Sunday, July 13, 2014

Galileo's Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love

Galileo's Daughter:  A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love
Dava Sobel
4/5 stars

From the title of this book, I naturally expected it to be a biography of Galileo's daughter, which it is not exactly. I was a bit disappointed to begin with, as the first hundred pages or so are Galileo's early biography. Once his daughter, Virginia (later Suor Marie Celeste) came into the picture, the story became much more interesting.

Virginia was one of Galileo's three illegitimate children by the mistress of his early years, Marina Gamba. She eventually married, with Galileo's blessings, and he never lost interest in his children. Due to their illegitimacy which he felt would eliminate any chance of a decent marriage, Galileo had his two daughters entered into a convent at a very early age. The both became nuns at the convent of San Matteo on turning sixteen, Virginia taking the name Suor Marie Celeste and Livia that of Suor Arcangela. The son, Vincenzio, lived with Galileo in his late teens and eventually (after an unpromising start) became a good son to him.

This book recounts Galileo's personal and private life, using letters from Marie Celeste to give color to what would otherwise be a black and white, straight forward biography. Their shared love is beautiful to see in her letters--his to her having been lost--and the bits and pieces of every day life that she treats the reader to are thoroughly enjoyable.

This is a very detailed and readable history of Galileo, and gave me a much greater understanding of the man, his work and his difficulty with the Church. The conflict he felt between himself and his discoveries comes through very clearly and poignantly in his own words through his other letters. Her faith in him, and in the fact that he was not being heretical, is very apparent. It was interesting to me to see how differently Sobel portrays Galileo's fight was the Church--if her sources are to be believed (and I see no reason to disbelieve) it was not at all what history textbooks would have us believe.

As a history major and fanatic, I truly enjoyed reading this book. The alternate perspective of Galileo was refreshing and real--and made sense of a lot that had previously seemed murky to me about him and the Church. The addition of Marie Celeste's letters gave this book personality and took Galileo from a science god to a human being. My only regret is how few letters are in this book, and that the title is a bit misleading. Despite that, if you have any interest in Galileo, this is a must-read!

(Originally read/reviewed in 2005.)

Sunday, June 15, 2014

I Love You More by Jennifer Murphy

I Love You More
Jennifer Murphy
2/5 stars

I was given this book by the Amazon Vine program in return for an honest review.

I Love You More is a novel about a controlling, deceitful man (Oliver Lane) and the three lives he was living. When he is found murdered, his three wives are, naturally, suspected. This novel is told from several points of view: Oliver's daughter (Picasso). his three wives (as one joint voice), the investigating detective and Oliver's ghost.

I Love You More begins with a fantastic first chapter. The voice of Picasso, was real, the writing was crisp and the hook compelling.

After that excellent beginning, the writing immediately became banal, the characters (even Picasso) cardboard, cliched and not often convincing, and the plot lost it's power.

It was obvious by page 38 who had killed Oliver, so the intended "shocking surprise ending" was no such thing; it was actually just a relief to get to the end of the book.

The separate voices were not distinct enough to be credible and the situations (particularly those involving the three wives together) did not always seem plausible. Picasso, in particular, did not act as a child her age (even a precocious one) would, leaving the reader to wonder if the author has had experience with pre-teen girls. This is a shame, as the first chapter made her seem so alive and believable. As the novel continued, though, her experiences were unlikely and seemed to be filler to flesh out the book, as they added little to the plot.

There were also details that made the book difficult for me, that most likely would not bother others and therefore I didn't add them into my consideration for ratings. However, those actually from North Carolina will find the book frustrating. I know that Ms. Murphy thanks others for their input into North Carolina, and the blurb states she lived there for a while. Unfortunately, she still did not grasp the difference in between the three regions, nor the difficulty of travel between those three. In addition, she slipped into cliche with the types of women found in each region.

The other detail was that of handgun ignorance. If I don't want to give spoilers, I can't be precise, but I can say that the author has obviously never shot a handgun, and has no idea of recoil.

If Ms. Murphy had been able to spend the time editing and rewriting the novel to the quality of the first chapter, this would be a stellar work, despite the predictable (and so often done) plot. Sadly, she did not, and as such it is a less-than-mediocre effort.

Note: This is my opinion; on Amazon, 44% of the reviews are 5 stars.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Terms & Conditions by Robert Glancy

Terms & Conditions 
Robert Glancy
3/5 stars

I was given this book by the Amazon Vine program in return for an honest review.

Terms and Conditions is the story of Frank, a lawyer who specializes in the fine print terms and conditions of contracts, as he recovers from an accident-induced case of amnesia.

The arrangement style of the novel is clever: it is divided into small chapters (from as short as one page, up to a few pages long) titled "Terms and Conditions of ____" with the blank being filled in with the topic of that chapter, followed by a by-line. The chapters often have footnotes, some of which have their own footnotes, adding to the feel of a document with small print. I enjoyed this aspect of the novel immensely.

It is written in the first person point of view, with Frank as the not-always-reliable narrator. The reader discovers bits and pieces of his past at the same time as Frank does, with the other characters shifting likable to unlikable as Frank remembers more.

The plot itself is not particularly complex, and I was easily able to "figure out" what would happen in advance. The denouement tied up everything into a too-perfect ending, which I found unsuited to the story itself.

Frank, as a narrator, was amusing and sad, yet I could not feel empathetic toward him, possibly because he did not appear to have the depth needed for a character undergoing such circumstances. The other characters (major and minor) were also not fully developed, and at times the motives and motivations were not convincing.

Despite this, despite not being fully interested in the plot or the characters, I found myself compelled to finish. Glancy's prose was smooth and the unusual style worked well. I will be most interested to see his next work, to see if he can develop plot and characters to the level of his style and prose.

Note: This is my opinion; on Amazon, 47% of the reviews were 5 stars.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Quick: A Novel by Lauren Owen

The Quick: A Novel
Lauren Owen
3/5 stars

I was given this book by the Amazon Vine program in return for an honest review.

The Quick is an ambitious novel of Gothic and preternatural styles that takes place in Victorian London. It follows the traumatic adventures of James (the rather stereotypical shy poet just down from Oxford trying to find life and excitement in London) and his sister Charlotte (another somewhat stereotypical character from Victorian literature, being the sheltered damsel who bravely takes on the world to help her brother) as they discover a shocking, sinister, secret society.

I think that Ms. Owen did herself a disservice by not hinting enough during Part One of the events that were to come. I had understood this novel to be of the alternate history and preternatural genres, and therefore had to push myself to continue to read the rather generic love story until the first clue surfaced during Part One, thinking perhaps I had been misinformed.

On the other hand, I do feel that the publisher's attempt to keep the topic "secret" by not being upfront about the paranormal topic of The Quick will be a source of frustration to most readers. Called "suspense", with alluded mystery, it will not draw the appropriate audience. Called what it is--a vampire novel--the right readers will flock to it and be able to give it balanced reviews.

Ms. Owen's great strength is her ability to write in different voices, points of view and styles. I particularly enjoyed her use of journals and letters. I will confess, however, that due to the amount of characters telling this story, I did find myself overwhelmed by frequent changes of narration style and voice. Instead of being an asset, the varied points of view/style began to create interruptions, cause a jumpy narrative, and keep the novel from flowing smoothly.

I was also overwhelmed by the detail and amount of the plot. The Quick contains an extremely interesting story, but I found myself bogged down again and again by the vast amount of information I needed to retain to keep up with the action. This amount of detail often led to a slow, laboriously paced story.

I was also, sadly, unable to feel a connection to any of the important characters. None were strong enough to be the "hero" of the novel, and some were not convincing in action or motive.

The Quick is certainly an ambitious novel, showing that Ms. Owen is talented as a writer and has a highly gifted imagination. Her prose is generally polished and often elegant. She also did a wonderful job evoking the atmosphere with historically accurate details.

As this is a genre for which I have a particular fondness, I expected to be enraptured over The Quick and am disappointed to have to give it only three stars.

Note: This is my opinion; on Amazon, 24% of the reviews were 5 stars.

The Confabulist: A Novel by Steven Galloway

The Confabulist
Steven Galloway
2/5 stars

I was given this book by the Amazon Vine program in return for an honest review.

According to the blurb, The Confabulist is a "narrative that weaves together the rise and fall of world-famous Harry Houdini with the surprising story of Martin Strauss", whose fate was tied with that of Houdini's. Given that, I expected to read a fictionalized account of Houdini, "woven together" with that of Strauss. What I got instead was a few chapters about Martin and his mystery (that was easily solved long before the end of the book), a small part where the two lives do come together, and the rest of the book being a fictionalized and alternative account of Houdini's life (sadly written in rather dull prose).

Martin's life and story were interesting, the only reason I continued to read, and so I was disappointed that the focus was not actually on him. I am, honestly, not quite certain as to why Martin was even introduced as part of this novel--so little did he feature. Given his obvious interest in Houdini and apparent disinterest in Martin, Galloway would have done better to have simply written the life of Houdini (hopefully with more verve and liveliness) and left out Martin's "mystery" entirely.

Note: This is my opinion; on Amazon, 47% of the reviews were 4 stars.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Chasing the Rose: An Adventure in the Venetian Countryside by Andrea Di Robilant

Chasing the Rose: An Adventure in the Venetian Countryside
Andrea Di Robilant
5/5 stars

I was given this book by the Amazon Vine program in return for an honest review.

In Chasing the Rose, di Robilant chronicles his attempts to uncover the identity of a pink rose, lightly scented of peaches and raspberries, found on a former family estate. This rose was most likely brought back from France by his great-great-great-great- grandmother Lucia, and seems to be one of the "lost" old rose varieties.

In this academic and horticultural journey, di Robilant introduces the reader to rose growers and rose species, gives a history of roses in Europe, shares how Lucia developed a passion for roses from the Empress Josephine, and allows the reader to join him in his quest to identify and register his mystery rose.

Chasing the Rose is well-written, with smooth and graceful prose in a charming style, enhanced by elegant illustrations. In fact, reading this memoir is akin to a walk in a rose garden: the story paths meander at a slow and luxurious pace, sometimes winding back upon themselves, but with the end result being a thoroughly delightful experience.