Saturday, December 31, 2011

The House of Special Purpose by Colin Falconer

Rating: ★  ☆ ☆ 
Obtained from: Personal Kindle Library
Read: Dec. 21, 2011 

For years no one knew what happened to Czar Nicholas and his family after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. It was decades before the whole truth came out. The deadly account of what happened to them in Ekatinerberg, in the House of Special Purpose draws on eyewitness accounts and is told from the point of view of Anastasia, the Czar's youngest daughter. The facts are so ghastly - and so farcical - they defy belief. The story brings to vivid life the events of the last months of the Romanovs and is the prequel to Colin Falconer's bestselling novel: Anastasia. How was it possible for any of the children to have survived? You won't believe the answer; except that it's all true.

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*** NOTE: This review contains spoilers. Please take heed and proceed at your own risk. 

Engagement official picture of Tsar Nicholas II
and Alexandra Feodorovna
I must apologize. I’ve hardly done any reading lately and as a result I have neglected my blog. In truth I haven’t been feeling all that great, but I’m back on my feet. Well, better than I’ve been at any rate. Anyway, enough about me. Now for my thoughts on The House of Special Purpose.

There is a line in historic fiction. It is either a fictional account of the truth or a fantastic romp featuring characters who happen to have actually existed. I favor the former and in general don’t have a lot of appreciation for the latter. Colin Falconer’s novella might entertain those unfamiliar with the facts, but I found his story poorly researched. Some elements appear to be purely fabricated while others are based on nothing more than rumor and gossip.

In Falconer’s narrative, all five children arrive in Yekaterinberg together. This is an element that contradicts the known facts. The family was briefly separated in April 1918. Alexandra (or Alexandria as Falconer sometimes refers to her) and Nicholas traveled with Maria several weeks before the other children. Olga, Tatiana, Anastasia and Alexei remained in Tobolsk until Alexei was well enough to make the journey.

Every chapter opens with a quotation, a few unattributed lines of text. This is what I mean by fabrications. The content doesn’t concern me as much as the lack of source material. These quotes don’t appear in any other document. I’ve googled them and the only results are hits for Falconer’s work. I guess I don’t understand why the chapters open this way. The quotes appear out of place in the story as well as misleading as they don’t appear to belong to any character historic or fictitious.

As for elements based on rumor and unverifiable fact I have only three words to give you: Tatiana ganged raped. I know rape was a common rumor and I understand why. Four princesses held in captivity until their bloody execution. What vilifies their captors more than portraying them as having stripped away of the innocence of one of these young women by violating her body? I’ve read several books on the family's captivity, but not one of those academic texts states that a rape occurred in the Ipatiev House. One of the guards said “I felt the empress myself and she was warm” and another is supposed to have declared “Now I can die in peace because I have squeezed the empress’s breasts” while disposing of the bodies, but beyond the rather disgusting idea of violating a corpse I’ve found nothing to support the event Falconer exploits in the course of his story.

I have a million other comments on the novella, but I think one example of each point more than adequately expresses my opinion. Would I feel differently if Falconer explained the content in his author’s notes? Perhaps, though I think it is important to state that The House of Special Purpose carries no disclaimers, no references, nothing beyond “If you enjoyed this book, look for the sequel: Anastasia now out on Kindle: US and Kindle UK.” The lack of commentary speaks louder than the piece itself and the sales attempt discloses what I believe to be the true purpose behind the piece.

The truth of the Romanov’s last days will never be known, but I find Falconer’s version overly exaggerated and sensational. A disgraceful exploitation of the tragic fate of the Romanovs. The only thing I find more upsetting is the final line of the cover blurb. It’s all true. This story was published in 2011. The remains of Nicholas, Alexandra, Olga, Tatiana, Botkin, Demidova, Trupp, Kharitonov and one of the younger daughters were discovered in 1979 and were officially identified through DNA testing in 1998. The remains of Alexei and the last Grand Duchess were discovered in 2007 and officially identified through DNA in 2008. The idea of a survivor is great story telling fodder, but at this point, when science has disproved the possibility, I have a lot more respect for the authors who stick to fictionalizing the unknown aspects of what we know to have happened.

One final note. The sequel blurb (I have no intention of actually reading the book) put me in mind of the 1986 made for tv movie Anastasia: The Mystery of Anna which starred Amy Irving, Olivia de Havilland, Omar Sharif, Rex Harrison and a very young Christian Bale. The Mystery of Anna takes place in two parts, featuring the last days of the family, then flashing forward to a young woman throwing herself into a river in Berlin. The woman is rescued and sent to an institution where she is diagnosed amnesic. The story is of course based on the life of Anna Anderson. Falconer’s Anastasia appears to take place in Shanghai, obviously not Berlin, but according to the blurb the story also begins with an amnesic woman being rescued from a river. I sincerely hope my initial impressions prove incorrect, but I can't help but be turned off by the overused story line.

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Two more bullets hit the doctor in the stomach and as he doubled over she saw another bullet make a sudden, dark hole in the top of his bald head and he collapsed into the floor.
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Saturday, December 17, 2011

Irish Eyes by Andrew M. Greeley

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ 
Obtained from: Personal Library
Read: Dec. 16, 2011 

Nuala Anne McGrail, that beautiful Irish spitfire, now lives in Chicago with her husband, Dermot, and their new baby, Nellliecoyne. As Nuala fans may suspect, Nelliecoyne is no ordinary baby: she is fey like her mother, and can see into the past as well as the future. Both Nuala and her daughter have had strange vibrations from a place on the lake where a shipload of Irish-Americans lost their lives a hundred years ago. In the course of their investigation, Nuala and Dermot make some dangerous enemies, and eventually have to solve a murder and find a buried treasure. Will Nuala survive the attacks of a sleazy DJ, and a dangerous run-in with the Balkan Mafia? And how does the diary of a young Irish woman at the turn of the century play into these events? Once again, Andrew M. Greeley--that master of the human heart--creates an engaging, charming story that will delight fans young and old.

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*** NOTE: This review contains spoilers. Please take heed and proceed at your own risk. 

Time it seems has changed my opinion of the Nuala Anne books. I read the first book of the series, Irish Gold, nearly ten years ago and greatly enjoyed it. So much so I immediately sought out the sequels. I devoured Irish Lace, Irish Whiskey, Irish Mist and Irish Eyes that same summer. I set the series aside to focus on my academic obligations but somehow didn’t find my way back to them until now. I decided to reread Irish Eyes to refresh my memory. Greeley tends to recap key information about the characters so I didn’t see much value in revisiting all five novels. No. Irish Eyes would be enough. Sadly, the book just wasn't as good as I remembered.

Why was I disenchanted my second go round? That’s a dumb question. The real query is where do I start. For one, Dermot is a push over and he knows it. He self-validates in every novel. It is annoying. Almost as annoying as his spending the entire book shaking his head and saying yes dear without complaint. I don’t find it appealing. I like a man with a little backbone, who has opinions and isn’t merely an extension of his spouse.

Nuala is perfection personified. She always has the answers, is always in the middle of things, never fails to be less than amazing and always looks fantastic doing it. People like her don’t exist. Real people have faults, real people make mistakes, real people have depth, complexity and baggage. Her flawlessness is exasperating.

Did I mention the couple has no real world worries or concerns? Dermot is a college drop-out who managed to make a pile of cash while working at the Exchange. His mistake allowed him to retire in his mid-twenties. He writes novels as a hobby more than anything else. Naturally the books are bestsellers. Nuala has an accounting degree but makes a living as a folksinger. Is anyone shocked that her records go platinum?

I don’t think I need to go into the fact that Dermot and Nuala’s daughter is a perfect replica of her mother (minus the red hair) and it goes without saying Nelliecoyne is intelligent and advanced for her age. No child of Coyne’s would dare be anything else less than impeccable. Gag me.                                     

I think I’ve stated I don’t have a problem with sex in literature and for the record, I don’t think the intimacies in Irish Eyes would offend the casual reader. The problem is that I just didn’t find the scenes appealing. A man suckling his wife for breast milk just didn’t do it for me. I don’t mean to sound judgmental, some people might get hot and bothered by the idea but for me it was just awkward. Very awkward.

Having thoroughly stated why I dislike these books we come down to why I bother reading them. As always, it is the history. Greeley loves Chicago almost as much as he loves Ireland and her people. Reading his books is like entering a portal to times long forgotten. In Irish Eyes, we glimpse the booming shipping industry of the Great Lakes and harsh realities of life at the turn of the century with just a touch of Irish mysticism.

Greeley’s richly imagined storylines are also nothing to sneeze at. While vacationing, Nuala, Nelliecoyne and the Coyne's wolfhound, Fiona, pick up strange vibrations from a ship that sank off Grand Beach nearly one hundred years ago. In an effort to understand their latest physic episode, the Coyne’s start an investigation that leads them to a forgotten chapter of Chicago’s past, its connection with Ireland’s political struggles and the fate of the Ardagh Chalice. Meanwhile the couple is dealing with a media circus caused by the sensational accusations of DJ Nick Farmer. Nick’s unexpected death only complicates matters, more so as his fate seems to have ties to the Balkan mafia.

Will I read the rest of the series? Probably. Will I recommend to others? Not without a disclaimer. The books aren’t awful but they aren’t for everyone. I do want to make two further notes before I wrap up. Greeley is a Catholic priest. The books are not preachy in the least, I wouldn’t even call them religious fiction but I would avoid his work if religious concepts aren’t to your liking. The same concept applies to Republicans. I wouldn’t usually address the subject but every novel in the series seems to take a dig at conservatives. I find it annoying as I don’t appreciate party politics in fiction but I wouldn’t be surprised if these comments upset more political readers.

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It wasn't the chalice, Nuala Anne. It was a winter storm that came too early, an old boat, and a dangerously irresponsible captain. Ellen's parents were young and romantic and convinced that they were immortal.
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