loulamac’s #CBRV review #51: About Face by Donna Leon

AFace

Another dead-Kindle-holiday-desperation read, and it wasn’t up to Jack Reacher standards, not even a little bit. People I know whose opinions I respect are fans of Donna Leon, and so I had no qualms about picking this up. And then I read the first chapter, was so bored I could hardly believe it, but managed to plough through it in a day and a half anyway.  About Face is something like the 428,956th Commissario Guido Brunetti mystery. You’d think with that kind of practice (not to mention acclaim) that the book would have something to recommend it. It doesn’t.

At a dinner party at his in-law’s, Brunetti meets an intriguing blonde, who as well as reading lots of Cicero, also has a frozen face due to what seems to be excessive plastic surgery. This woman’s husband has made a business proposal to Brunetti’s father in law, and so Brunetti does a little bit of digging into him. At the same time, a Major in the Caribinieri comes to visit Brunetti. He’s on the trail of mafia-connected criminals who are illegally transporting toxic waste, and needs some help. Before long the Major is dead, Brunetti has drunk lots of coffee, and I had lost the will to live.

Brunetti is meant to be charming, thoughtful and insightful. I just found him smug and self-consciously quirky. The other characters are little more than cardboard cut-outs, and the dialogue is wooden. For some reason, Leon seems to think that detailing what he has for lunch and the pasta shapes his wife uses with different courses adds to the sense of how terribly Italian it all is. Bore off. I won’t be reading another one.

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Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #52: The Golden Egg by Donna Leon

I’ve been enjoying Leon’s books for years, and was looking forward to this, her latest. Her books take place in the unique and exotic setting of Venice, Italy, and are generally centered on the criminal cases that fall under the oversight of police inspector Commissario Guido Brunetti. Leon’s books are as famous for her ruminations—in Brunetti’s voice—about human relations, family relations, and often profound questions of religion, morality, state corruption, and so on, as they are about the delicious foods –described in yummy detail–that Brunetti’s wife serves her appreciative husband and two teenaged children.

The Golden Egg, while filled with the same compelling mix of good food and personal challenge as her other books, just didn’t make the grade somehow. It’s a very slow-moving story focused on the accidental death of a 40-something deaf and presumably retarded man who had lived in Brunetti’s neighborhood. Once the case is declared an accidental death, there is little to draw us into the plot except Brunetti’s fixation—prompted by the distress of his wife—over the dead man’s virtual invisibility for so many years. Brunetti  inexplicably determines to find out more about the man’s background as a way, perhaps, of making personal amends for not having recognized the man’s existence and difficult life, and in doing so, uncovers—but excruciatingly slowly—the personal tragedies of a number of people involved in the dead man’s life.

Leon attempts to give us a bit more background on some of Brunetti’s co-workers, but they have little to do with the story and come off more as filler than anything. There is a sadness that settles onto the pages of The Golden Egg which emanates as much from Brunetti himself as it does from the dead man, but it is an existential sadness in the case of our Commissario, with neither rhyme nor reason behind it.

I stuck with the book to the end, primarily to see if there was a surprise mystery that would make the slog worthwhile. Unfortunately, it wasn’t.

Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #34: The Jewels of Paradise by Donna Leon

After reading and enjoying Leon’s satisfyingly intellectual mysteries for years, I was truly stunned at how positively uninspired and boring her latest novel is. And this, despite the fact that I found out about Leon’s latest book by reading about Italian opera diva Cecilia Bartoli’s newest passion, the music of mid-seventeenth century singer, composer, cleric and diplomat Agostino Steffani. Leon’s newest book (not coincidentally, as she and Bartoli are friends) centers around Steffani as well, and I thought, how bad can this be? Hmmm.

First and foremost, this is a stand-alone novel with a new protagonist, baroque musicologist Caterina Pellegrini whose constant musings throughout the book are of absolutely zero interest to either the plot or the reader (in fact, I found her sister more interesting merely by reading a few of her letters to Caterina). After meandering from job to job across Europe, Caterina ends up taking a job back in her hometown of Venice, cataloguing the contents of two newly-discovered trunks that had reputedly belonged to Steffani and which ownership is being contested by two unsavory descendants of the composer who are convinced of a secret treasure to be found. Although she was hired to look for proof of which descendant is favored by Steffani, the two thugs take a back seat in the plot to their slick lawyer, who appears to be wooing Caterina for devious purposes. In fact, he has another mission entirely, we ultimately learn. The trunks are stored at the offices of an esoteric art institute which appears to serve no purpose in the plot, other than to inject another character of rather amorphous purpose into the story.

Leon devotes the bulk of her novel to intensely detailed offerings of Steffani’s admittedly interesting history, and it is clear that she is lending her own popularity to give Cecilia Bartoli’s latest passion a broader audience, where what she should simply have done is offer to write Steffani’s history. Instead, we Leon aficionados are forced to wade through the most superficial plot and poor excuses for dialogue between less than interesting characters, only to discover that this is not a great, or even very good, Leon novel.

And, most unhappily, there is no Commissario Guido Brunetti in Leon’s The Jewels of Paradise. It is Brunetti, in my opinion, who gives depth and character to Leon’s famous detective series and raises them above the hundreds (thousands?) of mediocre police procedurals out there. In her previous novels, Leon has given us a decent family man and dedicated police inspector who is not a drunken misogynist and who has still managed to win the hearts of mystery lovers everywhere.

 Perhaps you’re tired of your Brunetti novels, Ms. Leon, but your readers are not. Let Cecilia resurrect Steffani, and you resurrect Brunetti.

ElCicco #CBR5 Review #2: The Book of Madness and Cures by Regina O’Melveny

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This novel, set in Europe at the end of the 16th century, tells of a daughter’s quest to find her father as well as herself. Gabriella Mondini is a Venetian doctor who learned her skills by her father’s side and was accepted (begrudgingly) into the Venetian doctors guild as long as her father was her patron. When the story begins, Gabriella’s father has been gone for 10 years and the guild has terminated her membership. Dr. Mondini had been working on a book of disease with Gabriella, and when he left, he took it with him, leaving his daughter without her father, her patron and her work.

 

Mondini sent occasional letters to his daughter as he traveled, and over the years, he became more and more lax with providing dates or cities from which he wrote. Moreover, the content of his letters became increasingly confusing and distressing. What really drove him away? Was it a desire to learn more of disease or was it to hide his own illness? When she receives a final message from him, without date or point of origin, telling Gabriella that he will not return and she should not look for him, Gabriella, naturally, resolves to find him. She gathers up her servants Olmina and Lorenzo, her own book of diseases that she has been recreating from memory, and bids her unsupportive and shrill mother good-by. Gabriella retraces her father’s steps through Europe, starting with his first letters, which did indicate cities and fellow doctors whom he had consulted.

The novel follows her journeys through a year and reveals much about the unstable political political situation in Europe, the widespread suspicion of “healers” as opposed to doctors (who seem to be purely intellectual in their pursuits) and particularly of women. It also shows Gabriella’s own development — is she mad to pursue her father, who seems to have left behind a dubious reputation in the cities he visited? Interspersed throughout the novel are excerpts from Gabriella’s book, which is largely about psychological and emotional disorders. Melancholia, loss of desire, invidia (the invisible worm that consumes the heart), the “repugnance of closed space” — how many of these maladies, which frequently defy cure, afflict Gabriella and her father?

I admire the authors’ ambition in covering so much ground — geographically, historically and psychologically. Her characters travel through Northern Europe, Scotland, France, Spain and North Africa on their odyssey, and O’Melveny does a fine job of showing the political, social and cultural atmosphere of these places. I wasn’t sure how I felt about Gabriella. At times I thought her impetuous and selfish, but this is perhaps reflective of her class and upbringing. I found the story arc to be satisfying without stretching the credulity too much, and the writing is lovely. O’Melveny is a poet and it comes through in her novel.

Some women think of love as a rising thing, but I’d always known it as a descent where I might lose myself or my beloved. A sweetness and then a severance greater than original solitude. And so I feared joy. Yet there in the library [we] climbed the bright ladder of the body, as if it were sky and we a deafening, twisting flock of birds that could never fall to earth.

This was a pleasurable read. Recommended for those who have read and enjoyed the novels of Sarah Dunant and Geraldine Brooks.