Thursday, May 25, 2017

Young Romantics: The Tangled Lives of English Poetry's Greatest Generation by Daisy Hay

While I was reading Jane Eyre and reading about the Brontes the term "Byronesque hero" kept appearing to describe Mr Rochester.  I had heard the term before and I knew a bit about Lord Byron, famous in his day as much for his scandalous personal life as his poetry and so I became curious. Who was Lord Byron? How much of a rogue was he?

This question and many others are answered in Daisy Hay's Young Romantics: The Tangled Lives of English Poetry's Greatest Generation.  Ms Hay is a professor at the University of Exeter in the UK and in Young Romantics she digs into the lives of John Keats, Lord Byron, Percy and Mary Shelley, Leigh Hunt and their friends and family.  I would have liked to have learned more about John Keats who died tragically from TB when he was only 25 but what a gifted young man.  I could have done with a little less about Leigh Hunt who though an influential editor of the literary magazine the Examiner didn't in my opinion warrant as much attention as the author paid to him.  As for Byron a little of him goes a long way.

Mostly though Young Romantics tells the story of the poet Percy Shelley and his wife Mary Shelley who wrote Frankenstein when she was only nineteen. Mary Shelley was the daughter of the famous feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and the radical philosopher William Godwin.  Percy Shelley, a big fan of William Godwin, went to see him and fell in love with his daughter Mary.  She was sixteen years old and Percy was twenty one when they eloped.

Sounds romantic except that Percy Shelley was already married with a young child. Mary and Percy eloped to Italy accompanied by Mary's step sister Clare Claremont who wanted to go along for the adventure.  Clare would later have an affair with Lord Byron which ended disasterously when Byron got custody of their daughter Allegra and then shipped Allegra off to a convent where she contacted typhoid fever and died at age five.

Death permeates the story of the Young Romantics.  John Keats died at 25, Percy Shelley drowned at sea at 29.  Byron dead at 36.  Then there was Mary and Percy Shelley's children. They had four but only one survived beyond the age of three. Shelley to his credit loved Mary and was a supportive husband and generous to his sister-in-law Clare and his editor Leigh Hunt.  It does not excuse his behavior to his first wife Harriet but due to the excellent job of research Ms Hay has done in reading old letters, diary entrys etc you get a sense of who Mary and Percy Shelley were and I closed the book realizing they were flawed but human.  Clare Claremont who lived to age 80 left behind a partial memoir of her life with the Shelleys and Byron and it was a seering indictment of the costs of free love particularly on the wives and girlfriends involved.

Young Romantics is well researched and well written and though not a poetry reader I closed the book wanting to give the poetry of Keats, Byron and Shelley a try.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

The Ex by Alafair Burke

Alafair Burke is a critically acclaimed and relatively new mystery novelist and I was researching which of Ms Burke's books to read and review.  I decided on her latest, The Ex, which was one of five novels nominated in 2017 for the prestigious Edgar Award.  The Ex didn't win but still quite an honor.  Ms Burke knows crime having been a prosecutor and she is the daughter of James Lee Burke a big name in the mystery genre best known for his award winning Dave Robicheaux series.

So, The Ex (published 2016) is a stand alone mystery set in New York City.  The novel is narrated by Olivia Randall a brilliant defense attorney who leaves no stone unturned when defending her clients. Her professional life is going great.  Her personal life not good at all.  Twenty years ago Olivia was engaged to her college sweetheart Jackson Harris.  She broke off her engagement to Jackson in a very cruel way which set forth a series of events that almost ruined his life.

Olivia and Jackson have not spoken or seen each other in the twenty years since the breakup.  Both have gone on with their lives.  So when Olivia recieves a call out of the blue from Jackson Harris' sixteen year old daughter asking Olivia to defend her father on a murder charge, Olivia is shocked.  She weighs the ethics of defending someone she was once engaged to but takes the case anyway because of the guilt she feels about the breakup.  Olivia starts out believing Jackson but she hasn't spoken to him since the breakup.  Is he the same person Olivia knew in college or did she really know him at all?  These are the questions the book ponders along the way and the tension is gripping. You get an education in The Ex about how a defense attorney goes about uncovering the facts and preparing her case.  The Ex is a page turner which is not an easy thing for a writer to accomplish and Alafair Burke pulls it off.

Problem is, I wish I liked Olivia Randall more as a character.  Olivia does a good job as the narrator bringing us along on the investigation, explaining the law and getting the story from point A to point B.  However, in a murder mystery there will be many characters you can't root for which is okay as long as you care about the private investigator, detective or defense attorney trying to solve the mystery.  Also there is the ending which I had a problem with.

I can't recommend The Ex but Alafair Burke is a talented writer and a number of her books have been given starred reviews from Publisher's Weekly (and they don't give those out lightly).  My friend Lorraine has recommended her novel, 212, the third book in Ms Burke's Ellie Hatcher series which I might try since its quite popular.