Julian Kestrel Mystery Series Review

The cover that caught my eye

The cover that caught my eye

Sometimes it pays to judge a book by its cover. One day years ago, I was browsing in a nice little independent bookstore in my hometown when my eye was caught by the cover of The Devil in Music, by Kate Ross. I noticed it first because it was illustrated by Kinuko Craft, one of my favorite illustrators, but when the pages decorated by the cover turned out to contain a murder mystery starring a Regency dandy named Julian Kestrel as sleuth (plus: opera!), well, there was no way I wasn’t taking it home!

It was a good choice.

The Julian Kestrel series was cut tragically short when Ross lost a long battle with cancer at the age of just 41, but she left behind four very enjoyable mysteries. I ended up reading them all out of order. The Devil in Music turned out to be the fourth and last book in the series, but I read it first anyway, then I read the second and third, because I had trouble getting a copy of the first. I finally read the first last! This worked out okay because the books are mostly stand-alone, and I might even recommend starting with the fourth, as it might make you less likely to guess the twist. However, I’ll review them in the correct order.

[Read more…]

The Borgia Chronicles Review

Buy at Amazon

Review:

I’m still upset about The Borgias being cancelled, so after stumbling across The Serpent and the Pearl, by Kate Quinn, the first book in The Borgia Chronicles, at the library, I decided to give it a shot to see if it could ease my withdrawal a bit.

The Borgia Chronicles, which include The Serpent and the Pearl and The Lion and the Rose, are told from the perspective of Giulia Farnese, the celebrated Italian beauty and mistress of Rodrigo Borgia (Pope Alexander VI), and two fictional servants: Giulia’s cook Carmelina and her bodyguard Leonello, a dwarf who reminded me of Tyrion Lannister from Game of Thrones thanks to his sharp wit and love of books. Quinn’s Giulia starts out as a young and naive girl, but matures over the course of the series into a kind and caring young woman. She is an entirely different creature than the elegant Giulia of The Borgias or the energetic Giulia of Borgia: Faith and Fear, but I have to say, I like all three. So little is known of the real Giulia Farnese that any one (or none) of the three portrayals could be accurate.

Buy at Amazon

The Borgia family comes across fairly accurately, based on my understanding of their real life personalities, with one glaring exception related to the portrayal of Cesare in the first book that was resolved somewhat more satisfactorily in the second.

Quinn has a very pleasant and absorbing writing style that’s rich in period detail and sensory descriptions that bring the era to life. I repeatedly found myself reading much more in a sitting than I’d intended! I especially enjoyed her mouthwatering descriptions of Carmelina’s cooking, which are based on actual recipes from cooks of the period such as Bartolomeo Scappi (who is also a character in the books).

My biggest issue with the series was Quinn’s tendency to force me to suspend my disbelief over certain plot choices, which kept tossing me out of what were otherwise a pair of very enjoyable novels. I’ve already mentioned the issue with Cesare’s portrayal, which greatly marred my enjoyment of the first book, but though that eventually got resolved in a somewhat more probable manner, the second book went and did it again with an ending that seemed overly pat and tidy, not to mention improbable.

SPOILERS [click to view]

Despite having spent a third of the series reading Leonello’s thoughts, I never had the slightest suspicion that he was in love with Giulia, and I usually have a sharp nose for that sort of thing, so that seemed completely out of the blue to me. I could buy Giulia returning his feelings more easily, but despite the convenient sham marriage to the gay lord, I had trouble accepting that a noblewoman of Giulia’s era would just be allowed to shack up with a common dwarf for the rest of her life. Nor could I buy that Cesare would just take Leonello’s word that he’d killed Carmelina, given their history (however antagonistic it sometimes was). My romantic side was all fluttery and overjoyed that everybody ended up happy and free of their dangerous entanglement with the Borgia family, but my skeptical side was not so easily convinced.

My rating:3.5 Stars (3.5 / 5)

Phantom, by Susan Kay Book Review

Buy at Amazon

Review:

Don’t be mislead by the terrible cover!

Gaston Leroux’s classic horror novel The Phantom of the Opera has received many adaptations in many different forms, the most famous of which include the 1925 silent film starring Lon Chaney and the Broadway musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber. There have also been many literary adaptations, including retellings, “sequels,” and more. Phantom, by Susan Kay, is by far the best of these.

Leroux gave his readers some tantalizing hints of Erik’s life before he took up residence in the basement of the Paris opera house and became the dreaded “Opera Ghost,” but his novel covered only the last few months leading up to Erik’s death. Kay’s novel takes those scant hints and spins them into a rich backstory full of adventure and tragedy alike. She makes good use of several different narrators, including Erik’s mother, the Persian, Raoul, Christine, and Erik himself, to flesh out his story and bring it to life from birth til death, and beyond. Though I’m a diehard Erik/Christine shipper, my favorite aspect of the book may have been the relationship between Erik and the Persian (here named Nadir). It was wonderful to see it fleshed out and their interactions produced some of the book’s best moments and lines of dialogue.

Phantom is beautifully written and intensely emotional. I’m admittedly soft-hearted, but I cried multiple times reading this novel and I’m sure I’m not alone in that. Most phans will adore Phantom, and it’s also an excellent introduction to the story for non-fans and casual fans, as it’s written in a more modern style than the original novel.

Buy at Amazon

My rating:5 Stars (5 / 5)

Borgia: Season 1 Review

Review:

Buy at Amazon

After The Borgias was prematurely cancelled by Showtine, I decided to give this European show (also known as Borgia: Faith and Fear) a try to get my Borgias fix thanks to this intriguing comparison of the two shows by a historian, but found it disappointing.

It was interesting to compare the different choices the two shows made about how to tell the story, but while Borgia did make some choices that I liked a lot (as well as some that were more historically accurate than those made in The Borgias), the acting and characterization killed the show for me and I lost interest midway through the first season.

An international production, Borgia cast actors from a wide range of backgrounds and nationalities, and unfortunately the mix of accents made it difficult to suspend disbelief. For example, Rodrigo had an American accent, Cesare had a British accent, Juan had a Spanish accent, and Lucrezia had a German accent. And that was just the Borgia family! Compounding the problem, some of the accents were so thick it was hard to understand what was being said.

In addition to the problems with the accents, some of the actors were simply not very good, and the characterization was sometimes sloppy and inconsistent, and occasionally outright preposterous. In particular, the characterization of Cesare was baffling to me. He came across more like a lunatic than “Il Principe.”

Borgia also had a lot of extremely graphic sex and violence, to an extent that was off-putting for me, and the lower budget forced them to cover some important events by standing around and talking about them rather than actually depicting them. In a rare case where Showtime’s The Borgias was nastier and more graphic than Borgia, the French king’s invasion in The Borgias involved towns being sacked and put to the sword, huge armies on the march, and a bunch of Roman soldiers being sliced in half (literally) by chained cannonballs. In Borgia, the French invasion consisted of about 20 guys running through the streets of Rome with torches.

Though Borgia is worth watching if you’re interested in the family or the period, I think Showtime’s version of The Borgias was both better made and more enjoyable.

Buy at Amazon

My rating:2 Stars (2 / 5)

[Read more…]

The Borgias Season Three Review

Buy at Amazon

Review:

With Juan out of the picture, Cesare’s transformation into “The Prince” of Machiavelli’s famous political treatise is well underway and season three of The Borgias really belongs to him… and Francois Arnaud.

Cesare finally consummates his incestuous passion for his sister Lucrezia, raises his own personal army when his father refuses to give him control of the Papal Army, douses a traitor with sulfur and sets him alight, and generally becomes a force to be reckoned with for everyone from his old nemesis Caterina Sforza to the new King and Queen of France to his own father. His arc is compelling, well acted, and produces some of the best television of the show’s entire run.

On the downside, poor Lucrezia spends much of the season stuck in Naples with a wet blanket husband and his comically evil relatives (none of whom, alas, are even a tenth the fun of Augustus Prew’s cackling Alfonso back in season one), and you can almost feel Neil Jordan and his writers losing interest in some of the secondary characters. Giulia and della Rovere virtually disappear, and Micheletto gets saddled with a ludicrously improbable gay romance. Even Alexander himself gets a rather mixed bag, plot-wise, though a fairly entertaining one. (Madwomen! Scheming Jews! Murder in the consistory!)

Sadly, the fun is never to continue, as the show was cancelled by Showtime. Though uneven throughout its run, when The Borgias was good, it was very, very good, and its premature cancellation was a sad loss to its fans, and to television.

Buy at Amazon

My rating:4 Stars (4 / 5)

[Read more…]

The Borgias Season Two Review

Buy at Amazon

Review:

Season two continues the saga of the Borgia family with enemies regrouping all around. Again, there are a few problems with pacing (most notably with the interminable and boring subplot about Lucrezia’s Genovese suitor and his brother in the second half of the season), but the season also contains some of the show’s best episodes. In particular, season 2 makes much better use of the awesome “Tigress of Forli,” Caterina Sforza (Gina McKee), than the first season did, and the tensions between Cesare, Juan, and Lucrezia come to a head.

My rating:4 Stars (4 / 5)
[Read more…]

The Borgias Season One Review

Buy at Amazon

Review:

The Borgias is one of my favorite tv shows of recent years. Though its historical accuracy is mixed at best, it’s well acted, mostly well scripted, and gorgeous to look at in every respect. Jeremy Irons looks like he’s having the most fun of his career chewing the scenery as the notorious Borgia pope, Alexander VI, but the breakout star of the cast for me was Francois Arnaud as Rodrigo’s son Cesare.

The show did suffer a bit from uneven pacing throughout its run, and season one is no exception, but overall it was a strong start.

My rating:4 Stars (4 / 5)

[Read more…]

Much Ado About Nothing

Buy at Amazon

Review:

Not Shakespeare’s best play, but one of my favorites due to the awesomeness of Beatrice and Benedict, one of the world’s best written bickering couples ever. Here, the pair is played brilliantly by Kenneth Branaugh and Emma Thompson, who were married to each other at the time it was made and have always had great chemistry.

The rest of the cast is also great (with one or two puzzling exceptions) and the resulting film is frothy and fun and full of beautiful, sunny Tuscan scenery to boot.

My rating: 4 Stars (4 / 5)

[Read more…]