Thursday, October 31, 2013

Rereading Divergent by Veronica Roth

Divergent (Divergent, #1)There is one mirror in my house. It is behind a sliding panel in the hallway upstairs. Our faction allows me to stand in front of it on the second day of every third month, the day my mother cuts my hair. 

"In Beatrice Prior's dystopian Chicago world, society is divided into five factions, each dedicated to the cultivation of a particular virtue--Candor (the honest), Abnegation (the selfless), Dauntless (the brave), Amity (the peaceful), and Erudite (the intelligent). On an appointed day of every year, all sixteen-year-olds must select the faction to which they will devote the rest of their lives. For Beatrice, the decision is between staying with her family and being who she really is--she can't have both. So she makes a choice that surprises everyone, including herself. During the highly competitive initiation that follows, Beatrice renames herself Tris and struggles alongside her fellow initiates to live out the choice they have made. Together they must undergo extreme physical tests of endurance and intense psychological simulations, some with devastating consequences. As initiation transforms them all, Tris must determine who her friends really are--and where, exactly, a romance with a sometimes fascinating, sometimes exasperating boy fits into the life she's chosen. But Tris also has a secret, one she's kept hidden from everyone because she's been warned it can mean death. And as she discovers unrest and growing conflict that threaten to unravel her seemingly perfect society, Tris also learns that her secret might help her save the ones she loves . . . or it might destroy her."

This is the third time I've read Divergent, once in February 2012, and again in August 2012. I remembered it pretty well, but I wanted to reread both Divergent and Insurgent in preparation for Allegiant's release on (review coming soon). You can read my original review here, but be warned: it's not very good. Divergent, however, is an excellent book, not wholly unique in its genre, but with just enough originality to make it totally worth reading (if you haven't read it already). The characters aren't particularly likable, but that's part of its uniqueness; Tris, Four, and the other characters all have really ugly sides that all too often shine through. 

Veronica Roth builds unease so, so well. I remember the first time I read Divergent I thought to myself that this society wasn't too bad or dystopian, even if it was a bit misguided. But that all changes as soon as Tris becomes a Dauntless initiate. The ugliness of Dauntless is revealed, how there are those in Dauntless who believe that bravery means never, ever giving up or admitting defeat. To someone like Four, however, bravery is acknowledging the strength of others. Tris is also grappling with what the definitions of bravery and selflessness are, and whether she can reconcile both within her or have to push one away. Because despite giving up Abnegation, at least in Divergent, there's still a lot of that girl in her. But her ugly side is also revealed through this: she's struggling to push away her Abnegation tendencies, and often swings to the other extreme, not wanting to help people at all. This, I think, is what makes Divergent such a marvelous book. Not only it is a real page-turner, and wildly entertaining, but the characters also think rather than just doing things. It's a perfect balance of thoughtfulness and action, and Divergent is definitely one of my favorite books. 

The world in Divergent is also really, really compelling and easy to relate to. Each faction believes that problems are caused by different things, by selfishness, ignorance, violence, dishonesty, and by cowardice. I think all of them have the right idea, but that strife is caused by all of these things, not just one. And that's where the factions have gone wrong in their ideology. Now the factions' fairly admirable goals and manifestos are also being changed into something darker, such as with Erudite and Dauntless. Factions can take advantage of their supposed characteristics; Peter, formerly from Candor, used to beat up people and lie about it. And everyone would believe him, because Candor people are supposed to never tell a lie. Tris comes of age in a world dark with conflict, and she has a dangerous quality - Divergence. Veronica Roth tells you just enough tantalizing information about Divergence to keep you reading, and Tris's story is masterfully told. 

And you know what? I love the romance too. Sometimes I hated Four, sometimes Tris, because they are two deeply flawed people, but I really loved how it was developed, not instantly or anything. And, thank God, no real love triangle (there's Al, but that doesn't really count). Tris and Four are in conflict a lot throughout the book, and that feeds the story. Plus, the romance is only one of many aspects of the book; it's not overemphasized, which is realistic, since Tris has a lot going on in her life: she's trying to make new friends, reconcile her conflicting choices and feelings, think about her family, stay in Dauntless, and find out what exactly Erudite is up to. She can't be constantly worrying about Four. 

All of the characters in Divergent are amazingly portrayed, their feelings and their conflicts, and Veronica Roth also writes really incisively about the dystopian society she's created and each of the factions. In Divergent, Amity and Candor aren't fully fleshed out, but rest assured, they will be in Insurgent. And who knows what will happen in Allegiant, which I'm super excited for. 

487 pages. 

Rating: *****

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Golem and the Jinni, Helene Wecker

The Golem and the JinniThe Golem's life began in the hold of a steamship. The year was 1899; the ship was the Baltika, crossing from Danzig to New York. The Golem's master, a man named Otto Rotfeld, had smuggled her aboard in a crate and hidden her among the luggage.

"Chava is a golem, a creature made of clay, brought to life by a disgraced rabbi who dabbles in dark Kabbalistic magic. When her master, the husband who commissioned her, dies at sea on the voyage from Poland, she is unmoored and adrift as the ship arrives in New York in 1899. Ahmad is a djinni, a being of fire, born in the ancient Syrian desert. Trapped in an old copper flask by a Bedouin wizard centuries ago, he is released accidentally by a tinsmith in a Lower Manhattan shop. Though he is no longer imprisoned, Ahmad is not entirely free – an unbreakable band of iron binds him to the physical world. The Golem & The Jinni is their magical, unforgettable story; unlikely friends whose tenuous attachment challenges their opposing natures – until the night a terrifying incident drives them back into their separate worlds. But a powerful threat will soon bring Chava and Ahmad together again, challenging their existence and forcing them to make a fateful choice."

This was such a great, intriguing fantasy novel, full of lyrical descriptions and great turn-of-the-century historical detail. Wecker really conjured up, much like a jinni, sensory descriptions of New York City and of the Arabian desert a thousand years earlier, where the jinni was trapped before being accidentally released in 1899 New York. This book's been on my stack for a while now, and I really wish I'd read it sooner. I'm not sure why I didn't, really, because as soon as I picked it up in the bookstore (having never heard of it before) the story drew me in immediately and I quickly read the first couple of chapters. Yet once I bought it it took me several months to actually start reading the book. It might be because of its heft; it does seem somewhat forbidding and gilt-adorned. It's not really that long of a book though, and it's just so atmospheric.

I loved the fact that the golem was female; that's a bit unusual, as in the traditional golem stories, it's generally a male. She was a great character, and so was the jinni. They're from totally different parts of the world, but they both end up in the great melting pot - New York. Speaking of which, New York was described so well; the sights and sounds and smells of a big, bustling, dirty, and vibrant city right at the end of one century and the beginning of the next. The book seemed pretty historically accurate, and the author must have done quite a lot of research when she wrote about the various neighborhoods of New York and the tradespeople.

The book itself was physically beautiful, with lovely jacket paper, gilt, and dark blue pages on the outside (I'm not sure what the actual term for that is). This added to the experience of reading this immersing book. It's one of those books that draw you in so that without even realizing it, you've read a lot of pages and can't let go. I was entranced and enchanted by this story, and I wanted to find out how the golem and the jinni would eventually meet.

The Golem and the Jinni also talks a little about class distinctions and divides; one of the main characters is Sophia Winston, a dissatisfied young socialite. She was perhaps a bit of a stereotype, an archetype that's repeated over and over: the rich young woman who seeks adventure. But perhaps that portrayal is common simply because it is very compelling and relatable.

There are so many threads of the book which are woven so skillfully; many of the supporting characters have complicated backstories. There's the owner of the coffee house which is the center of Little Syria, there's an ice cream marker with a tragic, cursed past, the kindly rabbi who takes in the golem, and more. Each of them has their own narrative which is delved into, and the author brought it all together very well. I do wish, though, that the golem and the jinni had met earlier; it's at around page 170 that their two lives finally collide, and that could have happened before. Still, the once the narrative really gets going, it's a page-turner, and there are so many amazing parts to the story, parts that you don't even realize are connected until the masterful finish.

I loved this book, and would highly, highly recommend it to fans of historical fiction, and rich, multi-faceted fantasy. Read other reviews here and here.

484 pages.

Rating: *****

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman

NeverwhereThe night before he went to London, Richard Mayhew was not enjoying himself. 

"Under the streets of London there's a place most people could never even dream of. A city of monsters and saints, murderers and angels, knights in armour and pale girls in black velvet. This is the city of the people who have fallen between the cracks. Richard Mayhew, a young businessman, is going to find out more than enough about this other London. A single act of kindness catapults him out of his workday existence and into a world that is at once eerily familiar and utterly bizarre. And a strange destiny awaits him down here, beneath his native city: Neverwhere."

I've been working my way through Neil Gaiman's adult fiction, and it is really good, Neverwhere being no exception. It's a deliciously eerie and darkly humorous story, and I really enjoyed it. The book is early Gaiman and I suppose you can tell that he's experimenting, but I still loved the creative plotline and the writing, which is inventive, enthralling, and amazingly descriptive. I almost wanted to touch the words. American Gods might be a bit more ambitious of a novel, but in some ways Neverwhere is better; it's certainly much more atmospheric.

Neverwhere is by turns humorous and disturbing. One humorous part was at the very beginning when Richard is trying to confirm a reservation he totally forgot about. The person on the other end's tone implies that "a table for tonight should certainly have been booked years before - perhaps, it was implied, by Richard's parents. A table for tonight was impossible: if the pope, the prime minister, and the president of France arrived without a confirmed reservation, even they would be turned out into the street with a continental jeer" (pg. 15). There are also certain sequences that are quite nightmarish, such as when no one remembers Richard, not even his fiancee. I have a theory about this; the less people knew him, the more invisible he is to them. Complete strangers can't see Richard at all, a colleague at work can barely keep her attention on him, a good friend has no idea who he is, and his fiancee just manages to recollect his first name, if not his last. The beginning of his plunge is of course him helping Door, the wounded girl, but when he's turned out of his apartment, he must enter the other side of London in earnest.

Neil Gaiman is amazingly creative; I don't know where he comes up with the multi-faceted worlds in his novels. American Gods, Neverwhere, and Stardust all take place in unique realms just below the surface of mundane, regular life.

There are some really inventive characters in this novel. I enjoyed the character of Door, and also Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar who are really, really scary. They basically live to torture people, and the scenes with them were so chilling. Perhaps these two characters aren't so inventive; they're pretty much typical supernatural villains who enjoy torture and eating things that no human being eats. There are a lot of other characters though, who are so weird and different, like the marquis, Hunter, and many, many others in the strange realm that Richard enters. Door is an interesting character. It's impossible for Richard and everyone else to tell what color her eyes are, "not blue, or green, or brown, or gray; they [remind] him of fire opals: there [are] burning greens and blues, and even reds and yellows that vanished and glinted as she move[s]." (pg. 39). That was just one of the many beautiful descriptions in Neverwhere.

Perhaps some sections of the book were a bit bogged down, but overall the book proceeded at a fairly good pace, and I was seldom bored. There were many twists and turns, and sickening events, and all in all this was a thoroughly good Gaiman novel.

370 pages.

Rating: *****

Monday, October 28, 2013

Bobcat and Other Stories, Rebecca Lee

Bobcat and Other StoriesFrom "Bobcat": It was the terrine that got to me. I felt queasy enough that I had to sit in the living room and narrate to my husband what was the brutal list of tasks that would result in a terrine: devein, declaw, decimate the sea and other animals, eventually emulsifying them into a paste which could then be riven with whole vegetables. It was like describing to somebody how to paint a Monet, how to turn the beauty of the earth into a blurry, intoxicating swirl, like something seen through the eyes of the dying.

"At turns witty, heartbreaking, and fiercely intelligent, Bobcat and Other Stories establishes Rebecca Lee as one of our most gifted and original short story writers. Using a range of landscapes and countries, Lee creates full worlds, so that each story reads like a short novel. A student plagiarizes a paper and holds fast to her alibi, finding herself complicit in the resurrection of one professor s shadowy past. A dinner party becomes the occasion for the dissolution of more than one marriage. A woman is hired to find a marriage match for the one true soulmate she s ever found. In all, Rebecca Lee traverses the terrain of infidelity, obligation, sacrifice, jealousy, and finally, optimism. She creates characters so wonderfully flawed, so driven by their desire, so compelled to make sense of their human condition, that it's impossible not to feel for them when their fragile beliefs of romantic love, domestic bliss, or academic seclusion fail to provide them with the sort of force field they d hoped for."

Bobcat was an interesting collection of short stories, with some beautiful language and interesting images. It was certainly different than what I was expecting, but I really enjoyed it. As I was reading, I marked so many passages that were of interest to me that I started having to improvise bookmarks (admittedly, I wasn't at home). But still, there were so many great and surprising descriptions, especially in the second story in the collection, "The Banks of the Vistula" Here are some of them from that story, which is the one about a student plagiarizing her paper. When the main character walks into the woods, she writes, "I heard about a thousand birds cry, and I craned my neck to see them lighting out from the tips of the elms. They looked like ideas would if suddenly released from the page and given bodies - shocked at how blood actually felt as it ran through the veins, as it sent them wheeling into the west, wings raking, straining against the requirements of such a physical world." I liked the pun there too (craned). I also liked a description of a certain type of  light as "like the light in fairy tales, rich and creepy." Rebecca Lee has a thing with light; later in the story a professor gives a lecture as "long autumn rays of sun, embroidered by leaves, covered his face and body." In the next story, "Slatland", one of the characters has a name similar to "well-lit" in Romanian, rila. There are lots of other references to light woven throughout many of the stories.

Talking about parties, Rebecca Lee describes a certain type as "deeply cozy, their wildness and noise an affirmation against the formless white midwestern winter surrounding us."

Really, the magic of these stories is how grounded they are, and how sharply aware the author seems to be of every single line, every single word choice. She writes assuredly, creating piercing portrayals of deeply flawed and human characters and landscapes and settings. I was gripped by each story, a world within a world, and each was interesting in its own way, with different things to ponder, and a different mood and tone to it. 

These stories are so rich, and if not as rich as novels as the jacket claims, almost. I got lost in the world of the characters, in their problems and their weird ways of coping with them (like in "Slatland"). Each story was unique but in a kind of undefinable way seemed to tie back to the preceding stories, as if the characters were all related in some way or other. 

"Min", the story about a woman hired to find a wife for her "one true soulmate", wasn't my favorite story, but as soon as the situation became clear, it got much better. The absurdity and the sadness of the set-up was very affecting. There were also details that were funnily irrelevant; for example, every day the narrator has one cucumber sandwich, a bag of squid chips, and a pomelo for lunch. There are more references to light in this story too; she describes a woman named Rapti who she meets as "living in an apricot light". There are gleams and rays and shines, and lots of words that are related to light smattered throughout these stories in a clever way, and I thought that was rather interesting, and a good way of loosely tying them all together. 

The design of the book was beautiful too, with paperback flaps, a nice cover image, and a good texture. Somehow the paper quality makes a difference, you know? It's another element of a book which I can enjoy, and the way the book was structured seemed to really fit it somehow.

I really enjoyed this collection of stories; as in any book of short stories, some were better than others, but they were all pretty good once I got into them. 

209 pages. 

Rating: ****

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Bridget Jones's Diary, Helen Fielding

Bridget Jones's Diary (Bridget Jones, #1)Ugh. The last thing on earth I feel physically, emotionally, or mentally equipped to do is drive to Una and Geoffrey Alconbury's New Year's Day Turkey Curry Buffet in Grafton Underwood.

Weirdly formatted summary from Goodreads: "Meet Bridget Jonesa 30-something Singleton who is certain she would have all the answers if she could:
a. lose 7 pounds
b. stop smoking
c. develop Inner Poise
Bridget Jones's Diary is the devastatingly self-aware, laugh-out-loud daily chronicle of Bridget's permanent, doomed quest for self-improvement — a year in which she resolves to: reduce the circumference of each thigh by 1.5 inches, visit the gym three times a week not just to buy a sandwich, form a functional relationship with a responsible adult, and learn to program the VCR. Over the course of the year, Bridget loses a total of 72 pounds but gains a total of 74. She remains, however, optimistic."

Bridget Jones's Diary is an amusing and very silly read, kind of a guilty pleasure for me. I haven't actually seen the full movie (just clips from it), but I picked up the book from the library (I don't think it's necessarily worth buying). Still, the book is kind of relatable, even if I'm not as stupidly obsessed with other people's opinions as Bridget (or I try not to be). The way she acts is kind of silly, but I can sort of understand her insecurities: after all, she's watching everyone around her rapidly marrying off, and at the age of 30-something, she's still utterly single. Not that that's a bad thing, as she continuously tries to remind herself throughout the novel. Bridget's friends are really funny; they're always advising her on what to do; sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. But the book is never boring.

Bridget Jones's Diary is definitely chick lit, a genre that I for the most part despise, but in this case, it's not so bad, and rather more endearing. The book is humorously British, and Bridget also has a distinctive voice. It's a diary, so she often uses fragments, which is kind of annoying but very readable. I actually started thinking in fragments right after I read the book, and I quickly got used to the narrative style.

Yes, I realize the story is super silly and not very worthwhile, but that's exactly what guilty pleasures are: books that you're kind of ashamed of enjoying or you think are not worth reading. That's exactly what this book is for me. I don't know if I'll be rereading it, but I definitely enjoyed reading it once, and was glad that I did so. It's good for a few hours of laughter and commiseration.

That said, I don't think I'll be reading the sequel, because the book stands on its own just fine, and I think one book with Bridget is quite enough. Also, I'm pretty sure the sequel is not as good as the first book, and that the third book which is being released soon will be even worse.

There were sections of Bridget Jones's Diary that did get bogged down a bit, but just as it got to be too much, something really funny popped up, like when Bridget talks about communal changing rooms: "There are always girls who know that they look fantastic in everything and dance around beaming, swinging their hair and doing model poses in the mirror saying, 'Does this make me look fat?' to their obligatory obese friend, who looks like a water buffalo in everything" (105). I don't know where Bridget got that from, but it was so hilarious.

Bridget may be a character you can relate to, but she is kind of annoying at times. She gets so flustered about stupid, stupid things and never keeps her resolutions about smoking and drinking (she gets drunk all the time). Bridget certainly isn't the most likable character ever, but she's okay, especially compared to the awful Daniel Cleaver. God, I just hated him.

Anyway, this is a funny book and a light and fun read. It's quick, and good for a lot of laughs.

271 pages.

Rating: ****

Saturday, October 26, 2013

The Almond Tree, Michelle Cohen Corasanti

The Almond TreeMama always said Amal was mischievous. It was a joke we shared as a family - that my sister, just a few years old and shaky on her pudgy legs, had more energy for life than me and my younger brother Abbas combined. So when I went to check on her and she wasn't in her crib, I felt a fear in my heart that gripped me and would not let go. 

"Gifted with a mind that continues to impress the elders in his village, Ichmad Hamid struggles with the knowledge that he can do nothing to save his friends and family. Living on occupied land, his entire village operates in constant fear of losing their homes, jobs, and belongings. But more importantly, they fear losing each other. On Ichmad's twelfth birthday, that fear becomes reality. With his father imprisoned, his family's home and possessions confiscated, and his siblings quickly succumbing to hatred in the face of conflict, Ichmad begins an inspiring journey using his intellect to save his poor and dying family. In doing so he reclaims a love for others that was lost through a childhood rife with violence, and discovers a new hope for the future."

I didn't really enjoy The Almond Tree, which I received via a Goodreads First Reads giveaway. I didn't end up finishing the whole thing. On the one hand, it was fairly well written on a smaller scale; on the other, it seemed a bit too simplistic to me at times, and was overall unfocused. Obviously, no novel is going to change anything about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and no novel can fully illustrate the myriad of complexities, but I did appreciate Corsasanti's effort, although she seemed rather biased. Although her Goodreads profile is cut off in its description, I think what she was trying to get at is that she was raised in an Orthodox home and then married a Palestinian? That's certainly what her name suggests, but I'm not exactly sure.

The Almond Tree was certainly absorbing at first, and an okay story. A lot of awful, awful things happen to Ichmad's family, among others, and he, at the age of twelve, is left to cope with it and try and bring his family back together. It's unimaginable to me, and to most people in the so-called developed world. It almost hearkens back to when boys and girls started working at such young ages (some even at eight). Ichmad is already respected by the community for his intelligence and his skill at backgammon. Perhaps his intelligence was made a bit too much of; somehow, nothing else about his character is emphasized except for his fascination with science and other things. He was a bit one-sided as a character, and so were most of the other people in the story, for that matter. The Almond Tree was mainly good for its engaging plot, and its taking on the complicated issues that have been raging ever since right after World War II.

Still, there were many incidents in the novel that I found interesting, and it was heartbreaking to have to read about Ichmad and his younger brother having to go to work at such young ages. Ichmad still does tutoring sessions in the evening with his teacher, but both of them are working so hard, and not really earning enough to eat enough food. It's an awful situation, with seemingly no solution in sight. Ichmad catches a rabbit, but right after that the area is declared a no trespass zone. And it's not enough, really. Salvation comes in the form of a college scholarship.

The Almond Tree seems almost self-published in its formatting: with the same cover texture, paper, and font as many self-published books (it also has no listed price on the back). But it's not, I don't think, it was published by Garnet, a British publisher. I don't have anything against self-published books per se; I just don't really want to read people's unedited stuff that a reputable publisher hasn't taken on. So I was a little uneasy about that initially, but I don't think The Almond Tree fits into that category. It certainly read like a self-published book, though. There were so many things that happened so abruptly without organization, and the book could have been a lot tighter and more planned. It kind of felt like the author was just randomly writing, and that ultimately made me put it down. The Almond Tree is an okay book, I suppose, but I just wasn't interested in the characters, even though the part that I read had its points. So it's worth a try, but it wasn't for me.

348 pages.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Before I Fall, Lauren Oliver

Before I FallThey say that just before you die your whole life flashes before your eyes, but that's not how it happened for me.

"What if you only had one day to live? What would you do? Who would you kiss? And how far would you go to save your own life? Samantha Kingston has it all: looks, popularity, the perfect boyfriend. Friday, February 12, should be just another day in her charmed life. Instead, it turns out to be her last. The catch: Samantha still wakes up the next morning. Living the last day of her life seven times during one miraculous week, she will untangle the mystery surrounding her death—and discover the true value of everything she is in danger of losing."

I have seriously mixed feelings about Before I Fall. On the one hand, the premise is very interesting (though not exactly original) and Lauren Oliver is a pretty good writer; on the other, I absolutely hated the characters. Loathed them. I realize that characters don't always have to be super likable, but I do like having a main character and supporting characters who I can at least understand and sympathize with a bit. Samantha and her group of friends are basically just evil witches (replace "w" with "b" for a more accurate description). They make fun of the unpopular kids, like to jerk people around, and seem to forget that just two years ago, they were sophomores. Also, Samantha used to be at the bottom of the social ladder; now she's at the top, but she doesn't seem to remember where she was before and enjoys making fun of people less fortunate than her. Still, she is an interesting character, and I suppose it was kind of refreshing to read into the mind of a really nasty person. 

I did consider putting the book down because I hated the characters so much, but ultimately I read all of it, because it was really gripping, and it did suck me in (although the first few days were kind of uninteresting). Before I Fall is all about your choices and how they can have consequences, both big and small. I wanted some explanation for the weird things happening to Samantha, and I wanted to see whether she could cheat the thing by not going to the party or whatever (although obviously, I did know that that wasn't going to work).

Some of Samantha's friends were even worse than she was. They're so nasty to people, like Juliet Sykes, and when something happens that could have been because of them, they don't care. Lindsay in particular was awful; with Samantha you sometimes get these flashes of humanity, but Lindsay just seemed to be totally nasty and indifferent to everyone else's feelings. 

I feel like there are so many unrealistic portrayals out there of what high school is like. My high school, at least, is mostly unlike the school Samantha goes too, with people smoking weed in the bathrooms and a very strict social order. I mean, it's far from a great place, but people are actually pretty nice generally at my school (if dimwitted), and I find it kind of unrealistic that a school like this would actually exist. I mean, maybe they do, but probably most of the high schools in America aren't like this. I really don't know, but far too many YA books have nasty, nasty high school atmospheres, something I've never experienced. The sex and the drinking and the drugs also made me really uneasy; it seemed a bit over the top, at least to me. I can deal with that sort of stuff, but a lot of it seemed kind of unnecessary, as if Lauren Oliver was trying too hard to prove a point. This was her first novel, so I suppose she was still experimenting. 

I liked Before I Fall okay, but I can't say that I really enjoyed it, due to the awful, awful characters and the portrayal of high school. Still, the plot idea was cool, and the book did draw me in, despite my dislike of many aspects. You've got to give Lauren Oliver credit for that. 

470 pages. 

Rating: ***

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Rose Under Fire, Elizabeth Wein

Rose Under FireI just got back from Celia Forester's funeral. I'm supposed to be writing up an official report for the Tempest she flew into the ground, since she's obviously not going to write it herself and I saw it happen.

"While flying an Allied fighter plane from Paris to England, American ATA pilot and amateur poet, Rose Justice, is captured by the Nazis and sent to Ravensbrück, the notorious women's concentration camp. Trapped in horrific circumstances, Rose finds hope in the impossible through the loyalty, bravery and friendship of her fellow prisoners: a once glamorous French novelist whose Jewish husband and three young sons have been killed, a resilient young Polish girl who has been used as a human guinea pig by Nazi doctors, and a female fighter pilot and military ace for the Soviet air force. But will that be enough to endure the fate that’s in store for her?"

I've been waiting so long and have been so excited for Rose Under Fire, the companion to the brilliant Code Name Verity. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to get my hands on an ARC, but the book finally came out September 10th. Like Code Name Verity, Rose Under Fire takes a little while to actually get into, before it becomes the amazing, touching, heartbreaking book I knew it would be. As other reviewers have said, Rose Under Fire is less emotionally intense and less intense in general than Code Name Verity, but it's still a great book, and might be a better one depending on what your preferences are. Oddly enough, I didn't cry during Code Name Verity, or Rose Under Fire for that matter, but to me, Rose Under Fire felt much more close, more real, perhaps because before Rose is captured there are lots of descriptions of daily life and that makes her experiences in the concentration camp all the more awful in comparison. Still, I felt very emotionally wrought and rung out after reading both of these books. They're the kind of books where you need to read something light right afterwards to recover.

Rose Justice is an interesting and good new character. I'm glad that we got to meet an amazing new narrator, who I really fell in love with. That said, I didn't love most of the poems that were in the book, though a few of them were pretty good. It was a nice idea, but it didn't work very well for me; I'm not exactly sure why.

There were lots of excellent anecdotes in Rose Under Fire; maybe it was less sensational, but in some ways that made it a better read. I really enjoyed a lot of the descriptions, and it was a lot of the small things that Rose writes about that really got me, that hit me, and made me feel like crying or laughing or both. The very first one was Rose's description of the barrage balloons: "I can't get over how beautiful the barrage balloons are. I can't even talk about it to anyone - they all think I am crazy. But when you're in the air, and the sky above you is a sea of gray mist and the land below you is all green, the silver balloons float in between like a school of shining silver whales, bobbing a little in the wind. They are as big as buses, and I and every other pilot have a healthy fear of them because their tethering cables are loaded with explosives to try to snarl up enemy aircraft. But they are just magical from above, great big silver bubbles filling the sky. Incredible. It is just incredible that you can notice something like that when your face is so cold you can't feel it anymore, and you know perfectly well you are surrounded by death, and the only way to stay alive is to endure the howling wind and hold your course. And still the sky is beautiful." I loved those two paragraphs. I also loved the scene where Maddie and Rose confront the boys who are trying to take apart the bomb.

I mentioned the little things that hit me really hard. One of those was just a candlewick bedspread. Here's part of the passage: "It was the stupid candlewick bedspread's fault! Mrs. Hatch's bedspreads feel the same as the ones Mother has out on the sleeping porch. Anyway, I had the candlewick on my bed pulled up to my chin last night, and after I thought about the house party, I started thinking about the sleeping porch...I got so homesick I began to cry. I just couldn't stop thinking about the sleeping porch. It's funny what sets you off. You miss people the most - really it is Polly and Alice and Sandy and Fran whom I am lonely for - but it is the candlewick bedspread that makes me ache with longing to be home."

There was also another really poignant small moment, when Rose is first captured by the Germans: "Someone came in and gave me a cup of fake coffee and something a lot like a bologna sandwich, which I would have eaten if I had realized it was the last bologna sandwich I was ever going to see. But I just couldn't eat. I have dreams about that sandwich." That was so awful, as well as being a great piece of foreshadowing.

Wein also includes some good descriptions of the war itself. "They've [the Germans] lost. They must know they've lost - that they're on the run. It's all so pointless. It shouldn't take another year. But I bet it will. It's not desperation - there is something inhuman in it. That is what I find so creepy. Five years of destruction and mayhem, lives lost everywhere, shortages of food and fuel and clothing -- and the insane mind behind it just urges us all on and on to more destruction. And we all keep playing." It was very chilling.

I had tons of passages marked in the book, but I can't spout all the of the amazing quotes in Rose Under Fire; it would just take too long. It was somehow more emotional to me, not necessarily better, but more relatable. Both of these books are definitely among my favorites. Just like Code Name Verity, there are great female friendships in Rose Under Fire: between Maddie and Rose before Rose is captured, and between the woman suffering in the concentration camp. Really, just as many awful things happen in Rose Under Fire as in Code Name Verity: torture and worse. It's just, I suppose, a more quiet book. And the ending is happier, at least in some ways.

I loved that Rose was an American; it was a different take and one that makes sense. I enjoyed reading from her perspective a lot; she can kind of look at England and Germany with an impartial eye, but she cares just as deeply about the war and about flying. She narrates the story of her experiences in the camp from after she's rescued, so we know she doesn't die. But she's been deeply scarred, inwardly and outwardly.

Elizabeth Wein's writing style is so distinctive and easily recognizable, and yet I can't quite put my finger down on what it is that makes her writing her's and makes it so deeply moving. Any ideas? Like in Code Name Verity, the book is narrated through personal writings and some letters, although the set-up is different, and it's not as ingeniously plotted or thriller-like. Because, you know, Code Name Verity had that whole mystery which took your breath away, which is a whole level of complexity that Rose Under Fire didn't really have. Still, I just freaking loved it.                                                        

The book has some great similes and metaphors, such as in the passage about the barrage balloons. The writing is just beautiful, and it captured this amazing story. I would highly, highly recommend Rose Under Fire, whether or not you've read Code Name Verity (although it will spoil the ending of CNV).

346 pages.

Rating: *****

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt

The GoldfinchWhen I was still in Amsterdam, I dreamed about my mother for the first time in years. 

"Composed with the skills of a master, The Goldfinch is a haunted odyssey through present day America and a drama of enthralling force and acuity. It begins with a boy. Theo Decker, a thirteen-year-old New Yorker, miraculously survives an accident that kills his mother. Abandoned by his father, Theo is taken in by the family of a wealthy friend. Bewildered by his strange new home on Park Avenue, disturbed by schoolmates who don't know how to talk to him, and tormented above all by his unbearable longing for his mother, he clings to one thing that reminds him of her: a small, mysteriously captivating painting that ultimately draws Theo into the underworld of art. As an adult, Theo moves silkily between the drawing rooms of the rich and the dusty labyrinth of an antiques store where he works. He is alienated and in love-and at the center of a narrowing, ever more dangerous circle."

I somehow have not read The Secret History yet, but after reading this wonderful (and long) novel, I'll definitely be picking it up. Like most, I was a bit intimidated by The Goldfinch's length originally, and I put off starting it for a couple of days. But as soon as I began to read, I was drawn into Theo's singular story, and his both clear-eyed and not way of narrating. Only 12 pages in, I was already hooked. That's the power of a great writer for you. 

There are so many heartbreaking events in this novel, random twists and turns of fate. After all, in the very first few pages, it's just sheer chance that Theo's mother gets sick in the cab, they have to get out, it starts to rain, a businessman gets the last taxi, and they decide to take shelter in the museum. That short section was so beautifully written, especially for one who knows what's going to happen. The sequence afterward the accident was brilliant too, brilliant and dream-like. Really, the entire book is composed of stunning language and beautiful, disturbing snapshots. Characters, places, and events were beautifully described and portrayed. Donna Tartt's writing style is a bit dense and descriptive, but it didn't feel overwritten; it felt amazingly perceptive and smart. Tartt also builds dread amazingly well, in the aftermath of what happens in the museum and later on. There's great foreshadowing in The Goldfinch.

The Goldfinch has been called Dickensian many times, and that's fairly accurate. The writing is not very similar to Dickens (although there is a lot of description), but the overarching story could be, with strange and cruel twists of fate and fortune, and some very unique, twisted characters. What happens to Theo after the museum is quite improbable: he is abandoned by his father and ends up living with his old school friend on Park Avenue, while meanwhile serving as a sort of apprentice to someone who died in the museum right in front of Theo's eyes. And that's the whole similarity to Dickens. The Goldfinch also has a lot of Gothic elements to it.

The central symbol and motif of the whole novel is, of course, the small painting of a captive goldfinch that Theo dazedly steals from the museum. As the story unfolds, it becomes to him a talisman of his lost mother, something tangible to remember her by. After all, it was one of the paintings she loved the most, and as the days go by it becomes harder and harder for Theo to think of a way to return it. The irony is, that it turns out for many years he didn't actually have this painting that became an object of dread for him. I'm being vague on purpose of course.

There were some great descriptions of the city and of other places too, and I really enjoyed reading about Theo's relationship with many of the other people in the novel, particularly Hobie, the friend of the old man who died, and Boris, who he meets in Las Vegas. The Las Vegas section was kind of the most depressing, especially since I can related to the whole New York longing thing (sort of). Boris, however, was a character both humorous and sad at the same time, and he was quite irresistible. I didn't really like their whole relationship though, and it was awful to see Theo turning away from his old life and using drugs and all of that.

The Goldfinch is so, so enthralling and I absolutely loved both the plot and the writing. I would highly recommend this excellent, smart, literary novel, and I'm very glad that I read it. Even though it's long, it's still definitely worth the time spent on it. There are a lot more things I could say about the book, but the problem is they've already been said by other professional reviewers: here and here. Go check out those reviews; they're amazingly well crafted, although not as well crafted as this marvelous book.

I received a review copy of this book from Little, Brown; thanks so much! It just came out today; go check it out, preferably at your local bookstore (although the Amazon link is here).

771 pages.

Rating: *****

Monday, October 21, 2013

Longbourn, Jo Baker

LongbournThere could be no wearing of clothes without their laundering, just as surely as there could be no going without clothes, not in Hertfordshire anyway, and not in September. Washday could not be avoided, but the weekly purification of the household's linen was nonetheless a dismal prospect for Sarah. 

"If Elizabeth Bennet had the washing of her own petticoats, Sarah often thought, she’d most likely be a sight more careful with them. In this irresistibly imagined belowstairs answer to Pride and Prejudice, the servants take center stage. Sarah, the orphaned housemaid, spends her days scrubbing the laundry, polishing the floors, and emptying the chamber pots for the Bennet household. But there is just as much romance, heartbreak, and intrigue downstairs at Longbourn as there is upstairs. When a mysterious new footman arrives, the orderly realm of the servants’ hall threatens to be completely, perhaps irrevocably, upended. Jo Baker dares to take us beyond the drawing rooms of Jane Austen’s classic—into the often overlooked domain of the stern housekeeper and the starry-eyed kitchen maid, into the gritty daily particulars faced by the lower classes in Regency England during the Napoleonic Wars—and, in doing so, creates a vivid, fascinating, fully realized world that is wholly her own."

I heard about Longbourn on Goodreads and immediately wanted to read it. I was lucky enough to obtain a review copy from Knopf Books, and I wasn't disappointed, even though Longbourn was a bit different than what I was expecting. Jo Baker doesn't really try to imitate Austen's style, unlike most books spin-offs. But then, this isn't really a spin-off, not as we know it. It's more like a revelation of what the other side of Pride and Prejudice was. It's something I've often wondered about, about how the servants at Longbourn and other places lived, and what their relationships to their employers were like. Well, Longbourn answers that question, and exceedingly well. The writing is rather distinctive, and unlike Austen, there's a lot of description, which I rather liked. After all, so many aspects of the servants' lives are so foreign to the modern reader, and some parts of the book would have been a little confusing without the elaboration.

Unlike the plot summary says, Longbourn isn't "the answer" to Pride and Prejudice; it's just a look at what's hidden underneath those fine ladies and gentleman, at the people who wash their clothing and empty their chamber pots, who rise at four thirty in the morning and go to bed at eleven. It's a grueling schedule, and it made me wince to read about, especially considering what little work even people like the Bennets did. Nothing, really, and indeed in Pride and Prejudice Mrs. Bennet is offended at the idea that her daughters would cook a meal. The Regency class system really comes to light in this book.

Longbourn also provides some insight into the already established characters of P&P, painting a clearer portrait of them from the servants' perspective. This is also enhanced by little snippets from the original novel at the beginning of each chapter; they kind of tell the reader what to watch out for. For example, in a chapter featuring Mrs. Bennet, the quote reads "the business of her life was to get her daughters married; its solace was visiting and news." These stand in place of chapter titles.

Longbourn also holds plenty of new and interesting characters, such as the enigmatic new footman who Sarah dislikes and likes at the same time. Sarah narrates most of the book, although it is in omnipotent third person, so sometimes Jo Baker writes from the perspective of Mrs. Hill, James, or one of the other servants. Sarah herself is mentioned but once in P&P, when Mrs. Bennet frantically shouts for her to "come to Miss Bennet this moment, and help her on with her gown." I thought I remembered that detail, and was happy that the author picked up on it.

The book isn't witty or wry like Jane Austen's novels, and the story doesn't consume you quite as much, but I still really wanted to see how the book unfolded and how Jo Baker would portray the novel's events from the servants' point of view, which is obviously vastly different. They also know about some events, but not others.

Although I am not one of them, there are many people who completely romanticize Jane Austen's world and want to be Elizabeth Bennet, and books Longbourn remind us of why exactly the early 1800's were a pretty terrible place to live in. Women had no rights, and unless you were a member of the upper class, life pretty much sucked. There's an interesting section at around page 56 when James drops the ladies off at the assembly, and it shows the vast difference between what happens in the light and outside and how the coachmen waiting outside interact, living in squalor. There's actually a couple-second scene like this in the 1995 adaption of Pride and Prejudice, probably where Jo Baker drew it from. It's sections like these that really make the novel shine.

As others have commented, Longbourn does really stand on its own as an excellent historical novel about class and social situations. Non-Austen fans may enjoy it too, and I loved its portrayal of a different, more realistic side of the story. I also just really enjoyed how the familiar characters were developed and explored in interesting new ways, and I would definitely recommend this very creative book. You can read another review here.

332 pages.

Rating: ****

Sunday, October 20, 2013

The Irresistible Blueberry Bakeshop & Cafe, Mary Simses

The Irresistible Blueberry Bakeshop & Cafe"Don't move, it's not safe!" I heard someone yell, but it was too late. The wooden planks of the dock sagged beneath me and then gave way. Boards splintered, rotted lumber snapped, and I plunged ten feet into the frigid Maine ocean.

"A high-powered Manhattan attorney finds love, purpose, and the promise of a simpler life in her grandmother's hometown. Ellen Branford is going to fulfill her grandmother's dying wish--to find the hometown boy she once loved, and give him her last letter. Ellen leaves Manhattan and her Kennedy-esque fiance for Beacon, Maine. What should be a one-day trip is quickly complicated when she almost drowns in the chilly bay and is saved by a local carpenter. The rescue turns Ellen into something of a local celebrity, which may or may not help her unravel the past her grandmother labored to keep hidden. As she learns about her grandmother and herself, it becomes clear that a 24-hour visit to Beacon may never be enough." 

I heard about this book when it first came out in summer 2013, but didn't get around to reading it until now, courtesy of a review copy sent by the publisher. As one might expect from the plot summary, title, and cover, it's a light, sweet, and purportedly heart-warming read. The marketing heavily emphasizes its supposed similarity to The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, but although the basic, basic outlines of the book are the same, they're really only very similar if you leave out all the differences. However, the basic outline for both novels is basically the story of an educated, high-powered city girl expanding her horizons in a small, rather isolated town or community. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society is a light read too, but it's more cast in shadow by the fact that it takes place right after World War II, and the islanders have had to go through a lot. However, both Juliet and Ellen have an almost too perfect fiance, and find something else, something simpler, "truer", in Guernsey and Beacon, respectively. With both books, too, one initially thinks that the fiances aren't too bad, but it's revealed that they definitely have some problems, as opposed to the country person she meets. It's not a particularly good plot line, but it worked for The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society, and also for The Irresistible Blueberry Bakeshop & Cafe, though not quite as well. This story is much sillier, although it's still about someone reconsidering her entire life after a trip to a small, close-knit place. I would say that this book is vaguely reminiscent of Guernsey, but it certainly lacks much of the pathos of the aforementioned novel because although there is an undercurrent of grief from something that happened sixty years ago, it's not on as big of a scale.

This novel is like Lite fiction. So lite, it was almost too lite. I mean, it was so sweet, and gooey, and it completely romanticized the whole quaint small town thing. Generally, we read about Southern towns being full of malice hidden by honeyed sweetness, but I'm sure it happens in Northeastern towns too, although probably less so. Let's face it, there are some major disadvantages to living in a place like Beacon as opposed to Manhattan, which is where Ellen lives. I know I'd choose Manhattan any day. This really isn't generally my type of book, with the overboard sweetness. It's certainly supposed to be a feel-good read, but I only felt vaguely guilty that I'd actually taken the time to read a book like this. Basically, the title immediately conveys exactly what kind of a book this is.

That said, it's not badly written per se, and it will definitely appeal to some people. The Irresistible Blueberry Bakeshop & Cafe is just what it purports to be; it's not anything very literary, and it's hardly an emotional book. It's just about different living styles, and a high-powered person taking the time to actually slow and down and look at things and eat good (if fattening) food. Speaking of which, there were almost too many descriptions of food in the book. I mean, yes, they were mouthwatering, but it was kind of unnecessary and many of the descriptions felt as if the author was just indulging herself; they added seemingly nothing to the story itself.

Nevertheless, I liked the book for it was, and nothing more. If you like this sort of thing, then go ahead: indulge yourself. Read it, enjoy it. It's just not my normal preference. Sometimes, I'm in the mood for something mindless or something sweet. Apparently I wasn't here, or perhaps this book was just a little bit too mindless and sweet. But I did read it pretty quickly, and it was absorbing enough, even if I did roll my eyes a lot.

341 pages.

Rating: ***

Saturday, October 19, 2013

American Gods, Neil Gaiman

American GodsShadow had done three years in prison. He was big enough and looked don't-f**k-with-me enough that his biggest problem was killing time. So he kept himself in shape, and taught himself coin tricks, and thought a lot about how much he loved his wife.

"Released from prison, Shadow finds his world turned upside down. His wife has been killed; a mysterious stranger offers him a job. But Mr. Wednesday, who knows more about Shadow than is possible, warns that a storm is coming -- a battle for the very soul of America . . . and they are in its direct path." You can find a more in-depth but not necessarily more accurate description on the Goodreads page. There's also a great quote there from Therese Littleton (whoever she is) about the book: "More than a tourist in America, but not a native, Neil Gaiman offers an outside-in and inside-out perspective on the soul and spirituality of the country--our obsessions with money and power, our jumbled religious heritage and its societal outcomes, and the millennial decisions we face about what's real and what's not."

Wow. American Gods is definitely a difficult book to write about. Despite the summaries, it's the whole of the book, all the many stories that tell you what it's about, not the two or three paragraph summaries provided by the publisher. It's really a weird, sprawling story about the nature of America, of the crashing together of all these different beliefs in the great melting pot that is the United States. It's about American belief, it's about that "American" quality (love it or hate it) that pervades the country, that sense of freedom and openness and don't mess with my rights that I imagine you don't get in Europe or other places. Of course, this same freedom means that there are mass shootings every six weeks (or so it seems), which doesn't happen in Europe and Canada. Or Australia even, which actually banned guns after just one such awful shooting. If you're being really cynical, you could call these countries the real civilized world. But let's not talk about politics, much as I'm tempted (another post maybe, to reveal my liberal, cynical self?) Let's just talk about American Gods, which is an interesting, disturbing read no matter what you think about America. I admire Neil Gaiman, being British for even writing this tome. Of course, he lives in America now, so he's just as knowledgeable as the next person. And, as he points out, almost everyone in America came from somewhere else, like him. Although that's true of everywhere except Africa, the very root of civilization. His point, though, is that besides the (admittedly many) Native Americans, everyone else in America is a relatively new arrival: 16th century or so. Then there are the American gods, gods from all over the world, all gathering, resorting to cheap ways of surviving, in "the greatest country in the world" (sarcasm here). But this book definitely did make me look at America in a slightly different light. Because even if America is obviously not the greatest country in the world (it's probably one of the worst so-called developed countries), it has its points, and it's such a great mix of different beliefs - and gods. Gaiman captures it really well.

American Gods is pretty disturbing; there's a lot of cursing and a lot of sex and a lot of graphic descriptions. These are things you don't generally associate with fantasy. But this is fantasy, Gaiman-style; urban fantasy, if you will, although much of it takes place in the gritty, wild, landscape of rural America. The tone of the book was a bit weird, but it certainly was a nice change. There's trademark Gaiman: the rules of the world turned upside down and given a shake (a rigged coin toss for tails turns up heads at Mr. Wednesday's command). But there's also new things, things I haven't seen in Gaiman's work. American Gods is certainly the most blunt and to-the-point of his novels that I've read.

I kept having the nagging sensation that Shadow was hiding something (or trying to) from Mr. Wednesday, partly because of something I read in a little novella from American Gods in Neil Gaiman's collection Fragile Things. As it turned out, this wasn't really the case (although sort of).

The Zorya's, the first people that Wednesday takes Shadow with him to, were really interesting. They seem to be Russian, although they share some Norse beliefs. The scene where Shadow plays checkers with the male in the house was interesting. The wager is this: if Shadow wins, the man will do whatever sinister thing Mr. Wednesday wanted him to do; if Shadow loses, the man gets to bash his brains in with a sledgehammer. Weird, huh? This was a refrain that continued throughout the book. I also really liked the scene at night with Zorya Polunchnaya on the roof. She says, "The cold does not bother me. This time is my time: I could no more feel uncomfortable in the night than a fish could feel uncomfortable in deep water." She also explains to Shadow that Zorya Utrenyaya was born in the morning, Zorya Vechernyaya in the evening, and she herself at midnight. Then, Shadow tells her about his late-night visit from his presumably dead wife, and when he says he didn't ask Laura what she wanted Zorya replies, "It is the wisest thing to ask the dead. Sometimes they will tell you." It was a dreamy but very interesting and somehow moving scene. 

Shadow encounters so many other unsettling, beautiful, ugly individuals in his "kaleidoscopic journey deep into myth and across an American landscape at once eerily familiar and utterly alien." Gaiman has reimagined America through fantasy, and this book is awesome. I would highly recommend it to all Gaiman and fantasy fans. It's a great novel, filled with coin tricks and strange happenings.

I'll close with a quote from the book, which if not the most illustrative, is a good one: “What I say is, a town isn't a town without a bookstore. It may call itself a town, but unless it's got a bookstore it knows it's not fooling a soul.” So what is it then, if not a town: a wasteland? 

588 pages. 

Rating: ****

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Signature of All Things, Elizabeth Gilbert

The Signature of All ThingsAlma Whittaker, born with the century, slid into our world on the 5th of January, 1800. Swiftly - nearly immediately - opinions began to form around her.

"Spanning much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, The Signature of All Things follows the fortunes of the extraordinary Whittaker family as led by the enterprising Henry Whittaker—a poor-born Englishman who makes a great fortune in the South American quinine trade, eventually becoming the richest man in Philadelphia. Born in 1800, Henry's brilliant daughter, Alma (who inherits both her father's money and his mind), ultimately becomes a botanist of considerable gifts herself. As Alma's research takes her deeper into the mysteries of evolution, she falls in love with a man named Ambrose Pike who makes incomparable paintings of orchids and who draws her in the exact opposite direction—into the realm of the spiritual, the divine, and the magical. Alma is a clear-minded scientist; Ambrose a utopian artist—but what unites this unlikely couple is a desperate need to understand the workings of this world and the mechanisms behind all life.Exquisitely researched and told at a galloping pace, The Signature of All Things soars across the globe—from London to Peru to Philadelphia to Tahiti to Amsterdam, and beyond. Along the way, the story is peopled with unforgettable characters: missionaries, abolitionists, adventurers, astronomers, sea captains, geniuses, and the quite mad. But most memorable of all, it is the story of Alma Whittaker, who—born in the Age of Enlightenment, but living well into the Industrial Revolution—bears witness to that extraordinary moment in human history when all the old assumptions about science, religion, commerce, and class were exploding into dangerous new ideas."

I was expecting to love this book, and I did. It was a bit different than I thought it would be, but nonetheless a marvelous work in many respects. I've never read Elizabeth Gilbert's famous memoir Eat, Pray, Love, or any of her fiction, but I might pick them up in the future if I get around to it. Despite the fact that it was the plot that drew me in, it was the writing that made me stay and enjoy this novel. I just loved the vaguely 19th century narrative style of the book, faintly reminiscent of Austen (and indeed, in the press packet, Gilbert says that Austen was one of the 19th century writers she read in preparation for the book). There was also that singular way of speaking directly to the audience at times, such as towards the beginning of the novel when Gilbert shifts away from Alma's story to talk about her father's early life, saying "how her father came to be in possession of such great wealth is a story worth telling here, while we wait for the girl to grow up and catch our interest again." (pg. 7). If every book was like this, it would be rather annoying. But as it is, this style was amusing and fitting for the book. It's also one of those rather long novels with lots of great, diverting side-notes, and yet it's not overwritten at all. The Signature of All Things is compulsively readable and extremely compelling. 

Elizabeth Gilbert's style is also one of little dialogue and lots of narration, except for specific dialogue-heavy scenes. Again, I wouldn't want to have every book I read be something like this, but it worked here, and I didn't find the novel boring. At all. It was thoroughly absorbing, and I found Alma a fascinating character. In fact, all of the characters were really interesting, none of them being totally good or bad, all of them with sympathetic sides. As Elizabeth Gilbert says in the aforementioned interview, there are no real "villains" in the story, only complicated, flawed people, all of whom were fascinating to read about, particularly in the early sections, Alma's parents, who I at times disliked and admired. I particularly found Alma's father, the at times vicious, at times loving Henry Whittaker an interesting puzzle. He made his immense fortune by less than gentlemanly means, and yet as Gilbert points out, he'd be the first to admit it. And he is kind - sort of, in his own way.

The story itself is just utterly fascinating and engrossing, and so, so creative. The novel spans the entire century during which so much new scientific exploration was done, and religion and science sort of began to clash. In the interview (which isn't in the actual book; sorry), Elizabeth Gilbert pointed out some really interesting things, such as how painful that split was for many people who had to choose between wholehearted religious belief and science (although not everyone had to choose, of course). However, when Alma is first born and as she grows up in the early 19th century, belief in both is still entirely possible, but through the lens of her intriguing life we see everything on that front change. I've never quite been able to put my finger down on why I'm really interested in the 19th century, and maybe this is part of the reason, because the transition into the more modern world really begins in the 19th century, and I enjoy reading about the changing sensibilities of the time. Elizabeth Gilbert really captures the wonder of the time, the sense of everything being really new and just waiting to be discovered. There were so many unknown creatures and plants that it must have been almost magical to be part of that. Today, there are still many scientific things we don't fully understand, and many organisms that we don't know much about, but most of them live deep in the ocean and thus are less relatable, I suppose you could say. She also portrays the opportunism that was there for those clever enough to take it, such as Henry Whittaker, who uses new natural discoveries and his experience in botany to make fabulous amounts of money. It was also the beginning of a time when the heretofore rigid class structure started bending just a little bit, as evinced by the fact that Henry, who was born in abject poverty, becomes one of the wealthiest men in the New World. There are so many new markets opening up on various fronts and class barriers breaking down, and this expansive novel really covers a whole lot of extraordinary things that were going on in the 19th century. Obviously, this process was continued throughout the early twentieth, but it really started here.

One of the other topics addressed in the book is that of 19th century views on sexuality, which is also very interesting. It's quite closeted (in Alma's case, literally), and talking about such things is rather frowned upon, especially for women. It's quite natural though that an intelligent young woman like Alma would want to know about these things, and that was an enjoyable part of the book, although it did strike me as a bit odd at first. As Gilbert mentions in the interview, The Signature of All Things also has many portrayals of flawed marriages, of women stuck in them. What I found particularly striking here was that it's not that either of the people are bad per se; they're just ill-suited to one another, and in the 19th century there's not that much you can do about it once you're married. She's talking about the marriages of the three friends, Alma, Prudence, and Retta (who's quite mad), but I think it could be applied to a lot of people both in the novel and out.

I believe that in her memoir Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert travels to various places across the globe, and The Signature of All Things takes place in many parts of the world, though chiefly Philadelphia, but also "from London to Peru to Tahiti to Amsterdam." There were many both beautiful and disturbing settings, but also compelling evocations of so many exotic places in many parts of the book, starting off right at the beginning with the story of Henry Whittaker's travels. I loved these scenes, because Gilbert really called up the sights, sounds, and smells of these varied places in colonial times. 

The Signature of All Things is definitely worth all the hype it's been getting of late. It had gorgeous writing and description, fascinating characters, a very creative plot, and it talked about some really interesting ideas and concepts, showing a world on the cusp of the modern age and in the midst of a frenzy of scientific discovery. I would highly recommend this novel. I received a review copy from Viking.

499 pages. 

Rating: *****

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The Unexpected Miss Bennet, Patrice Sarath

The Unexpected Miss BennetIt is a comforting belief among much of society, that a plain girl with a small fortune must have no more interest in matrimony than matrimony has in her.

"The third of five daughters, Miss Mary Bennet is a rather unremarkable girl. With her countenance being somewhere between plain and pretty and in possession of no great accomplishments, few expect the third Bennet daughter to attract a respectable man. But although she is shy and would much prefer to keep her nose stuck in a book, Mary is uncertain she wants to meekly follow the path to spinsterhood set before her. Determined that Mary should have a chance at happiness, the elder Bennet sisters concoct a plan. Lizzy invites Mary to visit at Pemberley, hoping to give her sister a place to grow and make new acquaintances. But it is only when Mary strikes out independently that she can attempt to become accomplished in her own right. And in a family renowned for its remarkable Misses, Mary Bennet may turn out to be the most wholly unexpected of them all..."

The Unexpected Miss Bennet is one of the best Austen retellings or rip-offs that I've read. Really. Usually retellings of the novels themselves in diary format from the male POV are just tedious, and reading about Elizabeth and Darcy's married life is okay, but not that interesting. Instead, here we have a new story: Mary's story. In Pride and Prejudice, she's the sibling that everyone passes over: Jane is sweet and beautiful, Lizzy is pert, witty, and pretty, and Lydia and Kitty are young and lively. But Mary? She just moralizes and constantly plays the piano without getting better. Until suddenly she realizes that she wants more than just being the musician at Meryton assemblies, and Fordyce's sermons suddenly don't seem so appealing to her anymore. I really love the way that Patrice Sarath brings Mary to life. Suddenly, she's a full, three dimensional character, one we can relate to more, perhaps, then Elizabeth. After all, Mary is plain and until her transformation, dull and annoying, with her constant spouting of not-very-wise (or helpful) wisdom. Maybe it's a bit unrealistic that Mary would wait to have her existential crisis until the age of twenty, but I didn't care. The Unexpected Miss Bennet was a really good book, and I'm glad I finally got a copy of it after waiting so long. 

I really liked the fact that the author talks about Mary and Mr Collins. I've always thought that they would have been a good match, and indeed, so did Mary when they first came. She thinks that they would suit each other really well, but then she realizes that even an odious man like Mr Collins looks right past her, has his eyes set on "higher" prizes, like Jane, Lizzy, and even Charlotte. It was great that that was touched on as a possibility for Mary.

There were a lot of really funny moments in The Unexpected Miss Bennet, moments when Mary finally stops being so stuffy and jokes around a little bit (or what passes for joking in Regency England). When Mr Collins calls on her and her father, and Mr Bennet says sardonically, "Upon awaking every morning I ask myself, 'What would Lady Catherine do?'" Although not Mary speaking, that was really funny, and she finds it amusing. Mary and Mr Bennet also become a bit closer, sharing amusement and horror at Mr Collin's conduct, insinuations, and insults. Later, Mary is staying at the Hunsford Parsonage, and Mr Collins is talking about men being schooled and reading to improve themselves. Mary replies, "A pity it doesn't always work." Right back at you, Mr Collins! That was hilarious in a genteel, prim, Regency sort of way. Here's another sly remark on the author's part: "And they [Mr and Mrs Bennet] would stay no more than one night, for neither of them enjoyed being away from Longbourn for very long. For Mrs Bennet, it was her nerves. For Mr Bennet, it was Mrs Bennet's nerves."

Anne de Bourgh, Lady Catherine's sickly daughter, is also developed as a character. This was kind of predictable, as she's the character besides Mary who's least described, but I really enjoyed her portrayal too. This happened in Mr Darcy's Diary but not as much and not as realistically. 

I really liked The Unexpected Miss Bennet's humor, wit, charm, and overall faithfulness to Austen's style. It's a very good Austen pastiche, and well worth reading if you're fond of them. 

296 pages. 

Rating: ****

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Kingdom of Little Wounds, Susann Cokal

The Kingdom of Little WoundsIt is while I stitch together the Queen's gown, on the night her eldest daughter is to die, that I first sense an uneasy power.

"On the eve of Princess Sophia’s wedding, the Scandinavian city of Skyggehavn prepares to fete the occasion with a sumptuous display of riches: brocade and satin and jewels, feasts of sugar fruit and sweet spiced wine. Yet beneath the veneer of celebration, a shiver of darkness creeps through the palace halls. A mysterious illness plagues the royal family, threatening the lives of the throne’s heirs, and a courtier’s wolfish hunger for the king’s favors sets a devious plot in motion. Here in the palace at Skyggehavn, things are seldom as they seem — and when a single errant prick of a needle sets off a series of events that will alter the course of history, the fates of seamstress Ava Bingen and mute nursemaid Midi Sorte become irrevocably intertwined with that of mad Queen Isabel. As they navigate a tangled web of palace intrigue, power-lust, and deception, Ava and Midi must carve out their own survival any way they can."

I'm still not quite sure what I think of this book; it's weird, and not very young adult-like at all. The writing is well crafted, but kind of flat as a whole. It's also super graphic and disgusting at times. I do know that the part I read didn't live up to my expectations; the plot sounded fascinating, and it seemed like it would be an engrossing read. Well, it was certainly gross. I gave the book about 80 pages before giving up. Parts of the book were intriguing, but ultimately I didn't have the patience for this long-winded novel. Perhaps if I'd stuck with it a bit longer, I would have been able to get into it.

It's hard for me to pinpoint exactly what about this book was such a turn-off; although how graphic it was was part of it, there was more to my repulsion. There are a lot of simply disgusting descriptions in the book, and the provided summary creates a vastly different impression of the book's tone. I'm happy that the author didn't shirk from talking about some pretty awful things that do actually happen to people; there was just too much, and the story itself wasn't that interesting to me. The marketing was slightly deceptive too.

Ultimately, it wasn't the horrific things that happened in the book, but the style and the slowness of the pace which made me put it down. Maybe it picks up further along, but I wasn't in the mood to read more pages of boring, if gruesome writing. It's a shame too, because I thought I would really like the book. But I didn't, and that's that. I normally like dark fairy tales and fables, but not in this case. The Kingdom of Little Wounds just didn't work for me. I may try again sometime, but I doubt it.

I received an ARC from Candlewick.

576 pages.


Monday, October 14, 2013

Speak, Laurie Halse Anderson

SpeakIt is my first morning of high school. I have seven new notebooks, a skirt I hate, and a stomachache. 

"Melinda Sordino busted an end-of-summer party by calling the cops. Now her old friends won't talk to her, and people she doesn't even know hate her from a distance. The safest place to be is alone, inside her own head. But even that's not safe. Because there's something she's trying not to think about, something about the night of the party that, if she let it in, would blow her carefully constructed disguise to smithereens. And then she would have to speak the truth. This extraordinary first novel has captured the imaginations of teenagers and adults across the country."

I really enjoyed Speak. It's a compelling and moving novel. I can't believe I hadn't read it before. The book is pretty short and a quick read in terms of length, but let me tell you, it's a hard book. It's really depressing, because Melinda is just so depressed throughout the novel. She's basically just shut down in an attempt to forget what happened to her, rather than trying to speak about it, or move past it, or explain to her former friends why exactly she called the police. I was a bit frustrated by this, and sometimes it was hard to relate to the way she acted, but I really have no idea how someone in Melinda's situation would feel. This novel is an attempt to explain both that, and why certain people act the way they do. 

I have to say though, that I'm in high school right now, and the high school Melinda goes to is nothing like mine. There may be cliques, but in general people are actually pretty nice, at least to me. People may not be all that intelligent, but most of them don't go out of their way to be viciously mean. And there's nothing like the Martha club, a group that purports to do good, but is actually competitive, vicious, and really nasty. I don't know if high schools like this actually exist, but the portrayal was very alien to me. In fact, it's the way books like this portray high school that made me super nervous before I started. But that's another story. 

The way Anderson writes is amazing, and she's not afraid to tackle a tough topic and direct it towards teens. Melinda's reaction is probably not what most people do, but it is the most extreme, and ultimately the most dangerous way: just shutting down, and refusing to speak. But, God, the book sad. The way Melinda didn't care about anything anymore, the way her parents didn't seem to notice that something was seriously wrong with her. You can tell by her voice that she's actually really smart, observant, and bitingly witty, but she's failing her classes, and all her parents can do is be mad at her, rather than stopping to wonder why their daughter is doing so badly. This was really frustrating too. Also, the way Rachel, Melinda's former best friend, completely shuts her out without bothering to talk to her didn't seem very realistic. After going through so much together in middle school, Rachel just hates Melinda without hearing her side of the story first? That was an element of the book that was a bit odd to me.

Some people have tried to ban Speak, and that just makes me furious. Yes, it talks about a difficult topic (rape), but it's something that needs to be talked about. You can't just ignore it and hope that things will get better, because they won't. I'm not saying Speak is going to change the world or anything (although some of Anderson's readers have writen to her about how she saved their lives), but I am saying that it's part of the battle. Also, I just hate it when people think teenagers are too stupid to be able to analyze something, that just because a book talks about rape, it will be seen as a book advocating rape. And that's just ridiculous. Anyone who has the mental capability to read Speak will certainly have the analytical capability of taking away from the book, if nothing else, that rape is bad and hurtful and just plain awful (although I would hope that most people knew that already. The sad thing is some people don't). Plus, the scene isn't actually graphic. At all. Here's one of the threads with people responding to the guy who wanted to ban the book. Go check it out. There were a lot of great responses. 

Anyway, Speak doesn't take that long to read, but it's a difficult book to read because of its subject matter. I would definitely recommend it though, and it was really moving, especially Melinda's slow regeneration process through art and other things, like a tree growing out of a small seed of hope. 

198 pages. 

Rating: ****