti on display at the Egyptian Museum of Charlottenburg only a few years earlier, so it was my first experience of reading a fictionalized account of a figure from antiquity, and ignited my yen for the historical fiction genre generally.

When I get nostalgic about Egyptian history, this is the book I go back to again and again, for passages like:

When they had backed down the expanse of tessellated floor and the doors had closed silently behind them, Amunhotep sobered. “Well, my Tiye, what is on your mind? You did not come here to make love to a fat old god with rotting teeth.”

She quickly suppressed the moment of anxiety such talk from him always brought to her. He was shrewd and cold,this man, extracting a pitiless amusement out of every human failing, even his own, and he better than any other knew the irony in his description of himself. For at Soleb, in Nubia, his priest worshipped him with incense and song night and day, and a thousand candles burned before a colossal statue of Amunhotep, the living god, a likeness that neither aged nor sickened.

Gedge doesn’t gloss over the excesses of the royal court, and no less shies away from the infidelities nor incest and other elements distasteful to modern moralists. Yet she does it without judgement in such a way that every element of the story is supported and pushed forward by the logical weight of the momentum of action and reaction.

Picking up this book is always an invitation to lose myself in ancient Egypt for a few hours, and tonight was no different. Once again I am moved by the compelling (and cut-throat) politics depicted and the at once broad sweep of history that still conveys the deeply personal relationships between the primary players. I highly recommend this book to anyone with even a passing interest in Egyptology or Machiavellian-style politics.

Book Review: My Father Had A Daughter

My Father Had A DaughterI ran across a hard-cover version of this on the clearance table of a local book store, and decided that a speculative fiction novel about Shakespeare’s daughter by a woman who is an English professor who teaches about Shakespeare might be an illuminating view of the bard. Particularly since I’ve read quite a few of his plays and enjoyed the multi-layered language he used but never had any real sense of the time and place that generated those works.

Naturally, this book would also touch on the strange dichotomy of being a female in an age and area where that was commonly a hindrance to any career achievement–saving, of course, the queen, who herself was not keen on changing that status quo for her subjects. As the flap text in my edition reads:

Growing up in Stratford-upon-Avon, Judith and her twin borther, Hamnet, see little of their father. His visits are infrequent, and they know him only as “the scribbling one.” Bit by bit, however, he begins to share with them his poetry of star-crossed lovers, a jailed English king, a murderous moneylender, a fairy queen. By the edge of the River Avon, the twins devise games based on their father’s wondrous poetry to entertain each other whenever he is away.

The way Judith is written in this story, she has inherited a full measure of her father’s imagination. But where it earns him his living, it gets her in trouble. In fact, it loses her her twin.

I lowered my hand. “And now,” I said, “we must join the river god in his element.”

“What be that?” asked Hamnet.

I did not truly know, but I thought it should have something to do with water, and so I told Hamnet we must duck our heads three times beneath the surface. “One,” I said, and we ducked. “Two,” I said, and we ducked again. But when I came to the surface the second time I did not see Hamnet’s head.

Instead I felt his legs scrape against mine as the current carried him downriver.

From beginning with hero worship and moving to a desperate hatred of how her father portrays her mourning of her brother, Judith’s journey reflects the extreme of what a parent-child relationship can be. And it gives a broad-strokes view of what life was like for common English women in Shakespearean times. The whole idea that it was against the law for women to become actors, and what that meant for intelligent, imaginative women becomes the focus of the second half of the book.

I enjoyed the book for exactly that perspective: A woman who has researched that period extensively and is sharing some of that perspective through an accessible story–even if some historical purists argue that actual documents paint Shakespeare’s daughter as both illiterate and simple. This is fiction, after all, and I trust the emotionally evocative journey to adulthood as much as the stage dressing discussions that lend a clear background to the tale. So I can happily recommend this book to anyone without even a basic background in Shakespeare’s plays or writing, since his words are ably introduced as part of the framework of the story. Better, I can recommend this to anyone else who wondered about Shakespeare’s designation of his “second-best” bed to his wife in his will, and considered that he might not be as enlightened an individual in his daily life as he conveys in his work.

Review: The Trouble with Tuck

The Trouble with TuckI rang in the new year with a quick trip to visit family in Virginia, where I have a niece in the third grade. My brother honored me by giving her my name as her middle name and making me her godmother, so I try to pay close attention to what she’s up to–despite the distance that separates us. So while I was at their house and found her notebook with this book casually placed on top of it (and her brother informed me that it was for a class assignment in that funny way older siblings have), I thought I’d browse through it a bit while the house was quiet in the afternoon.

I did not expect to be sucked into the story in such a way that I found it impossible to put the book down. Author Theodore Taylor wrote The Trouble with Tuck in 1981 after having heard of a real-life tale of how a young girl in California dealt with her dog’s Progressive Retinal Atrophy. It’s set in the mid-50s and feels rooted in that time. From the product description:

Helen adored her beautiful golden Labrador from the first moment he was placed in her arms, a squirming fat sausage of creamy yellow fur. As her best friend, Friar Tuck waited daily for Helen to come home from school and play. He guarded her through the long, scary hours of the dark night. Twice he even saved her life.

Now it’s Helen’s turn. No one can say exactly when Tuck began to go blind. Probably the light began to fail for him long before the alarming day when he raced after some cats and crashed through the screen door, apparently never seeing it. But from that day on, Tuck’s trouble–and how to cope with it–becomes the focus of Helen’s life. Together they fight the chain that holds him and threatens to break his spirit, until Helen comes up with a solution so new, so daring, there’s no way it can fail.

The story moved me to tears–twice. Even reading the last three chapters aloud to my nephew was challenging, as Helen’s stubbornness warred with Tuck’s.

While this really is a story about the depth of relationship available between humans and their pets, the interesting subtext is how that relationship helps the human side of the equation grow as an individual. Helen isn’t even aware of her parents’ reasoning in giving her the puppy as a gift, but comments by her brothers, and, in the final chapters, her own self-evaluation, clarify her evolution in self-confidence.

I could deeply empathize with Helen’s drive to keep Tuck alive and appreciated the creativity she brought to bear in pursuing that end. On top of which, two days later I got to help my niece write up her first book report and talk with her seriously about the merits of the book she had just finished reading (while laughing internally at the irony that I write these essays for fun, while she faced the daunting task of stringing sentences into paragraphs in a logical way for the first time). For all these reasons, I’m happy to recommend this book to any animal lover–and certainly to any parent or care-giver who wants to enthrall their charge with a moving story about how life with even a disabled pet can enrich the life of the person who is dedicated to their care.

Review: The White Queen

The White QueenI’ve read several Philippa Gregory novels, and typically really enjoy the work she’s put into researching and characterizing the historical and fictional personages that populate her novels. I like that that she focuses on women of ambiguous character with complex motivations and explores them within the context of the time in which the stories are set.

Having read the author interview on Amazon, in which she explains why this particular woman, Elizabeth Woodville, wife to King Edward IV, was intriguing to her, I had high hopes for another engaging page-turner:

The things I discovered about Elizabeth in the first days of my reading about this period told me at once that she would fascinate me, and she has done so. Her background as a descendant of a family who claim to be related to a goddess was enough to have me absolutely enchanted straightaway. It is in the historical record that her mother was widely believed to be a witch, and that charge was leveled at Elizabeth also. This is exciting enough, but it also indicates that people were afraid of Elizabeth’s power, and I am interested in powerful women. I think she will fascinate modern women in the same way that many historical women strike a chord: despite so many changes in the world, women are still trying to find happiness, manage their children, seek advantage, and avoid the persecution of misogynists. As women of any time, we have a lot in common. Despite the amazing advances in the rights of women (and I am so grateful for these myself), the struggle for women’s freedom, independence, and the right to exercise power goes on.

Alas, after weeks of just pushing forward by dint of sheer willpower, I’m taking it as my sign that puppy elected to pull the book off my ottoman, rip off the back cover, and chew on the remains, with the result of a strange parody of braille on the pages at the end of the book. And maybe someday I will still read the last 100 pages, but for now, drifting in some haze between present and past with vague foretellings and forebodings, is just not engaging enough for me to finish:

I know this is why I have always hated the Tower. I know this is why the tall dark palace on the edge of the Thames has always filled me with foreboding. This death has been on my conscience before we even did it. How heavily it will sit with me from now on on God an  my conscience knows. And what price will I have to pay for my part in it, for my silent listening, without a word of protest?

I have read other stories about the Plantagenets–Shield of Three Lions was one of the first novels of historical fiction I ever read, back in eighth grade–and while they are all blood-thirsty and battle-hardened (and lusty), the overbearing worry that Elizabeth conveys as the narrator in this element of their story… just bogged me down.

Gregory’s style and research are still quite thought-provoking, and I may even read later books in this series, but reading a terrible story (brothers killing each other and their other close relatives…?!) from the perspective of a woman who worries about being accused of being a witch, yet continuing to practice witchcraft is just a little too anxious for me to be able to finish for now. So approach this one at your own risk, when you’re in the mood for something that will surely dampen your own spirits in its portrayal of human foibles and fickleness.

Review: Nightfall in Mogadishu

Nightfall in MogadishuThis comprises the fourth book I’ve been requested to review in the past few months. The author sent a lovely request to review both of her books, and based on details about her journalistic background on her author’s website, I had high hopes for a well-crafted story. Her blurb gives a particularly focused reference on the time and location that form the genesis for the action in the book:

We’ve seen Black Hawk Down, the movie on the horrendous firefight between American Army Rangers and Somali gunmen. But do we know what caused the Somali government to collapse, and why the U.S. had to send in troops? For the first time, the story of Somalia is told in the novel, Nightfall in Mogadishu. The page-turning thriller portrays the pressures that build up to the final explosion. Pieces of history are cleverly woven into the fabric of the story: the Somali nomadic lifestyle, colonial occupation and independence, and the rise of its dictator, Siad Barre, whose tactic of “divide and conquer” pushes already fractious clans into headlong collision. The story begins with the murder of a high ranking U.N representative in Somalia. Susan Chen, an undercover CIA agent is sent to replace him. Her job is to ferret out the murderer and stop the terror he wreaks on the expatriate community. With the help of two Somalis she befriends, she unravels the conspiracy behind a series of murders of foreign aid workers. But the ultimate goal of her assignment, saving the government from collapse, proves to be an impossible mission.

The sense of place Li captures–dusty, third-world squalor and unbearable heat–speaks strongly of the author’s personal experience in the country. In many ways these descriptions read like a time-shifted travel guide with journalistic overtones. The individual characters are also sharply drawn, playing with stereotypes and rebounding off the expectations those establish within their counterparts. Certainly, having been raised within overseas diplomatic communities, the insularity Li creates separating the ex-pats from the local population was spot-on. Even the intensity of the relationships and the undercurrent of uncertainty are faithfully represented.

For those strengths, though, there was something a little halting in the writing. Where the story should have been gripping–it is, after all, a spy novel–it dragged a little. I have to assume this is partly because this is Li’s first novel, and she’s not quite come to terms with her unique voice. She’s still a little too much the journalist striving for distance from her subject, and hence distances her reading audience from a unique and interesting speculative insider view/summary of the disintegration of Somalia. I loved her “summary” paragraph for its neat summation of the vast number of column inches dedicated to what went wrong in that country:

The Somalis had tried to live together as a nation and failed. Now they’d lost everything–the old way of life and the new. What pain and suffering the people would have to endure before they could rebuild a civilization. Out of the ashes a phoenix had yet to rise. The rest of the world had also lost. In trying to develop the country, either out of self-interest or altruism, the donors of assistance had cultivated a culture of dependence and lulled the ruling regime into believing that somebody in the world would always prop it up, no matter how rotten its house had become. The repairs had been cosmetic, the donors had known that deep down in their hearts, but for reasons of their own, they’d turned a blind eye until it was too late. In the end, they hadn’t helped but merely added to the severity of the disaster. They, too, had lost.

But it also underlines the didactic flaw of her narrative…

Nonetheless, for those who are interested in an insider’s view of complicated recent history, this novel does a fantastic job of drawing broad outlines of the players in the game and introducing an element of real understanding to a convoluted situation. For those who appreciate strong female characters, too, there is a lot to love about Susan Chen, the protagonist, a recent CIA trainee testing herself in her first assignment. I had to chuckle that Li was able to turn the “they sent a woman to do a man’s job” into a subtle, ongoing joke that truly upset gender bias and expectation. For both of these reasons I can happily recommend this book–and am really looking forward to reading her next book, to see whether this first experience has built on Li’s strengths as an author.

Review: The Dark Enquiry

The Dark EnquiryTo take a break from Stephanie Plum’s adventures, I betook myself to Victorian times today and read the latest of the Lady Julia Grey novels, The Dark Enquiry. I had been introduced to these by a former colleague last year, and was happy to see the latest one available for purchase as part of my birthday largesse.

The interesting thing about reading any series of books is the chance to watch a character evolve. What had been a frustration with Stephanie Plum is less so with Lady Julia. She reads as an authentic representation of her milieu — a sheltered aristocrat with an unconventional upbringing in a boisterous and loving family. She is honest enough with herself about her own foibles that even her childishness about periodically sticking her tongue out at the people who frustrate her is written in a tone of self-examination and self-mocking.

The most fascinating thing to me about this series is the evolution of the relationship between Lady Julia and Nicholas Brisbane. They meet in the first book when he is recommended to her as an enquiry agent to investigate the death of her husband. It’s in no way a romantic encounter, but from the first she is fascinated by the contrast he presents to her own life experiences.

Deanna Raybourn’s skillful unfolding of the layers of his background as a half-Scottish, half-gypsy entirely self-made man culminates in this book with a revelation unexpected but not shocking — and promises more such revelations in the future of the series. In fact, there are several surprises at the end of this installment of the series that show not only the depth of their attachment but also a realistic depiction of the enrichening (if you’ll excuse my coinage) of marital relations through the course of shared trauma.

What’s truly interesting about these stories is the role women play. Lady Julia and her sister Portia acknowledge themselves unique within society’s circle, but Lady Felicity proves herself unexpectedly slippery, and there are multiple angles on women who struggle against the strictures of their society’s rules. Even the spiritualist delvings align with the need the women in that Victorian era felt to gain some area of self-empowerment. But the ultimate theme threading through these pages is a tribute to the power of deep emotion, eloquently summed up by Lady Julia this way (ware the spoiler!):

“I understand now… What it feels like to see the one person you love most in the world in peril. And when I saw Felicity aim for your heart, I suddenly felt so very stupid not to have known… How savage it is. You were so right when you said that control deserted you where I was concerned. I could no more have controlled what I did next than I could have flown to the moon. I set off the explosion because I had no thought in my head except to save you. I never counted the danger to myself or anyone else. Only you mattered in that moment. Only you. And I would have done anything to save you. I would have paid any price, committed any sin, sold my very soul to do it.”

For that alone, the series would be near to my heart, but the mystery itself and the way the revelations were sprinkled through the story was very well done. I even love the element of absurd about the family name, “source of the expression ‘mad as a March hare’.” From the clues dropped at the end of the book, I’m going to speculate that Julia and Brisbane will be spending time with the March brother living happily married in Italy in the next book.

But that’s topic for another review. In the meantime, for anyone who likes historical fiction, mysteries, and a titillating dash of understated romance, I can unconditionally recommend both this book and the series leading up to it. There are a few moments that could give a squeamish reader pause, but the pace of the story itself carries you through it all in a realistic and gripping way.

Review: The Land of Painted Caves

The Land of Painted Caves I’ve been waiting more than half my life for this series to finally be completed… and was thrilled earlier this year to discover a publication date for what is billed as the final in the series. When I picked it up, though, I discovered that for all the time in development, this was the weakest of the series. If I hadn’t wanted to know how the story developed, I wouldn’t have had the patience to slog through the first 3/4 of the book. This particular book even challenged my ability to finish, taking me four days to pick through from start to end.

The truly unfortunate aspect was the really poor editing, something I’m becoming much more sensitized to as I take on more of that work myself. Someone needed to get in Auel’s face about her use of passive voice, inconsistent and incorrect verb tenses, and unclear referents. A teaching novel, this is not–unless it’s for examples of what not to do.

An unfortunate number of passages seemed to have been cut and pasted either from elsewhere in this book, or from earlier descriptions in other books, so it reads very repetitively, and encourages you to skip over entire passages to rejoin the action later on. In particular, although apparently Auel had been to all the caves she describes in such detail, for me as a reader, I lost track of which was what, and never really understood why I needed detailed dimensional descriptions in addition to the overwhelming number of ancient art descriptions. Yet, for all the details, (maybe because of all the details…?) I never really developed a clear picture of what Ayla and First were looking at.

Another frustration: Auel has built up a “premonition” Ayla has from the time of the Mammoth Hunters book about her two sons meeting. By the putative end of the series with this book, that still hasn’t happened. In fact, the end of the book really begs the question of whether there might not be a seventh book. Way back in 1986, she was interviewed in the Washington Post for the release of Mammoth Hunters (2/21/1986–which I clipped way back then and kept with the books) and admitted she had never written a word before her 40th birthday… though she was a voracious reader. The unfortunate truth is that it seems she had a better handle on (or maybe listened better to her support staff) how and what to write when she started this series than when she ended it–even though she described her first effort as a novel in six parts, and just did the rewrites to make each part stand on its own as a novel. I would have hoped, with a process that was that revision-oriented and based on such a detailed understanding of plot direction that the end of the series would have brought a much more satisfying resolution.

My recommendation: Read this only if you have to know how the series you’ve been committed to for decades ends.

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