Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Praise Singer: Review

About four years ago, I participated in our library's adult winter reading program. It's a fun and easy contest that was started to complement the children's summer reading program that had been going on for years (at least as long as I had been taking my son to the library...and I'm sure it was well-established then). During the winter months (Jan-Feb), all one has to do is submit entries for every book read--name of book, author, and a simple rating. They hold a drawing every week of the program and winners get to select book prizes.

So...when I got a notice that I'd won in January of 2008, I looked over the books and, based on the blurb and cover and whatnot, I decided to bring The Praise Singer by Mary Renault home with me. It sounded interesting. It was historical fiction and would take me a little out of my comfort zone period-wise, but I thought that might be a good thing.

Um. Not so much. The back of book says: "Renault combines her vibrant imagination and her formidable knowledge of history to establish a sweeping, resilient vision of a golden century." Actually, she takes what ought to be an interesting story and makes it sound like a history lesson. For the most part, the writing is flat; the sentences are choppy; and I had a hard time finishing the book. I thought for a time that this was intentional--that perhaps she was trying to make it sound like it had been translated from the Greek. That was an interesting idea for about a chapter or so--after that, it was just a a distraction.

There are moments (way too brief) of what (given the praise I've read of some of her other works on Goodreads) may be her usual fluid, lyrical writing. But it's not sustained.
What really grabbed me about the book was the character. I loved Simonides and really wanted to hear his story--how this "ugly duckling" (the least-favored of his father's children) turned into the swan. How he overcame a life as a herdsman to become one of the most well-known bards of his time. How he not only learns his craft, but also learns how to navigate through the shifting alliances of the time. He lives to see the Persian invasion of Ionia, the reign and overthrow of the of Polykrates, and the fall of the tyrants of the Athenian court. That was worth reading. I just wish that Renault had been more of the bard herself in this outing. Two stars. Mostly for character.

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