Tuesday, June 29, 2010

A Separate Peace

I ran across A Separate Peace (1960) on our shelf when moving some of our book collection around.  It turns out to be a fairly popular selection for high school English classes, but somehow I missed the bus on that one.  At any rate, the description sounded fairly interesting as I'm always one to enjoy a good boys' school drama a la Dead Poets Society.

The novel, a fairly quick read, is the story of two friends at a boarding school in New England during World War 2.  The two main characters, Gene and Phineas, are a study in opposites: Gene is the more introverted, studious type, while Phineas is a gregarious athlete.  The two have been drawn to one another, and as the novel opens are enjoying the carefree days of the summer session at the Devon School.

Toward the end of summer an event occurs that will change both of their lives forever.  Finny conceives of a club whose members must prove themselves by jumping from a tree into the river, a fairly dangerous affair as the tree is set back from the banks of the river.  As the co-leaders, Gene and Finny contrive to impress everyone by jumping from the tree in tandem.  While making their way out on a limb to do this, Gene inexplicably bounces the branch, causing Finny to fall onto the ground below and badly break his leg.  The remainder of the novel is really a character study of Gene and the ugly truths he discovers about himself in the wake of the tree incident.

It becomes clear that Gene is extremely jealous of Finny's very natural good-natured approach to life.  Gene convinces himself that Finny has plotted to bring about his academic downfall by goading him into spending time away from his studies on various pursuits.  This jealousy eventually manifests itself physically in his treacherous act on the tree over the river.  Gene's character is starkly contrasted by Phineas, who is an innately good individual, even going so far as to deny Gene's act when Gene visits him to confess.  Another traumatic event forces Gene to come to terms with his character, and we are left with the hope that he will try to grow from his experiences with Phineas.

I enjoyed the overall message of the novel, but it was a fairly dull read.  Since I have chosen to base my hamster scale mostly on my enjoyment of the reading experience, I give it only three hamsters.  This is not to say I don't recommend it, but a thrilling read it is not!

Monday, June 28, 2010

The October Horse

The October Horse (2002) is the sixth book in the 'Master of Rome' series that chronicles the people and events surrounding the downfall of the Roman Republic.  True to its predecessors, this is a massive tome (1120 pages) that, while remaining fiction, is firmly rooted in primary historical sources.

The book is rather aptly named after a custom held after a particular chariot race held each year in Rome on the Ides of October.  The strongest horse from the winning chariot team was sacrificed to the gods.  Afterwards, its head was flung into a crowd consisting of two teams of plebeians who fought for its control.  You don't have to be a classical scholar to realize that the October Horse is a thinly veiled allusion to Julius Caesar.

The book opens in 48 BC just after Pompey the Great has been treacherously murdered in Alexandria at the hands of the ruling Ptolemy.  Julius Caesar lands in Alexandria and, upon discovering the circumstances of Pompey's death, immediately sides with Cleopatra who is embroiled in a civil war against her brother Ptolemy.  After a short campaign, not only does Cleopatra solidify her rule of Egypt, but she also falls desperately in love with Caesar and will eventually bear him a son, Caesarion.

Of course the crowning moment of the entire series is the fateful event that took place in Rome on the Ides of March in 44 BC.  McCullough does a fantastic job of building the conspiracy against Caesar that arises first from the grumbles of his discontented former legates.  The pacing of events in this section of the novel is truly fantastic, and McCullough keeps the suspense taut until the final act of Caesar's life is played out.  I can only imagine it must have been a difficult scene for her to write, as she has practically idolized Caesar from his earliest appearance in the series.

At this point, I should mention that I strongly feel that The October Horse should have been split into two separate novels.  The death of Julius Caesar, without doubt the central character of the entire 'Masters of Rome' series, would have been a natural place to stop action.  After the assassination, I wanted to take a break and come to grips with Caesar's death, and indeed that of the Republic, but felt I never really got the chance.

Instead, the remainder of the novel (we're talking hundreds of pages here) are left to deal with wrangling between Mark Antony and Octavian (Caesar's adopted son) for the control of Rome.  We find Octavian to have many of the same outstanding qualities of Julius Caesar but also lacking his intense sense of fairness and scruples.  Overall, Octavian comes off as a quite unlikable character in my estimation, although I suppose you don't get to be the emperor of Rome being nice!

Despite a few small quibbles, I was wholly satisfied with the novel, which was originally intended to end the 'Masters of Rome' series at the Battle of Phillipi, the point at which McCullough considers the Roman Republic to have died for all time.  Luckily for us, she relented and wrote a seventh book to carry the characters through to Actium, where Mark Antony is defeated decisively and Octavian ascends to the throne as Augustus Caesar.  Rest assured I'll be reviewing this last novel sometime in the near future!

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Lisey's Story

The author of Lisey's Story (2006) needs no introduction, so I'm going to dispense with that.  Unlike many hardcore King fans, I prefer his recent more fantastical work over his earlier novels that tended toward classic horror tales.  I really loved Duma Key (reviewed here on the blog), the novel that followed Lisey's Story and had read that the two novels together deal heavily with King's thoughts on marriage and divorce.  Note:  I listened to this as an audiobook.

The story recounts events over the course of several days in the life of Lisey Landon, wife of the award-winning novelist Scott Landon.  As the novel opens, Lisey is settling down to go through her late husband's papers two years after his death before donating them to a public collection.  A series of events causes Lisey to recall memories and events in Scott Landon's life that she had apparently been repressing for many years.  These are presented to the reader as a series of flashback chapters scattered throughout the novel and often coincide with key events in the Landon's marriage.

It is in these portions of the book where the real story of the novel takes place.  We learn the tragic upbringing of Scott Landon at the hands of his father who is held in the grips of a serious mental illness.  He is forced to take refuge by traveling to a fantastical land he names "Boo'ya Moon."  This location becomes central to Lisey in the present day, as she is slowly drawn by clues left by Scott into Boo'ya Moon in a desperate attempt to save her own sister from mental illness.  

I must say that I almost didn't make it through the first part of the book for a couple of reasons.  First, it took quite some time to build the groundwork so that the novel's actual plot could get underway.  For instance, there was an extensive flashback toward the beginning of the book that I was unable to put into context until much later in the novel.  The ultimately left me feeling fairly uninterested in what was going on until about halfway into the book.  To compound my confusion, Scott and Lisey share a language between themselves.  The novel is peppered with phrases such as "bool," "smucking," "SOWISA," and "strap it on."   I suppose this speaks to the closeness and intimacy of their marriage, but it adds another layer of complexity to a fairly intricate plot.  Plus, I honestly found the made-up language annoying.

Ultimately, the novel pulls itself together toward the latter quarter of the book and manages to redeem itself somewhat (I was going to give it a solid two hamster rating until near the end).  If you had to choose one King book to read, I wouldn't recommend this one.  On the other hand, if you a die hard King fan and can't get enough, Lisey's Story does a passable job of satisfy the craving.