Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Tudor Secret by C.W. Gortner

I came across The Tudor Secret while I was browsing the library's new books. It's supposed to be a mystery set in Tudor England and since mysteries and historical fiction are two of my favorite lighter genres, I was intrigued.

The narrator is Brendan Prescott, a foundling taken in and raised in the household of the Duke of Northumberland. The most famous member of that family (or at least the only one that rang a bell for me) was his son, Robert Dudley, who was a longtime suitor of Elizabeth I. The Duke of Northumberland's youngest son, Guilford, was married to Jane Grey, the granddaughter of Henry VII's younger sister, Mary. Jane was (arguably) queen of England for nine days between the death of Edward VI and the accession of Mary I.

Brendan comes to court in the last days of Edward VI to serve as a squire to Guilford and is recruited by William Cecil to help advance the interests of Elizabeth. For his part, Brendan is interested in both helping Elizabeth, who he meets briefly on his first night at court when Robert sends him to deliver a ring, and discovering his origins.

Certain parts of the book were easy to anticipate, since it did fall back on predictable tropes. A young man with no family history taken in by a powerful family (even as a lowly servant) and educated beyond his apparent class by a caring guardian? There's definitely more to that story. There were also a few predictable sequences. And, of course, if you don't know how the plot to place Jane Grey on the throne ends, you evidently weren't paying attention in history class.

In spite of all that, though, Gortner does a pretty good job not being too predictable. Even though Brendan's parentage becomes partially obvious by chapter seven, the exact identity of his parents was a twist...one that isn't even resolved by the end of the book.

Gortner left a few things unresolved, though the ending definitely didn't feel incomplete or rushed. When I read in the interview at the end of the book that this was going to be the first in a series of novels with Brendan as a spy, I was excited to read more.

I'm a fan of Tudor books, though I generally prefer to read stories set in the reign of Henry VIII. The Other Boleyn Girl was probably the catalyst, though I don't particularly care her books because I feel that she generally vilifies certain characters to an exaggerated extent resulting in very two dimensional characters. To give Gortner credit, I didn't particularly see that in this novel...with a couple of possible exceptions, but even then, I feel like there was at least some groundwork laid and some historical basis.

The Tudor Secret is hardly heavy fiction and isn't the sort of novel that leaves you thinking after you finish it, but it was interesting and seems to be fairly well-researched. I would definitely recommend it to anyone who enjoys Tudor fiction and wants an interesting read.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

The Book Thief was reviewed by one of the book blogs I follow, though I'm ashamed to admit that I can't remember which blog. The review was positive, the concept sounded intriguing, and the library had a copy of it, so I checked it out.

If someone told you that a book was set in Nazi Germany and the narrator was Death, then you probably would assume that the book isn't going to end well for a lot of characters. Or go well at all, for that matter. That would be an accurate assumption and Death makes it very clear early on that several major characters aren't going to survive the story.

In fact, the novel starts with one death and one very bleak future. Death first encounters Liesel when he takes her younger brother. Her mother is taking the children to live with foster parents, Hans and Rosa, presumably because she is a Communist and expects to be taken into custody soon. Liesel's first book theft occurs when the grave digger's assistant drops The Grave Digger's Handbook after burying her brother. Liesel commits two more acts of book theft in the series, as well a few acts of normal theft. The normal theft brings her closer to her friend and neighbor, Rudy (who idolizes Jesse Owens to the point that he covered his body in charcoal and ran one hundred meters at the athletic field) and her book theft helps her grow closer to her foster father, the mayor's wife, a Jewish man hidden by her family, and many others.

The book's style is hit or miss, I think. In addition to the regular prose, Death interrupts the narrative frequently to add his commentary or explanation. It worked for me, though I'll admit that I did gloss over several of the bold sections. A few people seem to hate it, others seem to love it.

Interestingly enough, my main response to this book was "I really need to read Anne Frank's diary." The novel reminded me that while the German government was systemically killing millions of people, there were German citizens who didn't necessarily agree with the policies who were just trying to survive the war. Seeing people who either publicly disagreed with the government (at the beginning of the book, Liesel and her family are suffering because her foster father's painting business was failing because he repainted the door of a Jewish business that had been vandalized) or privately had doubts.

There were some wonderful, life affirming points in the book that restored my faith in the human race...and then there were moments where I shared the characters' outrage and helplessness. (Rudy and Liesel, as children, seemed to have more than their fair share of this, since they not only had to deal with the normal childhood feelings of powerlessness, but also the policies of a totalitarian government and the inequities of poverty.) The end was both heart-breaking (I felt that certain characters really should have had a chance to survive, if only because they had earned it), but also optimistic. I cried a bit at the end and I might have cried more if I hadn't been in a waiting room at the time.

I would recommend this book, if only for the interesting style. I liked it, but it didn't resonate with me as much as certain other books.