Tuesday, October 30, 2012

'The Secret Keeper'

After I first read Kate Morton's first novel, 'The House at Riverton', I thought, "Now that was fine writing!"  Her second novel, 'The Forgotten Garden', didn't thrill me very much, but I had high hopes for her third, 'The Distant Hours', a novel that, while I found it satisfying, was a bit too long.

And now there's her fourth, 'The Secret Keeper'.  "Oh, Kate," I said to myself.  "Please get it right with this one!"

Oh, she did.  She really did.

Full of twists and turns, secrets and lies, 'The Secret Keeper' may just be her best novel to date.

It opens with a visually-stunning view of the English countryside.  Sixteen year-old Laurel Nicolson has escaped a family picnic by hiding in her treehouse, dreaming of her future.  But before the afternoon is over, she is witness to a shocking crime involving her beloved mother and a dark stranger.  Fifty years later, Laurel has become a world-renown actress, and she returns to her family home to celebrate her mother's ninetieth birthday.  Realizing that her mother isn't long for this earth, Laurel gently questions her mother about that jarring past event, and in doing so, sets off to find answers.

Her mother's story begins in pre-WW2 England and through the Blitz, through to the '60's and beyond.  Laurel discovers that three strangers, Dorothy (her mother), Viven, and Jimmy, have met by chance and find their lives forever entwined.

This beautifully-realized novel, dear reader, is full of intrigue and secrets.  The lies are enormous.  And the pay-off?

I'm keeping that to myself.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

'Steven Saylor, Honorary Roman'

Long, long ago, before cell phones, ipods, and personal computers were the 'norm' in every household, before cable television really came into its own, I had...public television.

If I didn't have a good book to read, I could always find something on PBS.  Be it a nature program, or science, or even political discussions, I was able to find something to stimulate my imagination.

When I discovered 'Masterpiece Theater', I was thrilled beyond words.  Finally!  A literate, well-produced series of plays based on, well, literary masterpieces.  When 'I, Claudius' premiered sometime in the late '70's, I was glued to my t.v. set every Sunday night.  It still remains my most favorite of the series.

Based on Robert Graves' classic novels, 'I, Claudius', and 'Claudius the God', the series begins in the middle of the reign of Augustus Caesar, then continues with Tiberius, Caligula (played by the incredible John Hurt), and ends with Claudius (with Nero in the wings, waiting for his stepfather to expire).  Bold, incredible, and naughty, the series gave me more than an introduction to British actors I still revere to this day; I found myself visiting the library much more often (remember:  We didn't have the internet yet), reading books about ancient Rome; Suetonius, Cicero, Pliny the Elder and the Younger, etc.  From there, I moved into Egyptian history, and then the ancient world was my oyster.

From that experience, I have always kept my eye out for any books pertaining to Rome, fiction and non-fiction.  When Steven Saylor's novel, 'Roma' appeared in my bookstore, I knew I had to read it.  And after I read it, I had to own it.  It's safe to say that I've read his wonderful novel more than once.

'Roma' begins before Rome had begun.  It was a mere backwater; swampy, muddy, with rough trails for traveling merchants.  Spanning 1,000 years, the plot revolves around the Pinarius and Potitius clans and their involvement in the founding of one of the greatest cities in the ancient world.  It ends with Octavius, better known as Augustus, Rome's first emperor.  It is a fierce novel; gritty and realistic, full of hope and heartbreak and staggering loss.  But, to me, it seems so true to life.  It's as if Mr. Saylor had actually lived-and-breathed his impeccable research.

And then came the sequel, 'Empire', an equally-believable account of life in ancient Rome from the end of the reign of Augustus up to Marcus Aurelius.  But although this novel is just as heartbreaking in spots, the madness of Tiberius, Caligula, and the others is terrifying.  Their sexual 'games' and hidden atrocities came to vivid life, and it left me feeling that I would have kept myself hidden away if I had been living in such a horrible time.

That is the power of Mr. Saylor's writing; how he kept me involved, how he made me cry, how he made me want to strike back at those who thought they were immortal and could get away with any cruelty and not think twice about what they had done.  And in the middle, our witnesses, the Pinarius males, suffer loss, escape death by the whim of a few emperors, and find themselves wealthy beyond belief.  But each man is touched by his conscience; one finds Jesus, another finds philosophers and a strange magical man.  

Now I await the third in his series.

Constantine should be quite....interesting.

If you enjoy these books, check out Steven Saylor's fantastic mystery stories about Gordianus the Finder in the 'Roma Sub Rosa' series set in ancient Rome.  The prequel to that series, 'Seven Wonders', has just been released and is well worth your time.

Friday, October 12, 2012

'The Lies of Locke Lamora'

You know how it is...

You have a stack of books; galley copies and newly-released; but none of them seem to suit your present need.  So, you go back to your favorites, those stories that had given  satisfaction so long ago.  The stories you always turn to, knowing the magic is still there.  

Sometimes, I'll pick up a Twain, or a Spencer Quinn, or an Austen.  Or maybe I'll try to finish 'Ulysses', or give Dorothy Parker's short stories another go.  There are times when I need a bit of history, or a biography.  

But a few days ago, I needed some fantasy...but not *cough cough* 'Fifty Shades of Boredom'.  I scanned the shelves and my hand landed on Scott Lynch's magnificent debut novel, 'The Lies of Locke Lamora'.  When I first read it in galley form, I was instantly taken with The Gentlemen Bastards, the gang of thieves that ran clever, clever scams.  But I wasn't prepared for the heartbreak.  I was astounded, to say the least.  I even shed a few tears.

The action is relentless, the evil is pure.  And the heart of the 'Thorn of Camorr' is tender, yet unforgiving when tragedy strikes.

The city is reminiscent of Venice, as are the clothes and manners of the nobility and merchants.  But those who came before left behind magnificent towers made of Elderglass, a material that pulsates with energetic beauty and color.

An orphan raised by a blind priest, Locke is taught everything he needs to know in order to become a successful thief.  And Camorr has never seen a more brilliant, innovative trickster.

With a scam in place, Locke and his cohorts are soon led into a scheme so diabolical, so evil, that it is up to them to save Camorr. 

So, on this rainy day in Oregon, I finished rereading the adventures of Locke and Jean, The Gray King, and the unsuspecting nobility of the city of Camorr.

Lynch's debut is brilliant, and I was overjoyed to read the second book ('Red Seas Under Red Skies') in this projected seven-book series.

If it's a rainy day in your corner of the world, pick up a treasured book.  Read it and experience the magic...all over again. 

I did.  And I think I'll have another.