Triple Shot: The Penelopiad, Naked Heat, and The Age of Orphans

Three short reviews, because I want to clear out my backlog (8 months! Good grief.) and move forward:

The Penelopiad
Margaret Atwood
Canongate, 2005
9781841957982
New trade paperback

And we, the twelve who were later to die by his hand
At his father’s relentless command,
Sailed as well, in the dark frail boats of ourselves
Through the turbulent seas of our swollen and sore-footed mothers
Who were not royal queens, but a motley and piebald collection,
Bought, traded, captured, kidnapped from serfs and strangers.

Capsule summary: Odysseus’ return to Ithaca, from his wife’s point of view.

Capsule review: Disappointing, until the last 30 pages or so (beginning with chapter 24) when it suddenly turns amazing. The impetus for this retelling, according to Atwood’s introduction, was the execution of Penelope’s twelve handmaidens, which gets little more than a mention in the original poem. “I’ve always been haunted by the hanged maids,” Atwood writes, “and, in The Penelopiad, so is Penelope herself.” Unfortunately Atwood’s rendering of Penelope is so sketchy and flat that it left me unsatisfied. It isn’t until the story tackles the aftermath of the maids’ killings and the injustice dealt them by modern analyses that the full force of Atwood’s anger and reveals itself like a punch to the solar plexus:

You don’t have to think of us as real girls, real flesh and blood, real pain, real injustice. That might be too upsetting. Just discard the sordid part. Consider us pure symbol. We’re no more real than money.

Naked Heat
Richard Castle
Hyperion, 2010
9780786891368
MMPB

“All right, fellas, I’ve got my first odd sock.” The detective’s approach to a crime scene, even one in this much disarray, was to simplify her field of view. She pared everything down to getting inside the logic of the life that was lived in that space and using that empathy to spot inconsistencies, the small thing that didn’t fit the pattern. The odd sock.

Raley and Ochoa came across the room to her. Rook adjusted his position at the perimeter to follow quietly from a distance. “Whatcha got?” asked Ochoa.

“Work space. Busy work space, right? Big newspaper columnist. Pens everywhere, pencils, custom notepads and stationery. Box of Kleenex. Look at this beside her here.” She stepped carefully around the body, still cast backward in the office chair. “A typewriter, for God’s sake. Magazines and newspapers with clippings snipped out of them, right? All that stuff makes lots of what?”

“Work,” said Raley.

“Trash,” said Rook, and Heat’s two detectives turned slightly his way and then back to Heat, unwilling to acknowledge him as part of this exchange. Like his season pass had expired.

Capsule summary: NYPD homicide detective Nikki Heat’s investigation into the murder of a prominent gossip columnist reunites her with investigative journalist Jameson Rook.

Capsule review: I’ll be honest: I wouldn’t have read this if I weren’t a fan of the TV show Castle. As your standard mystery-thriller, Naked Heat is neither exceptionally good nor exceptionally bad. It was an enjoyable read, a weekend well spent. The real fun in reading it, though, comes from spotting echoes of the previous season (for example: yes, “Schlemming” makes an out-of-the-blue appearance) and, if you ship Castle and Beckett like I do, reading the dedication and acknowledgements for hints to where their relationship is headed. So while someone who’s never seen Castle can easily enjoy Naked Heat and the other Nikki Heat novels, familiarity with the show adds an extra layer of meaning and pleasure to reading them.

The Age of Orphans
Laleh Khadivi
Bloomsbury, 2009
9781608190423
New trade paperback; won in “Caption This” contest from Roanoke Times columnist Dan Casey

See them sleep, these sons of mine.

See them, nestled like loved ones, row after row, barrack after barrack, heads awash in the last brine of boyhood.

See them sleep, my army of sons, each suckled off a different teat and their tongues still wet with prayers to me.

See them sleep, these sons of mine, and though I am now shah, most majestic and supreme, I too was once a boy, sleeping and divine. A boy like them, beaten and bruised by the thick angry hands of a brutish baba, forced to run and hide in the folds of Maman’s belly until found again.

[…]

Now I am the notorious Commander Reza Khan, boorish and proud, a buxom beast, a king over all I see, and I let loose my two forked hooves to prance over the hearts and heads of whomever I desire. Now I am a figure, face and father. All of it once hidden in the skin of a sleeping boy who was once woken and once loved, now cast out and forever cold.

Capsule summary: A Kurdish boy is taken and raised by the Iranian army after his family is massacred. Years later, when he returns to his homeland to enforce the shah’s rule, his true self begins to re-emerge.

Capsule review: Heartbreaking, disturbing, and yet enlightening. The boy’s namelessness until the shah’s soldiers have scrubbed away his Kurd identity personalizes the repeated attempts during the 20th century to eradicate the Kurds, and the gradual renaissance of the Kurd within him when he returns to the land of his childhood embodies that people’s determination and resilience. Khadivi’s writing is forceful and poetic. I recommend The Age of Orphans to anyone with even a cursory interest in the complex cultural nexus of central Asia.

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Review: Sylvester, Or the Wicked Uncle (book & audio)

Sylvester, Or the Wicked Uncle
Georgette Heyer
Harlequin Books, 2004 (original copyright 1957)
9780373773855

Abridged audio version read by Richard Armitage
Naxos Audiobooks, 2009
9789626349250
Sample

Silence fell. Miss Marlow sat gazing abstractedly at a Buhl cabinet; and his grace of Salford, unaccustomed to such treatment, eyed her in gathering resentment. He was much inclined to pick up the newspaper again, and was only deterred from doing so by the reflection that disgust at her want of conduct was no excuse for lowering his own standard of good manners. He said in the voice of one trying to set a bashful schoolgirl at her ease: ‘Your father tells me, Miss Marlow, that you are a notable horsewoman.’

‘Does he?’ she responded. ‘Well, he told us that you showed him the way with the Heythrop.’

He glanced quickly down at her, but decided, after an instant, that this remark sprang from inanity. ‘I imagine I need not tell you that I did no such thing!’

‘Oh, no! I am very sure you did not,’ she said.

He almost jumped; and being now convinced that this seeming gaucherie was deliberate began to feel as much interested as he was ruffled. Perhaps there was rather more to this little provincial than he had supposed, though why she should utter malicious remarks he was at a loss to understand.

At first glance, Sylvester is not the usual sort of book I like. I’m not a fan of romance novels, the Regency period holds no historical interest for me, and Georgette Heyer’s punctuation style, with its excess of dashes and exclamation marks and inadequate use of commas, drives me crazy. In fact, having been subjected to numerous recommendations of her work, I attempted to read Cotillion a couple of years ago and barely made it beyond the first chapter.

I am a fan of the British actor Richard Armitage, however, and he happens to have narrated abridged audiobooks of three Heyer works, among them Sylvester. After comparing synopses of the three novels, I settled on Sylvester, and downloaded it from iTunes.

Was I instantly hooked? No, not really. I enjoyed it, to be sure, but it was more the appeal of Armitage’s voice than the story itself that had me listening to it over and over. In time I purchased the audiobook of Venetia, also read by Armitage, and though I enjoyed that one as well, I kept going back to Sylvester. Curious to see what had been cut from the original, I checked Sylvester out of the local library.

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Review: When Christ and his Saints Slept

When Christ and his Saints Slept
Sharon Kay Penman
Ballantine Books, 2009 (1995)
9780345396686
Purchased new trade paperback

The hall was a scene of chaos. The other women had not been as punctilious about propriety as Maude, and had hastened downstairs in various stages of undress. Everywhere she looked, she saw unbound hair, bare feet, husbands and wives entwined in joyful, welcoming embraces. Her entrance went almost unnoticed in the confusion, and it was several moments before Robert disentangled himself from Amabel’s arms and shoved his way through to her side. Maude reached out, taking his hand in hers. “Thank you,” she said, “for winning back my throne.”

I do not know where to begin in describing how utterly disappointed I am in this book, the first in Penman’s trilogy about Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. I have to praise Penman for her thorough research and the way she brought twelfth-century France and England to life; as a historical novel, When Christ and his Saints Slept succeeds. As a work of fiction, however, it is a mess.

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Review: Persona Non Grata

Persona Non Grata (published in the UK and Australia as Ruso and the Root of All Evils)
Ruth Downie
Bloomsbury, 2010 (2009)
9781608190478
Giveaway from Goodreads’ First Reads

“Is it true someone’s trying to bankrupt us?”

Lucius leaned back in their father’s chair and folded his arms. “If I were to say no,” he said, “and ask you to go straight back to Deva for the good of the family, would you do it?”

“I can’t,” Ruso pointed out. “I had to wangle months of leave to get here.”

“So you can’t go back to the Legion.” Lucius managed to look even more depressed.

“Arria says somebody’s applied for a seizure order.”

Lucius let out a long breath. “There’s a law somewhere,” he said, “that says you can’t take out a seizure order against someone who’s away from home on public service.”

Ruso began to grasp the nature of the problem. “Does that apply to an ordinary man in the army?”

“The last thing I would have done, brother, was to ask you to come home.”

“So it’s true then? We have a legal problem?”

“We do now,” said Lucius.

In Persona Non Grata, the third in Ruth Downie’s Medicus series set in second-century Roman Britannia, Gaius Petreius Ruso and his British companion Tilla (also known as Darlughdacha of the Corionotatae among the Brigantes) travel to southern Gaul, summoned by an ominous letter that says only, “Lucius to Gaius. Come home, brother.” As their father’s heir and effective (if not necessarily effectual) paterfamilias, Ruso has known for some time of his family’s precarious financial situation, legacy of the massive debts their father incurred during his second marriage. Fearing the worst, Ruso arranges leave from his duties as surgeon to the XX Legion and hurries home.

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Review: The Legatus Mystery

The Legatus Mystery
Rosemary Rowe
Headline Book Publishing, 2005 (2003)
9780747265208
Purchased new MMPB.

Roman citizen I might be – indeed I was born a nobleman in my own tribe – but I was also an ex-slave and a tradesman, and the gulf between myself and Marcus was as great as that between me and the bath-house attendant himself. Without the most explicit instructions I would never have dared to come seek my patron here.

In late second-century Glevum (modern Gloucester), a body is discovered in a shrine to the Emperor Commodus, living embodiment of Hercules. The mere fact of the crime is shocking enough, but complicating matters are the facts that the emperor is not one to take sacrilege of his divine person lightly and that the victim appears to be an ambassador from Rome.

Then the body disappears, and there are reports of unearthly wailing and phantom bloodstains. Continue reading