Tuesday, January 26, 2016

NAPOLEON, A LIFE by Andrew Roberts (non-fic)

Many books have been written about Napoleon Bonaparte, and he is a familiar yet still controversial figure when it comes to assigning his merits and failings.  Roberts's account of Napoleon's life is very readable and lengthy.  It is complimented with many illustrations and maps of battles, as well as portraits of the various principals of the story.  Roberts did a massive amount of research on his subject.  He portrays Napoleon in a positive light, particularly for his military genius and his reorganization of the French government and laws.  Much of the Napoleonic Code is still in use today, including the state of Louisiana and Quebec.  Roberts writes a very complete account of Napoleon's many campaigns and battles and reveals his personal life through the many letters he wrote, 33 thousand or more. Apparently Bonaparte didn't sleep much and did a lot of his planning and writing throughout the night.  He was a great micro-manager.  Often during a campaign, he would digress to make sure his soldiers were well equipped, fed, and cared for.  Or he would dash off a letter advising his aides or wife to tend to an issue of minor importance in the light of the battle which was raging around him.

Napoleon Bonaparte was born in 1769 in Corsica and early on demonstrated he had a genius for military planning.  He was an indefatigable worker and quickly rose through the ranks with his brilliant mind and courageous daring.  He attended the exclusive Ecole Militaire in Paris, which was quite impressive given his humble background.  During the time of his ascendancy France was a failing country which he eventually turned into a super power in Europe.  He became Emperor in 1804 until 1814 when he was defeated by the coalition of England, Prussia, Austria and Russia and exiled to Elba.  He made a daring escape from the island and again regained the imperial crown for a short time in 1815.  We all know he was then sent to the remote Atlantic Island of St. Helena on which he died in 1821 of stomach cancer.  He was 51 years old.

Applying today's standards, Napoleon live a short life, but his accomplishments were mighty.  Roberts doesn't spend a lot of time on his personal life.  It is hard to know if Napoleon was able to form strong bonds with women.  His letters and relationships seem to be somewhat sophomoric.  He had many mistresses and one-night stands.  Josephine, famous in her own right, was the love of his life, yet he readily divorced her to marry Maria Louise of Austria when it seemed politically expedient to do so.

The alliances with and against Napoleon were constantly shifting.  For all his successes, Bonaparte had some spectacular defeats--in Egypt, on the sea (he was no match for Nelson's superior knowledge of sea battles), his failed "Continental System" for blockading English goods, and his extricating his armies from Russia after his failed attempt to lay siege to Moscow.  The Russians burned the city and abandoned it leaving him and his troops to freeze and starve their way through the frozen and desolate Ukraine. The wily Prince Metternich of Austria and Tsar Alexander were on and off again adversaries. His once trusted advisor Talleyrand turned on him while enriching himself.  The brilliant tactician Wellington finally and for all time defeated Napoleon at Waterloo.  In the end Napoleon's reach exceeded his grasp.  He just could not stop "playing soldiers."

I highly recommend this biography of Napoleon to all who have an interest in him and his times, as well as to the general reader who would like to know more about the great battles for supremacy in Europe in the early 19th century.

Monday, January 18, 2016

FRIDAY ON MY MIND by Nicci French (fic)

This is the fifth book in the Frieda Klein series of mystery thrillers by the husband and wife team of writers known as Nicci French. One should begin with the Monday book of the series, to make sense of Frieda Klein and what moves her single mindedness in tracking down her nemesis, Dean Reeve.  The other books in the series have all been reviewed in previous postings.
The Nicci French team is particularly clever at building suspense and this book is no exception.  I read it in two sittings.  I won't say why, but once again, I felt let down when I finished the book.  To know whether this is the end of the series or it is to be continued, you must read the book yourself.  I can say that once you begin this series, you feel obliged to soldier on until the mystery is finally solved, good for the authors, but can be tiresome for the reader.

A GOD IN RUINS by Kate Atkinson (fic)

This richly written book is a sequel of sorts to Atkinson's wonderful "Life After Life," which was reviewed in a previous posting.  This time, Atkinson focuses on Teddy Todd the brother who also appeared in the previous novel, though his sister Ursula was the subject of that book.  Again, four generations of Todds hold our attention and interest.  The setting is post World War II England and Teddy, the god of the title is now married to his former sweetheart Nancy.  Since war is man's greatest fall from grace, Teddy muddles through life trying to make sense of the part he played in the war and reconcile it with his placid post-war life.  He has one child, a spoiled daughter named Viola who grows into a nasty piece of work.  It is only at the end of the book that one can scrape up a bit of sympathy for this unpleasant character, who seems to work overtime to ruin the lives of her two children.

The story first takes us back to Fox Corner and Teddy's childhood in the 1920s and leaves us in the 1980s of Teddy's grandchildren.  Atkinson has an amazing knowledge of World War II aircraft and their capabilities, and she presents bombing raids conducted over Germany in the most realistic manner.  Teddy made 70 bombing runs over Germany as an ace RAF pilot.  The chapters dealing with Teddy's part in the war are exciting and admirable in their depth.  In this she rivals another of my favorite authors, Pat Barker, who writes realistically about the First World War and its affect on the combatants in a post-war world.

Teddy's relationship with his beloved wife, his grandchildren, and the Todd family reveal him to be a complex and caring man doing his best in a changed society.  As for his daughter, Viola, who bubbles and simmers with anger, it is only at the end of the book that the reader discovers the secret of the discontent that colored her life.

The last section of the book which covers Teddy's old age with all the aches and pains of adapting to modern mores and society's treatment of the elderly, is particularly moving.  As he nears death, Teddy realizes that he has lived his life along the lines of advice his father had once given him as a child, "neither sink nor float, just sort of paddle about in the middle."

The final chapter in the book comes full circle and leads the reader to an understanding of the author's purpose in writing this novel as well as "Life After Life."  It all becomes clear in the Author's note.  As Atkinson says, "It's about fiction and how we must imagine what we cannot know."

I highly recommend this book. It can be read alone, but is more enjoyable if one has read "Life After Life," first.  When the reader finally realizes what Atkinson has been about in these two books, it leaves one admiring of her creative ability and writing talent.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

THE JAPANESE LOVER by Isabel Allende (fic)

I approached this novel by Isabel Allende with great pleasure as the first book I would read in the new year. Having read a couple of her books in the past, I was primed for this book with its intriguing title.  Allende writes books that one might classify as romantic, but she is a cut well above the popular romance novel.  Her characters are interesting and the settings are colorful.

Alas, I was disappointed in this latest endeavor.  The plot has great promise and the characters potential, but unlike her best known novels, the characters are never fully developed.  It may be that Allende attempts to provide a back-story for too many characters, rather than concentrating on developing two or three main characters.  Because of this, they fall flat as the story progresses and they never really live up to the backgrounds they were given.

The primary story centers around Alma Belasco,an elderly member of an assisted living facility named Lark House in San Francisco.  Alma was a Polish war orphan in World War II and came to live with her wealthy aunt and uncle who raised her with the same love they gave their only son.  The elderly Alma is given to musing on her past life as the chapters move back and forth in time.  Alma and the young son of her uncle's Japanese gardener play together as children and are inseparable until Ichimei Fukuda, the young boy, is sent to a concentration camp with his family for the duration of the war.  This mirrors the fate of Alma's Jewish family back in Poland.  The relationship between Alma and Ichimei is slowly revealed through letters they send to each other throughout their lives.  Even though their paths in life are separate, they fall completely in love, hence the title of the novel.

The elderly Alma hires a young assistant named Irina Bazili, a Moldovian girl of fragile beauty who has her own secret which is revealed to the reader but not to Alma.  Along with these three, there are numerous other characters who could stand on their own, also with mysterious backgrounds. It would be interesting to know more about Alma's brother and how he escaped the death camps and became an agent of Mossad; also, Ichimei's sister who is a strong female character who is never fully developed.

I would have enjoyed the story more if the two main characters were given more space and their star-crossed romance was further developed.   Instead, they seem mere caricatures.