Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Imprimatur by Rita Monaldi and Francesco Sorti. Historical Fiction Review

Published 2002 Italy; Published Great Britain 2008 by Polygon; ISBN 978 1 84597 105 1; 649 pages.

What a historical fiction novel!  Rita Minaldi is a religions history expert and her writing partner, Francesco Sorti, is a musicologist, both attributes heavily emphasized in Imprimatur.

Originally published in Italy in 2002, Imprimatur was then boycotted by Italian publishers.  The concept which develops through this historical novel was considered too controversial.  That's as much as I can reveal about the boycott without giving away the plot.  The book was, however, later published in Great Britain.

This is an incredibly well-researched historical novel.  You truly are transported to Rome, 1683.  You smell the filth, suffer the woes and subjugation of the lower class, are disgusted by the level at which human beings are forced to earn their living, are surprised by characters' underhandedness and lack of compassion.  The characters are permitted to feel terror and other emotions many authors are fearful of imbuing their characters with.  On occasion, a wry sense of humor emerges.  All in all, the characters are developed with imperfect human natures, such as every human being possesses.

I could go on forever about the research invested in this book.  One form of research that stands out particularly in my mind are the medical potions and treatments of the day.  The authors integrate conflicting medical options of the day seamlessly into the prose and dialogue.  All I can say after reading this historical novel, is I'm glad I live with today's medical technology!  Perhaps history is responsible for the saying "If it doesn't kill you, it will cure you".

The majority of the activity in Imprimatur takes place between from September 11 and September 20, 1683.  The novel wraps up with events between September 20 and 25, 1683, in 1688 and on September 16, 1699.

On September 11, 1683, the Locanda del Donzello Inn is invaded by men of the Bargello who quarantine 9 guests, the owner and an apprentice.  The novel is written in first person though the eyes of the apprentice.  A French lodger, Signor di Mourai, dies in the inn that morning from an unknown cause.  Fear of the pestilence is extreme in Rome and no mysterious deaths are dealt with lightly.  Accordingly, everyone in the Locanda del Donzello Inn is under guard and quarantine until the authorities deem all risk has passed.

Nobody is who they portray in Imprimatur.  Secrets abound and are teased out, in a number of ways, until the very end of the novel.  This is one novel where the ending is completely unexpected.  While you are busy suspecting one inn guest, another takes you by surprise.

The authors allow the apprentice boy and, Abbot Melani, secret spy of King Louis IV of France, fallacies as they race against time to solve a mystery that could change the entire history of western culture.  That last sentence may sound dramatic, but the authors have written this historical novel with such authority and plausibility that no need to suspend disbelief is required.  A few times they are sent off on wild-goose chases, which gives the book more credibility.

Monaldi & Sorti plumb the depths of all the lodgers' personalities and show us both their favorable and unfavorable traits, without heavy emphasis on either.  The reader is permitted to make their own decisions as to whether faults are forgivable in accordance with the morals of the time.

Imprimatur is a lengthy novel, but no worries.  The authors keep the threads consistent throughout and insert enough reminders through natural dialogue that the reader never feels lost.

It's been a long time since I've read such a phenomenal book.  Highly recommended.  There are 2 sequels to Imprimatur, Secretum (which I own) and Veritas (which I intend to own), that follow the further adventures of Abbot Atto Melani..  I read Imprimatur in paperback; I was unable to locate it in e-reader format.

Rating: 5 Stars ***** (Exceptional) 

Shadow of Colossus (Seven Wonders Novel) by T.L. Higley

B&H Publishing Group, Published 2008, ISBN 978-0-9-54-4730-9, 278 pages

The Shadow of Colossus is set on the Island of Rhodes, 227 BC, during the seven days prior to the great earthquake that brought the enormous statute of Colossus to its knees in the aftermath.

The protagonists in this historical novel are Tessa, a hetera (courtesan) to the wealthy politician, Glaucus, who holds considerable sway in Rhode's politics.  Glaucus is an cruel man, who abuses both Tessa and Persephone, his daughter.  When Glaucus dies in an unfortunate accident, Tessa sees a way to escape her destiny.

It has been 10 years since her mother sold her to the madam and, to maintain her sanity, she has repressed all emotions, desires and hopes.  In essence, she is a woman of stone, devoid of feelings.

Hetera are leased from a madam and, if the hetera is particularly desirable, men pay a price to wait in line to acquire her.  Tessa realizes that, once it is discovered Glaucus is dead, she will be given to the next highest bidder.  She is desperate to escape her destiny and contemplates suicide; however; her hunger to live in freedom proves stronger.

On a night she returns home after spending hours contemplating "opening her wrists", she is attacked in the street by a man.  Along comes the other protagonist, Nikos, who saves her from violation.  Nikos is on Rhodes in the guise of a dockworker.  After he rescues her, she hires him as a servant in Glaucus's household.

A political battle rages on Rhodes.  It is one of the last democracies in the Greek Islands, but there is one man, Spiros, who would have it different.  He is determined to become sole ruler of Rhodes and sets in motion events intended to sway the major politicians to his point of view.  He will stoop as low as murder to accomplish his aims.

Spiros is the next man in line to own Tessa.

Glaucus and Tessa are scheduled to leave in one week to travel to Crete to attend a symposium on membership in the Achaean League.  Tessa is an intelligent woman who Glaucus relied upon for astute political  opinions.  She has often spoken in his place.  If she can masquerade as Glaucus's "voice" until the ship leaves for Crete, freedom will be hers when she boards the ship.  Her accomplices in this scheme are Nikos and an elderly Jewish servant, Simeon.

The frequent use of italics for characters' thoughts were distracting and, quite frankly, drove me nuts.  I personally feel heavy use of italics indicates an author does not trust the reader to have enough intelligence to grasp concepts.  One could read just the italics in this novel and understand the entire plot and characters.

Within the first chapter of this historical fiction novel, I felt fairly certain how the book would end.  There was one plot twist within the novel and it was not one to make you gasp.  This was an entirely predictable and unsatisfying read.  I had no investment in the cardboard stereotypical characters.

With apologies to Harlequin Romances fans, this book would be more suitable for that genre than historical fiction.  I could not suspend disbelief to embrace that a "woman of marble" could melt in 7 days to a woman of faith, love and desires.

Unfortunately, this historical novel is not one I would recommend.

Rating:  1 star * (Poor)

Note:  Book was read in e-book format.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

the Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton. Historical Fiction Review

Washington Square Press,  A Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. (originally published in 2008 by Allen & Unwin, Australia), Published 2010 in the US, ISBN 978-1-4165-5054-9; ISBN 978-1-4165-5055-6 (pbk); ISBN 978-1-4165-7206-0 (ebook).

The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton defies definition by genre; however, as the majority of events in the novel take place in the early 1900's, I am taking the liberty of categorizing it as a historical novel.  It is just such a darn good read that it would be a shame for historical fiction buffs to bypass it.

The Forgotten Garden is a generational novel that travels though the lives of a great-grandmother, grandmother and great-granddaughter.  It commences with the mystery of a little girl who is placed on a ship to Australia in 1913 by a lady whom she knows only as the "Authoress".  The Authoress disappears immediately after hiding the child aboard ship and is never seen again.

A dockworker discovers the waif roaming the docks in Australia carrying a small white suitcase.  He decides to bring her home intending to locate the child's family.  As years pass by, the child, Nell, becomes part of the dockworker's family.  At 21 years old, she is engaged and ready to embark on a new chapter in her life.

The dockworker, feeling a heavy moral obligation to tell Nell the truth of her origins, takes Nell aside at her 21st birthday party and relates how she came to be regarded as a family member.  Nell is shattered.  Everything she thought she was and who she felt she was is destroyed.

Nell calls off her engagement and moves to a small oceanside village, where she becomes the village curiosity with her eccentric habits.  The urge to discover who her real parents were overcomes her in the 1970's and, through clues, in particular, a fairytale book, contained in the little white suitcase, she travels to England to  unravel her enigmatic past.

Whilst in England, she is unable to completely unearth her ancestors' identities, but purchases a small cottage in the Cornwall that has a secret garden where she has a flash memories of being with the Authoress and her papa.

Fully intending to return permanently to England after she wraps up her affairs in Australia, Nell's plans are foiled when her dissolute daughter drops off Nell's granddaughter, Cassandra, for a "short stay" and never returns.

Nell raises Cassandra and, upon Nell's death, Cassandra inherits Nell's estate, which includes the tiny white suitcase.  Cassandra has recently lost her husband and young son in a car accident and makes a spontaneous decision to travel to England to attempt to finally resolve the riddle of Nell's parents.

With the assistance of Nell's notes from her visit to England, the fairytale book and local characters, Cassandra begins to penetrate Nell's history.

Kate Morton easily takes the reader from England to Australia and back to England seamlessly through the eyes of the focal protagonists.

This book started out as my "car book".  I always keep a novel in the car for when I have to wait at appointments.  I became so involved in the story, the book came into the house where I could not put it down.

I have already purchased Kate Morton's The House at Riverton, which is written in somewhat the same vein.  I hope to enjoy it as much as The Forgotten Garden.

Rating:  4 Stars **** (excellent)