Review | Caligula, Simon Turney

37654660Caligula tells the story of the Roman emperor through the eyes of his beloved sister Livilla. I came into this book cold, not at all familiar with Caligula’s story. The author hints at Caligula’s fate though, by starting his novel with an explanation of “damnatio memoriae.” It’s a modern term that basically means emperors who are despised by the Roman senate are vilified upon death, and wiped from history instead of granted divine status.

The book begins with Caligula and Livilla’s childhood, and the tense political climate that surrounded their family. They came from royal lineage and so were fairly close in succession to the throne, which made them a target for other political families, particularly the emperor’s capricious right hand man.

I enjoyed the part about the family having to keep an eye out for danger on all sides, and Caligula and Livilla’s mother and grandmother in particular seemed like formidable women. Unfortunately, I also found this part to be a bit dry, and I never really connected with any of the characters. Part of it is that the author seemed to have his characters already fully formed as historical figures in his mind, so there’s little sense of the children they must have been. Even as a child, Livilla spoke and thought like an adult. Understandably, it’s because the story as a whole is narrated by an elderly Livilla remembering her past, so a childish voice would’ve felt contrived. But the detached narrative tone also ended up making me feel detached from the story. It felt more like plodding through the narrative beats of history rather than seeing the world through the eyes of a five year old child constantly living in fear.

Caligula as well seemed an uncannily perceptive child. From Livilla’s narration, he was cautious about expressing feelings even as an eleven year old. While Caligula’s older brothers made serious mistakes due to youthful arrogance, Caligula always seemed preternaturally controlled. So when he becomes emperor and, triggered by one event or another, suddenly begins acting irrational and cruel, it felt out of character.

Turney did a good job in making Caligula sympathetic. The emperor was constantly targeted by vicious and untrue rumours, and I felt especially bad for him when circumstances lead to him becoming paranoid and pushing away everyone who was close to him. As narrator, Livilla felt less defined, which is ironic because she’s the central character through which we’re experiencing these events. But beyond being utterly loyal and devoted to her brother, her personality was more something she told us about than actually exhibited.

I couldn’t help comparing Caligula to the novels of Philippa Gregory and Alison Weir, which I absolutely love. Part of it may be that I’m just more familiar with and interested in the story of Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn and that whole cast of characters. But also, Gregory and Weir’s characters felt real to me; they were compelling figures and they made me want to read about their lives. In contrast, Livilla felt flat, and Caligula, though certainly a tragic figure, never really felt charismatic or larger than life.

Still, overall, it’s not a bad book, just a bit dry. I did Google Caligula’s story a few chapters in, but I may possibly have appreciated it more if I’d been more familiar with Caligula’s story in advance.

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Thank you to Hachette Book Group Canada for an advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Review | Floating City, Kerri Sakamoto

floatingcityI loved Floating City. So often, books about immigrants pursuing the ‘American Dream’ and becoming a ‘Master of Industry’ feature white men; this is the first time I can think of that I’ve seen the story told with a Japanese-Canadian man.

This book is about a man driven by ambition, often to the detriment of his loved ones, and like many similarly ambitious heroes, Frankie Hanesaka ends up sacrificing a lot to achieve his dreams. There’s something Gatsby-esque about Frankie — he’s a charismatic, brilliant man who appears successful on so many levels, yet there’s a melancholy emptiness that just won’t go away.

There’s also a lot that’s specifically Japanese-Canadian about Frankie’s character — I love the tension between his ambitions to take over Toronto real estate and the ever-looming significance of the number four in his life. In Japanese writing, similar to Chinese writing, the symbol for four is also the symbol for death, so the number four is seen as particularly unlucky. There’s a moment where he completes his masterpiece building, and his contractor is thrilled to have gotten two extra steps in, but the triumph is marred by the realization that the number of steps has now become divisible by four. I can imagine my Chinese grandmother reacting similar to how Frankie’s mother did, and I loved the realism of this moment.

I thought Sakamoto did a good job depicting the fear and racism that Frankie and his family went through around the time of WWII — particularly powerful was a moment where a Chinese-Canadian neighbour and friend illustrated a poster about the difference between “honest” Chinese-Canadians like himself and “sneaky Japs” like one of his Japanese-Canadian neighbours. It’s definitely an unjust and racist action, but I can sympathize as well with the Chinese-Canadian man’s desire to protect himself and his family from the hatred Japanese-Canadians were facing.

I also liked how Frankie Hanesaka felt the need to rename himself “Frank Hanes” to do business. I thought it was a realistic portrayal of how persons of colour often feel the need to assimilate to survive. Sakamoto wrote about an incident where a man refused to do business with Frankie, but quickly agreed to the deal when it was presented by someone who wasn’t Japanese-Canadian.

Sakamoto also does a great job in drawing parallels between discrimination and injustice faced by different communities, particularly with the characters of Uri Slonemsky and his wife Hannah, who took Frankie under their wing because, as Jews, they could understand the discrimination Japanese-Canadians experienced. I found this passage particularly powerful: “No one else would hire the Japanese. Only the Jews extended a helping hand, having received so few themselves.” (p. 78)

Overall, a compelling story, beautifully told.

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Thank you to Penguin Random House Canada for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

The Romance of Running, with Love at First Run author Angel C. Aquino

Running in Cali2

Author Angel C. Aquino with her husband Roland. Angel says, “My cousin Raymond took us hiking in the trails of the Saratoga Gap in Santa Clara County. We did a bit of running there too!”

I have to admit, when I think of running, romance isn’t quite what comes to my mind. Angel C. Aquino did manage to make Diane’s training actually seem romantic in her novel Love at First Run, so I thought I’d ask what it is exactly that makes the activity hold such potential for romance.

Healdsburg Half

Angel and Roland enjoying a glass of wine at the Healdsburg Half Marathon. According to Angel, it’s “the best race ever with lots of wine along the racecourse and at the finish line!”

The Romance of Running – 5 Reasons Why Running can be Romantic

  1. Training together means a lot of quality time with each other.
  2. Endorphins! All the happy hormones will make you enjoy each other’s company even more.
  3. Exploring new places together through running allows you to build great memories.
  4. Nothing beats holding hands and crossing the finish line together.
  5. Having a post-run meal at your favourite restaurant makes for a great date.

LoveAtFirstRunCover

There you have it! Have you ever fallen in love while running? In Love at First Run, Diana joins a running club to get closer to her office crush Paul, only to meet running hottie Josh on the trails.

Love at First Run is available in print in the Philippines and on Amazon Kindle internationally.

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Thank you to the author for an electronic advance reading copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Full disclosure: The author is a friend, and I’m super proud of her for writing a novel, but all views expressed on this blog are my honest opinions.