Wednesday, March 19, 2014

“'By all the gods, 'Hotep, is [Akenaten] mad?' I asked... ...'Oh, yes,' he whispered into my shoulder. 'He is quite mad.'”

4 out of 5 stars

As it's been a while (a long while!) since I read this book, I don't think I'll be able to turn my notes into a coherent, "traditional" review, so I'll just post them here as-is.

-Like other reviewers have pointed out, the continued use of “the phallus” got old very quickly. After the first use, in fact. And, for me, it wasn't necessarily the use of the word 'phallus' that bothered me, though it was annoying enough; no, it was the fact that it was always referred to as “the phallus.” Greenwood slipped up one time and wrote “my phallus,” and, oh boy, I had a hearty chuckle over that.
--Once again, Nefertiti is portrayed as being beautiful yet stupid. I mean, I guess I can see that as one explanation as to why she goes along with Akenaten's new religion—Greenwood writes Nefertiti as extremely biddable and easily placated, as someone who won't be dissuaded from a path of action once she's fixed on it, no matter how much anyone argues with her to the contrary—I'm just getting tired of people writing beautiful women as also being stupid. Haven't there been many beautiful women, both famous, infamous, and ordinary, over the centuries who have been twice-cursed with both brains and beauty? Why not Nefertiti as well? I guess I'd just like to see her written as being rather canny, perhaps as a woman who used Akenaten for her purposes rather than simply bowed to his. Maybe I'm just daydreaming.
--I am not a lettered or professional historian or Egyptologist; I'm more what you would call an “armchair” expert. So I can't comment on the research Greenwood has done in order to write this book, though, to my eyes, it looks comprehensive enough. And some of the hypotheses she's used in her story seem perfectly reasonable, especially as regards to Akenaten's personality. After all, Akenaten was a cult leader, probably one of the first. He managed to convince an entire country, willing or not, to abandon their belief system in favor of a god, the Aten, he may not have necessarily created but certainly limned in the image decreed by Akenaten. Because of this high-handed approach, Akenaten, as described by Greenwood, is dreamy, unfocused, unconcerned with day-to-day problems, yet also completely ruthless, megalomaniacal, deluded as well as delusional, and completely willing to sacrifice anyone in the service of his religion and his goals for the Aten. The Amarna period is a fascinating one and ripe for all sorts of exploration and deconstruction by novelists. It's also quite vulnerable to revision, which makes the version presented by Greenwood the most realistic, even probable.
--I think the main problem I had with the book, apart from it not being a mystery despite what it says on the cover (which I really can't figure out, unless they're talking about the mystery of Amarna and the goings-on of Akenaten et al, but even that seems rather senseless). What was I saying? Oh, yes, the main problem I had with the book is that it seemed as though it couldn't decide whether to be a dynamic tale of two people set in the court of Akenaten or an expanded version of one of those “What Life was Like...” books, where the daily activities of the Amarna period are brought to life by showing a couple of characters, real or fictional, acting them out. The story itself was compelling, at its heart, that of two people, Mutnodjme, half-sister to Nefertiti, and Ptah-Hotep, Great Royal Scribe, who get caught up in the center of the whirlwind changes instigated by Akenaten, from their beginnings to the bitter end. The story alternates between those two P.O.V.s, which is fine. However, where the “What Life was Like...” aspect came in was with the insertion of almost tedious asides, such as the numerous poems and songs and fables and parables recited by one character or another for the edification of some other character and, by extension, the reader. After the first couple of these recitations, which didn't seem to have any bearing on the actual plot, I started skimming over the others whenever they appeared, which was quite frequently. It's not that I have anything against reading ancient Egyptian literature; quite the contrary, in fact. I just didn't see the point of inserting so many examples of their writing into the novel. Yes, when the characters quoted something wise or on point in regards to the action of the moment, those were relevant, but the others simply felt like an excuse for Greenwood to share some of her research with us.
--It was hilarious at the end of the book: Someone forgot to put the end tag to some italic text (yet another piece of Egyptian writing, this time an edict by Horemheb, concerning his right to the throne), meaning that the last two and a half pages of the book were italicized. This has been the poorliest (that's a word, right?) edited book of Greenwood's put out by Poison Pen Press that I've ever read. The constant italics were the worst error, but I saw many others as I read, usually having to do with punctuation. Was PPP in that much of a rush to publish this book that they could've have taken a bit more time to make sure it was a bit better edited? Seems sloppy to me.
--Yet the more I think about the book and remember the story, the more I like it, in spite of its problems and idiosyncrasies. It's a vivid, entertaining, richly detailed (and I do mean detailed) look at a period of ancient Egyptian history that, yes, has been covered quite extensively in the past. But because the Amarna period is a lively enough nonfiction subject, there's enough scope and depth to mine for inspiration, and the mysteries that come along with the facts provide ample fodder for intelligently hypothesized solutions to those mysteries. Thankfully, Kerry Greenwood is an intelligent and competent enough writer to tackle those mysteries and do them some justice.

Read from August 15-20, 2013
Reviewed March 19, 2014

Though the subject matter was interesting, the telling of it was only so-so.

3 out of 5 stars

“Compulsively readable.” You see that quite frequently in front cover (or back cover, whichever) blurbs, but what exactly does that mean? And can it really apply to so many books? Well, I can't answer for the second question, but as to the first, I would say the phrase describes something that can't be put down; a book that one keeps reading well into the wee hours of the night, perhaps even until the first rays of dawn peek through the windows. If the “compulsively readable” phrase gets tossed around too much until it loses some of its punch, in the case of Harold Schechter's The Mad Sculptor it is thoroughly deserved and 100% true.

And yet...

After a while, the story begins to slow down, especially when it comes to the detailing of Robet Irwin's, The Mad Sculptor himself, many stints in mental institutions and his movements in between those stints. The whole thing becomes so tedious after a while, you begin to wonder exactly what kind of story Schechter is trying to tell. Especially when he includes the stories behind the many murders that occurred in the same Beekman Place neighborhood as where Irwin killed Veronica Gedeon. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed those side excursions, but to me all it did was muddle the direction of the book. When I reached the end, I wondered what exactly was the point. If Schechter wanted to explore the strange history of Beekman Place and why so many murders occurred in such a short period of time in the early part of the 20th century--was the neighborhood cursed? Did it have anything to do with the deprivations of the Great Depression? etc.--which I would've found interesting, then why focus so much on Irwin? If Schechter wanted to explore the psychopathy of Irwin, why did he peel off so many times to focus on those other murders, in which Irwin wasn't involved? It just came off as messy and uneven. Which is strange because I've read several of Schechter's other true crime books and have always found him to be both informative and entertaining, with a very readable narrative. Certainly nothing like what I encountered in The Mad Sculptor.

Read from January 26-February 1, 2014
Reviewed for the Amazon Vine Program March 19, 2014

"The neglected Infanta was about to become the most courted woman in England, the Queen, the bride of the most handsome, the most kingly ruler in Christendom."

2.5 out of 5 stars

If I'd read this compilation (or the individual novels) about twenty years ago, before I'd studied and read so much concerning Tudor history, I probably would've enjoyed it more. As it is, I just know too much and have too many suppositions and theories of my own; whenever I came upon points of contention, I would say to myself, "Ah, so she went with this version of that event. Okay, so she used this birth date rather than the later one." And so on. So while I can appreciate that Plaidy was an excellent author insofar as creating believable characters and a compelling narrative, her biases ruined the overall experience as they made for rather one-sided characters, especially when it came to Henry VIII. Yes, he was a bastard, there's no doubt about that, but Plaidy's version was almost a caricature--his behavior and personality was just so over-the-top, it was cartoonish. And of course Plaidy went with the standard (at the time) portrayal of "mad" Juana, Katharine's sister, a woman whose image was thoroughly tarnished and maligned by those who purported to love her, who is now becoming somewhat rehabilitated.  Not to mention Plaidy had a habit of repeating either information (in what is probably one of the earliest examples of the "As you know, Bob" exposition, I'm guessing), dialogue, or, the most egregious, descriptions. I stopped counting after about the tenth use of "piggy" to describe Henry's eyes. In a way, I believe Jean Plaidy was the Philippa Gregory of her time: she was able to introduce many exciting historical eras and personages to readers using what reference materials were available to her, for which she deserves the lauds she receives, but it's quite obvious she infused her novels with biases and suppositions, possibly her own, possibly those of the sources on which she relied. Either way, while it makes for an entertaining read for those not in the know, for those in the know, reading her books can be disappointing and frustrating, which overwhelms their entertainment value.

Read from February 17-March 17, 2014
Reviewed March 17, 2014

Monday, March 10, 2014

"The man wasn't the Devil at all. The Devil was behind him."

2.5 out of 5 stars

This is the first work by Sarah Pinborough I've read and while I can't say I hated the book, when I finished it I was left feeling as though something was missing from the story. It felt, I don't know, lightweight, and I'm not sure why. After all, it was well-researched (from what I could tell) and atmospheric, with a compelling story. Also a unique one. After all, how many out there, aside from hardcore Ripperologists, have heard of the Torso Killer who went on his murderous spree at the same time as Jack? Not me. Granted, I'm not unfamiliar with Jack the Ripper and have spent my fair share of time researching the case and formulating my own theories, but I'd still consider myself far from being a true Ripperologist, so hearing about a second, equally depraved serial killer terrorizing London alongside Jack piqued my curiosity to no end.

I think part, or actually most of the problem, was that the book felt as though it didn't really know what it was trying to be or how it wanted to tell the story. Divided into three parts, part one started out as a pretty straightforward historical thriller/mystery, detailing the initial search for this Torso Killer. Though the multiple P.O.V.s were distracting, the overall tone was one I liked, sort of a Victorian England CSI. The only issue I had with this section is that the story seemed a bit too reminiscent of the movie From Hell, as Pinborough wrote her main character as also being an opium addict. Then part two begins and suddenly a supernatural element, which had been introduced earlier in the form of a refugee from Eastern Europe who has visions of evil things to come, takes over and alters the tone of the story. Not only that, but that supernatural thread never feels quite right, like a skin of oil resting on top of a glass of water: it's there, but it doesn't mix in. In part three, the author is trying to tie everything together and wind the story up, and as a result things seems to drag on just a bit too long until all of a sudden, we're at the finale of the book and... it's just over with. It came off as being anticlimactic: there was a fight with the villain that was over and done with quite quickly, and the whole situation just tied itself up all neat and pretty. I didn't feel satisfied with how things worked out, like the payoff just wasn't great enough for all the trauma the characters went through up to that point. There was also supposed to be a twist, but once you put the pieces together, you could see that "twist" coming from a mile away. It didn't help that the story's multiple P.O.V.s, which can sometimes be a tricky proposition, made it quite difficult to settle into the story: as soon as I was drawn into following the story from one character's perspective, the chapter ended and another voice took over.

Which is a real shame because, at its heart, Mayhem is a well-written book. Let down by the occasional spelling mistake, some odd grammar choices, and other style quirks, sadly, leading me to feel not entirely pleased with the novel. And while the subject matter itself was compelling enough to keep me reading, I wish Pinborough had stuck to using a strictly psychological thriller angle to explore the mystery of the Torso Killer.

Read from January 19-26, 2014
Reviewed for the Amazon Vine Program March 10, 2014