Monthly Archives: December 2011

Secrets of a Summer Night, by Lisa Kleypas

Title: Secrets of a Summer Night (Wallflowers #1)
Author: Lisa Kleypas
Year of Publication: 2004
Length: 375 pages
Genre: historical romance
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 4 stars

Lisa Kleypas is my second-favourite romance author, after Julia Quinn, and the Wallflowers series goes a long way to explaining why.

Annabelle Hunt, Lillian and Daisy Bowman, and Evie Jenner have all spent several seasons on the outskirts of society’s notice, permanent wallflowers — each for a different reason. Annabelle is utterly dowerless to the point where the men of the ton are just waiting for her to slide into fallen woman territory, the Bowmans are uncouth Americans and thus totally lacking in social graces even if they are millionaire heiresses, and Evie is not only the daughter of a man who runs a gaming den but also cripplingly shy and possessed of a terrible stutter. The four women strike up a bargain, to try and help each other find husbands, starting with the oldest — Annabelle. Secrets of a Summer Night is her story.

I like Annabelle because she’s a bit unusual for a romance heroine — in that she’s actually conventional for her times in some ways that authors of the genre typically disdain. She likes nice things. She cares about fashion. She wants to be accepted in society. She likes typically feminine things, and that’s okay. While there’s a lot to be said for the heroines that are deliberately anti-establishment (and we certainly see plenty of that in various Kleypas novels), I like that Annabelle is a bit more, well, realistic. She is as a woman of her time would have been. If it weren’t for her financial state, she would be an ideal wife for any aristocrat — beautiful, poised, graceful. But impoverished as she is, Annabelle has to find a rich husband fast, or succumb to the worst — the clutches of a “benefactor” who’s already been enjoying her mother’s favours but would rather trade for the daughter. To save her family from ruin, to rescue her mother from infamy, and to keep her brother in school, she determines to snare a rich peer by the end of the season.

Enter Simon Hunt, who is most definitely what the Romans would have called a New Man. He’s rich, but most definitely not a peer. The son of a butcher who’s made a tremendous fortune in the railroad industry, Hunt is only tolerated in polite society because he has a few very powerful friends for business partners (including Marcus Westcliff — much, much more on him later). And he’s taken a fancy to Annabelle from a while back. They’re thrown into close proximity at that convenient convention of the mid-19th-century: the house party, wherein Westcliff (under persuasion from his female relations) invites a few dozen friends, colleagues, business partners, and their families out to his country house to stay for nearly a month. (Can I just say, I wish this was still a thing? And that I was rich enough and had rich enough friends for it? That would be amazing. Think of the hijinks that could ensue). Annabelle sets her cap for a hapless, botanically-inclined young man, but she keeps colliding with Hunt, with sizzling results. Simon feels increasingly possessive of Annabelle, initially intending just to drive off any other prospective “protectors” when she falls from grace, but eventually determining that the only way to keep her for himself is to marry. It’s high-handed and domineering, yes, but Simon’s charming enough to pull it off, and Kleypas makes sure the reader realises that his somewhat chauvinistic jealousy steams from overpowering love, even if he has trouble admitting that. He’s very Alpha, but I like that in a man (when he’s a true Alpha and not just a rampaging jackass — the difference is critical), so I enjoy Simon as a hero.

This being a romance novel, it’s no spoiler to let you know that, yes, Simon and Annabelle do wind up together. The contrivances that bring them together aren’t nearly as interesting as the exploration of England’s shifting class system. Simon represents the rising men of industry, Annabelle the rapidly disintegrating peerage. Annabelle has to overcome some fairly significant prejudices in order to accept her new life gracefully. In marrying Simon Hunt, she’ll never get the life she always thought she wanted — but she comes to see that Simon’s world certainly has its perks, and that having a husband she loves is worth it all. One of the things I always enjoy about Kleypas is her willingness to push the bounds of traditional fare. She sets the Wallflowers series in the 1840s, slightly later than the typical Regency period, and she doesn’t just use history as a gloss over everything. The characters are definitely part of the world they live in, and that means the difficult pieces as well as the pretty window dressing. Kleypas takes the advent of industrialisation and makes it integral to the plot; Simon has invested heavily in the burgeoning railroad industry, among other things, and his friend Westcliff is one of the few aristocrats to see that his kind must change or die. This dose of historical reality gives a nice texture to Kleypas’s books, richer than much of the genre provides. (More on how Kleypas utilizes new money and invading Americans will be forthcoming in my review of It Happened One Autumn).

This book would probably fall just shy of 4 stars if it weren’t for the fact that it inaugurates the Wallflowers series, which is one of my favourites in the romance genre. A great many of the best scenes, apart from the steaminess of Annabelle and Simon doing naughty things, are those which involve the quartet of friends. Lillian Bowman just about steals every scene she’s in. The banter between the girls is quick and feels natural, with plenty of giggle-out-loud moments. Their Rounders game may not be quite as legendary as Bridgerton Pall Mall, but it comes close. Overall, Secrets of a Summer Night is a solid start to a wonderful series. Recommended for all fans of historical romance.

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Hogfather, by Terry Pratchett

Title: Hogfather
Author: Terry Pratchett
Year of Publication: 1996
Length: 354 pages
Genre: fantasy
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 4.25 stars

It’s the annual solar festival on the Discworld, but something’s gone terribly wrong. The Hogfather — a mythical being in a red and white suit who brings good children presents on Hogswatch Night, if any of that rings some bells for you — has gone missing. And Death has, against all sensibilities, decided to fill in for him until he can be retrieved.

And who has to retrieve him? That task falls to the unwilling Susan, Death’s granddaughter (it’s complicated), who just wants to live her blissfully normal life as a governess without having to deal with supernatural cataclysms interfering. It isn’t a matter of choice, though, and Susan’s journey leads her to discover just what has happened to the Hogfather. A group of beings called the Auditors have put a hit out on him with the Guild of Assassins — the Auditors appear in more than one Discworld novel, often in opposition to Death. The Auditors hate life and wish it had never been. They govern the universe, making sure things like gravity and centripetal force work, and would much rather that the universe was nothing more than rocks moving in circles, without these horrible little bundles of spontaneity and free will getting in the way. They’ve set their sights on the Hogfather as something too irrational to be endured and want him eliminated. The Guild gives the job to Mr. Teatime (pronounced Te-ah-time-eh), an Assassin who somewhat embarrasses the rest of them by enjoying his job a little too much. He’s the sort of person who has, in fact, devoted time to figuring out how to kill anthropomorphic manifestations, and anyone who cheerfully admits to that has to be functioning without some essential components of sanity.

But he is good at his job, and he sets to work immediately. Without giving too much away, because the way Pratchett teases around the concept is so enjoyable, he finds a way to control belief — and with that control, eliminates the Hogfather from it. It’s an interesting commentary, really, since in our own world, it seems like children stop believing at younger and younger ages. But Teatime has an opponent more than he bargained for in Susan Sto Helit, who is one of Pratchett’s more wonderful creations. Much though she tries to be normal, she has certain supernatural abilities inherited from her grandfather — like the ability to stop time, or walk through walls, or remember the future, or use Death’s voice to scare the everliving daylights out of someone. She’s eminently sensible and practical, but in a way that makes her dangerous rather than boring. She can see things that are really there, and she lacks the human ability to edit out things that are illogical. She’s well-educated but sees that as a possible hindrance to understanding rather than a benefit, and many of her comments on methods of education and teaching principles are particularly hilarious to someone, like myself, who works in the field of education also:

Getting an education was a bit like a communicable sexual disease. It made you unsuitable for a lot of jobs and then you had the urge to pass it on.

Susan is close to being my favourite thing about Hogfather, just because her voice is so distinct and such a joy to read.

What Hogfather does best, though, is explore the correlation between belief and being human. This is something Pratchett ponders on frequently in his works (as does his friend Neil Gaiman) — the idea that belief creates gods and other figures. That is not new, though it’s given a delightfully weird edge in Hogfather, as the wizards of the Unseen University start accidentally creating the Oh God of Hangovers and the Cheerful Fairy and the Eater of Socks (in whom I fervently believe now) out of the extra belief left sloshing around by the Hogfather’s absence. But what Pratchett really does magnificently here is tie that capacity for belief with what it means to be a human, what it means to be this marvelous sentient creature, this marvelously narcissistic creature who thinks the whole universe is inside of its head and secretly believes the whole universe was created just to lead to its own existence. Things like the Hogfather and the Tooth Fairy are stepping-stones of belief, the training wheels of childhood so that a human can believe in the really big imaginative things later on. Death sums this all up for Susan (and us) near the end of the novel:

HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMANS. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.

“Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little–”

YES. AS PRACTICE. YOU HAVE TO START OUT LEARNING TO BELIEVE THE LITTLE LIES.

“So we can believe the big ones?”

YES. JUSTICE. MERCY. DUTY. THAT SORT OF THING.

“They’re not the same at all!”

YOU THINK SO? THEN TAKE THE UNIVERSE AND GRIND IT DOWN TO A FINE POWDER AND SIEVE IT THROUGH THE FINEST SIEVE AND THEN SHOW ME ONE ATOM OF JUSTICE, ONE MOLECULE OF MERCY. AND YET– Death waved a hand. AND YET YOU ACT AS IF THERE IS SOME IDEAL ORDER IN THE UNIVERSE, AS IF THERE IS SOME… SOME RIGHTNESS IN THE UNIVERSE BY WHICH IT MAY BE JUDGED.

“Yes, but people have got to believe that, or else what’s the point—”

MY POINT EXACTLY.

She tried to assemble her thoughts.

THERE IS A PLACE WHERE TWO GALAXIES HAVE BEEN COLLIDING FOR A MILLION YEARS, said Death, apropos of nothing. DON’T TRY TO TELL ME THAT’S RIGHT.

“Yes, but people don’t think about that,” said Susan. “Somewhere there was a bed…”

CORRECT. STARS EXPLODE, WORLDS COLLIDE, THERE’S HARDLY ANYWHERE IN THE UNIVERSE WHERE HUMANS CAN LIVE WITHOUT BEING FROZEN OR FRIED, AND YET YOU BELIEVE THAT A…A BED IS A NORMAL THING. IT IS THE MOST AMAZING TALENT.

‘Talent?’

OH, YES. A VERY SPECIAL KIND OF STUPIDITY. YOU THINK THE WHOLE UNIVERSE IS INSIDE YOUR HEADS.

“You make us sound mad,” said Susan. A nice warm bed…

NO. YOU NEED TO BELIEVE IN THINGS THAT AREN’T TRUE. HOW ELSE CAN THEY BECOME? said Death.

There’s a nice counterpoint to all of this at Unseen University, where young wizard Ponder Stibbons is desperately trying to drag Discworld into a place where things like advanced physics make sense. He’s created an artificial intelligence called Hex, which broadly resembles one of the first computers, except that, as with most things in the Discworld, it’s slightly askew — requiring honeycombs, mice, and other oddities to function. Hex is meant to be what the Auditors want, really — the epitome of rationality and predictability. But it isn’t. It goes wrong. Hex understands itself and humanity a little too well.

+++ Humans Have Always Ascribed Random Seasonal, Natural, Or Inexplicable Actions To Human-Shaped Entities. Such Examples Are Jack Frost, The Hogfather, The Tooth Fairy, And Death +++

“Oh, them. Yes, but they exist,” said Ridcully. “Met a couple of ’em myself.”

+++ Humans Are Not Always Wrong +++

“All right, but I’m damn sure there’s never been an Eater of Socks or a God of Hangovers.”

+++ But There Is No Reason Why There Should Not Be +++

So, as the plot rolls on, Pratchett explores these concepts, along with a host of others — gift-giving, various traditions, the origins of some familiar carols, the commercialisation of holidays — all with his usual crisp humour and delightful oddities. That said, I don’t think the book is totally flawless. My attention wanders a bit during some of the sections involving the crew of thugs that Teatime recruits. The last hundred pages aren’t quite as tightly plotted as they might be.

For what it’s worth, the move adaptation (currently available on Netflix Watch Instantly) is magnificent. It’s remarkably true to the book, and what few cuts there are are ones I don’t notice, because they trim all those parts of the books I tend to forget about anyway. They tighten and streamline the plot without losing the quirky sense of serendipity that governs Pratchett’s world. It’s joined the ranks of my must-see holiday films.

I heartily recommend this book to anyone looking for non-standard holiday fare. If the radio’s been driving you mad and you’re feeling the compulsion to spear someone through the ear with a sprig of holly, pick this one up. It has a delightful way of restoring holiday spirits with just the right blend of snarkiness. No one said you had to be nice in order to believe, after all.

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Sandman, Volume 5: A Game of You, by Neil Gaiman

Title: Sandman, Volume 5: A Game of You
Author: Neil Gaiman
Year of Publication: 1993
Length: 192 pages
Genre: magical realism – graphic novel
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 3.5 stars

Everyone has worlds inside of them.

This theme isn’t new to the Sandman series, but it’s revisited more strongly here than elsewhere in the ongoing saga. A Game of You features Barbie, who we first met back in Volume 2. She’s left her husband, moved to New York, and now lives in an apartment building with a lesbian couple (Hazel and Foxglove, both connected back to characters we’ve met before as well), a transwoman named Wanda, a quiet woman named Thessaly (who turns out to be a centuries-old witch), and a strange man named George (who turns out to be no sort of human at all). And in her dreams, Barbie lives in a fantasy realm. We caught a glimpse of it back in Volume 2, but it’s more fully realised here: an expansive world populated by talking animals, Narnia-esque. Here, Barbie is a princess, called upon to defeat the evil Cuckoo and restore justice to her realm.

The two worlds collide when a figure from the dream realm crosses over to the waking world — an enormous doglike creature called Martin Tenbones, who manages to pass a message and a strange gem on to Barbie before being gunned down by the NYPD. Bizarrely confronted by what she thought was only a dream, Barbie (not inexplicably) wonders if she’s cracking up. That night, the gem — the Porpentine — sends her into a coma-like sleep. Deep in her dreamworld, . George, revealed as a servant of the Cuckoo, releases nightmares in bird form upon the other inhabitants of the apartment building; when Thessaly catches one trying to get to her, she first kills it and then kills George. Gathering Hazel, Foxglove, and Wanda, she starts working old, bloody magic, using George’s remains to get answers about the Cuckoo and Barbie’s dream world, then drawing down the moon to walk its path into the magical realm. She takes Hazel and Foxglove with her, but leaves Wanda, chromosomally a man and thus unable to travel the moon’s path (and anyone looking for commentary on transgender issues will have loads to deal with there), behind to deal with a talking corpse, a comatose Barbie, and an impending hurricane caused by Thessaly’s meddling.

Meanwhile, in the dreamscape, Barbie’s trekking across a frozen wasteland, through a dark forest, and other such fantastical . In the end, we learn that this dreamworld was an island, a skerry of dreaming, isolated unto itself, and that its original inhabitant was a woman named Alianora, proud and beautiful and with a scar cutting across her right cheek. From her brief conversation with Morpheus, we can intuit that they were lovers once (and from what we know of Morpheus, we can assume it ended poorly) — but to the best of my knowledge, her full story is never told, a mystery left past the end of the series. Barbie was just the latest in a series of women who came there to dream, populating the realm with their imaginations.

We get Dreaming from a more human perspective here, rather than the viewpoint of Morpheus or other immortals. Morpheus only comes in at the very end of the story — Endless ex machina — and as a result, this story is rather more personal than a lot of the story. Its scope is (hurricane notwithstanding) less epic. When Barbie sleeps, she finds herself dropped into a world that is strange yet somehow familiar, which operates on its own set of rules — some of which she instinctively knows, and some of which she has to learn as she goes along. And everyone knows that feeling. Dream logic doesn’t resemble waking logic, but it does have its own patterns.

So, there’s the outline. I don’t really care for this volume, to be honest — and I’m not sure why. Barbie’s the sort of figure I ought to empathise with tremendously, but something about it just falls flat for me. Maybe it’s just that I do prefer the epic scope. Maybe it’s that there are places where this volume seems too conscious of making a point, rather than just telling a story. Maybe it’s that — despite bringing back a character we’ve seen before and introducing one we’ll see again — it feels more disjointed from the rest of the series than most of the volumes do. It still has considerable technical merit, and there are parts of it I enjoy, but ultimately this isn’t one that sticks with me.

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The Grass Crown, by Colleen McCullough

Title: The Grass Crown (Masters of Rome #2)
Author: Colleen McCullough
Year of Publication: 1991
Length: 1132 pages
Genre: historical fiction
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 4.5 stars

The second book of Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series follows up admirably on the first. The scope of the world expands, Rome faces new crises, and the Republic continues to crumble inevitably towards its own destruction. The reader gets to see it all through the eyes of some of the most fantastic characters who’ve ever lived, men and women who are at once larger-than-life and all too real.

Much of the first half of the book focuses on events in the east. First Gaius Marius and then Lucius Cornelius Sulla travel through the nations that border Rome’s province of Asia Minor: Bithynia, Pontus, Armenia, and even into the westernmost part of Parthia. We get some background on the labyrinthine genealogy that dictates the succession of eastern kings, we see Mithridates grow to power and eliminate his rivals — and we see him tuck tail and wait for better times when faced with the Romans. But wait he will. Mithridates dreams of ruling an empire that stretches far further than his little Black-Sea-bordering Pontus; he wants to take Rome’s provinces, and then take Rome. So though Marius and Sulla finagle some negotiations to keep him behind his borders for a while, he’s still lurking, waiting for the first opportunity to strike out.

The first half of the book also spends some time on domestic matters in Rome. We become better acquainted with Livia Drusa, whose brother Marcus Livius Drusus married her off in the last book to his friend Quintus Servilius Caepio (son of he who stole the Gold of Tolosa). I really love her arc for a lot of reasons. It’s the most in-depth view we get from a woman in either this or First Man in Rome, and I like that. I’m glad McCullough takes some time out from the heavy politics and the wars to give us this angle on events. Women’s history is too often overlooked, and particularly in the case of Livia Drusa, that’s a shame — because without her, the next generation of Rome might’ve looked quite different. When we left Livia Drusa last, she’d been forced to marry Caepio, a man she despised, to solidify an alliance for her brother. To his credit, Marcus Livius Drusus eventually realises what an error he made — the Battle of Arausio changed him, and he starts moving away from the conservative ideals that his friend Caepio still stalwartly adheres to. Bitterly unhappy, Livia Drusa takes advantage of Caepio’s absence from Rome to engage in an affair with Marcus Porcius Cato Salonianus, grandson of the famous Cato the Censor and a freedwoman (and thus not at all of the appropriate patrician pedigree). When Caepio returns and finds he has a new redheaded son, he takes to beating Livia — and when Marcus Drusus finds out about that, he and Caepio have a falling out, Caepio divorces Livia, and Livia marries Cato. Through all of this, Livia is spied on and betrayed by her eldest daughter, Servilia, as nasty a piece of work as you could possibly imagine. And yes, this is the Servilia who will become Julius Caesar’s mistress.

And speaking of Julius Caesar — he’s old enough now to be a proper character, though still a child. McCullough portrays him as a true prodigy, whose mother has to fight to keep him firmly rooted in some kind of humility (considering how little of it he demonstrates, one wonders what would have happened if not for Aurelia’s influence). Remarkably intelligent, both book-wise and possessing a keen insight into human nature, Young Caesar shows tremendous promise even at a terrifically young age. Unfortunately for him, this (and the prophecy of Martha the Syrian) mark him out as the man who will someday overtake Gaius Marius’s legacy — and Gaius Marius intends to have none of that. Of course, readers know better — Gaius Marius won’t be able to keep Caesar down — but it is an interesting insight into little-known details of his youth and early life.

Meanwhile — Drusus’s plot intertwines with that which takes over most of the second half of the book: the Social War when the Italian Allies rebelled against Rome over issues of political enfranchisement. Drusus tries desperately to find a way to reconcile the old guard with the demands of Rome’s rapidly expanding and changing world — but to no avail. War breaks out, instigated in large part by his friend, Quintus Poppaedius Silo, one of the other survivors of the Battle of Arausio. And the war is devastating; war in Italy is civil war, with no plunder to be taken, just wealth and food to be lost. It does, however, provide Sulla at last with his opportunity to shine. He takes command following Gaius Marius’s second and more debilitating stroke, seizing the opportunity to show Rome his worth. That, while it saves Rome from Italy, eventually provokes conflict between Sulla and Marius, and their strife is what dominates the last section of the book.

Interestingly, despite dangling him in front of us for the first half of the book, McCullough actually holds off the confrontation with Mithridates until the next book — for this one, he’s just a spectre, the boogeyman haunting the edges of the realm. He does take advantage of the Social War to start attacking at Rome’s borders, taking over Asia Province and ordering towns throughout the region to put to death over 80,000 Roman citizens. But we don’t actually see this or what happens next. We hear about it from poor exiled Publius Rutilius Rufus (who escapes the slaughter and reports back from Smyrna), and we see Sulla eventually head off to do battle with him — but we never actually get there. In a way, this is a little maddening — all the buildup in the beginning of the book doesn’t pan out — but in a way, it’s also rather magnificent. McCullough knows she’s writing a serial, after all, and history rarely ties itself up neatly. By structuring the book the way she does, you get a better sense of how Rome could be blindsided by Mithridates’s attack; the reader gets as consumed in the conflict with the Italians as Rome herself does, and so by the time we remember to think about Mithridates, it’s too late. He’s already made his move.

There’s only one point where the story really starts to drag, and it’s towards the end, in the complicated political situation that leads to Marius’s return from exile during his conflict with Sulla. Things get pretty twisty, and since most of the major players involved at that point aren’t folk we’ve been following all along, it’s a little confusing. Other than that, McCullough does a great job leading the reader through the twists and turns of Roman politics and military maneuvers.

At the end of the book, McCullough leaves Rome in dire straits: ravaged by civil wars, starving, blood-soaked, and with the threat of Eastern invasion still looming large. I promised myself I wasn’t picking up Fortune’s Favorites just yet — not least because I have five books to read before the end of the month if I want to win my 100-book Challenge, and starting another 1000-page monster is not a good way to make sure that gets done — but I’m anxious to get back to it. I so enjoy being immersed in McCullough’s Rome, precisely because total immersion is so possible. McCullough drops you straight into history, fully-realised, not sketchily glanced at. It’s a wonderful indulgence.

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Catherine, Called Birdy, by Karen Cushman

Title: Catherine, Called Birdy
Author: Karen Cushman
Year of Publication: 1994
Length: 224 pages
Genre: historical fiction – young adult
New or Re-Read?: many, many times re-read
Rating: 5 stars

This is one of my all-time favourite books, and has been since I first read it at the age of 9. I return to it about once a year, just out of sheer joy.

Catherine, Called Birdy is the tale of a fourteen-year-old girl in England in the year 1290. To please her monk brother Edward, who thinks the exercise will make her more observant and thoughtful, she sets to writing down an account of her life. The reader follows Birdy through a transformative year. The major plot is her attempt to avoid marriage to one of many odious suitors, but there are dozens of smaller plot points as well, threaded in and out of the main story with a casual ease that very much gives the sense of day-to-day life. The best aspect of the novel, though, is Birdy herself. Quick-witted and short-tempered, she grumbles, fusses, and curses her way through her life with a delightful sort of unpolished charm. Sometimes pragmatic, and at other times incredibly soft-hearted, Birdy is above all strong-minded, aching for an independence her world cannot give her, beating her wings against the bars of her cage. She approaches her frustrations head-on, often acting first and thinking later, and her observations on her life, her family, and the villagers are often hilariously funny.

Cushman gives remarkable detail to the nuances, idiosyncrasies, and oddities of medieval life, particularly for a young adult novel. From holiday customs to the cycle of the year, from the tremendous lack of privacy to the mysteries of childbirth, Cushman draws the world out in a way that is educational without being didactic. I appreciate that she treats the period with a sensible perspective: neither doom-and-gloom nor idyllic. Yes, life could be hard, and yes, hygiene was still a few centuries off, and yes, death was a more constant companion than we typically think of it today — but people still celebrated triumphs, fell in love, reveled during holidays (and got hangovers), cherished their pets, and basked in the sunlight. Cushman blends the hardships with the joys magnificently. I also like the status she chose for her main character. Birdy is the daughter of a common country knight, a man with some land but no title, very much a large fish in a quite small pond. This position frees Birdy from the tedium of a serf’s life, but is not elevated enough to allow her true luxury — as she complains:

If I had to be born a lady, why not a rich lady, so someone else could do the work and I could lie on a silken bed and listen to a beautiful minstrel while my servants hemmed? Instead I am the daughter of a country knight with but ten servants, seventy villagers, no minstrel, and acres of unhemmed linen. It grumbles my guts.

Like most teenage girls, Birdy sees almost everyone else in the world as possessing a position more favourable than her own. She envies the villagers for the freedom they have to marry where they will and to be outside in the sunshine rather than stuck indoors, but eventually recognises that their labour is harder than hers, and that their freedoms are few, tied as they are to the land and to their feudal obligations. She envies ladies wealthier than her, but comes to learn that higher rank only brings more responsibilities and entanglements, not fewer. She envies men that they can have adventures, go on Crusade, spit and swear, and generally make their lives what they want them — but later realises that’s really the case for only a few of them, and that adventures are mostly dangerous, Crusades bloody, and responsibilities generally far more numerous than freedoms. She hates her father and eldest brother, but by the end of the book, has seen different sides of each, causing her to at least rethink her assessment and consider them from someone else’s perspective, even if she still doesn’t like them any better herself. Birdy yearns to be someone else — anyone else — a puppeteer, a Crusader, a peddlar, a songmaker, a bird-trainer, an outlaw maid — her fantasy life is rich and vivid, and she shares her daydreams with us without hesitation, then shares her awareness of their impossibilities just as frankly. The major lesson for Birdy is that she has to learn to be happy with who and what she is. As a Jewish woman (on her way out of England, thanks to the purge of Edward I — another interesting inclusion of historical reality) tells her, “‘Little Bird, in the world to come, you will not be asked “Why were you not George?” or “Why were you not Perkin?” but “Why were you not Catherine?”‘” It takes Birdy rather a while to grasp the meaning of that, but when she does, you can see her start to get more comfortable with herself.

There are some inaccuracies in the mix, but considering that this is a young adult novel, not a historical treatise, I really don’t mind. Yes, Birdy would have been an astonishingly unique character in 1290 England — but women like her did exist, even if they were few, far between, and rarely as successful in their rebellions. Cushman doesn’t cheat the typical experience of a thirteenth-century woman, and Birdy has to confront, again and again, what she cannot do. I think Cushman balances the historical reality nicely with the need to appeal to modern readers. Perhaps the greatest fiction is the premise of the novel itself — that anyone would have wasted paper and ink, expensive luxuries, on personal thoughts. But that’s not an anachronism that’s ever going to occur to the target audience, and the conceit allows the reader to enjoy Birdy’s fantastic voice all the way through.

I wish that, at some point, it had occurred to me to keep better track of my reactions to this book throughout my life. I know that from the start, I adored Birdy for being feisty, short-tempered, and impatient — all flaws I could easily relate to. As I said, I was 9 when I first read this (the year it came out), and then, fourteen seems so very far away. I remember re-reading it a year later, to the shock of one of the priggish girls in my class, who had taken great offence at Birdy’s realisation that she cannot run away and become a monk: “…with these apples on my chest, I would not fool even the most aged of abbots. Deus! Last year they were but walnuts and I might have gotten away of it.” Still far away from even walnut category, my prim classmate had been deeply uncomfortable with Birdy’s frank discussion of bodily changes. Well into apple territory already at age 10, early bloomer that I was, I appreciated Birdy’s honesty. Through the years of puberty, Birdy remained a friend, eminently relatable, someone who knew all about the awkwardness, emotional turmoil, and desperate confusion of that span of life. Her temper fits, her sulks, days of euphoric optimism contrasted with days of hopeless despair — What teenage girl doesn’t know precisely what that’s like?

I’m older now, and I look back on my early teenage years with no sentimental fondness whatsoever. Though I’m well past Birdy’s age (indeed, for someone who calls her mother old at thirty-odd, I would seem well and truly past my prime to her, I suspect), her struggles are still relatable, even if some are in hindsight now. Others, though, remain relevant. At 26, I’m still working out the question of how to be the version of myself I most want to be. How do I reconcile my dreams with my reality? How do I find joy in every day of my life? These are some of the questions Birdy tackles, and they’re ones I’m still exploring. And on this read, probably for the first time, I’ve started thinking about how I’ll someday share this book with my own daughters, and how I hope that they’ll find Birdy as true a friend as I always have.

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The First Man in Rome, by Colleen McCullough

Title: The First Man in Rome (Masters of Rome #1)
Author: Colleen McCullough
Year of Publication: 1990
Length: 1152 pages
Genre: historical fiction
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 4.25 stars

I love a panoptic. I really do. Nothing pleases me better than a truly epic story, crossing decades, with a cast of thousands. I have no trouble keeping track of it all, and so that never detracts from my enjoyment. Rather, it enhances it — I love to feel as though I’ve been dropped not into an isolated story, but into an entire world, fully realised and teeming over with real people.

Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series (at least the first four books, which are all I’ve managed to read thus far) is a masterful example of this sort of literary indulgence.

The First Man in Rome, the first book in the series, chronicles the meteoric rise of Gaius Marius. He’s not a name most of us know anymore, unless you’re a devoted classical scholar. But he was a huge name in his own time, and he is, in fact, the reason so many of the things we do know about Roman history are the way they are — particularly with regard to the army. Gaius Marius is a New Man — meaning he’s the first man in his family to have entered the Senate. Though some of the Romans deride him as “an Italian hayseed with no Greek” thanks to his Picentine origins, Marius has his thumb on Rome’s pulse better than most of the Senate. He also has unparalleled military instincts — and he can tell where trouble’s going to come from (Africa, then the Germans). Fed up with the mismanagement of patrician generals, who have gotten tens of thousands of Romans killed with their ineptitude, Marius decides that no one but him can really set things right. He sets about restructuring the legions, improving the training of the troops, and knocking the self-important senatorial generals off of their high horses. His most controversial measure is to begin recruiting from a new source. Typically, Roman soldiers had to come from a certain rank — Roman, Latin, or Italian citizens who were landowners. Marius begins recruiting from the Head Count, the poor men who own no land, but who might just be in need of a good solid career. The old guard, of course, squabbles and fusses about this move degrading the sanctity of the armies — but with so many men of the proper rank dead, they really have no choice, unless they want to get invaded.

Marius is well past the traditional age to be consul for the first time (42), but when he’s in Numidia, warring against Jugurtha, he meets the Syrian prophetess Martha, who tells him that he’ll be consul not once, but seven times. This ought to be impossible; the traditional rules of Rome stated that ten years had to pass between consulships. Not fussed by that, Marius sets his sight on that goal and goes for it. He has a lot of enemies — mostly patrician men loathe to support a New Man from the provinces — and the political tangles are rendered in a fascinating way. McCullough makes a reader feel these battles, manipulations, and gossips every bit as keenly as the politics of the modern world — and we see these ancient Romans not as removed figures, but as very real people with very real foibles.

The secondary plot focuses on Lucius Cornelius Sulla, a man escaping his family’s downfall. Though the Cornelii are patricians, Sulla’s father was a drunk who left his son in penury, reliant on his mistresses (a Greek and his stepmother) for his livelihood. But when he turns 30, the age when he should be entering the Senate, Sulla decides to turn his life around. It takes him a few years (and a few murders), but he manages to get into the Senate and embark on a promising career. His rise starts when he serves as quaestor to Marius in Numidia, demonstrating a keen mind and a talent for covert ops. Marius and Sulla become linked not just by their military ambitions, but by their wives — Julia and Julilla, two daughters of Gaius Julius Caesar. No, not that Gaius Julius Caesar — he won’t be born for a while yet. These women will someday be his aunts.

Finally, there’s Gaius Marius’s best friend, a sensible man loyal to him, though he doesn’t always agree with his politics: Publius Rutilius Rufus, who is related to almost every other important character in the books. Among the most important of them are Marcus Livius Drusus, a young politician who will become more important in the second book, and Aurelia Cotta, who marries one of the Julian sons (and she will someday be our famous Caesar’s mother). Much of the story gets relayed through Publius’s letters to Marius, and those letters have a wonderful voice to them. It’s a clever way of summarizing the gaps in the story without getting too bogged down or making it feel like a history lesson. Publius gives colour to some of the dryer parts of the timeline.

The story follows these men and women through the beginning of the end of the Republic, from 110 to 100 BCE. This period sees the subjugation of Numidia as well as an invasion from German tribes, and McCullough gives both depth and breadth to those events. The Jugurthine War gets wonderful detail, both in the lead-up to it, the personality of Jugurtha, and the complex politics that governed Rome’s intervention. This is really the war that kickstarts Rome’s period of rapid expansion. Up till then, they had mostly acquired territories almost accidentally; from this point forward, they will go after them with greater initiative. We see the tragedy Rome suffered at the Battle of Arausio, when Cimbri and Teuton tribesmen slaughtered over 120,000 Romans in a day, through the eyes of a few young legates (including Marcus Livius Drusus). And we see the politics, the ins and outs of Roman elections, the power of the tribunes (especially one Lucius Appuleius Saturninus, a populist-turned-revolutionary), the nuances of religion, and the tensions between patrician and plebeian, between the Five Classes, in vivid, colourful detail.

There are points where the book drags, at least for me — they tend to be the sections more heavily focused on military history, rather than personal, and I confess that’s where my attention wanders a bit. I also wish McCullough gave more time to the female characters. They get a better shake later on — even the very next book features several rather more prominently — but there are definitely some wasted opportunities here. Julia and Julilla are counterpoints to their respective men, rarely granted individual voice, and the formidable Aurelia does not even appear until a few hundred pages in, and does not assert herself so magnificently until almost the tail end of the book.

Still, this book is fantastic in so many ways that I’m willing to overlook those shortcomings. McCullough does a magnificent job bringing Rome to life. This book is educational without being a textbook, which I also enjoy. The maps are astonishingly helpful, and the extensive glossary of terms (and by extensive, I mean almost 100 pages in itself) provides all the detail you could possibly want about these facets of ancient Roman life. Better than all of that, though, McCullough presents characters. The First Man in Rome has people in it — weak and strong and in-between, prejudiced and considerate, conservative and liberal, hot-tempered and cool-headed. Even the minor characters are nuanced and three-dimensional, and the major characters are so well-drawn that, by the end of the book, you’ll feel like you’ve known them forever. Reading The First Man in Rome is an all-over wonderful experience.

Recommended to: history geeks, fans of HBO’s Rome, and anyone who loves awesome stories.

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