Sunday, May 18, 2014

While Beauty Slept, Elizabeth Blackwell

While Beauty SleptShe has already become a legend. The beautiful, headstrong girl I knew is gone forever, her life transformed into myth.

"A beautiful princess lies in a sleep so deep it is close to death. Was Sleeping Beauty revived by a prince's kiss? What really happened in that tower so long ago? While Beauty Slept re-imagines the legend through the lens of historical fiction, telling the story as if it really happened. A Gothic tale of suspense and ambition, love and loss, it interweaves the story of a royal family and the servants who see behind the glamorous facade, following the journey of a young woman as she lives out a destiny that leads her to the brink of death."

While Beauty Slept was quite enthralling in many respects, and I read large chunks of it in short amounts of time. It got less good as it progressed, but I definitely enjoyed it, and I loved some aspects of it. 

Retellings of fairy tales have always appealed to me; now they've become sort of a cliche themselves, with people telling them darker or telling the other side of the story. Increasingly it's a struggle for writers to come up with new angles, but although While Beauty Slept borrowed many elements from previous retellings it also came up with some new twists and turns, and a fully fleshed out main character who is not in the original tale. Her name is Elise. She is a country girl who through a stroke of luck both good and bad rises to become the queen's personal attendant, and she is a forgotten witness to all of the events which have since become so muddled.

The book opens with Elise beginning to tell her great-granddaughter Raimy the truth of what really happened in the castle. From there, we enter a world of the wealthy and the poor; the good, the evil, and the in-between. Thinking back on it, the fantasy world this book is set in isn't very compelling or well developed, but that didn't bother me. There's also no outright magic, although there are hints of occult practices, blasphemous to the Christian inhabitants of the realm. I liked this; it made the story more grounded in reality, as if it might have actually happened at some point in medieval times. There are no fairies, there is no enchanted sleep, but the book still closely parallels the Sleeping Beauty myth - up to a certain point. The ending is a sudden twist I wasn't expecting at all, but it was quite fitting given how Rose was developed. 

The only thing I didn't enjoy about this novel was Elise's own story, specifically her romantic life. A lot of it didn't make sense, and I would have preferred it left out. Both of her romances weren't developed well; both were sudden and random, and it's because of this that I didn't absolutely love the book. Also, it was too graphic, not fitting the rest of the story. I could have done without this, or with a better developed, more convincing portrayal.

A lot of this book was actually quite thinly developed, but it fit with the fairy tale original, and certainly a lot more of the characters' lives were shown. And Millicent, the villain of the title, is shown as a complicated woman, perhaps the most developed character in the novel; she could have been great, but because she was denied this she became bitter and full of hate. She is the greatest tragedy of the tale.  

I enjoyed the writing; it's in a somewhat older style, but still really readable and absorbing. Since Elise is recounting the events many years later, there's lots of foreboding along the lines of "If only I had known this" or "Had I known this" or "This could have been prevented if". This can get a bit annoying, but it also has the intended effect of making one keep reading. 

Overall, While Beauty Slept was a well written and compelling fantasy novel, and I await Blackwell's next work, although whether I read it depends on what it's about. I received a review copy of While Beauty Slept from Putnam Books.

421 pages. 

Rating: ****

Saturday, May 3, 2014

The Illustrated Man, Ray Bradbury

The Illustrated ManIt was a warm afternoon in early September when I first met the Illustrated Man. 

"In these eighteen startling visions of humankind’s destiny, unfolding across a canvas of decorated skin, living cities take their vengeance, technology awakens the most primal natural instincts, and dreams are carried aloft in junkyard rockets."

I've had a copy of The Illustrated Man for practically forever, and as soon as I opened the book I was sorry that I had let it languish for so long on my shelves. Because these stories are good. As the book progressed, they did start to blur together, but perhaps that's fitting given their medium. And anyway, the vast majority of these stories wowed me. Some of them are quite frightening. 

The book begins with the narrator encountering the Illustrated Man, a man completely covered in tattoos, who tells the story of how he got them (and how he curses them now). When night falls, the beautiful images on his body begin to move, and stories unfold...

The first story, "The Veldt", is perhaps one of the most disturbing in the whole collection. It tells of a world where even the simplest tasks are accomplished by machines: there's a toastmaking machine, and a shoetying machine, and a painting pictures machine. And there are nurseries which can be set to different backgrounds, moving wallpapers, if you will. They're supposed to be just images, and you're supposed to change them frequently, but one family's children have an obsession with the African savanna (or veldt). As you might imagine, things do not end well.

There are eighteen stories, and about half of them really stuck with me as being quite good. I'm only going to talk about them. The others were fine too, but just not as compelling. Bradbury really excels at his depictions of nightmarish futuristic worlds, nightmarish because they seem so plausible. Like Neil Gaiman, he's also a master at turning situations upside down, reversing them from what they normally are. Such is the case in the third story, "The Other Foot", in which African Americans fled white oppression and built their own colony on Mars. Then one day a rocket with a white man arrives...what follows is a fascinating and wry exploration of whether two wrongs make a right. I'd heard of this story before, and it was quite good.

"The Man" and "The Long Rain" are both about Earthmen's planetary explorations, although in different ways. "The Man" explores the jaded disbelief of the modern man, who must have facts, facts, and more facts. "The Long Rain" resonated with me given where I live; in it, Venus is a place where it perennially rains, and there's no escaping it, unless you get to one of the fabled Sun Domes. Otherwise, you'll die. It was such a chilling story, yet so good.

I also enjoyed "The Rocket Man", "The Last Night of the World", and while I didn't like "The Exiles" very much, there were definitely shades of F-451 in it; the story deals with the burning and banishing of subversive books and authors.

"The Fox and the Forest" was very frightening but masterfully crafted; so was "The Visitor", which showcased the ugliness of human nature and how in fighting over something precious we ruin it for everyone. "The Concrete Mixer" was also uncanny, as was "Marionettes, Inc."."The City" may be one of the scariest in the whole book; it's about a metropolis with a life of its own and a desire for vengeance. Overall I enjoyed this book; some of the stories I'm sure I'll treasure, and the overall conceit is a good one.

281 pages.

Rating: ****

Wintergirls, Laurie Halse Anderson

WintergirlsSo she tells me, the word dribbling out with the cranberry muffin crumbs, commas dunked in her coffee.

"Lia and Cassie are best friends, wintergirls frozen in matchstick bodies, competitors in a deadly contest to see who can be the skinniest. But what comes after size zero and size double-zero? When Cassie succumbs to the demons within, Lia feels she is being haunted by her friend’s restless spirit."

I'm so glad I finally bought a copy of Wintergirls. I started reading it, and I just could not put it down. I basically read the whole book in two sittings, feverishly flipping the pages. 

Wintergirls is not for the faint of heart; it's such a dark book, darker than Speak, I would say. I don't know how well Lia's anorexia is portrayed, but to me it felt disturbingly real, the way that someone could get caught in an ever-downward spiral, not being able to stop. Anderson heartbreakingly writes from Lia's point of view, and throughout the book there are passages where Lia is fighting with inner demons.

Lia is already trapped in that spiral; she knows it, but she can't do anything about it. Add to that the death of her friend, and we've got a great, harsh story, with its moving moments. Lia's so conflicted, and I had sympathy for her. At times, though, it was really hard to understand her. I mean, obviously it's not really about the weight anymore; by the middle of the book, 5'5'' Lia weighs around 95 pounds, yet she still feels huge and fat and disgusting even though she's clearly malnourished and underweight. It's horrifying what images in the media and social pressures can do to people. There's a lot of that at high school, even though none of it is directly stated.                                                                                             

Speak is an amazing novel, but in some ways Wintergirls and The Impossible Knife of Memory were better. I suppose they just felt more real to me, like the story could be that of someone sitting next to you in class, someone who passes you every day in the hallways. (Even though it's the same thing with Speak). Each of these novels tackles a teen "issue", but nevertheless they don't feel like issue books sermonizing to the audience.

I read a couple of reviews of Wintergirls, where it was discussed that even the slightest mention of anorexia and weight sets some people off, and while Wintergirls paints a brutal and disturbing picture of the disorder, I can definitely see that. After all, Lia is so, so light, and for girls who are suffering from anorexia, that could be a source of anxiety, jealousy, and comparison. However, for others, it might help them to realize how there are so many more important things.

The sub-plot with Elijah was rather odd; it didn't seem to really go anywhere. I suppose he's just there to sort of start drawing Lia out of her shell a bit. Still, it felt extraneous to me.

Just like The Impossible Knife of Memory, I felt that towards the end of the book things wrapped up a little too quickly. I mean, a lot is left open, which is realistic, but all of a sudden Lia starts getting better...just like that. Maybe I missed some subtleties because I was racing through the book, but it didn't fit so well, and then things were rushed. Despite that, I thoroughly enjoyed Wintergirls; it was mesmerizing and compelling.

278 pages.

Rating: *****