CBR4 4: The Heretic Queen by Michelle Moran

Queens! Queens! Yeah, I’m on a historical fiction about women roll. I read Michelle Moran’s Madame Tussaud last year and liked her writing. Her dialogue is not as forced as Phillipa Gregory’s can be …

“My dear cousin, the Duke of Buckingham, sent me a letter,” she exclaimed to her sister.

Did people really call their dearest by their titles at all times? Couldn’t Cousin Buckie be sufficient? I know her books have a large number of characters but she doesn’t always have to remind us who everyone is.

But it also didn’t read like a Sharon Kay Penman history disguised as a novel …

“Pamplona was an ancient city, founded by the Roman general Pompey.” (That’s an actual quote.)

I love Penman. Fabulous author. Well-researched novels. And a wonderful sleep aid.

So, because I liked her other book, I thought I’d try out some more of her novels. She is a relatively new historical fiction writer with only four books currently. The Heretic Queen is one of three about Egyptian queens, starting with Nefertiti and going to Cleopatra’s Daughter. This is not a series and they can be read independently. The Heretic Queen is about Nefertari, wife of Ramses II of the Nineteenth dynasty, and her struggle to become Queen.

I really enjoyed the novel and the main character although I wasn’t sure I would at first. The weakest point of the book is the beginning. I can’t imagine how difficult it is to write a historical novel about ancient Egypt and maintain any historical accuracy. It must be ten times harder to write a novel about ancient Egypt with the main characters as children. Whoa. Those kids were, well, kids, and how do you write about kids in ancient Egypt? Children in most cultures and time periods have been considered miniature adults up until the 20th century’s cult of kids emerged. It was pretty risky for her to start out a book focused on three pre-teens, but Nefertari develops well and we move on with less awkward dialogue after the first few chapters.

Personally, knowing nothing about ancient Egypt, Moran seems to have done her homework. She integrates Egyptian terminology seamlessly and her descriptions are well developed. I found myself easily able to imagine the palace and the rooms in which these characters lived. I may be easy to please, but if I can feel immersed in a character and a scene, then I usually am quite happy with a book.

It was that level of immersion that I felt in Madame Tussaud. I was happy to see it again in The Heretic Queen. I have her other two Egyptian novels on my shelf (thank you paperback swap!) and look forward to seeing more novels from Moran.

CBR4 3: The White Queen by Phillipa Gregory

Chronicling my historical fiction fun reading isn’t something I ever imagined doing, but I also usually don’t read so many books in one month. Thanks Cannonball Read for the motivation!

Last week I read the The White Queen by Phillipa Gregory. It is the first in The Cousins’ War series that covers the lives of three women during the War of the Roses. I started with the second novel, The Red Queen, which overall I thought was good for Gregory but I hated the main character. The main character in The White Queen is Elizabeth Woodville who marries (or seduces if you prefer) King Edward IV of England. She is an interesting and controversial historical figure because she was a commoner who married a king of England. Because of her family’s meteoric rise to power through her marriage, they quickly gained many enemies. When Edward’s reign was contested by his brother, etc she and her family became targets. Her sons by Edward IV are the princes in the tower whose deaths were attributed to Richard III (although I guess that doesn’t really hold water anymore).

I personally found the character of Elizabeth more engaging than her rival Red Queen, which is funny considering my friend Janel had the opposite impression (Ah, the joys of reading). While the use of magic is quite heavy handed at times, I found the character less grating and her story is much more varied that Margaret Beaufort’s constant praying and cackling that “My son will be king!”

I was also really impressed with Gregory’s scenes of the armies on the move, in particular the description of the Duke of Buckingham’s failed rebellion in the face of the (“magic”) storm. Her descriptions have definitely improved even if the dialogue may seem a bit off at times.

Overall it is a good series for historical fiction. I am on the waiting list for the final book in the triology the third in what may be a long running series (Wha?! The War of the Eoses did end, Phillipa), The Lady of the Rivers, about Elizabeth’s mother. I’ve read that it is the weakest of the three. We will see soon!

CBR4 2: No Higher Honor by Condoleezza Rice

I left my Political Science PhD program on 9/12/2001. I’ll always be able to remember the day for an obvious reason, and for a host of reasons I was ready to start on a new path in life. I have to admit after so many years of living and breathing political science I was ready to bury my head in the sand for a bit (well, relatively speaking). So, Rice’s book is about the first truly political book I’ve read in a long while. She covers her beginnings in the administration as the National Security Advisor and moves through her time as Secretary of State. It is a long path in a very tragic and troubling decade, but despite a few slow moments it is quite well-written and engaging.

It would have been difficult to be alive during the Bush administration and NOT be aware of most of her narrative. Her book goes in-depth on the obvious issues–War on Terrorism, war in Iraq, war in Afghanistan–even if we learn nothing much new. I was surprised she included a discussion of the antagonism between the Defense Department/Vice-President’s camp on one side and pretty much all the people I could possibly respect in the administration on the other side (Colin Powell mainly and sometimes Rice). Of course this is Condi’s story and she gets to spin it however she pleases. I’m half inclined to read the Rumsfeld book just to see what his excuse was, especially for not having a post-invasion reconstruction plan, but I’m not sure I want to give it my time.

Beyond the most obvious events, Rice details some aspects of the administration’s foreign policy that were lost in the noise of the wars on everything. The Bush policy in Africa and Latin America while definitely having an ideological slant was for the most part positive. I can’t imagine a single one of the current crop of Republican hopefuls having the same level of engagement on HIV and other issues in the developing world (even if the Bush level of engagement was hardly adequate).

Another aspect of the book that makes it worth the read is that Condi is a political scientist and has the ability to rise above the ideology of the time to talk intelligently about the events. For example, if you agree with the Freedom Agenda or not, it is interesting to read about her understanding of it as a redefinition of realism that could incorporate elements of the democratic peace. I’ve even thought about maybe using parts of the book in my international relations class. Students could see the theories as more than just Political Science, but as a tradition that has emerged out of foreign policy and history and that is still interwoven in the actions of our leaders. Her use of theory is simplified but it is also engaging. And honestly, that is more than you can say for most textbooks.

Overall I would recommend to anyone looking for a narrative of the complex political events of the past decade.

CBR4 1: The Troubled Man by Henning Mankell

So, here goes some book reviews for Cannonball Read 4. It is too late to sign up but you can learn all about some books there.

My friend recommended this novel to me as a good winter break read. She just told me that it was Swedish and had spy thriller elements. She didn’t tell me that it is the final book in a series of crime fiction starring our favorite Swedish police officer, Kurt Wallander. Needless to say I had no idea it was the final one. I was a bit depressed when I halfway through I finally read the liner notes and realized I had started at the end. But no matter. In the book’s favor I enjoyed it even if it is the last of its kind.

When it opens up Wallander’s daughter decides to have a child with a man whose father was a high ranking officer in the Swedish navy. This naval officer, von Enke, indicates to Wallander that he has a story to tell involving high intrigue on the high seas, but soon after he goes missing and Wallander never gets the chance to find out what in the world the guy was talking about. Wallander takes up the mystery at his daughter’s request and soon after von Enke’s wife also goes missing.

Obviously I can’t compare this book to the other novels in the series. On its own, it is well worth the read. Generally I’m not a fan of crime fiction, but this book brings in the spy thriller elements that make it more than your run of the mill crime work. It also echos the finer qualities of John le Carre without his tendency toward heavy-handed politics. Actually, Wallander is about as apolitical as you can get, which makes the story even more interesting. He spends his time trying to understand the situation before him, not preaching about it (I’m thinking Constant Gardener le Carre here).

The only criticism I would throw out there is that Mankell tends to give information for which I don’t see a purpose, like the couple of times when mid-story Wallander decides to clean out his fridge. Maybe it is his attempt to create reality? I understand that, but it seemed jarring to me at times.

I don’t want to give away how Mankell closes the book on Wallander, but I have to give props to his approach. It felt absolutely believable. Read it and you will see what I mean.